April 29, 1929 in New York City
February 17, 2006 in Hackensack, New Jersey
- Voted Conga Player Of The Year in 1975, 1976, and 1980 in Latin NY Magazine
- Tremendo Trio! (Fania) won the ACE (Hispanic Association of Entertainment Critics of New York) Award for best Salsa album in 1983.
- Grammy for Ritmo En El Corazon(Fania) in 1990
- Inducted into the Latin Music Hall of Fame in 1999
Growing up in New York City, Latin jazz artist Ray Barretto soaked up a mixture of Puerto Rican and New York culture. His parents had moved from Puerto Rico in search of a better life, as had many other families living in East Harlem. Barretto developed a love for jazz as a child, listening to swing bands on the radio. By the time he was a teenager, bebop
had begun to replace swing and bebop musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie
and Charlie Parker
were incorporating Latin rhythms into their music. When Barretto heard “Manteca” performed by Dizzy and Cuban conguero Chano Pozo, he was hooked.
In an attempt to escape his rough surroundings, which were riddled with racial bigotry, Ray Barretto joined the army in 1946. While he was stationed in Germany, he learned that the army was not a refuge from prejudice. However, he was welcomed in a club that was run by black GIs, and it was there that he began his musical career. Instead of a drumset or a set of congas, he honed his skill as a percussionist on the head of banjo. In 1949 he moved back to New York, and perfected his conga skills.
Back to New York:
Back in New York, Barretto attended bebop jam sessions, and soon became sought after by virtually all of the jazz record labels. In 1957 he joined Tito Puente’s
glamorous orchestra, which thrilled audiences frequently at the Palladium Dance Hall. Barretto replaced the conga star Mongo Santamaria in the band, cementing his stature as a percussion heavyweight. In the late 1950s and early 60s he recorded with many jazz giants, including Sonny Stitt, Lou Donaldson, Red Garland, Gene Ammons, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Freddie Hubbard, Cal Tjader, and Dizzy Gillespie.
In 1962, with his recording of “El Watusi,” Barretto managed to lift Latin music and his own name into the national popular music sphere. “El Watusi” went gold, became the first Latin song to rank on the Billboard charts, and earned Barretto a degree of fame and fortune. He began to lead his own ensembles, and recorded numerous albums in the 1960s.
In 1967 he signed with Fania Records, beginning an association that would last until 1989. With Fania he recorded some of his most highly-praised work, including the albums Que Viva La Musica
(1972) and Indestructible
(1973), which earned him popularity among Latin music audiences.
After leaving Fania Records in 1989, Barretto formed New World Spirit in 1993, a group dedicated to embracing equal parts bebop and Latin music. With this hybrid group he performed with jazz stars including Eddie Gomez, Kenny Burrell, Joe Lovano and Steve Turre.
In 1999 Barretto was inducted into the Latin Music Hall of Fame. He continued to tour and record until his death in 2006. As a master conguero and bandleader, Ray Barretto was instrumental in combining Latin rhythms with jazz, a practice that is standard among contemporary musicians. Although he is no longer around, his influence on Latin jazz is indestructible.