Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 25, 2010

El Judío Maravilloso

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 8:29 pm

From Jewish Roots in Brooklyn, a Sizzling Salsa Star

Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Larry Harlow, known as “El Judío Maravilloso” (“The Marvelous Jew”), conducting rehearsals.


Little in Larry Harlow’s lineage suggested that he would someday become one of the most important figures in the history of salsa. But for more than 40 years now, Mr. Harlow has been affectionately known in the Latin music world as “El Judío Maravilloso” (“the marvelous Jew”), a pianist, songwriter, producer and arranger with an unerring feeling for clave, Latin music’s five-stroke beat, and an ear for hits.

Mr. Harlow helped create the Fania Records sound that came to define salsa and also discovered and shaped the careers of many of the genre’s top stars, like the singer Ismael Miranda. His own work for the label ranges from snappy dance numbers like “La Cartera,” “Señor Sereno” and “Abran Paso,” to an ambitious suite called “La Raza Latina,” which was recorded in 1977 and will be performed live for the first time on Saturday night by a 40-piece orchestra as part of the Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival.

“Larry is a gringo with clave, who understands and respects our music, but also knows how to be innovative,” said the singer and actor Rubén Blades, who early in his career sang with Mr. Harlow’s band and will be the featured singer in Saturday’s free show. “Most of the people at Fania, no matter what their age, could be very conservative. But Larry came in with an open mind and renovated the format, adding new ingredients, new chords, new instruments, and that created enthusiasm and led to tremendous success for a lot of people, including me.”

Born Lawrence Ira Kahn, Mr. Harlow, 71, comes from a family of musicians with roots in Brooklyn. His mother, Rose Sherman, was an opera singer; a grandfather played piano for silent films and in the Yiddish theater; and his father, a vaudevillian and orchestra leader who used the stage name Buddy Harlowe, for many years led the house band at the Latin Quarter nightclub, run by Barbara Walters’s father, Lou.

“I was brought up backstage there,” said Mr. Harlow, who adopted his father’s stage name in a slightly altered form. “When I was a kid, 10 or 11 years old, Barbara and I used to sit in the booth next to the spotlight, and we saw every show that came in there, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Joe E. Brown, Sophie Tucker.”

When he was about 5, he began studying piano. But Mr. Harlow says his fascination with Latin music began as a teenager, when he would “hear this strange music coming out of the bodegas and the mom-and-pop record stores and the bars” as he walked to his classes at the High School of Music and Art on West 135th Street in Hamilton Heights.

From there it was just a short step to joining Latin dance bands that played the five boroughs during the school year and the Catskills mambo circuit in the summer. He enrolled at Brooklyn College but eventually took off for Havana, where he attended music classes by day and hung out in clubs and dance halls at night.

During that sojourn in the late 1950s, “I became salsified, totally absorbed into the Latin culture,” he said. “The music wasn’t called salsa yet, but I became an Afro-Cuban nut, just studying the history and the old photographs and going to see Beny Moré, Orquesta Riverside and all those people in person.”

Returning to New York just as Fidel Castro came to power, he resumed playing as a sideman until forming his own orchestra, which had a distinctively brassy sound that paired trumpets and trombones with his percussive piano. When Fania Records was founded in 1964, the Dominican bandleader Johnny Pacheco, the label’s co-founder, was searching for new talent, saw Mr. Harlow’s band and immediately signed him to a contract.

“The first thing I noticed was that he really knew how to play Latin music,” Mr. Pacheco recalled this week. “He had the band set up, and they were pretty tight, but when he took a solo, that’s when he really got me. He used to take incredible solos. You could tell he had really listened to Peruchín and all those guys in Cuba. The scales he used to play, I was flabbergasted. He really was El Judío Maravilloso.”

During his years at Fania Mr. Harlow made more than 40 albums under his own name and produced about 200 more for other artists signed to the label. He and Mr. Pacheco played together in the Fania All-Stars supergroup, at sites as large as Yankee Stadium, and also oversaw the making of “Our Latin Thing,” the 1972 documentary film that took Fania-style salsa to a global audience.

“He became a pillar,” Mr. Pacheco said. “He was very good in the studio. He had the knowledge of the music, he could write, he worked fast, and he knew how to sit behind the controls and get the best out of guys, even if they didn’t have experience and had never recorded before.”

With a “salsa opera” called “Hommy,” Mr. Harlow helped revive the career of the singer Celia Cruz. He also led campaigns for musicians’ rights, paying for an audit of Fania’s books when he suspected that he was being cheated of royalties, and for Latin music to be given greater recognition at the Grammy Awards, which resulted in his receiving a lifetime achievement award from the organization in 2008.

“More than anyone else, Larry Harlow is responsible for the Latin Grammy” awards, said Aurora Flores, who covered the salsa scene for Billboard magazine at the height of the Fania era, wrote the liner notes for Mr. Harlow’s “Greatest Hits” CD and now leads the salsa band Zon del Barrio. “Because of his persistence and his tenacity, our music was no longer relegated to the general ethnic category, where we were competing with Eskimos.”

Mr. Harlow’s fascination with all things Cuban also led to his immersion in the religion known in English as Santeria. He has been a santero, or Santeria priest, for many years, and though he plays down its importance, joking that his mother used to say that dressing in the all-white vestments of that office made him “look like Mister Softee,” it gives him credibility and perhaps even inspires a certain apprehension among his colleagues.

“I gained a lot of respect,” Mr. Harlow said. “People didn’t mess with me anymore, I got accepted, and I also protected myself from whatever outside influences there are. It was, ‘If you’re going to mess with me, I’ll mess with you right back.’ ”

In recent years Mr. Harlow has toured as the leader of the Latin Legends band. Occasionally he also plays or records with a much younger generation of musicians who have grown up hearing his records and admire his eclectic approach, like the alternative-rock group Mars Volta.

“I grew up with rock ’n’ roll, but college is when a lot of us Latinos discovered our roots, and Harlow was there for us as we were doing that,” said Agustín Gurza, a Los Angeles music critic and historian who wrote the liner notes for a remastered and just-reissued recording of the bilingual “Raza Latina” suite. “He brought some of that rock style and sensibility that was easy for us to relate to. With his long hair, panache and showmanship, he made the music sound fresh and feel hip, so that it was cool to be a salsa fan.”

But esteem for Mr. Harlow may be highest among the musicians who continue to play salsa. Bobby Sanabria, the percussionist and music educator who will be playing drums at Saturday’s show, is 18 years younger than Mr. Harlow and remembers that when he was in high school in the early 1970s, the talk in the lunchroom often turned to Mr. Harlow’s latest record.

“Larry’s music and influence are still all over the place,” he said. “Whenever you see albums that say ‘produced by Larry Harlow,’ you know they are going to sound pristine and powerful, with clarity in the voice and horns and the percussion up front. That’s the prototypical New York sound, and that’s because of Larry.”

(NY Times, 8/14/2010)

1 Comment »

  1. That’s amazing. All these years I thought Larry Harlow was Puerto Rican.

    Comment by John B. — August 25, 2010 @ 11:55 pm

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