Mambo Kingdom


Mambo Kingdom: Latin Music in New York

Max Salazar (2003)

Pub. Schirmer Trade Books

This 309 page book is by the oral salsa historian Max Salazar and as such is well worth investing your hard earned cash on – you can read about him here. The quality of the writing is fantastic, as is the range and depth of subject matter.  Includes over 40 photographs, but the real joy is in the writing, you’ll start flicking through and realise that you have been totally engrossed for the past few hours. All bar one of the chapters has previously been published in Latin Beat Magazine, though a few minor changes to the text have been made – in some cases the original articles have been shortened or words re-arranged so as to make more sense in book format. The only chapter not from LBM is the chapter on Noro Morales, this was previously published in Impacto Magazine.

Why you might buy it:

If you enjoy reading about and from those that have had a direct hand in shaping this music then this really is a no-brainer, just get it. The writing style is extremely accessible and this book is jam-packed full of facts and anecdotes that really enhance enjoyment and appreciation of the music and the culture in which it developed. This is not a potted-history take on salsa, there are no easy answers and this text presents a variety of insights that allow the reader to develop a broad picture of who, what and where was important in the evolution of Latin music in New York, and beyond.

Why you might leave it:

You have read all this before because you get Latin Beat Magazine, and have done since its launch.


1. The Development of Latin Music in New York City
2. Rafael Hernández
3. Gabriel Oller
4. Conjunto Caney
5. Alberto Iznaga
6. Miguelito Valdés,
7. Alberto Socarrás
8. Anselmo Sacassas
9. Marcelino “Rapindey” Guerra
10. Noro Morales
11. Joe Loco
12. Frederico Pagani
13. The Palladium
14. José Curbelo
15. Monchito Muñoz
16. John “Big Daddy” Rodriguez
17. Tito Rodriguez
18. Tito Puente
19. Jimmy Frisaura
20. Frankie Colón
21. Vicentico Valdés
22. Vitín Aviles
23. Gilberto Monroig
24. Santitos Colón
25. Tony Molina
26. Orlando Marín
27. La Lupe
28. Two Centuries of Charanga
29. José Fajardo
30. Charlie Palmieri
31. Joe Quijano
32. Eddy Zervigón
33. Hector Rivera
34. Tony Pabón
35. Joe Cuba
36. Willie Torres
37. Cheo Feliciano
38. Joe Bataan
39. Salsa Origins
40. Jerry Masucci
41. The Corso
42. Willie Rosario
43. Héctor Lavoe
44. Willie Rodriguez


Selected extracts (from chapter 3)

3 – Gabriel Oller

Machito, my New York City Latin music mentor, once said, “If you write about the history of New York’s Latin music world, you must speak to Gabriel Oller.”

On May 21, 1973, I visited the Spanish Music Center located in the lobby of the Hotel Belvedere off 8th Avenue. Mr. Oller, then 70 years old and 5 feet, 6 inches in stature, appeared like a man in his early fifties. He spoke fluent Spanish and English and in between customers, he answered questions and I copied the answers on a pad. Between 1973 and 1980 I visited Mr. Oller a great number of times and through osmosis felt his experiences. On each occasion I was given historic data, and rare 78 recordings and photos which I copied and returned. The following is Mr. Oller’s birds-eye view of New York City’s Latin music world beginning in the ’20s.

The 1990s has been the best decade yet for Latin music lovers. Turn on a radio any time of the day and one will find Latin music to listen to. Dancing is possible every night of the week in several places throughout metropolitan New York. There are numerous record shops in which recordings of different orchestras and vocalists may be purchased. Musicals, television documentaries, free and paid concerts and sophisticated space age recording equipment that produces the highest quality in sound exists. All of these conveniences were not available sixty years ago.

Since then, Latin music has progressed by leaps and bounds and Gabriel Oller has been one of the contributors. He was one of a few people who could truthfully claim first-hand knowledge about what was happening musically in Spanish Harlem during the 1920s and ’30s. He should – he owned one of the two Spanish music record stores in Harlem during the ’30s. He is the second Puerto Rican to own his own recording company, the Dynasonic label, and second to record Puerto Rican folkloric music in New York City during 1934. He and a partner founded the Coda label in 1945 and two years later started the SMC (Spanish Music Company) with Art Raymond. Oller has recorded the early and priceless recordings of Noro Morales, Marcelino Guerra, Alfredito Valdes, Alberto Iznaga, Jose Curbelo, Johnny Segua, Juan “El Boy” Torres, Tito Rodriguez, and the Cubans Los Jovenes Del Cayo, Cheo Belen Puig, Olga Guillot, Chano Pozo, Mongo Santamaría, Alberto Socarras, Miguelito Valdes and Arsenio Rodriguez. Machito’s orchestra (who never wanted its name on the Coda recordings because of its contract with Verne Records) was the band backing the recordings of Chano Pozo, Olga Guillot and Rene Hernandez.


The Puerto Rico of Mr. Oller’s youth was rural. Streets were still unpaved. “Half of what the people ate was grown on the land. They had to. Puerto Ricans depended on each other for survival. They raised big families so their children could work the farm and produce the essential agricultural needs. Spain exported clothes, cloth, codfish in barrels, carne cecina (ropa vieja), soap, perfumes, olive oil, turon candy and guitars. Rice and beans have been our main dish since the days of Christopher Columbus. Taking rice and beans from Puerto Ricans would be the same as taking away their civil rights.”

On March 17, 1917, Puerto Ricans were granted American citizenship. Immediately thereafter, Puerto Ricans began leaving the island for the United States mainland. The Oller family came to New York City later on in the year shortly after World War I was declared. At this time most of the city’s streets were paved with cobblestones and the clippity clop of horses pulling the wagons with beer barrels could be heard blocks away.


One day, after reading an ad about opportunities in the electronics field, he decided that if he was to have a career in the entertainment industry, it would be in the section which would perpetuate performances for posterity, the recording field. For years he studied electronics at night at a Brooklyn trade and technical school. During this time period the exodus from Puerto Rico began to increase in numbers and instead of settling in Brooklyn where the Puerto Ricans landed, the Borinquenos began moving into East Harlem, between 99 and 116 streets, inhabited by Jews west of Lexington Avenue and Italians east of the avenue.

Oller’s knowledge of electronics enabled him and his brother Vicente to open the second Spanish music store in Harlem in 1934. The store, located at 1318 5th Avenue, on the corner of 110th and 5th Avenue, became Tatay’s Spanish Music Center. They sold RCA Victor 78 RPM records, pianola rolls, guitars and charged for guitar lessons. The store was a few feet away from El Teatro San Jose and the Park Palace Caterers where in the late ’30s Spanish Harlemites could see musicians like Noro Morales, his brothers, Fernando “Caney” Storch, Pedro Flores, Bobby Capo, El Canario, Pedro “Davilita” Ortiz, Augusto Coen, Alberto Iznaga, Polito Galandez, Los Hermanos Mercado, Montecino, Mario Bauza and Machito, standing on the corner of 5th Avenue. The congregation on the corner of 110th & 5th Avenue was there to obtain work. Whoever wanted to hire a group or a musician who played a specific instrument would phone Oller at his store and he in turn would inform the musicians standing outside the store. Bandleaders or star musicians would earn as much as ten dollars for a night’s work, a sideman earned three. Very few musicians depended on music for their livelihood. Music was a means to supplement their income from other work.

Casa Hernandez, the first Spanish music store in East Harlem, opened in 1927 and was owned by Puerto Rico’s famous song composer Rafael Hernández and his sister Victoria. Hernandez, the island’s most famous jibarito, directed the most popular group in 1933, El Quarteto Victoria, named after his sister. The store was a 20 by 60 foot space on the west side of Madison Avenue facing uptown between 113th and 114th streets. It sold the 1000 RCA Victor 78 RPMs, housed guitars and the popular pianola rolls. In the back of the store, there was a piano which Victoria used to teach aspiring musicians to play. On one occasion, Rafael began composing a tune on the piano until a student appeared for lessons. He took his guitar and a tin can of black coffee out onto the sidewalk, sat down near the edge of the curb and continued to compose. It was then he composed Lamento Borincano, Hernandez’s most popular composition, on the sidewalk of Casa Hernandez in 1929 and Oller said he witnessed it.

“With a name like Rafael Hernandez to compete against,” said Oller, “I had to have a gimmick and the Dynasonic test record was it. During the 1930s, the New York Puerto Rican was different than the one today…they were dyed in the wool Puerto Ricans, they lived by their folk ways, they spoke Spanish, they ate Spanish food only, it was like one big family. Although there were some problems with other people, we became friendly neighbors with Jews, who learned to speak Spanish. The Jewish people were our only outside influence. The Puerto Ricans stuck to their own culture until the early ’40s–we became Americanized in a few aspects in order to compete in the labor market.”


After World War II began, record manufacturing was restricted. Shellac and wax were needed for war time material. RCA, Bluebird, Columbia, and Decca, who had factories in Canada and Mexico, were the only companies releasing new recordings. These companies released their Latin artists on contract so the popular American big band could record and use the rationed material. Masters were mailed to Canada and Mexico. Records were pressed, labeled, and shipped back to the United States.

The public’s thirst for Latin music was partially quenched by the CBS weekly radio show “Saludos Amigos” which hired the most popular orchestras in Latin music during the war years. The show was heard by U.S. Armed forces overseas. Toward the end of 1944, the United States was winning the war and the restrictions on recording materials were eased.

In January, 1945, Gabe Oller founded the Coda Recording Company at a new location, 1291 6th Avenue at the comer of 52 Street. In 1947, Oller and WEVD’s radio talk host, Art Raymond, formed the Spanish Music Center recording company. Mr. Raymond became known as Art “Pancho” Raymond and hosted a one-hour program called “Pancho’s Club Tico Tico” in which he aired SMC and Coda label recordings only.

On February 23, 1947, the orchestras of Machito and Alfredito Valdes became the first bands to kick off Oller’s & Raymond’s Club Tico Tico Sunday Rumba dansants. For $1.50, dancers enjoyed themselves for five hours beginning at 1 p.m. The Sunday afternoon ritual became a gold mine in that week after more than 500 dancers occupied the Manhattan Center’s dance floor located at 34th Street off the corner of 8th Avenue. For unknown reasons the successful venture of Oller and Raymond came to an end in 1948. Oller bought out Raymond and became sole owner of the SMC label. The following are Mr. Oller’s words regarding his experiences with a few of the artists he recorded.

NORO MORALES: “On January 16, 1945, Noro was the first to record for Coda. He recorded Rumba Rhapsody, Bangin The Bongo, Linda Mujer and Begin The Beguine. Our friendship began in the ’30s when he hung out on the corner of 110th Street and 5th Avenue. He was always well dressed, shoes shined, nails polished and reeked of expensive men’s cologne. He loved women. He had to work steadily in order to pay the alimony his three wives collected. Noro always needed money. He sold me a half interest of the copyrights of two of his tunes, Montuno In A Flat and Bangin The Bongo, for $150. He didn’t like to sign contracts. He used to say ‘Are you American or Puerto Rican?…don’t you trust me?…come, let’s go to the studio.’ Noro made great recordings for me.”


In 1988, Gabriel Oller retired and relocated to Las Vegas to live with his brother Vicente Tatay. At the time, Mr. Oller was suffering with Alzheimer’s disease. During the summer of ‘88, Gabriel Oller was struck and killed by an automobile while crossing Las Vegas’ main boulevard against the traffic light. His brother’s nephew, Andrew Tatay, inherited Oller’s estate. Part of the estate was a six story warehouse that housed thousands of 78 RPM recordings, 25 to a box, the rare great recordings of fifty widely known artists, recording contracts, recording contracts of sessions which included musicians names, dates, salaries, names of tunes, photographs and other historical documents. Unaware of this memorabilia’s value, the nephew emptied the warehouse of “the garbage,” and had it disposed of.

[end of extracts]

Other Reviews

Latin Beat Magazine by Rudy Mangual, April 2003
Born in Spanish Harlem of Puerto Rican ancestry, Max Salazar began writing and documenting his fascination with Latin music in the late 1960s. In 1968, he began a parallel radio career hosting the popular program called the Latin Musician’s Show (a forum for Latin musicians).

Mambo Kingdom: Latin Music in New York (1926-1990) is a collection of profiles and essays from the pen of Max Salazar, one of the most illustrious Latin music historians in the United States. Having lived through most of the key eras of the Afro-Caribbean experience in “The Big Apple,” Salazar witnessed up close and personal the music and the musicians who headed this movement, including Tito Puente, Machito, Tito Rodríguez, Charlie and Eddie Palmieri, Joe Cuba and Héctor Lavoe, among many others. His storytelling style of writing adds another dimension to the pleasure of reading. Artists of the past seem to come alive and the past becomes the present. After his opening essay, “The Development of Latin Music in New York City,” the book unfolds with over 40 profiles of the top luminaries of this music, from Rafael Hernández, to Miguelito Valdés, to Cheo Feliciano. Other essays include “Salsa Origins” and “Two Centuries of Charanga.” The bulk of the stories featured in the book were originally published in the pages of Latin Beat Magazine, where Salazar has been a senior editor since 1990. Music historian, radio personality, and close friend of Salazar, Al Angeloro wrote the excellent foreword for the book. Mambo Kingdom: Latin Music in New York documents almost an entire century of Latin music within the contents of 300 exciting pages of text and classic photographs. by Bruce Polin, Feb. 2003
Shortly after Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. Citizenship in 1917, they began moving into the uptown Manhattan neighborhood that would become known as Spanish Harlem. By 1930, Afro-Cuban music had gained a firm foothold in the city, setting the stage for the mambo, pachanga, boogaloo, and salsa scenes that followed. In this collection of profiles and essays, Max Salazar tells the story of the music and the musicians who made it happen, including Rafael Hernandez, Miguelito Valdes, Noro Morales, Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Charlie Palmieri, Joe Cuba, Hector Lavoe, and many others.We are pleased to include this new book by musicologist Max Salazar. This is a series of essays about, and dialogues with, many important Latin musicians who made New York the center of popular Latin dance music for over a half a century.Highly Recommended.


One response

14 05 2014
Dr. Gusztav Fogarassy

How do I buy this “Mambo Kingdom: Latin Music in New York” book?

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