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Willie Colón: 1950—: Salsa Performer, Producer, Composer, Activist

Switched To Trombone

Colón found his own musical soul when he switched from trumpet to trombone, inspired by listening to the music of trombonist Barry Rogers in the pioneering band of Eddie Palmieri, and the three-trombone band performing under leader Mon Rivera. "The trombone used to be this sweet thing, a Tommy Dorsey, big band instrument," Colón told the Boston Globe. "Nobody had thought of having it as a front line instrument. But we saw the trombone could be a nasty, loud instrument with Barry Rogers." After a preliminary single on the Futura label, Colón was signed in 1967 to Fania, the label that eventually became central to the salsa recording industry. Recording as a trombonist and bandleader, Colón released El malo, an album that despite its rough edges spawned the regional hit "Jazzy" and announced a new force in Latin music.

By 1974 Colón had released 15 albums in partnership with his lead vocalist Hector Lavoe who, according to the Boston Globe, reluctantly came on board after telling Colón, "Your band stinks." However, Lavoe ended up co-composing many of the band's songs with Colón. Out of a swirl of new Latin styles that arose in the late 1960s grew a lasting form, known as salsa, that featured virtuoso, jazz-influenced brass playing; intense, upbeat rhythms influenced by Dominican merengue; Colombian cumbia; the pace of urban life in general; and a vocal focus that enabled songwriters to stretch beyond simple dance-and-have-fun themes. Some have credited Colón with originating the word "salsa," although its origins remain obscure. In any event, Colón showed sales muscle, and 1970's Cosa nuestra became the first in a string of 20 gold records awarded for sales of 500,000 or more copies, including five that were platinum million-sellers.

At a Glance . . .

Born on April 28, 1950, in Bronx, NY. Education: Studied music theory and composition.

Career: Signed to Fania label, 1967; released debut album El malo, 1968; released 15 albums as bandleader with lead vocalist Hector Lavoe, 1968-74; first gold record, Cosa nuestra, 1970; teamed with lead vocalist Rubén Blades; released bestselling album Siembra, 1978; released several solo albums, including Fantasmas, 1981; extensive production and arranging work, 1970s and 1980s; became community activist and entered politics, early 1990s; became member, President's Commission on the Arts and Humanities, 1993; ran for U.S. Congress, 1994; became spokesperson for CARE relief organization, 1997; ran for Public Advocate, City of New York, 2001.

Selected memberships: American Society of Composers, Authors & Performers (ASCAP); became first minority member, ASCAP National Board of Trustees, 1995; ASCAP Foundation.

Selected awards: Chubb Fellowship, Yale University, 1991; named one of 100 most influential Hispanics in United States by Hispanic Business magazine, 1996; EPA Environmental Quality Award, 2001.

When Lavoe left Colón's band in 1975 for a solo career, Colón produced his first two solo albums. Colón also produced albums by Cuban-American superstar Celia Cruz and shared the spotlight with her on the Celia y Willie album of 1981. He also collaborated at various times with Mon Rivera, percussionist Ernie Agosto, and the Fania All Stars. But his most important collaboration was with Panamanian songwriter and vocalist Rubén Blades, whom Colón had met in Panama in 1969. Blades's eclectic and adventurous approach to Latin music paralleled Colón's own, and he replaced Lavoe as Colón's lead vocalist. Blades was subsequently featured on several Colón albums between 1977 and 1982.

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Ciara Biography - Wrote Out Goals to Elizabeth David (1913–1992) BiographyWillie Colón: 1950—: Salsa Performer, Producer, Composer, Activist Biography - Switched To Trombone, Broadened Topics Of Salsa Lyrics, Entered Politics