If salseros needed a degree to do what they do, they would probably get it from El Gran Combo, Latin America’s premiere Salsa orchestra. They are nicknamed “La Universidad de La Salsa” or “The University of Salsa” due to the great number of artists who either started or developed their careers with them. Think Latin America’s version of The Rolling Stones.
Playing together since the early 60’s and still going strong, with an unwavering popularity that goes unrivaled, El Gran Combo enjoys an international fan base and have toured the world over many times. Most important of all, it’s practically federal law to play at least one Gran Combo song at any major family function. Ok, I lied, it’s not, but it might as well be! Whether you’re an old schooler or you’re just getting acquainted with salsa music, El Gran Combo is a must have in any Salsa lover’s archive.
Started by Rafael Ithier who was a member of Cortijo y su Combo, (if you’re paying attention, you’d know that we covered this two weeks ago), he also brought over several of his old bandmates after Cortijo’s lead singer Ismael Rivera was jailed for transporting drugs from Panamá. Among the original members of El Gran Combo was Sax player Hector Santos, Trumpet player Rogelio “Kito” Velez, and percussionists, Martin Quiñones, Miguel Cruz, and Roberto Roena, who would later go on to lead his own band called the Apollo Sound as well as becoming a Fania legend in his own right. Original vocalists included Daniel Vazquez, Pellin Rodriguez, and Chiquitin Garcia. Andy Montañez would be brought in after Garcia left the group shortly after the orchestra’s live debut.
EGC would go on to release their first album in 1963 with a second album coming soon thereafter less than a year later. These two album were a great success, earning top spots throughout Latin America and even in New York City. In the early 70’s, instead of renewing their record deal with Gema records, they started their own label called Combo records. This despite being courted by well known labels throughout the US and Latin America, including powerhouse label Motown Records. In ’73 they performed in front of a sellout crowd of 50,000 as the opening act for the historic Fania All Stars concert at Yankee Stadium.
Proof that El Gran Combo hasn’t lost their touch lies in the fact that they are still a main attraction, attracting fans the world over, selling out venues like Madison Square Garden and Hiram Bithorn Stadium, earning recognition and accolades from South America to Spain. If I were to continue on about how impressive this band’s resume is, this article would turn into it’s own series. They would not only become an institution enjoying it’s own legendary status, but it has also catapulted the careers of countless other artists from Hector Lavoe, Celia Cruz, and even more recent artists like La India. They might as well hand out diplomas, because El Gran Combo truly is La Universidad de La Salsa!