Johnny Pacheco, who helped bring Salsa into the world, dies at the age of 85

Johnny Pacheco, the Dominican-born bandleader who co-founded the record company that made salsa music a worldwide sensation, died Monday in Teaneck, NJ He was 85.

His wife, Maria Elena Pacheco, known as Cuqui, confirmed the death at Holy Name Medical Center. Mr. Pacheco lived in Fort Lee, NJ

Fania Records, which he founded with Jerry Masucci in 1964, Latin music signed hottest talents in the 1960s and 70s, including Celia Cruz, Willie Colón, Hector Lavoe and Rubén Blades. Mr. Pacheco, a gifted flute, led on and off stage and worked as a songwriter, arranger and leader of Fania All Stars, salsa’s first supergroup.

From the beginning, he collaborated with young musicians who mixed jazz, rhythm and blues, funk and other styles into traditional Afro-Cuban music.

In the 1970s, Fania, sometimes called Motown of salsa, was a powerhouse of Latin music, and Fania All Stars toured the world. The label spawned fiery creative collaborations, like the one between Mr. Colón, a trombonist and composer, and Mr. Blades, a socially conscious lyricist and singer; and to cult heroes like Mr. Lavoe, the Puerto Rican singer who struggled with substance abuse and died of AIDS-related complications at 46.

Fania disbanded in the mid-1980s amid lawsuits involving royalties, and in 2005 Emusica, a Miami-based company, purchased the Fania catalog and began releasing remastered versions of its classic footage.

Juan Azarías Pacheco Knipping was born on March 25, 1935 in Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic. His father, Rafael Azarias Pacheco, was a famous bandleader and clarinetist. His mother, Octavia Knipping Rochet, was the granddaughter of a French colonist and great-grandson of a German merchant who had married a Dominican woman born to Spanish colonists.

The family moved to New York when Johnny was 11, and he studied percussion at Juilliard School and worked in Latin bands before starting his own, Pacheco y Su Charanga, in 1960.

The band signed with Alegre Records, and its first album sold more than 100,000 copies in the first year and became one of the best-selling Latin albums of its time, according to his official website. It started Mr. Pacheco’s career with the introduction of a new dance villa called pachanga. He became an international star, touring in the United States, Europe, Asia and Latin America.

Fania Records was born out of an unlikely partnership between Mr. Pacheco and Mr. Masucci, a former police officer, became a lawyer who fell in love with Latin music during a visit to Cuba.

From its humble beginnings in the Harlem and Bronx – where releases were sold from the trunk of the car – Fania brought an urban sensitivity to Latin music. In New York, the music had been given the name “salsa” (Spanish for sauce, as in hot sauce), and the Fania brand began using it as part of its marketing.

Guided by Mr. Pacheco built artists a new sound based on traditional piano rhythms and the genre Cuban son (or son Cubano), but faster and more aggressive. Many of the lyrics – about racism, cultural pride and the turbulent politics of the time – were far removed from the pastoral and romantic scenes in traditional Cuban songs.

In that sense, salsa was “homemade American music, as much a part of the original musical landscape as jazz or rock or hip-hop,” Jody Rosen wrote in The New York Times in 2006 on the occasion of the re-release of the Fania master tapes – after spending years collecting mold at a warehouse in Hudson, NY


Mr. Pacheco teamed up with Mrs. Cruz in the early 1970s. Their first album, “Celia & Johnny,” was a powerful blend of hard-running salsa with infectious choruses and virtuoso performances. It quickly became gold thanks to Mrs. Cruz’s vocal skills and Mr. Pacheco’s big band direction and its first track, the up-tempo “Quimbara, ”Helped drive Mrs. Cruz’s career as Queen of Salsa status.

The two released more than 10 albums together; Mr. Pacheco was the producer on his last solo recording, “La Negra Tiene Tumbao”, which won the Grammy for best salsa album in 2002.

Over the years, Mr. Pacheco for several artists and performed around the world, and he contributed to film soundtracks, including one to “The Mambo Kings,” a 1992 film based on Oscar Hijuelo’s novel “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.” For the Jonathan Demme movie “Something Wild,” he teamed up with David Byrne, head of Talking Heads, one of his many eclectic partnerships.

Mr. Pacheco, recipient of numerous awards and honors in both the Dominican Republic and the United States, was inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame in 1998. He wrote more than 150 songs, many of which are now classics.

For many years he was at the forefront Johnny Pacheco Latin Music and Jazz FestivaI’m at Lehman College in the Bronx, an annual event in collaboration with the college (streamed live in recent years) that provides a stage for hundreds of talented young musicians studying music in New York City schools.

In addition to this wife, Mr. Pacheco’s surviving two daughters, Norma and Joanne; and two sons, Elis and Phillip.

The salsa phenomenon that Mr. Pacheco created, hit a new high on August 23, 1973 with a sold-out volcanic show at Yankee Stadium, where the Fania All Stars brought 40,000 fans to a musical frenzy, led by Mr. Pacheco, his rhinestone-encapsulated white shirt soaked in sweat. The concert cemented the band’s and his legendary stature.

Credit…Fania Records

In 1975, Fania released the long-awaited double album “Live at Yankee Stadium”, which despite the name also contained material from a show at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum in Puerto Rico that had much better sound quality. The album received the Fania All Stars their first Grammy nomination for best Latin recording.

In 2004, the Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry.

Michael Levenson contributed with reporting.

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