For my second post for Creed Taylor Month, 2021, I wanted to take a brief look at an amazing 1965 album by Willie Bobo, “Spanish Grease“. The album was recorded 56-years ago, almost to the day on August 30th and September 8th, 1965 at Van Gelder Studios, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Bobo, died 38-years ago this month, aged just 49, so it seemed fitting to look at an oft overlooked album from the Taylor pantheon.

Through the fifties and sixties, Creed Taylor would produce many successful jazz albums based on Latin and Afro-latin influences. Best known of these are of course the Gilberto/Getz albums, followed by probably the Cal Tjader recordings. All of these were published on Impulse and Verve. By the late 60’s, Creed had moved on and was producing for his own label, CTI, shortly follow by it’s Kudu imprint. While the Latin influence could still be heard. That said, Taylor didn’t produce another Latin leader album until 1979, Ray Barretto’s “La Cuna”, the release of which was held up until 1981 by CTI bankruptcy reorganization.

Willie Bobo

Bobo, real name William Carrea, is remembered as one of the greatest Latin percussionists, and his Verve leader album, easily his most successful. Here is a brief sampler of that album, a full Spotify album is included later in the post. It’s an amazing upbeat, rhythmic Latin jazz-pop album today as it was when recorded.

Spanish Grease album sampler – Hosted under “Fair Use” doctrine. All samples less than 30-seconds.
Spanish Grease album cover

Bobo, born in New York City in Spanish Harlem in 1934. Initially a professional dancer, age-12, started his professional career as a bongo player 2-years later, age-14. He joined performer, joined Tito Puente’s band[1]Tribute to the Masters: Willie Bobo – Latin Jazz Network. Mongo Santamaría arrived in New York City after from Cuba, in the early 1950’s. Unable to speak English, he met and worked with Bobo, who acted as his translator. Bobo’s style of Latin jazz, specifically Afro-Cuban jazz, changed overtime in-step with both changes in jazz, and the political climate.

Bobo joined the the Tjader sextet and  Cal Tjader Modern Mambo Quintet, performing and recording for Fantasy Records during the late fifties mambo craze[2]Mambo (music) – Wikipedia. Mambo started to fade in popularity following the Castro rise in Cuba, and the 1959 revolution[3]“Latin Jazz Stages Comeback” Billboard April, 24, 1965 P41 and Bobo and many others changed, especially with the introduction of samba.

Bobo first appeared on a #ctproduced album in 1962, the excellent “Trombone Jazz Samba” by Bob Brookmeyer. He also recorded on other Verve albums as a sideman before the Tjader 1965 album that first bought him fame. In 1963, Willie made his first album as a leader, “Bobo! Do That Thing” for a Roulette imprint, Tico Records. The album was Bobo’s entry into what, in 1963 New York City, the exploding boogaloo Afro-Cuban tinged soul-jazz. Two hits from that year included Mongo Santamaría’s cover version of the Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” and Ray Barretto’s “El Watusi“. In 1964, Bobo was sideman on perhaps Verve’s three big albums of the year, Gary McFarland’s “Soft Samba”; Tjader’s “Breeze From The East”; Wes Montgomery’s “Movin’ Wes”, all produced by Taylor.

Perhaps Bobo and Taylor are most often linked for Cal Tjader’s very popular 1965 album, “Soul Sauce” which bought Bobo attention for his percussion on the title track, for the 60’s vibraphone giant. The album was recorded at A&R Studios in New York City in November 1964. Given the success of the title track, it wasn’t a surprise to anyone that Creed would sign Willie to Verve contract for a leader album in 1965. Writing in Billboard, Elliot Tiegel at the time “Spanish Grease” was being recorded

Five recent albums seem to indicate that Latin-jazz is still a favorite among musicians and a style which record manufacturers feel has commercial possibilities. The new LP’s are “Stepping Out” by the Quartette Tres Bien on Decca, “Cal Tjader’s Greatest Hits” on Fantasy, “Latin Rendez-ous” by George Shearing on Capitol, “La Bamba” by Mongo Santamaria, and “Latin Mann” by Herbie Mann on Columbia.

Four of these packages are new creative endeavors; the Tjader package is one of those ever present albums of previously pleasurable moments which labels deem worth releasing. With Tjader’s delightful success on Verve, Fantasy has total enrichment to gain, nothing to lose in issuing this product. The lead song is “Soul Sauce,” emblazoned in large letters with the other great hits relegated to lesser greatness. “Soul Sauce” naturally is the title of a recent Tjader Verve LP and one which has really established him as a Verve artist.

Before joining the family of the big MGM lion (Verve being an MGM subsidiary), Tjader toiled for San Francisco-based Fantasy and helped the label build up one of the most outstanding Latin-jazz catalogs. Among the Latinos performing on tunes in the new LP are Mongo Santamaria, now with Columbia; Vince Guaraldi, now an established name with Fantasy; Willie Bobo, a first -rate percussionist for any label, and Stan Getz, a leading sales force for Creed Taylor and the Verve people.

Billboard Magazine, September 4th, 1965 – P34 “The Jazz Beat”.

Spanish Grease

The “Spanish Grease” album[4]Willie Bobo – Spanish Grease | Releases | Discogs contains only one original track, the title track, and it’s a clear tribute to Mongo Santamaria, whom Bob had been playing with in the early sixties, both in and after working with Cal Tjader. Bobo’s covers shouldn’t be overlooked. They embody the sheer joy and rhythm of Latin-Soul-Jazz. Record World reported the same month as the album was released, that “Deejays have taken such a fancy to “Hurt So Bad” by Willie Bobo, also a Verve artist, that the diskery is pulling the cut from Bobo’s LP, “Spanish Grease,” and issuing it as a single.” – It was a hit the same year for Little Anthony and the Imperials.

Record World November 27th, 1965 P34

The surprisingly good “It’s Not Unusual” with Bobo providing vocals is barely a reminder of the Tom Jones original, much less Carlton in “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”. Melvin Lastie’s cornet rings out on “Haitian Lady”, as well as Clarence Henry’s guitar along with the smooth pulsing Latin rhythms. If it was safe to have a big outdoor party, I’d put this album on today.

Thom Jurek prefers Bobo’s later Verve album “Bobo Motion“, and says in his ALLMusic review “the grooves are tighter and more sophisticated, and the drumming is mixed way up above an uncredited smaller combo”[5]Bobo Motion – Willie Bobo | Songs, Reviews, Credits | AllMusic. Gary Suarez wrote an extensive background piece on Willie Bobo in 2019, when Vinyl Me Please repressed Bobo’s “Uno Dos Tres 1-2-3″[6]Counting To Boogaloo: Willie Bobo’s ‘Uno Dos Tres 1•2•3’ — Vinyl Me, Please (vinylmeplease.com). “For the Puerto Rican percussionist’s 1965 effort Spanish Grease, his first for Verve as a bandleader, he turned to the Billboard charts for viable album fodder, rendering Latin-tinged variants on certified hits of the time”.

I agree with Mike Davenport, who reviewing the “Uno – Dos – Tres” album in August 1966 for his syndicated Jazz Scene column, said “Willie Bobo has a new album to capitalize on the success of his earlier “Spanish Grease,” called “Uno – Dos – Tres” which is not quite as enjoyable as the first. In trying to recapture the sound achieved on the first album, they have lost some of the spontaneity. Also, they have included far too much pop material for my taste, some of which work, such as “Rescue Me,” but most of which doesn’t.”

It’s hard to know who was primarily responsible for the track selections, either Bobo, or Taylor, but after “Uno – Dos – Tres“, Bobo’s remaining Verve albums were produced by Pete Spargo and Esmond Edwards. Taylor had moved onto to start CTI, and with his Verve contract up, Bobo settled back in Los Angeles, where he was still revered from his time with Cal Tjader.

One of Bobo’s signature live tunes was a cover of the jazz arrangement of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” that used used to open the CTI All-Stars live performances, arranged by Bob James, and became a 1973 best seller for CTI and Deodato with his own arrangement. Included below in the bonus tracks, is a 1973 video of Bobo performing the track. The segment is taken from a highly regard 1973 show call “Black Omnibus“. At this time I don’t have a full set of credits for the musicians playing with Bobo, but will shortly. The sax player suspiciously like Joe Farrell, but as Doug Payne pointed out, is probably Ray Pizzi. A version of Bobo’s Zarathusta, is also included on a 2008 DVD King Conga[7]Willie Bobo: King Conga – Arkadia Records.

Bobo continued to record and perform into the 1980’s when he was diagnosed with brain cancer, performing just a month before his untimely death, age 49[8]https://www.newspapers.com/clip/84673098/willie-bobo-afro-cuban-percussionist-an/.

Bonus Tracks

Since the start 2020 COVID era, if you watched anything on TV, and many of us, I suspect watched a lot, hopefully you got to see Lin-Manuel Miranda et al’s “In The Heights[9]In the Heights (film) – Wikipedia released in June 2021. The film is a tribute to the community, vibrancy, energy, joy and music of the Latino community in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. If not, I can highly recommend it, in the meantime enjoy these bonus videos.

Updates

Sept. 7th, 2021, 2pm – added reference/link to discogs master release for Spanish Grease.
Sept. 10th, 2021 12pm – Corrected detail about Bobo’s place of birth, and relationship to Santamaria. Thanks to Tomas Peña.
Sept. 10th, 2021 1:30pm – Removed reference to Santana, corrected Zarathusta arrangements, added observation about Ray Pizzi, all thanks to Doug Payne.

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