This Sunday September 27, 2015 I turn 58 years of age. Who knew I would reach this far on the path? I owe it all to my family’s support ” y la cultura.” How I Am celebrating? Cooking a “pernil” following my Mother’s recipe, listening to music and reading. Asi es la vida. Una Caja De Sorpresas. My favorite band from the Chez Sensual in the Bronx “Orquesta Cimarron” featuring Rafael De Jesus.
Q: Very few people from my generation down know about your beginnings so lets take it from there.
RDJ: Well, soy Puertorriqueño nacido y criado aqui en Brooklyn, New York. Puerto Rican parents who’ve been here. So my first language has been English, although Spanish was always spoken at home. My father was kind of into the music business with a local neighborhood band. He sang and recorded a 78 record that I treasure. You know it’s a big thing for me. My influences were everything that was around me. An everyday existence here in NYC was American music. You know, the Beatles, Dave Clark Five, The Four Tops, the era of hanging out on the corner with the Persian Lamb collar leather jacket.
GR: Playboys (laughs).
RDJ: Yeah, the tailor made shark skin pants with the flap pockets, the beaver hats that we would comb with baby oil. We would put bands that would identify what neighborhood you were from.
Q: Sounds like a pimp’s era!
RDJ: Not really, it’s kind of like what the kids are wearing today to identify themselves. It’s an era we all kind of go through you know. Anyway, my inception into the music was with my cousins. We had a tight knit family. We all lived in the same building. My older cousins got into Latin music and through that we started banging on instruments. They bought congas. We would break clothes hangers and use them as timbal and drum sticks. They got involved with a band in Brooklyn and I hung out with them. They rehearsed and after 150,000 rehearsals they got their first gig. It was at New York City Community College. Their singer never showed up so they used me. Of course I had a car, which made me their band boy (chuckles). We made it to the gig, so the members of the band and my cousins were like ‘oh Ralph you gotta help us out mira que they are not going to pay us if we don’t start right away. You know some of the songs.’ So I did it. I’ll tell you a funny story about that night. We were opening for Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe. Hector was late, and I remember they also had to save their gig so Willie asked me if I would pitch in until Hector arrived by doing some coros for him. Jose Mangual knew a couple of the songs, and for the gig Willie offered me twenty bucks. I did coros for that first set.
GR: That’s how Willie and Mangual started singing too. Willie and Mangual started singing because Hector never got there on time. Willie had to save the gigs, so one of them would sing. Later Hector would waltz in making excuses like he got stuck in traffic and things like that.
Q: I know you from the Eddie Palmieri days and later on the Luis “Perico” Ortiz days. What part of your history am I missing?
RDJ: (Jokingly) Well, here I’ll read it to you. Back in Brooklyn I was part of Orchestra DJ.
Q: George do you know about that?
GR: Yep. They recorded for MGM. The record says you were 15 years old. Was that accurate?
RDJ: I was 16 when I recorded with them but you know I was gigging with them a year earlier. I hooked up with their bongo player who was a member of the band with my cousins. I asked him to hook me up with them if they needed a singer. I was very lucky because Orchestra DJ gigged a lot. It turns out that Georgie De Jesus’ parents owned a photography studio. They would also sell wedding dresses and gowns for weddings. People rented tuxedos and all sorts of things for weddings. So on top of selling their photography, their gowns, and tuxedos for the weddings we would sell them the band. So for a small two trombone B or C band, whatever you want to call it, there was never a weekend that we didn’t work. In those days, Ralph Mercado had the Three In One club on Flatbush and The Saint George was having those Grand Paradise weekend dances. I mean for any reason a dance would spark up in different neighborhoods, and we were lucky to be the warm up band. We had a great time.
GR: You had a hit with that record. What year was that?
RDJ: I don’t know. It had to be 72, 73
GR: I still have the vinyl. He had a hit in there. What was it Black Shadows or Dark Shadows?
RDJ: It was Black Shadows. We had Black Shadows on a 45 rpm. On the other side we had this song titled La Jara. Our first 45 was with Mars Records. I still have that 45 from Orchestra DJ. At times I listen to those record and wonder “what on earth were we thinking about?” I mean these were songs we were serious about! That’s what we knew (laughter). Black Shadows was a chacha with two trombones and English lyrics.
Note to Fun Easy Cool readers: Please click the share buttons above or below. Forward this article to your email lists. Crosspost on your blog site, social media, internet forums. etc.