Johnny Pacheco of NJ, gave salsa music its name and brought it to Yankee Stadium, has died

Johnny Pacheco of NJ, gave salsa music its name and brought it to Yankee Stadium, has died

Check out these happy people at Summerfest dancing to Salsa
People dance the Salsa as Van Lester and the Hector Lavoe tribute band perform at the Summerfest Harley-Davidson Roadhouse stage.
Mike De Sisti, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Johnny Pacheco was salsa music.

So much so that Pacheco, legendary bandleader, promoter and record executive, was known as the one to name salsa music “salsa” in the 1960s. Pacheco, a long-time North Bergen resident, passed away Monday, Feb. 15, announced Fania Records.

He was 85.

“I don’t know if I was the first to call it salsa,” said Pacheco modestly in 2000 to the Home News Tribune of East Brunswick, “but the reason I called it salsa is because we started to travel with all types of Latin (influenced) musicians, so I called it salsa to put it all under one roof.

“We had the Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans, two Jews and one Englishman,” Pacheco quipped. “It was a nice salsa.”

The sound was primarily Afro-Cuban, with jazz and a little R&B mixed in. Pacheco, who studied percussion at the Julliard School of Music, was a popular bandleader with the Pacheco y Su Charanga by 1963, and wrote the hits “Mi Gente” for Hector Lavoe and “La Dicha Mia” for Celia Cruz.

While rising through the ranks, he saw a void in the recording industry.

“Everybody back then had their own record labels,” said Pacheco, a native of the Dominican Republic who moved to New York City in the 1940s. “The Black community had Motown, but Latinos had nothing.”

In turn, Pacheco and lawyer Jerry Masucci formed Fania Records, which ruled the Latin charts in the 1960s and ’70s with stars such as Lavoe, Willie Colon and Ray Barretto. The label’s influence grew to the point where in the mid-1970s, 80 percent of all salsa records sold in the United States were from Fania.

“To me, that was a dream come true,” Pacheco said. “It was like one big family — that’s what we created.”

The height of success for Fania — and an important milestone in the growth of Latin music in the United States — was the label’s all-star concert at Yankee Stadium in 1973, organized largely by Pacheco.

“I was thinking about (producing the concert), and people in the industry said that I was crazy,” Pacheco said. “They wanted to put The Temptations on the bill. I said, `Listen my people, this event has got to go down as an all-Latin event — 100 percent. Otherwise, we’re not going to prove anything. If it’s a flop, then it will be a flop, but if it’s a hit, then we’ll have done it all with Latin musicians.’“

Pacheco wasn’t so sure that producing a concert at Yankee Stadium was a good idea in the time leading up to the show. A visit to a Yankees game before the concert date didn’t do much for his faith.

“The Yankees stunk back then,” Pacheco said. “I went to a game and there were about 2,500 people in the (55,000-plus capacity) stadium that day, and it seemed empty. I said to myself, `Oh my God, we’re never going to fill this place!’“

Thankfully, the allure of stars on the bill for the August concert, including Cruz, Willie Colon, Ruben Blades and Lavoe, helped pack the stadium far better than the Yankees were managing back then.

“At one spot I heard the applause,” Pacheco remembered. “If there aren’t a lot of people, the applause sounds like crickets. But it was a solid sound. I could tell that there were a lot of people there.”

Seemingly overnight, mainstream media wanted to know more about the hot new sound and its stars.

“After the concert, the media opened up their eyes,” Pacheco said. “They came to the office to interview me. They’d ask “How did you do this in one week?’“

Pacheco knew that it had taken a lifetime. Eventually the musician sold his share of the label in 1980 and Pacheco’s vibrant, lively brand of salsa was replaced to the smooth, lushly produced salsa romantica.

Pacheco, who moved to Jersey in the ’70s, thought that his time had come and gone. But in the 1990s, new generation of music fans rediscovered Pacheco and the important role he played in Latin music.

“It’s wonderful,” Pacheco said. “Kids, 20- to 25-years old, guys and girls, come up to me and say, ‘Give me your autograph. I grew up with your music. I’m was too young to see you perform, but my father had all your records!’”

Pacheco was a humble giant of music, said Joel Suarez. a Jersey music promoter who often booked Pacheco.

“He was a true gentleman,” Suarez said. “All class.” 

In his later years, Pacheco often performed with  Cruz and even reconvened the label’s supergroup, the Fania All-Stars, from time to time. In 2005, he received the Latin Recording Academy Music Excellence Award and was nominated for nine Grammy Awards throughout his career. Nelson Diaz played Pacheco in the 2007 Lavoe biopic “El Cantante,” which starred Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez.   

“Getting all this makes me feel good and makes me feel that it all has worked out for the best,” said Pacheco of his accolades. “That makes me very proud and happy.”

Pacheco, who was living in Fort Lee, is survived by his wife and their four children.

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Chris Jordan, a Jersey Shore native, covers entertainment and features for the USA Today Network New Jersey. Contact him at @chrisfhjordan; [email protected].

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