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Salsa Legend Willie Colon

Producer, Trombone player, composer, and bandleader, Willie Colon is one of the pioneers of Latin American music. Despite initial criticism, Colon's album El Malo has become known as one of the first albums to feature the "New York Sound" that sparked a renewed interest in Latin music during the 1970s. Colon has been instrumental in the careers of such Latin musicians as Rub�n Blades, who first sang with Colon's band in 1975, and Celia Cruz, for whom Colon has produced such albums as Only They Could Have Done This Album in 1977 and the highly successful duet album Celia & Willie in 1981.

 

Colon has also produced albums for Ismael Miranda, Sophy, Soledad Bravo, and the late Hector Lavoe, who sang with his band in the early '70s. Inspired by the music of various cultures, Colon has recorded with such musicians as Puerto Rican cuatro player Yomo Toro and David Byrne. Colon's composition "Che Che Cole," adapted from a Ghanaian children's song, was used by Ntozake Shange in the musical play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.

 

In addition to 11 Grammy nominations and one Grammy award, Colon has received a CHUBB fellowship from Yale University, the most prestigious award given by the Ivy League school. Colon ran for the United States Congress, representing New York's 17th Congressional District, in 1992.

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Starting to play the trumpet at the age of 12, Colon switched to the trombone two years later. Making his recording debut in 1967, for Al Santiago's Futura label, Colon became a victim of misfortune when the label folded. Colon was much more successful when he signed with Johnny Pacheco's Fania label. When his vocalist failed to make Colon's first session for the label, Pacheco suggested Hector Lavoe as a replacement. The collaboration proved fruitful when two singles from Colon's first two albums (El Malo, Guisando) -- "Jazzy" and "I Wish I Had a Watermelon" -- became hits. Lavoe remained a vital member of Colon's band until the mid-'70s when an increased drug addiction caused him to miss or show up late for several gigs. Although their partnership formally ended in 1975, Colon and Lavoe continued to work together. Lavoe's last album, Strikes Back, released in 1987, was produced by Colon.

In 1975, Colon balanced his schedule as director of the Latin Jazz All Stars with studies in music theory, composition, and orchestration. His increased knowledge paid off quickly. In 1978, Colon was named Musician, Producer, and Trombone Player of the Year in a readers poll conducted by Latin New York. Three years later, he received an award as Musician of the Year and his album Fantasmas was named Album of the Year. Colon continued to garner acclaim when his album Canciones del Solar de los Aburridos received a Grammy award in 1982.

Although they met backstage before a concert in Panama in 1969, Colon and Blades didn't begin collaborating until five years later. While working on the album The Good-The Bad-The Ugly, Colon asked Blades to sing on the Blades-penned tune "El Cazanguero," which reflected on Blades' experiences as a law student working in a Panamanian prison. The session was so satisfying that Blades became a full-time member of Colon's band following the departure of Lavoe. Their 1978 album Siembra became the top-selling album in Fania's catalog. Despite their success, Blades severely quarreled with label president Jerry Mascucci over money. Although Colon recorded two solo albums -- El Baquine de Angelitos Negros in 1977 and Solo in 1979 -- and Blades recorded a solo album, Maestra Vida, in 1980, their solo work failed to match the commercial success of their joint efforts.

In 1981, the two musicians resumed their partnership with Blades playing coro on Colon's solo album Fantasmas. The following year, they collaborated on the Grammy-winning album Canciones del Solar de los Aburridos, which yielded the hits singles "Tiburon," "Ligia Elena," and "Te Estan Buscando." Their partnership again proved short-lived as Colon and Blades split up after working on the film The Last Fight. The split was far from amiable and the two musicians continued to feud until reuniting for a concert at the Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan in March 1992. Despite collaborating on the album Tras la Tormenta in 1995, Colon and Blades recorded their parts separately. Following a reunion concert at the Hollywood Bowl in 1997, Colon and Blades performed a series of concerts together.

In the late '80s, Colon formed a new band, Legal Aliens, with younger musicians. Signing with Sony, Colon and the band recorded Color Americano in 1990 and Honra y Cultura in 1991. Two years later, Colon recorded Hecho en Puerto Rico with an all-star band featuring ex-members of the Fania All-Stars, Papo Lucca and Bobby Valentin. Since leaving Sony over a lack of promotional support, Colon continued to remain active. ~ Craig Harris
 

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