Music & Nightlife

Latin music pioneer Fernando J. Montilla dies at 99

If it weren’t for Fernando J. Montilla, and his Montilla Records label, the American popular music landscape might never have been painted Cherry Pink (and Apple Blossom White).

Pérez Prado, a Cuban bandleader, composer and musician, was dubbed “King of the Mambo,” and Montilla, as an early record label head, helped put Prado on his throne thanks to that smash hit.

By 1955, Prado had composed Mambo No. 5 (later a hit all over again in 1999 for Lou Bega) and he landed on turntables the world over when his instrumental arrangement of the French tune, Cherry Pink (and Apple Blossom White), spent 10 weeks at No. 1. The trumpet-laced number featured in the movie Underwater! that year in a memorable scene in which buxom star Jane Russell dances to the perky ditty.

Montilla, who died at 99 on June 25 in Kendall, was responsible for discovering and developing many more talents in Latin, pop and classical music.

At 16, Montilla took a boat from his birthplace, San Juan, Puerto Rico, to New York where NBC hired him in the 1930s as a radio engineer to work with stars like Dinah Shore, Perry Como and the Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini.

Toscanini was the first major name to recognize Montilla’s great “ear” — that trait known in the recording business for the few producers and engineers who hear sounds unlike anyone else and who can capture magic on tape.

Much later, producers like Quincy Jones, George Martin and Barry Gibb were said to have “The Ear.”

Toscanini encouraged “The Ear” to pursue a career in recording music. So, after serving as a Lt. Commander in the Navy during World War II, Montilla relocated to Havana to work as a sound engineer and to set up the radio station WCMQ. In Cuba he recorded young Cuban artists like Bola De Nieve and Benny Moré, who earned a reputation as one of Cuba’s greatest singers of popular songs.

In the late 1940s, Montilla returned to New York with his wife, Margaret, and son, Fernando Jr., and built his company, Montilla Records. The label, on 23rd and Lexington in New York, became one of the first of its kind to be established in the United States.

There, Montilla signed Milan tenor Alfredo Kraus after discovering the classical vocalist on the Canary Islands. Prado found a home with Montilla, too.

“He took me in to see Elvis Presley record,” son Fernando “Fred” Montilla Jr. said of the time the two popped into RCA’s studios next door. Montilla Jr., who works in artist management today, sings a snippet of the chorus hook of Return to Sender, the song Presley was recording that day.

“Even in his time, he never had the musicians come to New York so that he could record them, or to Puerto Rico, where he had studios. My father always went to where the music was. He went to Spain. To Romania. To France. He recorded all that music in those countries using their studios. He never shortchanged anything,” his son said.

By tapping into the artist’s home turf, he was able to capture spontaneous, indigenous sounds of the artists in their element. “You will be amazed at what he did in the 1950s and if you compare that to some of the recording done today, his sound better,” Montilla Jr. said.

In the 1950s, Montilla traveled to Spain to record flamenco guitarists Carlos Montoya, Andrés Segovia and Sabicas. Impressed, NBC created a weekly midday Sunday radio show, Montilla Records Presents Music from Spain. In 1965, Montilla opened a recording studio and tape and record manufacturing plant in Puerto Rico and acquired licensing and manufacturing rights for Latin America from American label giants A&M, Motown, ABC Records and Blue Thumb.

Before moving his operation to Miami in the 1980s, he recorded popular Puerto Rican artist Rafael Hernandez’s last record.

The Miami sound, which would grind out worldwide hits by K.C. & the Sunshine Band, the Bee Gees and Gloria Estefan didn’t slow Montilla down, either. He still wanted his own stars. Montilla might have sold his record company to Orfeón Records in Mexico when he was 86, his son said, but The Ear was still buzzing.

“For his last project, you’ve got to understand this guy’s passion. I said, ‘Dad, let’s go travel with Mom.’ He said, ‘Hell no! I’m on my way to Romania.’ He located this symphony orchestra that was supposed to be phenomenal, the Philharmonic of Romania, so he flew to New York with his engineer. New York to Bucharest, which took 13 hours. Then he got in a car to Satu Mare for nine hours. He recorded them in a church, comes back to Miami to mix it, has it translated into Spanish, and sells it to Sony for $150,000 all in a matter of weeks.”

Montilla Jr. laughs. “I thought Dad had lost it. That he was wasting his money. But he was brilliant. That was the last thing he did.”

Well, almost. Montilla and his son met every Sunday to chat about the music business over a cigar, Scotch and espresso. Downloading music was a mystery to him. Cherry Pink (and Apple Blossom White) in the Cloud?

“He didn’t understand the Internet because of his age,” Montilla Jr. said. “He’d say, ‘Are there still people who love music out there? Then figure it out. There’s still money to be made out there.’ ”

Montilla is survived by his four children, Fernando Jr., Arlene, Edward and Michael; and five grandchildren, Jason, Marina, Alex, Harmony and Mila.

Services will be held at 1 p.m. Tuesday at Saint Louis Catholic Church, 7270 SW 120th St., Pinecrest.