Long before there was gangsta rap, there was Willie Colón.
The South Bronx musician was 17 when he recorded his first album “El Malo” (1967) on the legendary Fania Records label, selling more than 300,000 copies and launching his reputation as salsa’s bad boy.
The album also propelled the career of a young singer who had recently arrived from Puerto Rico — Hector Lavoe. Together, Colón and Lavoe became rising stars on New York’s salsa scene.
“The combination of my street stuff from the Bronx and Hector’s island thing was really appealing,” says Colón, who performs Friday at the Fillmore Miami Beach as part of his “Rumba del Siglo” tour.
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Colón also was portrayed as a “gangster” in his early albums. In Cosa Nuestra” (1970), he’s photographed pointing a black trombone case at a corpse bound and ready to be dumped in the Hudson River. In “La Gran Fuga” (The Big Break, 1971) his face appears on an FBI Wanted poster. Other album titles include “The Hustler” (1968), “El Juicio” (The Trial, 1972) and “Crime Pays” (1972).
These recordings have become cult classics for younger urban musicians like P. Diddy and Major Laz, who call Colón the “Original Gangster.”
“That bad boy thing appealed to young, rebellious kids, although we were always tongue-in-cheek,” says Colón, 68, who lives with his wife, Julia, in New Rochelle, N.Y. “We really didn’t mean it.”
“We had stories to tell — about life in the ghetto,” he continues. “But it was [about things] like ‘Vicente el carterista’ [Vicente the purse snatcher] hiding in the garbage can. It was strangely funny, like fireside theater.”
Over the years, Colón has evolved from gangster to cop. He serves as a lieutenant sheriff in Westchester County, when he’s not touring. “It’s something I always wanted to do.”
Yet he can still light any stage on fire with his trombone, lead vocals and catalog of hit songs. His recent tours have mostly sold out in the U.S., Latin America and Europe. “I’m grateful that at this age I can draw a crowd and people really have a good time and enjoy the music.”
Colón has enjoyed success as a musician, composer, singer, arranger, producer, social activist and occasional actor.
He has created 40 productions that have sold more than 30 million albums, He’s recorded with the likes of Ruben Blades, Celia Cruz, Tito Puente and the iconic Lavoe.
In 2015, Billboard magazine named Colón one of the 30 most influential Latin artists of all time.
He was influenced by his Puerto Rican grandmother, who taught him to appreciate island music and culture growing up in the working-class South Bronx, where he was exposed to a wide range of Latin rhythms and American music.
Music provided a refuge from inner-city living. On his 11th birthday, his grandmother bought him a trumpet. He learned to play the instrument and read music from an Afro-American neighbor and professional musician.
“We played duets together. I would practice all day, which would drive everybody crazy... By the time I got to junior high school, I was better than everyone else.”
As he got older, he played in weddings and joined a street band. One day, he heard a recording that caught his attention. It was “Dolores La Pachangera,” performed by Puerto Rican plena singer and composer Mon Rivera and trombonist Barry Rogers.
“Mon Rivera was singing, and this trombone solo starts to roar on the record,” Colón recalls. “And when I heard it, I said, ‘I want to play that’. From that moment on I was not happy playing trumpet.”
Colón saved enough money to buy himself a valve trombone and started a band, La Dinámica, with a two-trombone horn section.
He also began to follow Rivera, who had a band called La Trombonga, with an all-trombone brass section.
“I was already 16 and old enough to go around the clubs. I would hang around with my trombone and a long face until Mon gave me a break,” Colón recalls. “He would say ‘OK, come up’ and let me play. He called me ‘el americanito.’”
A decade later, Colón ran into the semi-retired plena musician, then working as a refrigerator repairman in Puerto Rico.
“I said to him, ‘I’m el americanito and I want you to come to New York and make a record with me.’”
Together, they produced one of Colón’s most seminal works “There Goes the Neighborhood” (1975, Vaya), admired for its sophisticated arrangements and fusing of Afro-Cuban rhythms with Puerto Rican folk plenas, coupled with Rivera’s distinct vocals and “trabalenguas” (tongue twisters) on classics like “Askarakatiskis.”
“I still run into people who rave about the record,” Colón says. “It wasn’t a blockbuster hit, but it had some solid sales. People accepted it.”
Fans accepted his many experiments, like mixing Latin folk music with tropical dance rhythms and introducing social commentary in salsa songs.
Even when he was Willie the gangster, he was really Colón the innovator.
Like his 1971 “Asalto Navideño” album, in which Colón layered salsa rhythms onto plenas and aguinaldos (island Christmas songs). To get the sound right, he recruited veteran cuatro musician Yomo Toro, considered a virtuoso on the small 4-stringed guitar popular in Puerto Rican “jíbaro” or country music.
After finding Toro in a Bronx bar with go-go dancers, he invited the cuatro player into Fania’s recording studio and the rest is salsa history. Asalto has become salsa’s top-selling album and Colón succeeded in making jíbaro music hip to young Latinos who considered it their grandparents’ music.
“Everybody thinks it’s Siembra [his 1978 collaborative album with Blades], but Asalto sells every Christmas. It broke a lot of barriers.”
Colón now spends much of his time touring, writing his memoirs and working on his label, Willie Colon Presenta.
He’s encouraged that young urban music artists frequently sample his horn lines and songs. He feels the time may be right to get back into music production.
“I’ve got something that I think is still valuable,” Colón says. “I’ve got some capital, maybe my concept of putting music together.”
“I feel like I still got a lot of juice.”
And a whole lot of salsa.
If you go
- What: Willie Colón
- When: 8 p.m., Friday
- Where: Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave.
- Tickets: $58, $98, $128, plus service fees; online at fillmoremb.com.