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Johnny Pacheco, musician whose Fania record label launched salsa music, dies at 85

Dominican artist Johnny Pacheco posed for photographers on the red carpet before recording the Spanish language version of "We Are The World" (Somos el Mundo) with other top Latin music artists in Miami in early 2020.
Dominican artist Johnny Pacheco posed for photographers on the red carpet before recording the Spanish language version of "We Are The World" (Somos el Mundo) with other top Latin music artists in Miami in early 2020.Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

Johnny Pacheco, a Dominican-born musician who was the co-founder of Fania Records, often called the Motown of salsa music, an up-tempo, dance-driven style of Latin American music that he helped make a global sensation in the 1960s and 1970s, died Feb. 15 at a hospital in Teaneck, N.J. He was 85.

The cause was pneumonia, said a son, Elis Pacheco. He also had Parkinson’s disease.

Mr. Pacheco, who was dubbed the “godfather of salsa,” was a Juilliard-trained musician and bandleader, but his greatest contributions may have been as an impresario.

In 1964, he and a business partner, Jerry Masucci, launched Fania Records, which soon became the label of choice for leading musicians and singers of Latin American heritage, including Ray Barretto, Mongo Santamaria, Eddie Palmieri, Willie Colón, Hector Lavoe and Rubén Blades.

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Mr. Pacheco was the talent scout, bandleader and producer who supervised the recordings, which he and Masucci first sold from their cars. Mr. Pacheco freely mixed musical styles, combining elements of the mambo from Cuba, the bomba from Puerto Rico and the merengue from the Dominican Republic with American jazz and rock to create an altogether new genre of music called salsa (Spanish for “sauce”).

At the studio, Mr. Pacheco brought the musicians together, often playing the flute or percussion instruments himself. He replaced the violin sections of traditional Cuban music with trumpets and trombones from big-band jazz. He added the electric bass and amplified keyboards from rock music, then layered the melodies over thunderous rhythmic patterns of drummers, conga, bongo and timbale players.

“Our only goal was to make people dance,” Mr. Pacheco told the Los Angeles Times in 1999.

In many cases, he chose the musicians for the recordings, including a landmark pairing of Cuban singer Celia Cruz and Puerto Rican percussionist Tito Puente for the 1966 album “Cuba y Puerto Rico Son.” Cruz recorded an album with Mr. Pacheco, “Celia & Johnny,” in 1974.

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Salsa was a dance-driven style of fusion music that could have been created only in New York. The lyrics of the mostly Spanish-language songs — many of them written by Mr. Pacheco — reflected a tough, new urban sensibility, often touching on cultural pride and racial injustice.

“Back then, there was no musical style with which Latinos could identify,” Mr. Pacheco told the Los Angeles Times in 1999. “When we started the label ... we caused an explosion of sorts. We had a very talented roster and paid a lot of attention to the choice of material.”

Some of the Fania musicians, including percussionist Barretto and pianist Palmieri, were virtuosos who often appeared with renowned jazz musicians. Colón was a powerful trombonist and bandleader who, at Mr. Pacheco’s suggestion in the early 1970s, hired Lavoe, a young singer from Puerto Rico. With songs such as “Mi Gente” (“My People,” written by Mr. Pacheco), Lavoe became known as “la Voz” — the Voice — of salsa. Second-generation salsa singer Marc Anthony starred with Jennifer Lopez in “El Cantante,” a 2006 biopic about Lavoe, who died at 46 in 1993.

Mr. Pacheco also matched Colón with Blades, a Panamanian singer-songwriter. They made four albums together, including 1978′s “Siembra,” which was Fania’s best-selling recording.

In 1968, Mr. Pacheco began to organize his label’s top musicians for concerts of what he called the Fania All Stars. He directed the concerts, which quickly outgrew nightclubs and local neighborhoods. A 1972 concert documentary, “Our Latin Thing,” directed by Leon Gast, showcased the dynamic music and the people who made it.

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“At first we didn’t think we were anything special,” Mr. Pacheco told NPR in 2006, “until every place we went, the lines were unbelievable.”

In 1973, Mr. Pacheco and Masucci rented Yankee Stadium for a salsa concert of the Fania All Stars, rejecting advice that they also book rock or soul acts to fill the stands. The performance, conducted by Mr. Pacheco in his typically animated style, ended early when some of the more than 40,000 frenzied spectators left their seats and stormed the stage.

Mr. Pacheco took his musicians, including singer Cruz, to Zaire (now Congo), where they performed before more than 100,000 people during the buildup to the 1974 heavyweight boxing championship bout between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali.

Fania Records released its final album in 1979, and Mr. Pacheco sold his interest in the business a year later. In a 2003 interview with the Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call, he looked back on the 15 years when Fania was flourishing and said, “I wanted to have a company that treated everybody like family, and it came true.”

Juan Azarías Pacheco Knipping was born March 25, 1935, in Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic. His father was a musician and bandleader, his mother a homemaker. The family moved to the Bronx when Johnny, as he became known, was 11.

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He learned to play the accordion, clarinet, saxophone and violin, then studied percussion instruments at the Juilliard School in New York. During the 1950s, he worked in several bands performing what was often called Latin music and also was part of the NBC studio orchestra.

He formed his first group, Pacheco y Su Charanga — charanga is a Cuban term for a musical group — in 1960. His first album sold 100,000 copies, spurred by the popularity of a dance fad called the pachanga. He later made several recordings for Fania Records, which he and Masucci started with an initial investment of $2,500 each. (The name derives from a Cuban song.)

In the 1980s, the two partners had a long, bitter dispute over unpaid royalties that was not resolved before Masucci's death in 1997. Fania's catalogue is now owned by the Concord music group.

Mr. Pacheco, who lived in Fort Lee, N.J., continued to perform well into his 70s, drawing new generations of listeners in Venezuela, Colombia and elsewhere. His music appeared in movie soundtracks, including “The Mambo Kings” (1992) and “Carlito’s Way” (1993). He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Latin Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences in 2005.

His marriages to Carmen Pacheco and Mona Rothman ended in divorce. Survivors include his third wife, the former Maria Elena Sarabia, of Fort Lee; two daughters from his first marriage; two sons from his second marriage; and six grandchildren.

After beginning his career primarily as a percussionist, Mr. Pacheco later became known primarily for playing a wooden Cuban-style flute.

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“When I was still drumming — and I was a pretty good drummer — another musician was going to give me a ride,” he said in 2003. “I started packing up my drum kit but the guy was in a hurry. He took his flute case, put it under his arm, and said he was leaving. I saw that and I said, ‘That’s my next instrument.’ "