In many ways, Larry Harlow — one of the central figures of salsa and its defining label, Fania Records — was a master at mixing the diverse musical connections between New York and the Caribbean. In a career that spanned six decades, he stitched together overlapping genres like rock, jazz and R&B and various Cuban genres like rumba, son and guaracha through intimate, soulful knowledge of both musical traditions.
Harlow grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and studied classical piano. His father, Buddy Kahn, was a Jewish mambo musician who led the house band at New York’s Latin Quarter club. The musician and scholar Benjamin Lapidus writes in his new book that Jews were sponsoring Latin dances with live bands as early as the 1930s in New York City. Harlow came out of a tradition of mamboniks, Jews who danced mambo at spaces like Midtown’s Palladium, various spots in Brooklyn and the Catskills hotel circuit. Jewish musicians like Marty Sheller often wrote arrangements, and radio D.J.s like “Symphony” Sid Torin and Dick “Ricardo” Sugar promoted the music. Immortal Latin band leaders like Tito Puente regularly played the Catskills, a space where young musicians like Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros, who became a Harlow collaborator, cut their teeth.
Yet Harlow, who died on Friday at 82, wanted to go beyond the Europeanized mambo performance styles heard in the Catskills and be true to the music’s African roots. He traveled to pre-Castro Cuba in the 1950s and returned determined to combine what he learned with what was happening in New York, creating a modern synthesis of the traditional and the avant-garde. Seeking acceptance among core post-mambo musicians, he even went so far as to become initiated to the Afro-Caribbean religion of Santería to stake his claim to authenticity and earn respect from the music community.
“Here was a Jewish guy hanging out with all these Cubans and Afro-Caribbeans,” he told me in a 2004 interview. “I figured when in Rome, do like the Romans do.”
Harlow never tried to pretend he was not who he was. Even after achieving insider status in the Santería community, he was often photographed wearing a Star of David around his neck. He was affectionately known by Spanish-speaking audiences as El Judío Maravilloso (the Marvelous Jew), a sobriquet given to him because of his devotion to the music of the blind Afro-Cuban bandleader and mambo progenitor Arsenio Rodríguez, known as El Ciego Maravilloso (the Marvelous Blind Man). When he chose, in the early 1980s, to release an album called “Yo Soy Latino” (“I Am Latino”), the lead vocalist who delivered the lyrics was the much-loved Puerto Rican singer Tito Allen.
Beyond immersing himself in Afro-Carribean spirituality, Harlow was directly involved in the evolution of salsa music, collaborating with Johnny Pacheco and Jerry Masucci, the founders of Fania. According to Alex Masucci, Jerry’s surviving brother, Harlow was the first artist contracted to record for Fania. His first few albums, “Bajándote: Gettin’ Off,” “El Exigente” and “Me and My Monkey,” which includes a version of the Beatles song “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey,” traded on the bilingual, R&B-influenced bugalú sound, which united Black and Latino listeners.
Harlow’s move away from búgalu to a jazz-influenced update on Rodríguez’s more Africanized conjunto sound — which added more trumpets and percussion like conga and cowbell — was crucial for salsa’s gestation. His blend of jazz, mambo and conjunto would become one of the primary influences on the emerging idea of salsa. While Eddie Palmieri and Willie Colón’s innovative use of trombone gave the horn sections a more aggressive, urban sound, Harlow and Pacheco’s influence was also decisive. Harlow’s early ’70s releases, “A Tribute to Arsenio Rodríguez,” “Abran Paso” and “Salsa,” crystallized his new aesthetic. He pioneered recording with both trumpets and trombone. He gave the Cuban charanga sound, which featured flutes and violins, new life. And he incorporated the batá drum, used in religious ceremonies, into his decidedly secular project.
Harlow exulted in the spirit of the late 1960s — Rubén Blades told me he was the “Frank Zappa of salsa” — and was a voracious collaborator. His bilingual Beatles cover and the album artwork for “Electric Harlow” flaunted psychedelic style. He played piano for Steven Stills and Janis Ian, and had a rock-jazz project with the Blood, Sweat & Tears keyboardist Jerry Weiss. In 1972, after Miranda left his band temporarily, he painstakingly adapted the Who’s “Tommy” as the salsa opera “Hommy,” transferring the original British characters to New York’s Latino barrios.
[Originally published in The New York Times, August 24, 2021]