Johnny Pacheco, Who Helped Carry Salsa to the World, Dies at 85

Johnny Pacheco, Who Helped Bring Salsa to the World, Dies at 85

Johnny Pacheco, the Dominican Republic-born band leader and co-founder of the record label that made salsa music a worldwide sensation, died on Monday in Teaneck, New Jersey. He was 85 years old.

His wife Maria Elena Pacheco, known as Cuqui, confirmed the death at the Holy Name Medical Center. Mr. Pacheco lived in Fort Lee, NJ

Fania Records, which he founded with Jerry Masucci in 1964, signed the hottest talents in Latin American music of the 1960s and 1970s, including Celia Cruz, Willie Colón, Hector Lavoe and Rubén Blades. Mr. Pacheco, a talented flautist, went on and off the stage as the songwriter, arranger and leader of Fania All Stars, the first super group of salsa.

From the beginning he worked with young musicians who brought jazz, rhythm and blues, funk and other styles into traditional Afro-Cuban music.

In the 1970s, Fania, sometimes referred to as the Motown of Salsa, was a powerhouse of Latin American music, and the Fania All Stars toured the world. The label spawned burning creative collaborations, such as those between Mr. Colón, a trombonist and composer, and Mr. Blades, a socially conscious lyricist and singer; and to cultivate heroes like Mr. Lavoe, the Puerto Rican singer who fought drug addiction and died of AIDS complications at the age of 46.

Fania broke up in the mid-1980s due to royalty litigation, and in 2005, Emusica, a Miami company, bought the Fania catalog and began releasing remastered versions of its classic recordings.

Juan Azarías Pacheco Knipping was born on March 25, 1935 in Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic. His father, Rafael Azarias Pacheco, was a well-known band leader and clarinetist. His mother, Octavia Knipping Rochet, was the granddaughter of a French colonist and the great-granddaughter of a German merchant who married a Dominican woman who was born to Spanish colonists.

The family moved to New York when Johnny was 11 years old. He studied drums at Juilliard School and worked in Latin American bands before founding his own, Pacheco y Su Charanga, in 1960.

The band signed with Alegre Records and their first album sold more than 100,000 copies in the first year. According to its official website, it became one of the best-selling Latin albums of its time. Mr. Pacheco’s career started with the introduction of a new dance craze called Pachanga. He became an international star and toured the US, Europe, Asia and Latin America.

Fania Records was born from an unlikely partnership between Mr. Pacheco and Mr. Masucci, a former police officer who became a lawyer and fell in love with Latin music while visiting Cuba.

From its humble beginnings in Harlem and the Bronx – where releases were sold out of the trunk of cars – Fania brought an urban sensibility to Latin American music. In New York, the music had taken on the name “Salsa” (Spanish for sauce, as in hot sauce) and the Fania label began using it as part of their marketing.

Under the direction of Mr. Pacheco, the artists built a new sound based on traditional clave rhythms and the Cuban Son (or Son Cubano) genre, but faster and more aggressive. Much of the lyrics – about racism, cultural pride, and the turbulent politics of the era – were far removed from the pastoral and romantic scenes in traditional Cuban songs.

In this sense, salsa was “native American music that is just as much a part of the indigenous music landscape as jazz, rock or hip-hop,” wrote Jody Rosen in 2006 in the New York Times on the occasion of the new edition of the Fania master tapes – after years of being in Schimmel a warehouse in Hudson, NY


Mr. Pacheco teamed up with Ms. Cruz in the early 1970s. Their first album, “Celia & Johnny”, was a strong mix of heavy salsa with infectious choruses and virtuoso performances. Thanks to Ms. Cruz’s vocal skills and Mr. Pacheco’s big band directing, it soon went gold, and its first track, the fast-paced “Quimbara,” helped drive Ms. Cruz’s career to Queen of Salsa status to lead.

The two released more than 10 albums together; Mr. Pacheco was the producer on her last solo recording, “La Negra Tiene Tumbao”, which won the 2002 Grammy for Best Salsa Album.

Over the years, Mr. Pacheco has produced for several artists and performed around the world. He contributed to film scores, including one for The Mambo Kings, a 1992 film based on Oscar Hijuelos’ novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. “For the Jonathan Demme film” Something Wild ” he teamed up with David Byrne, the head of Talking Heads, one of his many eclectic partnerships.

Mr. Pacheco, who has received numerous awards and honors in both the Dominican Republic and the United States, was inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame in 1998. He wrote more than 150 songs, many of which are now classics.

For many years he directed the Johnny Pacheco Latin Music and Jazz Festival at Lehman College in the Bronx, an annual event in association with the college (broadcast live in recent years) which brings together hundreds of talented young musicians studying music in New York City schools provide the stage.

In addition to this woman, Mr. Pacheco’s survivors include two daughters, Norma and Joanne; and two sons, Elis and Phillip.

The salsa phenomenon that Mr. Pacheco created reached new heights on August 23, 1973 with a sold out volcano show at Yankee Stadium, where the Fania All Stars got 40,000 fans to a musical frenzy led by Mr. Pacheco, his was rhinestone-studded white shirt, bathed in sweat. The concert cemented the legendary stature of the band and his own.

Recognition…Fania Records

In 1975 Fania released the long-awaited double album “Live at Yankee Stadium”, which despite the name also contained material from a show at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum in Puerto Rico, which had a much better sound quality. The album earned the Fania All Stars their first Grammy nomination for Best Latin Recording.

In 2004, it was added to the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress.

Michael Levenson contributed to the coverage.