There Is a Mensch in Spanish Harlem

Thirty years after popularizing salsa, piano great Larry Harlow is still Latin music's undiplomatic gringo ambassador

The teen spent his summers playing hotels in the Catskills, where most of his Jewish friends found work as waiters, busboys, and bellhops. Legendary West Coast promoter and Santana manager Bill Graham ran craps games at the Concord, Harlow remembers, and everyone was doing the mambo. "We played dance music. And there were dance teachers--the Arthur Murrays and the Tony Lucilles--the Dirty Dancing kind of thing. You know that movie? Dirty Dancing was one second in my life. And of course the husbands used to go back to New York during the week and we used to party with all the wives."

He laughs at the memory, but is quick to point out the musicology of it all. "That's how it snowballed," he says. "They used to take mambo and cha-cha lessons. The Jewish people were affluent enough in the Fifties to go to Cuba and bring the dances back. And they kept the cha-cha and the rhumba and the mambo alive. And then, with the influx of Puerto Ricans and Cubans to New York, it just enhanced all of that."

With a few friends from the Catskills (they called themselves mambo-niks) Harlow used a ten-day Christmas recess from college to make his first trip to pre-revolution Cuba. "There were bands playing on every corner, in every plaza, in every coffee shop. And every day, free, on TV, was Benny Moré." He later returned to study music at the University of Havana, where a New York lawyer named Jerry Massucci was studying business administration. "There was a little coffee shop about a block away from the music school that was called Fania. They had a piano. They had an upright bass. They had congas. They had bongos. And everybody used to jam. I got to meet the musicians, and I got friendly with them; I was allowed to go on the band buses and go to shows. And they would always say, 'Hey gringo, you want to sit in?' And I would shake my head no, because I was 17--too nervous."

Hooked on Spanish girls: Latin pianist Larry Harlow
Hooked on Spanish girls: Latin pianist Larry Harlow

While Massucci went on to cop that café's name for his founding salsa label, Fania Records, Harlow soon backed out of music. He had taken the first plane out of Havana when the bombs just outside of town grew louder, and subsequently spent his twenties as a teacher. "My wife didn't want me to become a musician," he says. "And so, away with the wife, away with the family, away with the teaching career, and in '65 I went into it full time."

Meanwhile, Manhattan's complexion had changed. "There were so many Hispanics in New York at that time, and they were just looking for something that was theirs," he says. "And once they gave it the name salsa, which means sauce, they said, 'Ah, salsa music, that's ours.'" Naturally, Orchestra Harlow met with some initial resistance to a gringo bandleader. "It was kind of like a reverse Uncle Tom," he remembers. "The only reason I got work was that I had the same management as Tito Puente, so I used to sneak in on his coattails."

Still, there were abundant white audiences for Cuban-influenced music. On Wednesdays, before the venue closed, Italians and Jews flooded the Palladium. Puerto Ricans took over Fridays, Cubans Saturdays, and African Americans Sundays. And Harlow slowly found acceptance, particularly after recruiting a 15-year-old dry cleaner named Ismael Miranda on vocals. "He was a hot-looking, good-looking kid," remembers Harlow of the future Puerto Rican singing star. "And we had a contingent of a hundred dames that followed us around everywhere we played, because we were all single guys and we were bopping everybody. And when you have a hundred girls following you, you have 300 guys following the hundred girls.

"We used to get onstage and try to kill each other; it was a real cutting session, no holds barred. We were out for blood. That's where we gained our experience, from trying to play against each other and chop each other up all the time...

"Now it went the opposite way; there's no place to play in New York. There used to be a hundred [salsa] clubs in New York; there's two now. People just can't afford it anymore--it's a hundred dollars a head."

As Fania Records' second signee, Harlow went on to become the piano backbone (though not the leader) of the seminal Fania All-Stars, widely considered the first band to popularize salsa as both a term and a feel. And yet his relationship to the Latino culture he's championed is still complicated.

"I've been accepted. Once I learned how to speak Spanish, it was a lot easier--and it took a while. I married a couple Hispanic girls, and that helped." Harlow has been married seven times and claims he learned Spanish in bed in Cuba: "I learned all the dirty words first."

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