Joe Bataan: In A Field Of His Own
The groundbreaking Joe Bataan - New York’s original King of Latin Soul - recently spoke to ‘B&S’ while in London to perform a one-off concert organised by the Red Bull Music Academy.
Born Peter Nitollano in 1942 to African-American/Filipino parents in Spanish Harlem, veteran Latino R&B singer Joe begins his interesting conversation with Pete Lewis by recalling how his teen days as leader of local Puerto Rican street gang The Dragons led to his groundbreaking career in music.
“Well yeah, back then East Harlem was a troubled neighbourhood, and people put a lot of emphasis on their environment and their turf”, he recalls: “Which meant you didn’t want anyone - other than the people that LIVED there - coming into your part of town, talking to your girlfriends, using the neighbourhood resources… You know, this was something that had been started by the early immigrants - the Irish, the Italians - WAY before my days! And so I ended up actually becoming the leader of The Dragons! And as a result - because of my reputation - I developed a certain amount of respect through the neighbourhoods. You know, I was like this 13/14-year-old associating with 17/18/19-year-olds. So I guess I grew up very quickly!”
“I remember we’d sing on the street corners, we’d drink wine together… And, every now and then, we’d be called on to defend our turf”, continues the affable Mr. Battaan: “Which of course had its negative, as well as positive, situations. I mean, some people would get hurt, other people would get incarcerated for their actions... And I was no different! I actually ended up being sent away for a while to the Coxsachie Correctional Facility. And it was actually there that I started to get much more interested in music and generally learning my craft, in terms of piano and theory. So I concentrated on that for about three of the five years that I was sentenced. Then, when I returned home, I started a band - and slowly my life CHANGED!”
Indeed, upon his release in 1965 (and influenced by the Latin bugalu and African-America doo wop he’d absorbed during his gang-running days), Joe organised his first band - Joe Bataan & The Latin Swingers. Who, by 1966, had signed to then-prominent Latin music label Fania Records: “Yeah, we were actually the youngest Latin band around at the time”, he recalls with a smile: “And, after six months of rehearsing every day and learning our craft through trial and error, we finally started to make records. Our first hit was our (Latin-dance-flavoured) cover of the Curtis Mayfield tune ‘Gypsy Woman’. And the fact that it was us that had achieved this stardom became kind of a big thing in the neighbourhood! You know, people were like ‘Is that the same little Joe Bataan that used to be the little gangster around? Where the hell did HE learn music, and how did he make this transition?’!”
“You know, it was so exciting!”, continues a now-animated Joe: “Because all of this happened within a spell of like six months! I mean, even the session itself was done in ONE DAY! We were so fearful that they’d change their mind about recording us that we recorded the whole album (the 1967-released ‘Gypsy Woman’) in FOUR HOURS! Which is UNHEARD of today - particularly when I was playing the piano and singing at the same time! Plus, at that time it was only a four-track studio! So, to get the quality that we got was just AMAZING!”
With the eight albums he went on to release for Fania often mixing energetic, Latin-sung dance songs with slower soul ballads sung in English by Bataan himself, Joe’s almost-unparalleled fame and prominence as a singer in the Latin music scene at the time was additionally accompanied by regular appearances on the US R&B charts - via key releases like 1969’s Gold-selling ‘Riot!’ and 1972’s enduring salsa classic ‘St. Latin’s Day Massacre’. Nevertheless, disagreements over money with Fania label-head Jerry Masucci eventually led to Bataan leaving the label. Following which, in 1973, he inventively helped coin the phrase ‘Salsoul’ by making it the title to his first post-Fania album - while musically preceding the late-Seventies “disco era” by fusing funk and Latin influences alongside slick-yet-soulful orchestration. Meanwhile, with Joe next going on to co-found Salsoul Records (still regarded by many as the greatest disco label ever), 1975 found him releasing his seminal ‘Afro-Filipino’ LP. Which in turn spawned one of New York’s earliest disco hits - a driving, instrumental take on Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘The Bottle’.
“Yeah, after I did the ‘Afro-Filipino’ album, Salsoul evolved into the biggest dance label in the world”, acknowledges Joe, as our conversation continues within the somewhat-strange environs of a garage on East London’s Old Street (!): “And without a doubt, without sounding arrogant, I was definitely in the forefront of the movement that became known as ‘disco’. Basically, to make up for my lack of knowledge of the legalities and various other things the industry involves, I had to be ahead of the pack with my IDEAS! And one way I WAS, was with my knowledge of the CLUB scene!”
“I mean, I knew about it WAY before most other people did!”, he asserts: “I was frequenting those kinda places at a time when companies weren’t even THINKING about the club market in terms of promoting records. And I was also at the forefront of seeing a lot of the DANCES being created. So all that definitely helped me in terms of the disco scene, and also in terms of segue-waying the songs on my albums. You know, from one song to the next song, my music all connected without being mixed. Basically what disc jockeys are doing today, I did back then in my RECORDS!”
Ever in touch with the street, Joe also picked up on New York hip hop culture very early in the game, with his 1979 single ‘Rap-O Clap-O’ still acknowledged as rap music’s debut in the European market. Yet, after releasing three albums on Salsoul, in 1981 he retired from music-making to spend more time with his family - ironically ending up working as a youth counsellor at one of the reformatories he himself had spent time in as a teenager! 2005, nevertheless, saw him breaking his long hiatus - with the release of ‘Call My Name’, a well-received album recorded for Spain’s Vampisoul label.
Meanwhile with the “talent-is-in-the-genes” theory having recently been strengthened by Bataan’s daughter - Asia Nitollano - winning the internationally-high-profile ‘Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search For The Next Doll’ TV talent contest, the Joe Bataan of today is justifiably proud of how his personal and prophetic merger of Latin and soul influences back in the Sixties and Seventies unquestionably helped pave the way for the global acceptance of Latin music in today’s mainstream.
“Yeah, today Latin music is being heard all around the WORLD!” he acknowledges: You name it, and it’s THERE - even places like Israel, China, Turkey… They even have salsa congresses in Russia! And the influence of the music is incorporated into so many different SOUNDS now! Not only with artists like Santana, but even people like Sade - whose music is a form of Latin soul, even though people generally don’t acknowledge it as such. You know, the influence is TREMENDOUS around the world now! It’s not like it was back in the Sixties and Seventies, when it might have been a little foreign to some people’s ears. Today Latin music is accepted EVERYWHERE!”
Joe Bataan’s June 11 show at Cargo, London can be heard now on Red Bull Music Academy Radio at RBMAradio.com
Words PETE LEWIS