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The Salsa Revolution

Chapter 5: Our Latin Thing & the Fania All-Stars

[FOOTAGE: Archive from the start of 'Our Latin Thing' film]

What the Woodstock Movie did for Rock, Fania's "Our Latin Thing" did for Salsa. It gave a glimpse into the lives of Nuyoricans, propelled by the performance at the Cheetah Club. The Film played to packed houses in cities around the US and throughout the Americas.

[FOOTAGE: Street scenes of Harlem from 'Our Latin Thing']

JERRY MASUCC, CO-FOUNDER FANIA RECORDSI: [Archive Interview] (VO) It was a big success, you know, (OC) it was tremendous success and actually it changed the whole business because from just recording stars, you know, they became big (VO) images on a screen and I believe it turned the whole business around. I think that's one of the things that made Fania the big success it is today.

[STILL: Poster for Fania All Stars]

[FOOTAGE: Fania in the recording studio, Larry Harlow at the mixing desk]

Fania began cranking out new recordings, while buying out smaller competing labels, on its way to becoming the "only game in town" in Latin music.

[FOOTAGE: In recording studio of artists singing song 'Anacaona']

JOHNNY PACHECO, CO-FOUNDER AND MUSICAL DIRECTOR FANIA RECORDS: Motown had their music, the whites, the Anglos had their own music and the Latinos they said "this is our music, Salsa is our music," so they had something that belongs to them.

[FOOTAGE: home movies Jerry Masucci at a table]

As Fania Record sales soared, so the reputation of its boss began to sink.

CHEO FELICANO, SINGER: (VO) It was the worst. (OC) He was a businessman. It was a one sided thing, I mean, all the contracts that we signed were very wisely designed by Jerry and his lawyers and we got the short end of the stick. All of us.

ALEX MASUCCI, BROTHER: (OC) Jerry was a businessman, he was a businessman. (VO) And businessmen do what they do. He ain't taking the least of the profits, that's for sure. (OC) And there's no reason why he should because he's the guy who's putting up the money and he's the guy who's taking the risk.

[STILLS: photographs of Jerry Masucci]

J. MASUCCI: [Archive Interview] (VO) As long as I have the hits and the artists I'm in a powerful position. (OC) But I've been lucky enough to know the right talent and sign them and keep them, and after 15 years in the business and bringing the business up from nothing you get a certain amount of power.

[FOOTAGE: Jerry Masucci riding a bicycle]

Masucci kept a tight rein on royalties.

Even Fania's most prolific composer, Tite Curet Alonso, with over 300 hits, had to double as a mailman to make ends meet.

FELICIANO: (OC) He wrote all the hits for everybody and (VO) he died a pauper. And that's a shame because he (OC) was a creator, he was a master, he was the guy that did, made us all stars.

[STILL: Tite Curet Alonso]

[FOOTAGE: Cheo Feliciano singing 'Anacaona' written by Tite Curet Alonso]

But whatever Masucci's business methods, his vision and his instinct for the music were seldom in question.

[FOOTAGE: Reconstruction of Jerry playing records and smoking a cigarette]

LARRY HARLOW, MUSICIAN: (VO) He was very smart. (OC) I used to bring him my record and he'd say "which song do you think was the best song on here?" And I'd say "this one, song A" and he's going, "no, song C" and 99% of the time he was right, he would pick the hits, he knew what would, what the public really wanted to hear.

[FOOTAGE: Larry Harlow in the recording studio]

Larry Harlow became a key Fania musician and producer... but it wasn't what his parents had in mind.

[STILL: photograph of Larry Harlow as a boy]

[STILL: photograph of Larry Harlow as a boy playing the piano]

[MUSIC: Beethoven: 'Moonlight Sonata']

Born in Brooklyn, in a Russian Jewish family of musicians, he'd been brought up to play Beethoven sonatas.

As a teen, he became interested in Latin music hearing it on the streets of Harlem, walking to his music school.

[FOOTAGE: Black and white of New York street]

[STILL: photograph Larry Harlow as a young man with his band]

HARLOW: (VO) I started playing with African-American musicians and they would play these arrangements that came from Cuba: (OC) Mambo no. 1, Mambo no. 9, (sings) ta ta ta, but what was written on the paper was this...

[DEMONSTRATION: Larry Harlow plays piano]

HARLOW: ...which was very simple but I didn't know how to play a Guajeo, I didn't know what to do with those chords, I just played what was on the paper. And the bandleader, Hugo Dickens, said to me "wow you play terrible, I'm going to have to throw you out of the orchestra." I felt absolutely miserable so I ran to the nearest record store and...

[STILL: LP 'Rhumbas and Mambo with Noro Morales and his orchestra]

HARLOW: (VO) I bought these recordings of Joe Loco and Noro Morales who were very fine pianists and I memorized their solos and (OC) figured out that what they were playing was just breaking up of these chords. In other words instead of playing (plays piano) instead of playing that, they're now playing (plays piano) they take that chord and just separate the notes. I said "oh, that's how it works."

[FOOTAGE: Larry Harlow performing 'La Cartera' on TV show.]

In the 60s, Fania signed Harlow, and in the 70s he scored his biggest hit, a version of a Cuban Classic, La Cartera.

I lost my wallet
So I don't have any money...
I don't have any money
I lost my wallet...

HARLOW: It was all about a guy that lost his wallet and he didn't know where his wallet was and he went to a spiritista, to a spiritualist, to find out where it was (VO) and it just caught on.

[FOOTAGE: Tracking shots of streets of El Barrio]

NARR By the early '70s, Salsa was booming in New York — a vibrant soundtrack to the lives of millions.

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