In New York City, the first radio hosts to play Latin music on English-language radio programs were Jewish, as was a significant portion of their English-speaking audience. That surprising demographic may have had something to do with the fact that these Latin music shows ran on the "ethnic" radio stations that also catered to Jewish audiences. While Jewish mothers and fathers would listen to Yiddish music and talk programs in the afternoons, the same station might suddenly yield to Spanish music in the evening. As one writer remembered his tenement youth in the '40s: "The songs of Yiddish star Molly Picon and the words of Molly Goldberg, our own Jewish TV sitcom sage, spilled out of the living room to compete with the music of Arsenio Rodriguez, La Sonora Matancera, and Conjunto Casino de la Playa."
The pioneering Latin deejay Art “Pancho” Raymond shared just such a childhood. Today, Art Raymond is known as the dean of Yiddish radio, thanks to 35 years behind the long-running shows “Raisins and Almonds” and “Sunday Simcha” on New York’s WEVD. But at the start of his career, Raymond’s musical signature was Latin. He was drawn to the similarities between Latin and Jewish music. “A lot of it was written in a minor key, as is a lot of Jewish music, and I had a love for Jewish music since I was a young kid,” the 82 year old says. “It sounded almost like Jewish music, many of the songs.”
It was in 1943, at the height of World War II, that Raymond began his radio career at WPAT in Paterson, New Jersey. “One day I was asked to do a half-hour Latin-music program in the middle of the day, around 12:30. Xavier Cugat was number one at the time. He was what they called ‘commercial Latin music’ – it appealed to the American audience. So while I’m doing this program, playing Cugat, I started using a Spanish accent. Using my high school Spanish, I began the program with “Muy buenas tardes, queridos amigos, como están Ustedes?’ The station manager heard me and called me into his office. He said, I want you to the show every day. Use the accent. It’s cute.”
Raymond called his show “Tico Tico Time,” after the song popularized by organist Esther Smith in the film “Bathing Beauty,” and along with his occasional addresses in Spanish, he also gave some Latin dance instruction over the air. It was, if not the first, one of the very first Latin-music shows to be aimed at a non-Spanish speaking audience.
Deejays such as Raymond and his direct competitor, Dick “Ricardo” Sugar, educated their non-Latin audience as well. For this crowd, the whitewashed sound of Xavier Cugat opened the door to the gutsier, more authentic rhythms of musicians such as Machito, Noro Morales, and young kid named Tito Puente. The end result was that, in neighborhoods such as East Harlem and other communities, Jews and Latinos were listening to the same music. Before long, Raymond, Sugar, Bob “Pedro” Harris, Matty Singer (“The Humdinger”), and later “Symphony Sid” Torin, Joe Gaines, and Roger Dawson could count on a vast Jewish audience for their radio programs and dance parties, and Latino musicians – local and even touring bands from Cuba – found a white audience for the music in Jewish enclaves of New York, Philadelphia, Miami, and elsewhere.
A case in point: April 21, 1946 – Easter Sunday – a day of infamy for Latin music in New York. It was the culmination of a serious of white-hot dance matinees at the Manhattan Center on 34th St., promoted by Art “Pancho” Raymond and Gabriel Oller, the Puerto Rican proprietor of the Spanish Music Center record shop. Five bands were booked, including Machito’s Afro-Cubans and the orchestras of José Iznaga, Juan “El Boy,” Luis Del Campo, and José Budet. Doors opened at 1 p.m. for dancing that would last until 1 a.m. Just two hours into the event, the New York City Fire Department closed the doors; 5000 revelers were inside. Although no ethnic profile of the crowd exists, its not hard to imagine that an Easter Sunday dance matinee would attract a largely Jewish – or at least skeptical – crowd. The mix of bands certainly appealed to both a Barrio audience and non-Latino fans who were familiar with Machito from the Afro-Cubans’ residencies at downtown clubs such as the Beachcomber and La Conga. By eight p.m, the bar was tapped out, and jokers in the balcony began tossing bottles on the dance floor. Police retaliated by firing warning shots into the ceiling of the cavernous space. “When music stop,” Gabriel Oller told the contemporary jazz critic Marshall Sterns, “everyone punch everyone; when music start, everyone dance.” And so the music kept going, throughout the chaos. Four dancers were sent to St. Vincent’s hospital, and a police officer’s scalp was sliced open by a flying chair.
Labels: Art Raymond, Radio