Posted September 16, 2012 by Jeff in Tunes

Poncho Sanchez: In it from the beginning

Poncho Sanchez
Poncho Sanchez

Conguero, band leader and salsa singer Poncho Sanchez is a Latin jazz icon. The guy’s recording career stretches back over 30 years. Later this month, he’ll release Live in Hollywood, his 25th album for Concord Records. We recently interviewed Sanchez for a press release we wrote for Concord. Here’s a little of what he had to say about his incredible career.

You’ve been a Concord artist for 30 years. What’s that been like?
Wow. I’ve been with them longer than anybody. That gives me the seniority around there. It’s been good because I’ve been with them since they started the branch of Picante. That goes back to the Cal Tjader days. I joined the Cal Tjader band in 1975, and we recorded our first record for them in 1980. I would drink with them and everything. It was a great thing because I saw a man–Carl Jefferson–who really loved jazz and put out great records. He wanted good quality and good stuff. When he hooked up with Cal, he created Picante and we did our first record and–bam–we won a Grammy. It started out really good for us and for him. I thought Cal should have won Grammys way before that. That’s how I started off with Concord. It was a good feeling. It was a small label and Cal told me that Carl was looking for some new artists. We were backing up Tania Maria at the time. They signed Tania Maria and the third person they signed was me. Everyone came after me. She only did two records and left and I’ve been with them ever since. When Carl died, Concord was in a big mess. People in the office were calling me and telling me they were trying to raise money. I knew they were in big trouble. Everyone in the business knew about it. I started getting phone calls from other labels interested in signing me. I was strong enough to say I’m going to hang on and see what happens. Concord hung on and that’s when Hal Gaba came through and picked everything back up. He was a great dude . . . They have always let me do what I want to do. C’mon, man. Where do you get that privilege? They don’t do that with everybody. It’s like a family to me. I love them and here we are 30 years later.

The album opens with “Promenade.” Is that the song that opened the show?
I think it was the first one, yes, that’s the way it went down.

Talk about the “Poncho Sanchez Medley.” Do you always include those three songs?
We just came up with that one about a month before the recording. Those are all three of my tunes. Now, we are getting ready to do another medley. Francisco Torres helped me with that. He told me ten years ago to do a medley. I said, “Ah, my songs are just all right.” I wanted to move on to new stuff. I didn’t pay too much attention. He told me I had to do the medley. It would be cool to start with “Mi Negra” and “Baila Baila” and with the last one we step it up a notch and go a little faster. I say, “What the hell. You ain’t gonna stop me now.”

Talk about paying tribute to Clare Fischer.
Clare Fischer helped me as much as Cal Tjader helped me. Clare Fischer is the one who got me the contract with Discovery. He was in our band with Cal Tjader at the beginning. He was recording for Discovery and told me they were looking for a new band. At that time, the little band I had on the side wasn’t ready. They weren’t that good yet. That was my original band. They were not good enough but we were doing gigs from time to time around town. I said the band was more like a garage band. Clare got me the contract with Discovery and I did two albums with them. Clare was a harmonic genius. He wrote beautiful tunes and I knew these tunes when I was in junior high school. When I met him, I told him how much I loved “Morning” and “Pensativa” and “I Remember Spring.” So when we did our first record, we recorded “Pensativa” and “I Remember Spring” and some original stuff of mine. The guy said we don’t have enough time to make a record. We needed one more seven-minute song. I was done. Then, Clare said “Why don’t we do ‘Morning?'” Gary Foster said, “Let’s do ‘Morning’ as a cha cha.” He got the flute out and I told him to try it on the alto. That was the hit on the album and that’s why I did it on the new album. That’s how that all came together.

You go with the flow and you go with your heart and what feels right and now I know it feels right because this is how I made my whole life. 

The album closes with “Son Son Charari.” Talk about why ending with that song.
I wanted to concentrate on doing tunes I had not recorded live before. I recorded almost all of them in the studio but not live versions. I wanted to end the night with a hot salsa number and there are a few more I could have done. I always liked “Son Son Charari” and that song did very, very well in Puerto Rico. They used to play it on the radio all the time.

Did you ever imagine you’d playing music for this long?
No. I’m the youngest of 11 kids. I’m 60 years old so my oldest brother is 76. Thank God they are all alive. We just had a party at my house. I’m blessed. I was just in the neighborhood. We were poor and the first thing I learned to play was a guitar because the guy across the street had one and I loved music and I tried to learn by watching that guy play. I could not afford a guitar, that’s for sure. My brothers and sisters are the ones who introduced me to this music after we moved to Norwalk in 1954 and that’s when I got exposed to all this different type of music. My brothers and sisters caught the first wave of this cha-cha music, which is what we call Latin jazz nowadays. Before they called it salsa, they used to call it  Cuban music or tropical music. That word salsa hadn’t been used yet. Before Latin Jazz was used real strong, they used Afro-Cuban. I’ve been involved with this from the beginning, but just as a listener and young boy. I never dreamed it would happen. You go with the flow and you go with your heart and what feels right and now I know it feels right because this is how I made my whole life. I’m not braggin’ but I did pretty good for a guy from the neighborhood. I worked very, very hard and it did not come easy. I quit school and that made it even harder for me. I came from the bottom up.


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.