Pucho And His Latin Soul Brothers

The career of timbalero Henry "Pucho" Brown has come full circle. As leader of Pucho and his Latin Soul Brothers, the Harlem-born percussionist was a pivotal figure in the Latin boogaloo movement that fused Latin, jazz, and funk styles during the Sixties. Eight albums by Pucho and his fiery New York-based band, including a "best of" collection, were issued by Prestige Records between 1966 and ’69. As popular tastes changed in the early Seventies, however, he disbanded the Latin Soul Brothers and formed a trio that spent the next 19 years playing standards and what he calls "society Latin" music in the relative obscurity of Catskill Mountain resort hotels-which he might still be doing today if it hadn’t been for a phenomenon that arose from the British club underground known as "acid jazz."

Pucho learned in 1992 of overseas interest in his old recordings. Not only had the British acid-jazz band Galliano sampled "Freddie’s Dead" from one of Pucho’s post-Prestige albums, but Ace Records of London had reissued several of the Prestige albums-and put together its own "best of" compilation-via a licensing agreement with Fantasy, Inc. of Berkeley, which owns the Prestige catalog.

The percussionist contacted several of his key players from the Sixties-vibraharpist William Bivens, trumpeter Al Pazant, alto saxophonist/flutist Ed Pazant, pianist/organist John Spruill, and bassist Jon Hart-and organized a Nineties edition of the Latin Soul Brothers. The new band, which also includes guitarist Marvin Horne and percussionists Ernesto Colon, Lawrence Killian, Rick James, and Massamba, has thus far been to England three times and Japan once, and is a popular attraction at such New York City bistros as S.O.B.’s, Birdland, and the Cotton Club.

Now, over 20 years after the release of his last new U.S. album, comes Rip a Dip on Milestone Records-which in a sense brings Pucho back home, as Milestone, like Prestige, is a Fantasy-owned label. Produced by Todd Barkan (who also has been responsible for critically acclaimed Latin-jazz albums on Milestone by Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band, Manny Oquendo and Libre, Steve Berrios and Son Bacheché, and Chico O’Farrill), the new disc features Pucho and his Latin Soul Brothers applying their rhythmically riveting magic to such soul classics as James Brown’s "Sex Machine," Marvin Gaye’s "Trouble Man," and War’s "Slippin’ into Darkness," as well as to Juan Tizol’s "Caravan," Miles Davis’s "Milestones," Tito Puente’s "Mambo with Me," Jack McDuff’s "Hot Barbecue," and several originals by Pucho and members of the band. And making guest appearances on Rip a Dip are percussionist Steve Berrios, guitarist/vocalist Melvin Sparks, and a dynamic horn section led by saxophonist/flutist Mel Martin.

Henry Brown was born on November 1, 1938. Like many other youths in Harlem at the time, he was drawn to both jazz and rhythm and blues. He recalls his mother taking him to the Apollo Theater to see Billie Holiday and the big bands of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Buddy Johnson, and Lucky Millinder, and he also was especially fond of the doo-wop sounds of Billy Ward and his Dominoes, Sonny Till and the Orioles, and two groups from the neighborhood: the Harptones and the Five Crowns.

Brown’s first exposure to Latin music came when he was 12. He overheard a classmate beating out a mambo rhythm on the side of a desk while singing a Cuban tune entitled "Anabacoa." Brown promptly bought the record, as performed by Dominican pianist Frank Damiron and a group known as Chapuseaux. Then he heard timbalero numero uno Tito Puente’s recording of "Babarabatiri." "That hooked me," he recalls. Nicknamed "Pucho" by a friend, Brown purchased his first set of timbales when he was 15.

"We started hitting the mambo around 1952 in black Harlem," Pucho states. After playing in the neighborhood with a band called Los Lobos Diablos, he spent several years as a member of pianist Joe Panama’s more professional unit. When that group broke up in 1959,Pucho took several of the musicians with him and formed his own. The first record by Pucho’s new band, a single titled "Darin’s Mambo," appeared around 1963 on the Epic label, but it wasn’t a hit. If the public wasn’t taking much notice of Pucho’s innovative Latin boogaloo sound, however, two established Latin-jazz bandleaders were and began raiding Pucho’s group for players. Mongo Santamaria hired away Steve Berrios, Bobby Capers, and Chick Corea, while Willie Bobo took Jerry Jemmott and Bill Salter, among others. "They were making more money than me, so they used to come and take the musicians," Pucho says. "They wanted the black sound with the Latin sound." Pucho’s requirements for sidemen, then and now, are specific. "A piano player and a bass player in my band has to play three types of music," he says. "He has to play jazz, he has to play funk, and he has to play Latin, just as good as a jazz musician, just as good as a funk musician, and just as good as a Latin musician. Those cats are hard to find."

Pucho and band, renamed the "Latin Soul Brothers" by producer Cal Lampley, found their fortunes greatly improved after signing with Prestige in 1966. But even though they appeared at Carnegie Hall the following year, most of their gigs remained on what Pucho calls "the chitlin circuit" around New York City. The leader also began getting record dates as a sideman and lent his percussive touch to sessions by Gene Ammons, King Curtis, and Roberta Flack, among others. After leaving Prestige, the group recorded two albums for the Right On! label, then broke up, after which Pucho moved to what he refers to as "the matzo-ball circuit" in the Catskills.

In 1992, Pucho returned to New York City, only to find that "nobody knew me. I’d been off the scene for close to 20 years. I was trying to put the Latin Soul Brothers back together to get back in the hip circles."

Those circles, he soon learned, were in England. "Acid jazz," he admits, "is basically a marketing name for music that was recorded in the mid-Sixties up to the Seventies. It’s basically jazz, soul, funk. Also the rappers are doing a lot with it, so it brought back a lot of musicians from that period of time. It’s great."

The release of Rip a Dip brings Pucho and the Latin Soul Brothers back to the U.S. recording scene. Call it acid jazz or Latin boogaloo, their infectiously rhythmic, highly soulful music is as hip as ever-and a new generation of fans from around the globe has discovered it.