ABOUT WILLIE BOBO
Born William Correa on February 28, 1934 in New York City to Puerto Rican parents, young Willie Bobo was fascinated by percussion and began to play bongos, congas, timbales and trap drums at an early age. In 1947, he worked as a band boy for Machito’s Afro-Cubans, one of the most popular Latin music ensembles of the era. Late at night, during the last set, he was sometimes allowed to sit in on bongos, getting his first taste of performing on a bandstand in the company of world class musicians. Good fortune led him to the side of Cuban conga legend Ramon “Mongo” Santamaria, a recent arrival in the Big Apple from Havana. In exchange for his services as Mongo’s much needed translator, the fledgling percussionist received lessons in Afro-Cuban techniques from the master.
It was jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams who gave Willie the distinctive nickname “Bobo,” which he would soon adopt for his stage name and use for the rest of his life. The Spanish word means, among other things, “clown” or “funny man,” and was perfect to sum up Willie’s lighthearted demeanor and fun-loving attitude.
He worked with Williams as a trap drummer and as a percussionist with Cuban big band leader Dámaso Pérez Prado before being invited to join Santamaria in the rhythm section of Ernest “Tito” Puente’s mambo orchestra. The five years alongside Mongo and Puente produced what many scholarly observers consider to have been some of the finest Afro-Cuban percussion performances -- Top Percussion and Cuban Carnival -- ever captured on tape. Bobo’s rendezvous with destiny, however, was just beginning. While still with Puente, he recorded with pianist George Shearing, the first of many jazz luminaries who would call on Bobo’s talents over the years. Both he and Santamaria left Puente in 1957 and soon had another opportunity to make more Latin jazz history, joining vibraphonist Cal Tjader’s ensemble from 1958 to 1961 and participating on such landmark Tjader sessions as Latino and Monterey Concerts. Bobo partnered with the vibraphonist again in 1964 to record what became the top Latin jazz hit of all time, the Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo tune “Soul Sauce.”
When he began to lead his own groups in the mid 1960s, Bobo was quick to look to the popular culture of the day for inspiration. He was one of the pioneers of the boogaloo (bugalú) or “Spanish Soul” movement, a style known for its jaunty blend of R&B influences and Afro-Cuban rhythms that became wildly popular. On such albums as Spanish Grease, Juicy, Spanish Blues Band and Uno Dos Tres, Bobo rendered rock, pop, soul, Cuban and Brazilian songs with equal panache, substituting an electric guitar for the customary piano and emphasizing a funky, urban side of the style that expanded his audience even further. His recording of “Evil Ways,“ for example, foreshadowed the hit version of the tune recorded by Santana a few years later.
Bobo’s occasional vocals in English emphasized the crossover appeal of his music that made him one of the most sought-after Latin jazz performers of his time, leading to engagements at leading jazz festivals, the Playboy Club and other hallowed jazz venues from coast-to-coast. The esteem he enjoyed in the jazz community also led to an ongoing succession of recording and performing opportunities with flutist Herbie Mann, pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, and trumpeter Miles Davis, among many other notables. His affiliation with such leading labels as Verve, Columbia and Blue Note emphasized the high regard in which Bobo was held by the entertainment industry. Right up to the day of his untimely death in 1983 at the age of 49, Bobo was truly one of a kind.