Bandleader, percussionist and producer from New York, New York, whose parents had moved there from Puerto Rico. His mother was a huge influence on his young musical life, with her infectious enthusiasm for the music of Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
He joined the armed services in 1946 and was stationed in Germany, where he met a vibraphonist by the name of Fats Sadi. It was one song, however, that inspired him to the point where he knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life: “Manteca”, a song by Dizzy Gillespie featuring Chano Pozo, a Cuban percussionist.
Segregation was very much in play in post-war Germany, but Ray was accepted into an all-black music club, where he used the back of a banjo as an ersatz congo drum. He purchased a proper drum set when he came home in 1949 and started playing gigs at the Bucket of Blood.
Eventually, he caught the ears and eyes of well-established jazz artists such as Charlie Parker, who asked him if he would like to perform with his band. Jose Curbelo and Tito Puente invited him to play with them, and he supplanted Mongo Santamaria in 1957. He was also making noises in the studio, and recorded with artists like Cannonball Adderley, Gene Ammons, Art Blakey, Kenny Burrell, Lou Donaldson, Red Garland, Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubband, Herbie Mann, Wes Montgomery, and Cal Tjader.
In 1960, he released his first solo album, Barretto para bailar. Then he started his own band, Charanga moderna, and they issued their self-titled debut in 1962. It was with them that he scored his first big hit, “El Watusi”, which peaked at #17 on the Billboard chart.
He was very prolific in the 1960s, releasing about two albums a year, including Acid, The Big Hits Latin Style, Fiesta En El Barrio, Guajira y guaguanco, Hard Hands, Head Sounds, Latino co Soul, Moderna de Siempre, On Fire Again (Encendido otra vez), El Ray Criollo, Senor 007, Together, and Viva Watusi!.
Neither did he slow down in the ‘70s, getting out of the gate quickly with Barretto Power, From the Beginning, The Message, and Que viva la musica.
Many of his band-mates defected, but he kept on making music with the Fania All-Stars, whose ranks included Ruben Blades, Willie Colon, Larry Harlow, and Hector Lavoe. They were an enormously successful group that were asked to perform before the now-legendary Muhammad Ali-George Foreman fight and sold out two concerts at Yankee Stadium.
The remainder of the ‘70s were peppered with more recordings: Barretto; Can You Feel It?; La Cuna; Energy to Burn; Eye of the Beholder; Guarare; Indestructible; The Other Road; Rican/Struction; and, Tomorrow—Barretto Live.
In the 1980s, he appeared on Aqui se puede, Giant Force, Irresistible, La onda tipica, Rhythm of Life, Ritmo en el Corazon, Todo se va poder, and Tremendo Trio!. He also participated in Little Steven’s “Sun City” recording and music video. Ritmo en el Corazon, which he recorded with Celia Cruz, won a Grammy Award in 1990.
In the 1990s, he continued to release albums, both under his own name and his new band’s, New World Spirit. His solo shots included Handprints, Live in New York, and Soy Dichoso. New World Spirit released Ancestral Messages, Contact!, My Summertime, and Taboo. The ‘90s ended on a high note: Ray was enshrined in the International Latin Music Hall of Fame in 1999.
In the new millennium, he continued to divide his time between band and solo projects: His own efforts included Fuerza Gigante: Live in Puerto Rico—April 27, 2001, Salsa Caliente de Nu York, and Standards Rican-ditioned; New World Spirit offered up Homage to Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers, Portraits in Jazz and Clave, Time Was – Time Is, and Trancedance.
In January 2006, Ray had to go under the knife for a heart bypass operation. He died of heart failure at Hackensack University Hospital on 17th February 2006.
His remains were cremated in Puerto Rico, where he was honoured by the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. On 7th October 2006, he was honoured by a number of his peers, including Giovanni Hidalgo, in a tribute concert at Lehman College in New York.
Bee Gees recordings
Edge of the Universe (Barry Gibb/Maurice Gibb/Robin Gibb)
Here is Ray Barretto performing “Irresistible”…