Willie Colón Credit: Luis Quintana Barney

Trombonist Willie Colón was something of a teenage salsa sensation when he signed to Fania Records in 1965 at age 15. He made his recording debut two years later with El Malo, which featured vocalist Héctor Lavoe and was right in the boogaloo mold that attracted several young New York Latin musicians and audiences. Tracks like “Willie Whopper” fused Latin rhythms with R&B grooves; neither side came up short. Not content to stay in the realm of Latin soul (which he would later dismiss as “rotten” “backbeat” music), he expanded his palette to include traditional sounds from Africa and Brazil. As he entered his 20s, his music became more outwardly political, which was to some extent also reflected in his choice of album art depicting him in full-on gangster mode: the cover of Lo Mato has a photo of Colón holding a gun to someone’s head, and 1970’s Cosa Nuestra had him standing over a dead body by the river. The cover of The Big Break—La Gran Fuga so closely simulated an FBI most-wanted poster it reportedly fooled some people into thinking that Colón was a fugitive on the run. But beneath the attention-getting promotion there was plenty of substance, as illustrated by his multiple collaborations with Celia Cruz and future salsa superstar Rubén Blades. For some reason, this kind of New York Latin music doesn’t have the wide following in Chicago that it should, but a live appearance from Willie Colón is indeed an event—he absolutely deserves his reputation as one of the most influential musicians in his field.  v