Percussionist, Composer, Arranger, Producer, Leader
Greetings Johnny. Where does your story begin?
I was born in 1957 and raised in El Barrio (East Harlem). As a child, my father, a (music) promoter, took me to the rumbas in Randall’s Island, Jefferson Park, and Orchard Beach. Before that, I was a dancer. At the age of ten, I danced at the Copacabana, The Palladium, The Manhattan Center, The Colgate Gardens, and The Huntspoint Palace among others.
Where did you learn to dance?
There was always music in my house, everyone in my family loved to dance. I grew up dancing. It was not uncommon for relatives to come over and share the latest dance steps.
Obviously, you were too young to dance professionally. Did you dance with a group? A partner?
With, partners. Being around the big bands and musicians from Puerto Rico and New York, I was drawn to percussion.
So, the drum chose you?
You could say that. Also, there was a park across the street from where I lived. I used to watch the rumberos from my window. After work, my father took me to the park, and I was fascinated with the drums and full of questions. Such as, “How do you start the tumbao?” One thing that caught my eye was the Guaguanco Tumbao (imitates the sound). At the time, it was the rhythm everyone wanted to learn. Also, listening my father’s record collection: Tito Rodriguez, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Machito, Eddie Palmieri y La Perfecta, Sonora Poncena, Patato, Ray Barretto, Armando Peraza, Jose Mangual Sr., who, incidentally, was my first idol.
Mangual lived one block away, on 122nd and 2nd Avenue. One day I was walking down the street with my father and he bumped into this man who was suited up and holding a box, and they talked for a while. When the man left I asked my dad, “Who was that?” and he said, “That’s Jose Mangual Senior.” The way Mangual looked and carried himself made a huge impression on me.
Did you take lessons?
Back then, we didn’t have computers, video or teachers; we taught ourselves. Johnny Colon had (has) a school in El Barrio, but I did not attend. I took lessons with Jerry Gonzalez. At the age of fourteen, I was performing with Orquesta Colon.
Tell me about Gus Colon.
He was the founder and a trumpet player. A lot of great musicians came out the band: Ray de La Paz, Eddie Montalvo, Sal Cuevas, Eddie Tempora and Tony Pastrana among others.
What was the average age of the band members?
I was the youngest. I believe the “oldest” was nineteen. We were teenagers.
(Interviewer’s Notes): Orquesta Colon was the youngest salsa band ever to be signed to a record label. No one was over eighteen years old. Amazingly, the leader, Gus, was only seventeen).
Given the fact that, some of the band members were under age, where did you perform?
Everywhere, block parties, outside gigs and nightclubs, but we couldn’t go near the bar, the number one rule, absolutely no booze!
You recorded two albums with Orquesta Colon: Creepin’ Up (1971) and Adan y Eva (Adam and Eve, 1973).
Yes. Even though we were the youngest band around, we were hot. Remember, at the time there were all these incredible bands: TNT, Eddie Palmieri, La Protesta, The Lebron Brothers, Ray Barretto and Larry Harlow. Still, we were very popular. It was my first band and a beautiful experience.
When did you move to Puerto Rico?
1973. In 1974 I joined La Sonora Ponceña.
In a past interview, you mentioned that, you were jamming at a beach in Puerto Rico with Ralph Irizarry, Ismael Rivera, and Cortijo among others, and you learned La Sonora Poncena was seeking a conguero and a bongo player.
Yes, it was the July 4th weekend. We were hanging out at Ocean Beach, near Condado and, to my surprise Cortijito who I met when he was playing with Kako in New York, recognized me. During a conversation with him, I learned that La Sonora was looking for a conguero and a bongo player.
It was Ralph Irizarry who encouraged you to call La Sonora’s Founder and Leader, Quique Lucca. Correct?
Ralphy told me, “You have a chance. They will remember you.” I was nervous, but Ralphy kept pushing me. So, I got the telephone number and called Quique, who told me hired a conguero and needed a bongo player. He asked, “Do you play the bongos?” And, I said, “Of course!” Then, he gave me his address and told me to stop by and pick up a cassette of the album Sabor Sureno (1972), which had some great tunes like Las Lenguas and La Llave y la Cerradura. I was so flattered; I called my mom and dad and let them know what was happening, and everyone was happy.
After spending the July 4th weekend in San Juan, I returned to Ponce. The next morning I was fast asleep, and my mother woke me up and said, “There’s a man here to see you, his name is Quique Lucca, he’s waiting outside.” I jumped out of bed and received him. He stopped by to give me a cassette, and informed me I had one week to prepare. Afterward, I locked myself in my room and practiced, practiced, practiced until I learned the album. When the time came, my father took me to the rehearsal. After the audition, Quique walked up to me and said, “Here’s money for uniforms, which I will deduct from your salary” (laughs).
I bought four uniforms, and sure enough, Quique took the money out of my salary, a little at a time. When we returned from the Tiene Pimienta Tour 1975) there was a problem with the conguero, and I replaced him, but I wasn’t ready, nor was I in shape. During the first gig, I thought my arms were going to fall off! (Laughs). It was crazy!
You were a member of La Sonora for sixteen years. During that time you participated in eighteen historical albums. That’s quite an achievement.
La Sonora was your “school” and Quique was the “headmaster.” I understand he dispensed some tough love at the beginning of the relationship.
The first time I showed up, late Quique said, “The third time you’re late, you’re out of the band!” I was young, and I had a New York attitude, which does not work in Puerto Rico.
Tell me about your relationship with Papo Lucca.
I learned a lot from Papo. I was very fortunate to be able to watch him in the studio. I am who I am today because of what I learned from him and many others. I started out as a kid and grew into an accomplished musician, producer and bandleader by watching and learning.
What years were you with La Sonora?
1974 to 1990.
Why did you leave the band?
Things were slowing down in Puerto Rico. Also, it was time for me to go out on my own. I free lanced, did studio work, played with other bands, played different instruments.
Different percussion instruments, “toys.” Also, I played with Bobby Valentin, which was a great experience, Cheo Feliciano for two years, and Luis Garcia; I’ve done so much!
Your discography is off the charts. Is there anybody you haven’t performed with?
I’ve recorded roughly 100 CDs, and that’s just the one’s I remember.
How did you meet and come to work wit Eddie Palmieri?
I was doing a gig with Ray Santos; I can’t recall the venue, and Eddie Palmieri and his wife showed up. I stopped by Eddie’s table to pay my respects, and he asked me for my business card. As it turned out, he was looking for a conga player. Afterward, I received a telephone call from Eddie Palmieri’s son (and manager), Eddie Palmieri the 2nd and the rest, is history.
Timing is everything!
(Laughs) I can honestly say I have performed with the two of the “baddest” piano players on the planet – Eddie Palmieri and Papo Lucca. I was with La Sonora for sixteen years, and I’m going on fifteen years with Palmieri.
I have to talk about Eddie Palmieri. He’s a genius; he respects the musicians, he always wants the best for us, and we return the favor by playing our hearts out.
Palmieri is older, wiser and a mentor to many musicians, past and present.
I was fortunate to step into Eddie’s band at the right time. I’ve traveled the world with Eddie – China, Europe, Australia, Hong Kong, Japan – and I can honestly say it has been the best experience of my life. We’ve played at the best venues; I couldn’t ask for more. I’m very honored. It’s a blessing.
Another blessing is playing with the new generation of players: Luques Curtis, Louis Fouche, Jonathan Powell and others.
Eddie has always had a keen eye for talent. I’m thinking of the tune 17.1 (from the album, Superimposition), whose title is based on the average age of the band members.
Eddie has always had the “baddest cats” on the planet, regardless of age.
I understand Eddie has a number of projects in the works. Can you tell me anything about them?
I wish I had more information. I know there are three albums in the works. They are all different styles, Salsa and Latin Jazz.
Tell me about Pasos Gigante, your debut recording as a leader.
It means a lot to me because before the release no one was aware of the fact that I am a composer (songwriter), nor that I have composed roughly 200 songs. The album, which was well received, showcases my skills as a producer, writer, leader, and player. Also, I was able to gather many great musicians: Papo Lucca, Giovanni Hidalgo, Alfredo de La Fe, Eric Figueroa, Nelson Gonzalez and Ray Castro among others. Pasos Gigante is very intense. There’s a lot of percussion and rhythms from around the globe. It’s Salsa dura! Also, it includes a DVD bonus track.
Over the years you received many requests to record a Latin Jazz album. The result is your most recent recording, Music in Me.
After years of people watching me play with Eddie and with a lot of different jazz groups, people came up to me and said, “You have to record an album,” and I thought to myself, “Where’s the money?” During a European tour with Eddie (trumpeter), Brian Lynch said, “When we return to the States we have to record an album for you.” When I brought up the subject of money, he said, “Talk to the cats.” Sure enough, I spoke to Luques Curtis, and he promised to get back to me. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would happen. Sure enough, Luques called me back and said, “I talked to my brother (Zaccai).” Truth Revolution Recording Collective will record you.” Another blessing!
What kind of album did you want to create?
I wanted to create an album that appeals to dancers and listeners, an album that will give the public joy, happiness and the best feelings anyone could have watching or hearing a band. In other words, excitement! I wanted the songs and rhythms to have a different vibe. I was very choosy when it came to selecting the songs, and, in the end, it worked out just fine.
I’ve listened to the recording numerous times. Mission Accomplished!
Thank you. The feedback has been very positive. Also, I’m happy to be part of the Truth Revolution family. It is the Real Mc Coy.
On September 29th, you will be celebrating the release of Music in Me and the 10th Anniversary of your Salsa group, Pequeno Johnny y su Cartel.
Yes, in addition to swinging hard we will be performing new compositions and arrangements. I’m very overwhelmed with all the love and support I have received from the fans here and around the world. I’m inviting everyone to come out. It’s going to be Una Noche Involvidable(an unforgettable evening).
I’ll certainly be there. Thank you for speaking with Jazzdelapena.com and good luck with Music in Me.
Little Johnny has collaborated musically with three Grammy Awards Winners and endorses LP instruments.
- Orchestra Colon. Creeping Up (1971)
- Orchestra Colon. Adam Y Eva (1973)
- Sonora. Tiene Pimienta (1975)
- Sonora. Conquista Musical (1976)
- Sonora. El Gigante Del Sur (1977)
- Sonora. La Orchestra De Mi Tierra (1978)
- Sonora. Explorando (1978)
- Sonora. La Ceiba With Celia Cruz (1979)
- Roberto Anglero. Tierra Negra (1979)
- Sonora. New Heights (1980)
- Sonora. Unchained Force (1980)
- Lugui Texidor. El Caballero (1980)
- Sonora. Night Rider (1981)
- Sonora. Determination (1982
- Adalberto Santiago. Calidad (1982)
- Sonora. Future (1984)
- Sonora. Jubilee (1985)
- Sonora. Back To Work (1987)
- Sonora. On The Right Track (1988)
- Quintana Y Papo. Mucho Talento (1988)
- Cheo Feliciano. Como Tu Lo Pediste (1988)
- Sonora. Into The 90’s (1990)
- Cheo Feliciano. Cantando (1991)
- Bobby Valentin. Donde Lo Dejamos (1992)
- Lucecita Benitez. Claro Y Musical (1992)
- Pedro Guzman. Jibaro Jazz 3 (1992)
- Gonzy Figueroa. Toma Mi Corazon (1992)
- Viento En Viela. Soplando Fuerte (1992)
- Sonny. No Tiene Culpa El Corazon (1992)
- Descargar Boricua. Esta Si Va! (1993)
- Victor Manuelle. Justo A Tiempo (1993)
- Deddie Romero. En Cualquier Clave (1993)
- Domingo Quiñones. En La Intimidad (1993)
- Hugo Aguilar. Hola (1993)
- Salsa Unica. Si Tu Amor No Hay Nada (1994)
- Hugo Aguilar. Hugo Aguilar (1995)
- Glenn Monroig. Rumbo A La Rumba (1995)
- El Topo. Sentimiento De Mi Tierra (1995)
- Salsa Unica. No Somos Iguales (1996)
- D.Quiñones. Mi Meta (1996)
- Tito Nieves. Un Tipo Comun (1996)
- Quiñones. Se Necesita Un Milagro (1997)
- Ruben Sierra. El Indio (1997)
- Justo Betancourt. Quiero (1998)
- Domingo Quiñones. Domingo es mi Nombre (1999)
- Quiñones. Derechos Reservados (2002
- Montvale Rumba. Latin Percussion (2002)
- Soneros del Barrio. Siguiendo La Tradición (2003)
- Tony Pastrana. New York Latin Jazz (2003)
- Pablo Perez. The Pablo Perez Project (2005)
- Eddie Palmieri. Caliente Latin Jazz (2006)
- Pequeño Johnny. Pasos Gigantes(2006)
- Victor Manuelle. Decision Unanime (2006)
- Manny Mieles. Sabrosexy (2006)
- Brian Lynch/Eddie Palmieri Project. Simpatico (2006) Grammy Winner
- Sonora. 50 Aniversario, En Vivo (2007)
- Kathy Watson. Come To Me (2008)
- John Santos. Perspectiva Fragmentada (2008)
- Marvin Diaz. Hablar El Tambor (2008)
- Brian Lynch. Bolero Nights (2009)
- Steve Pouchie. El Puente (2009)
- Brian Lynch. Unsung Heroes (2010)
- John Santos. La Esperanza (2010)
- Linda Ciofalo. Dancing With Johnny ( 2010)
- Ray Rodriguez. Baila Con Swing Sabroso (2010)
- Ray Appleton “Killer.” Nap Town Legacy (2012)
- Truth Revolution Records Presents: Together (2012)
- Dr. Lonnie Smith. In The Begining (2013)
- Ray Viera. Sambumbia Radioactivo (2013)
- Eddie Palmieri. Is Doing In The Park (2014)
- Harry Allen. Friends For George, Cole And Duke (2014)
- Music in Me (2016)
- DVD Latin Percussion. The Rhythmic Construction Of The World (2003)
- DVD Latin Percussion. Drums Solo Revisited (2004)
- DVD Eddie Palmieri. 50th Year Anniversary (2010)
Vintage Photos: Little Johnny Rivero