Tomás Peña: Greetings Johnny. Where does your story begin?
Little Johnny Rivero: 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 ten, I danced at the Copacabana, The Palladium, The Manhattan Center, The Colgate Gardens, and The Huntspoint Palace, among others.
TP: Where did you learn to dance?
LJR: 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.
TP: Obviously, you were too young to dance professionally. Did you dance with a group? A partner?
LJR: With partners. Being around the big bands and musicians from Puerto Rico and New York, I was drawn to percussion.
TP: The drum chose you.
LJR: Perhaps. 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 (Little Johnny imitates the sound). It was the rhythm everyone wanted to learn. Also, listening to 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. Jose 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 suited up and holding a box, and they talked for a while. When the man left, I asked my dad, “Who was that?” He said, “That’s Jose Mangual Senior.” The way Mangual looked and carried himself made a big impression on me.
TP: Did you take formal lessons?
LJR: Back then, we didn’t have computers, videos, 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 fourteen, I was performing with Orquesta Colon.
TP: Tell me about Gus Colon.
LJR: He was the founder and a trumpet player. Many great musicians came out of the band: Ray de La Paz, Eddie Montalvo, Sal Cuevas, Eddie Tempora, and Tony Pastrana, among others.
TP: What was the average age of the band members?
LJR: I was the youngest. The oldest was nineteen. We were teenagers.
(INTERVIEWER’S NOTES: Orquesta Colon was the youngest salsa band to be signed to a record label. No one was over eighteen years old. Amazingly, the leader, Gus, was only seventeen.)
TP: Some of the band members were underage. Where did you perform?
LJR: Everywhere, block parties, outside gigs, and nightclubs, but we couldn’t go near the bar. The number one rule was no booze!
TP: You recorded two albums with Orquesta Colon: Creepin’ Up (1971) and Adan y Eva (Adam and Eve, 1973).
LJR: 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 it was a beautiful experience.
TP: When did you move to Puerto Rico?
LJR: 1973. In 1974 I joined La Sonora Ponceña.
TP: 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 Ponceña was seeking a conguero and a bongo player.
LJR: 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.
TP: Did Ralph Irizarry encourage you to contact Quique Lucca?
LJR: Yes. 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 they hired a conguero and needed a bongo player. He asked, “Do you play the bongos?” 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 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 following day, 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, and 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. I thought my arms would fall off during the first gig! (Laughs). It was crazy!
TP: You were a member of La Sonora Ponceña for sixteen years. Also, you participated in eighteen historical albums. That’s quite an achievement.
LJR: Thank you.
TP: La Sonora was your “escuela” (school) and Quique was the “headmaster.” I understand he dispensed some tough love at the beginning of the relationship.
LJR: 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 had a New York attitude, which does not work in Puerto Rico.
TP: Tell me about your relationship with Papo Lucca.
LJR: I learned a lot from Papo. I was very fortunate to watch him in the studio. I am who I am today because of what I learned from him and many others. I started as a kid and became an accomplished musician, producer, and bandleader by watching and learning.
TP: What years were you with La Sonora?
LJR: 1974 to 1990.
TP: Why did you leave?
LJR: Things were slowing down in Puerto Rico. Also, I felt it was time to go out on my own. I freelanced, did studio work, played with other bands, and played different instruments.
TP: Which instruments?
LJR: Different percussion instruments, “toys.” Also, I played with Bobby Valentin, a great experience, Cheo Feliciano for two years, and Luis Garcia. I’ve done so much!
TP: Your discography is impressive.
LJR: I’ve recorded roughly 100 CDs, which I remember.
TP: How did you come to work with Eddie Palmieri?
LJR: 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. But 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.
TP: Timing is everything!
LJR: (Laughs) I can honestly say I have performed with 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 and always wants the best for us, and we return the favor by playing our hearts out.
TP: Palmieri is older, wiser, and a mentor and father to many musicians, past and present.
LJR: 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, and Japan – and honestly, 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 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 band members’ average age. Eddie has always had the “baddest cats” on the planet, regardless of age.
TP: Tell me about Pasos Gigante, your debut as a leader.
LJR: It means a lot because, before the release, no one knew that I was a composer (songwriter) or that I composed roughly 200 songs. The well-received album showcases my skills as a producer, writer, leader, and player. Also, I gathered 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.
TP: Over the years, you received many requests to record a Latin Jazz album. The result is your most recent recording, Music in Me.
LJR: After years of people watching me play with Eddie and a lot of 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 money, he said, “Talk to the cats.” Sure enough, I spoke to Luques Curtis, and he promised to reply. Sure enough, Luques called me back and said, “I talked to my brother (Zaccai).” Truth Revolution Recording Collective will record you.” Another blessing!
TP: What kind of album did you want to create?
LJR: 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. Excitement! I wanted the songs and rhythms to have a different vibe. I was very demanding in selecting the songs, and it worked out just fine.
TP: Mission Accomplished!
LJR: Thank you. The feedback has been very positive. Also, I’m happy to be part of the Truth Revolution family. It’s the Real Mc Coy.
TP: 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.
LJR: Yes, we will perform new compositions and arrangements and swing hard. I’m 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).
TP: Thank you for speaking with Jazzdelapena.com and Palante!
Little Johnny has collaborated musically with three Grammy Awards Winners and endorses LP instruments.
2020 UPDATE: Little Johnny Rivero’s most recent release is Golpe Duro, featuring singer (sonero) Anthony Almonte (Mod Squad, LLC, 2020).
FEATURED PHOTO: Martin Cohen