“Ain’t too many cats can get into that funk like we can get into the funk. Latin and jazz groups can do jazz, and they can do the Latin, but they can’t do the funk like I can do it.” – Henry “Pucho” Brown
The career of timbalero Henry “Pucho” Brown has come full circle. As the leader of Pucho and his Latin Soul Brothers, the Harlem-born percussionist was a pivotal figure in the Latin boogaloo movement that fused Latin, jazz, and funk styles during the Sixties. Eight albums by Pucho and his fiery New York-based band, including a “best of” collection, were issued by Prestige Records between 1966 and ’69. However, as popular tastes changed in the early seventies, he disbanded the Latin Soul Brothers. He formed a trio that spent the next 19 years playing standards and what he calls “society Latin” music in the relative obscurity of Catskill Mountain resort hotels-which he might still be doing today if it hadn’t been for a phenomenon that arose from the British club underground known as “acid jazz.”
Henry “Pucho” Brown was born Nov. 1, 1938, in Harlem. People born in the 1930s, ’40s, or ’50s in New York City grew up in a vast musical culture that is lost in today’s society. The radio played every type of music, from classical and country to Latin and rock ‘n’ roll.
It opened a whole new world to the young Henry Brown. He was exposed to the big bands of Duke Ellington, Chick Webb (who first employed Ella Fitzgerald), and Count Basie. Brown accompanied his mother to the world-famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Watching these cats lay it down blew his mind.
But that changed when he heard via his Latino friends the fiery and swinging sounds of the mambo, rumba, guaguanco, etc. He became mesmerized by the sounds of Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, and Machito.
Dropping out of high school, Brown worked at a series of dead-end jobs while trying to imitate his Latin musical heroes on a pair of timbales given to him by an aunt and uncle. He eventually learned to play well enough to form his first group, Los Locos Diablos (The Crazy Devils). By the age of 17, he was playing professionally with another Harlemite named Joe Panama. This eventually led to the formation of the Joe Cuba group after Panama fired all his men, and Joe Cuba snapped them up. Brown didn’t last long with Cuba. He went back to Panama, which didn’t last long either. This time he took over the band and renamed it Pucho and the Cha-Cha Boys.
By the 1960s, the sounds of Latin music started to change, from the pachanga to the blending of jazz, mambo, and R&B. Perfect examples of this were Mongo Santamaria’s 1963 hit “Watermelon Man” and Ray Barretto’s “El Watusi,” which were both nationwide hits and enjoyed great radio airplay.
This opened the doors for a different type of Latin music. It was called Latin soul, with a funky flavor. With this new sound emerging, Epic Records signed Pucho’s group to its first record single deal, hoping it would piggyback on the success of Mongo’s version of “Watermelon Man.”
When the recording of a tune called “Darrin’s Mambo” failed to do this, Epic dropped Pucho and the Cha-Cha boys. They didn’t make another record until 1966. They signed up with Prestige Label and renamed themselves Pucho and the Latin Soul Brothers. Pucho and the Latin Soul Brothers hit their stride with the Prestige label and cut more than half a dozen albums.
During this period, he helped to pioneer a Latin-style rhythm called boogaloo, which mixed Latin, jazz, and a New York style of music. They enjoyed moderate success with this new sound, having to share the limelight with the other stars of that period, such as Joe Bataan, Johnny Colon, King Nando, and Pete Rodriguez. Soon a new form of music was taking over, called salsa. This was the music that other bands had been playing since the early 1940s. It was a great commercial success and still is today.
In the late 1970s, Pucho dissolved the Latin Soul Brothers and took a year off from music before relocating to the Catskills. He formed a trio that lasted almost two decades before he had a falling out with management at the Raleigh Hotel.
Upon his return to New York City, Pucho was convinced by a Tokyo-based record company to reform the Latin Soul Brothers. He recorded his first album in 20 years, titled “Jungle Strut.”
Pucho’s back record catalog has generated a lot of interest in Britain, Europe, and Japan. On his last two CDs for Milestone, “Rip a Dip” (‘ 95) and “The Hideout” (2004 he plays tunes as an homage to one of his heroes, Tito Puente. Call it acid jazz or Latin boogaloo, their infectiously rhythmic, highly soulful music is as hip as ever-and a new generation of fans from around the globe has discovered it.
He is the last of the black band leaders who played and still plays Latin music with a funky groove to it. Gone are Eddie Bonomere, Earl Bostic, and, most importantly, Dizzy Gillespie. Brown was enshrined in 2003 in the International Latin Music Hall of Fame, the second black American after Dizzy Gillespie.
Bio draws from an article by Joe Conzo, Times-Herald Record, NY.