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Keyboard Titans: Boricua Pioneer, Noro Morales

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Norberto Osvaldo Morales, also known as “Noro,” was born on January 4th, 1911, in Puerto de Tierra, San Juan, Puerto Rico. He was an extraordinary pianist and bandleader who initially trained as a trombonist.
According to musicologist Max Salazar: “Noro was a Puerto Rican hero in the 1940s, partly because some of the titles of the tunes he wrote bore the names of Puerto Rican cities and also because of Rafael Hernández’s lyrics, which celebrated the island’s culture. For the first half of the 1940s, Morales and Xavier Cugat’s groups were the most popular bands; after 1945, Morales’s main rival as a bandleader was Machito. Noro’s band was paid the highest compliment an orchestra can get during this period. Wherever Morales and his group appeared, musicians from other bands would come to watch the performance, including Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Charlie Palmieri, Hector Rivera, Lou Perez, Pete Terrace, and Frankie Colon.”
Noro grew up in a family where music was essential to their lives. His father, Louis, was a skilled violinist, while his siblings were also accomplished musicians. Ismael played the flute and saxophone, Jose (Pepito) played the saxophone, Luis played the violin, and Alicia played the piano. The entire family was musically gifted.
In 1924, the Morales family relocated to Caracas, Venezuela. There, Morales’ father was appointed as the musical director for President Juan Gomez, but he passed away soon after. Consequently, Noro took over as the musical director. However, the orchestra disbanded six years later, and the family returned to Puerto Rico. In Puerto Rico, Noro worked as a freelance pianist for Rafael Sanchez y Su Sinfonica, the Midnight Serenaders, Carmelo Diaz, and Rafael Muñoz. The family eventually moved to New York City in 1935.
His first job in the US was with the Alberto Socarras orchestra. Later, the Morales Brothers Puerto Rican Orchestra was formed in 1938 with drummer Humberto, flutist Etsy, and Pepito. The group recorded six tracks for Columbia Records.
The tune, Serenata Ritmica, recorded for Decca Records in 1942, catapulted Noro to fame in the mambo and rumba music world and led to performances in significant nightclubs such as The Stork Club, El Morocco, La Conga, The China Doll, the Palladium, and the Copacabana, among others.
An incident at the legendary Stork Club between Noro and the popular radio personality, news anchor, and journalist Walter Winchell also boosted his popularity. According to Salazar: “Winchell spoke to Noro in English. With a bewildered look, Noro replied, ‘Choose me; my English is not so nice looking.’ Winchell wrote about the incident in his column the next day.” To mark the occasion, Morales composed the tune “Walter Winchell Rumba.”
Morales was one of the first artists to bypass intermediaries and record, produce, and release commercial recordings on his label, Rivoli Records. Additionally, Noro founded the Latino Music Society (LAMS) and fought to end the “Relief” status given to Latin orchestras, which meant they received lower pay than top-billed orchestras. Thanks to LAMS, top names such as Noro, Jose Curbelo, and Pupi Campo could remove the stigma and receive compensation commensurate with top-billed orchestras. Although the organization was short-lived, it successfully improved labor practices for Latino musicians.
Also, Noro opened a record store on 14th Street, and he and his orchestra performed in a window display at the Grand Opening. Unfortunately, the record label and the record store were short-lived.
Nora also appeared in the films “The Gay Ranchero” (1941), “Cuban Pete” (1942), Ella (1942), and “Mexican Jumping Bean” (1942).
Noro was a well-known performer in Puerto Rico. He gained popularity after performing at the inauguration of the island’s first elected governor, Luis Muñoz Marin. This performance helped him secure a recording contract with MGM Records. Basilio Serrano, a music historian, mentioned that on the first MGM LP, Morales recorded the song “Rum & Soda,” which he dedicated to the Governor, as part of a campaign to promote Puerto Rico’s rums.
In the 1950s, a representative of RCA A&R convinced Noro to record American pop standards. This move could have gone better as it led to a decline in his popularity because it lacked the trademark sound and swing that made Noro famous. After spending over 25 years in New York, he began to miss Puerto Rico. Historian Joe Conzo explained that the music business in the United States was on a downward turn in the late 1950s. Small ensembles replaced the big bands of the swing era, and venues like the Palladium Ballroom were no longer profitable. Noro was suffering from diabetes and was starting to lose his eyesight, which contributed to his decision to return home. His sister, Alicia, contracted him to perform at the prestigious La Concha Hotel in San Juan for six months, which turned into four years.
Frank Figueroa said, “Noro, the disciplinarian, applied his rules equally to everyone in the band, including his brothers. While playing at La Concha in Puerto Rico, there was some debate among the musicians about a female drummer. Ana Carrero, the musician in question, was a competent drummer; she read music well and could play all the shows easily. She was a woman, nevertheless, and the male-dominated Latin bands had never included a female drummer. One of the most outspoken of Ana’s critics was Pepito Morales. One evening, after Pepito had more than his share of drinks, he couldn’t control his emotions and started yelling obscenities in Spanish at Ana on the bandstand while the microphones were open. Those present heard it all. Fortunately, it was the set’s last number, and the musicians left the stand. Noro took his “little brother” downstairs, gave him a scolding he would remember for the rest of his life, and fired him on the spot.”
Noro Morales’s orchestra was also an incubator of top talent. Davilita, Tito Rodriguez, Joe Valle, Jose Luis Monero, Juan “El Boy,” Pellin Rodriguez, Little Ray Romero, Johnny “La Vaca” Rodriguez, Tony Martinez, Monchito Muñoz, Ray Santos, Candido Vicenty, Mandy Vizoso and more came through the “Noro Morales University.”
Noro was a complete and unique artist. His influence extended to Machito, Tito Rodriguez, Tito Puente, Charlie Palmieri, and a lesser degree, Eddie Palmieri, among others — many of who went through his band and performed with many significant artists, including Pellin Rodriguez, Vicentico Valdes, Dioris Valladares, Vitin Aviles, Ray Romero, Manny Oquendo, Willie Rodriguez, Willie Rosario, and Ray Santos among others.
Perhaps for publicity, Noro’s persona became associated with monikers such as “Latin Duke Ellington” and “Dean of Latin Jazz.”
On the home front, Noro was married and divorced three times. Salazar claimed he used a pseudonym to make bootleg recordings to pay alimony (the recordings have yet to be discovered).
Noro Morales died in January 1964 at the San Juan Jorge Hospital in Puerto Rico. The official cause of death was uremia (kidney failure). He is buried at Puerto Rico Memorial (also known as Cementerio Fournier) in Carolina, Puerto Rico.
Noro Morales Sampler (Preview)

Titanes del teclado: Pionero Boricua, Noro Morales

Norberto Osvaldo Morales, también conocido como “Noro”, nació el 4 de enero de 1911 en Puerto de Tierra, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Fue un extraordinario pianista y director de orquesta que inicialmente se formó como trombonista.
Según el musicólogo Max Salazar: “Noro fue un héroe puertorriqueño en la década de 1940, en parte porque algunos de los títulos de las canciones que escribió llevaban nombres de ciudades puertorriqueñas y también por las letras de Rafael Hernández, que celebraban la cultura de la isla. Durante la primera mitad de la década de 1940, los grupos de Morales y Xavier Cugat fueron las bandas más populares; Después de 1945, el principal rival de Morales como director de orquesta fue Machito. La banda de Noro recibió el mayor elogio que una orquesta puede recibir durante este período. Dondequiera que aparecieran Morales y su grupo, músicos de otras bandas vendrían a ver la actuación, incluidos Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez, Charlie Palmieri, Héctor Rivera, Lou Pérez, Pete Terrace y Frankie Colón”.
Noro creció en una familia donde la música era una parte esencial de sus vidas. Su padre, Louis, era un hábil violinista, mientras que sus hermanos también eran músicos consumados. Ismael tocaba la flauta y el saxofón, José (Pepito) tocaba el saxofón, Luis tocaba el violín y Alicia tocaba el piano. Toda la familia tenía talento musical.
En 1924, la familia Morales se mudó a Caracas, Venezuela. Allí, el padre de Morales fue designado director musical del presidente Juan Gómez, pero falleció poco después. En consecuencia, Noro asumió el cargo de director musical. Sin embargo, seis años después, la orquesta se disolvió y la familia regresó a Puerto Rico. En Puerto Rico, Noro trabajó como pianista independiente para Rafael Sánchez y Su Sinfónica, Midnight Serenaders, Carmelo Díaz y Rafael Muñoz. La familia finalmente se mudó a la ciudad de Nueva York en 1935.
Su primer trabajo en Estados Unidos fue con la orquesta de Alberto Socarras. Posteriormente, se formó la Orquesta Puertorriqueña de los Hermanos Morales en 1938 con el baterista Humberto, el flautista Etsy y Pepito. El grupo grabó seis pistas para Columbia Records.
El tema, Serenata Ritmica, grabado para Decca Records en 1942, catapultó a Noro a la fama en el mundo de la música mambo y rumba y le llevó a actuar en importantes discotecas como The Stork Club, El Marruecos, La Conga, The China Doll, el Palladium, y el Copacabana, entre otros.
Un incidente en el legendario Stork Club entre Noro y el popular locutor de radio, presentador de noticias y periodista Walter Winchell también impulsó su popularidad. Según Salazar: “Winchell habló con Noro en inglés. Con una mirada desconcertada, Noro respondió: ‘Elígeme; Mi inglés no es tan agradable”. Winchell escribió sobre el incidente en su columna del día siguiente”. Para conmemorar la ocasión, Morales compuso la melodía “Walter Winchell Rumba”.
Morales fue uno de los primeros artistas en evitar intermediarios y grabar, producir y lanzar grabaciones comerciales en su sello, Rivoli Records. Además, Noro fundó la Sociedad de Música Latina (LAMS) y luchó para poner fin al estatus de “Alivio” otorgado a las orquestas latinas, lo que significaba que recibían salarios más bajos que las orquestas mejor facturadas. Gracias a LAMS, nombres importantes como Noro, José Curbelo y Pupi Campo pudieron eliminar el estigma y recibir una compensación proporcional a la de las orquestas mejor facturadas. Aunque la organización duró poco, logró mejorar las prácticas laborales de los músicos latinos.
Además, Noro abrió una tienda de discos en la calle 14, y él y su orquesta actuaron en un escaparate en la gran inauguración. Desafortunadamente, el sello discográfico y la tienda de discos duraron poco.
Nora también apareció en las películas “The Gay Ranchero” (1941), “Cuban Pete” (1942), Ella (1942) y “Mexican Jumping Bean” (1942).
Noro era un intérprete muy conocido en Puerto Rico. Ganó popularidad después de actuar en la toma de posesión del primer gobernador electo de la isla, Luis Muñoz Marín. Esta actuación le ayudó a conseguir un contrato de grabación con MGM Records. Basilio Serrano, historiador de la música, mencionó que en el primer LP de MGM, Morales grabó la canción “Rum & Soda”, que dedicó al Gobernador, como parte de una campaña para promover los rones de Puerto Rico.
En la década de 1950, un representante de RCA A&R convenció a Noro para que grabara estándares pop estadounidenses. Este movimiento podría haber salido mejor, ya que provocó una disminución de su popularidad porque carecía del sonido y el swing característicos que hicieron famoso a Noro. Después de pasar más de 25 años en Nueva York, empezó a extrañar a Puerto Rico. El historiador Joe Conzo explicó que el negocio de la música en los Estados Unidos estaba en declive a finales de la década de 1950. Los pequeños conjuntos reemplazaron a las grandes bandas de la era del swing y lugares como el Palladium Ballroom ya no eran rentables. Noro padecía diabetes y comenzaba a perder la vista, lo que contribuyó a su decisión de regresar a casa. Su hermana Alicia lo contrató para actuar en el prestigioso Hotel La Concha de San Juan durante seis meses, que se convirtieron en cuatro años.
Frank Figueroa dijo: “Noro, el disciplinador, aplicó sus reglas por igual a todos en la banda, incluidos sus hermanos. Mientras tocaban en La Concha en Puerto Rico, hubo cierto debate entre los músicos sobre una baterista. Ana Carrero, la música en cuestión, era una baterista competente; leía bien la música y podía tocar todos los programas fácilmente. Sin embargo, era una mujer y las bandas latinas dominadas por hombres nunca habían incluido una baterista. Uno de los críticos más abiertos de Ana fue Pepito Morales. Una noche, después de que Pepito había bebido más de lo que le correspondía, no pudo controlar sus emociones y comenzó a gritarle obscenidades en español a Ana en el quiosco mientras los micrófonos estaban abiertos. Los presentes lo escucharon todo. Afortunadamente, era el último número del set y los músicos abandonaron el estrado. Noro llevó a su “hermano pequeño” abajo, le dio una reprimenda que recordaría por el resto de su vida y lo despidió en el acto”.
Noro fue un artista completo y único. Su influencia se extendió a Machito, Tito Rodríguez, Tito Puente, Charlie Palmieri y, en menor grado, Eddie Palmieri, entre otros, muchos de los cuales pasaron por su banda y actuaron con muchos artistas importantes, incluidos Pellin Rodríguez, Vicentico Valdés, Dioris Valladares. , Vitin Avilés, Ray Romero, Manny Oquendo, Willie Rodríguez, Willie Rosario y Ray Santos entre otros.
Quizás con fines publicitarios, la personalidad de Noro se asoció con apodos como “Latin Duke Ellington” y “Dean of Latin Jazz”.
En el frente interno, Noro estuvo casado y divorciado tres veces. Salazar afirmó que utilizó un seudónimo para hacer grabaciones piratas para pagar la pensión alimenticia (las grabaciones aún no se han descubierto).
Noro Morales murió en enero de 1964 en el Hospital San Juan Jorge de Puerto Rico. La causa oficial de muerte fue la uremia (insuficiencia renal). Está enterrado en el Puerto Rico Memorial (también conocido como Cementerio Fournier) en Carolina, Puerto Rico.

REFERENCE

Blondet, Richie (Contributor)
Conzo, Joe with David A. Perez – Mambo Diablo, My Journey with Tito Puente (Author House, 2011)
Mick aka “Slaphappy,” Frank Figueroa – “Salsa Chronology” Project.
Nater, Pete – Salsa Legends and Master Academy
Salazar, Max – Mambo Kingdom – Latin Music in New York (Schirmer Trade Books, 2002)
Serrano, Basilio – Puerto Rican Pioneers in Jazz – 1900-1939 – Bomba Beats to Latin Jazz (iUniverse, 2015)

SUGGESTED LISTENING

Noro Morales – His Piano and Rhythm (Ansonia,1959)
Noro Morales – No More Blues (Tico, 1960)
Noro Morales and His Orchestra – Latin Dance Party (Bronjo, 1958)
Article Updated: 2024

3 COMMENTS

  1. Tomas,

    I’m a huge Noro Morales-nik so thanks for including him in your P.R. project.

    Regarding Noro Morales and having Jazz chops, it should be noted that whether one feels he could express the language of Jazz in his playing, his record label and the marketing machine that revolved around him in late 1949 promoted his music as leading the charge in what they were billing as “Rhumba Jazz.” Which, obviously is just another term within the U.S. Recording industry that didn’t quite catch on in the manner that “Cu-Bop” once did and, ultimately, “Latin Jazz” would.

    Noro has a couple pioneering credits to his name. He was among the earliest (along with Ney Rivera, Claudio Ferrer, Panchito Riset and the first being Rafael Hernandez, thanks to his sister Victoria) to cut out the middle man and record, produce and release his own Commercial recordings via his own label. Known as Rivoli Records. In the 1940s he also opened a record store that was located on 14th Street. On the day the record shop opened Noro and his orchestra performed inside of a large window display as passerbys would stop and gawk at the band. The intent was to attract consumers into the shop. Both the record label and store were short lived. Noro Morales also had a hand in the manner that “Latin” or then-“Rhumba” dance orchestras operated in the Tri-State area. Which set the tone for the rest of the country. Prior to 1947, unless the venue’s theme was a strictly Latin American & a Spanish speaking program, all dance orchestras in the U.S. who played Afro Antillean, South American or iberian melodies were relegated to being “Relief” bands. In relief of their White/Anglo counterparts whom led Swing bands. Contrary to other studies or publications noting a much later period, the decline of the big band era began to take place in the early 1940s. The cost of operating a big band increased in a climate where the return was not justifying the contracting of such large ensembles. As a result many ballrooms closed. Those which remained found a deterrent to the decline. The Latin orchestras and, more appropriately, its brand of repertoire, are what saved both the ballroom industry for a time and allowed bands to still go big to a certain extent. Anglo bands found themselves including “Latin” material in their repertoire. As ballroom and cabaret operators noticed how a thin presence on the dance floor was ever present when bands led by Les Elgart, Guy Lombardo, Sammy Kaye and Herbie Fields, among others, would perform. Only to witness a reversal when the “Relief” bands would come on playing Cuban Popular Music and other Latin American or Brasilian dance musics, the dance floor would be packed. As much notoriety as Noro had achieved by 1946 he was still designated as a “Relief” band, as was everyone else who performed at cabarets and ballrooms during the era. Noro sought to change this unfair practice (as “relief” meant lesser pay than the top billed orchestras) by informing his attorney/adviser, Bernie Ackerman, to draw up some papers and incorporate an entity he called the Latin American Music Society, or LAMS. It’s mission was to demand the end of the automatic “Relief” status given to “Latin” orchestras, garner the much higher wage as the band that a majority of dancers expressly showed up for. And to also serve as an association devoted to promote Afro Cuban dance culture and set up tours with accompanying dance instructors, etc. Among the initial charter members were band leaders Machito, Jose Curbelo (at the time the #1 most popular dance orchestra as per a Spanish language newspaper’s popularity poll), Bartolo Hernandez, and Carlos Molina. This organization was also short lived. But during its brief existence it managed to succeed in getting top names such as Noro, Curbelo, Pupi Campo, and others to have the “relief” tag removed and garner a rate commensurate to a top billed orchestra. So Noro championed and garnered a victory in labor practices for latino musicians of his stature within the local cabaret, ballroom and theater circuit along the Eastern seaboard and Los Angeles, California. This info comes by way of the archives of Billboard magazine.

    In 1948, Noro is among the headliners in the first Puerto Rican All Star concert at Carnegie Hall, featuring the classically trained instrumentalists Los Hermanos Figueroa & Jesus San Roma; sopranos Graciela Rivera and Rene deToledo. And song and dance entertainers Rosita Rios & Diosa Costello. That same year Noro appears with his orchestra in a dance that also included the Duke Ellington Orchestra at Madison Sq. Garden. Along with other Cuban and Colombian band leaders, Noro Morales’ orchestra opened doors to Madison Square Garden as his orchestra (and later Machito’s) was the host orchestra for the Annual Harvest Moon Ball held at the original MSG. Their residency as the event’s live entertainment spanned 2 decades.

    Noro Morales orchestra was also an incubator of top talent. Davilita, Tito Rodriguez, Joe Valle, Jose Luis Monero, Juan “El Boy,” Pellin Rodriguez, Little Ray Romero, Johnny “La Vaca” Rodriguez, Tony Martinez (<~the Puerto Rican actor of "Real McCoys" fame), Monchito Munoz, Ray Santos, Candido Vicenty, Mandy Vizoso and more came through the Noro Morales University.

    Also not much heralded is that several core members who founded the Machito orchestra, or joined later on, came out of the Noro Morales orchestra (back when it was known as Orquesta Hermanos Morales). Among the musicians were saxophonist Joseph H Madera, aka "Pin," bassist Julio Andino, Ramon "Bilingue" Ayala, and Machito himself, as vocalist. Tito Puente and Puerto Rican trumpeter Jorge Lopez would also come out of the Morales camp and be Machito orchestra alumni, before leading their own ensembles.

    Saludos!

  2. Richie, Thank you for the insightful commentary and valuable info. With your permission, I will include some of the info in an updated piece. With your wealth of knowledge, you should write a book. Abrazos, Tomas

    • Hola Tomas! I just revisited your article and found your note. Gracias for the thank you. Seguro que si.

      Writing a book is easy. Getting it published and distributed without it personally costing one anything is a whole other topic in itself.

      Saludos!

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