Multi-instrumentalist composer Norberto Osvaldo Morales (Noro) was born in the Puerto de Tierra section of San Juan, Puerto Rico on January 4th, 1911. Initially, he was trained as a trombonist however mostly he is remembered as an exceptional pianist and bandleader.
According to the 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 Hernandez’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 around; after 1945, Morales’s main rival as a bandleader was Machito. During this period, Noro’s band was paid the highest compliment an orchestra can get: where Morales and his group appeared, musicians from other bands would come just to watch the performance. That was what Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Charlie Palmieri, Hector Rivera, Lou Perez, Pete Terrace, Frankie Colon, and Ken Rosa did on many occasions.”
Noro was raised in a musical environment. His father, Louis was a violinist; his brother Ismael played the flute and saxophone; Jose (Pepito) was a saxophonist, brother Luis played the violin and sister, Alicia played the piano. All were all outstanding musicians.
In 1924, the Morales family moved to Caracas, Venezuela, and Morales’s father became the musical director for (then) President Juan Gomez. Shortly after that, Luis Morales died, and Noro took over.
Six years later the orchestra broke up, and the family returned to Puerto Rico, where Noro freelanced as a pianist with Rafael Sanchez y Su Sinfonica, the Midnight Serenaders, Carmelo Diaz and Rafael Munoz among others before moving to New York City in 1935.
His first stateside job was with the Alberto Socarras orchestra. The Morales Brothers Puerto Rican Orchestra emerged in 1938 with the drummer Humberto, flutist Etsy, and Pepito. The group made six recordings for Columbia Records.
The tune, Serenata Ritmica, recorded for Decca Records in 1942 catapulted Noro to fame in the mambo and rumba music world. Also, it led to performances in major nightclubs in Manhattan 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 led to a boost in his popularity. According to Salazar: “Winchell spoke to Noro in English. With a bewildered look Noro replied, ‘Scoose me, my English is not so nice looking.’ Winchell mentioned the incident in his column the next day.” To mark the occasion Morales composed the tune, Walter Winchell Rumba.
Morales 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 on his label, Rivoli Records. Also, Noro formed the Latino Music Society (LAMS) and demanded the end of “Relief” status given to Latin orchestras (“relief” meant lesser pay than top-billed orchestras) and garnered a victory in labor practices for Latino musicians. The organization was short-lived but during its brief existence, it succeeded in getting top names such as Noro, Curbelo, Pupi Campo, and others to have the “relief” tag removed and garnered a rate commensurate with top-billed orchestras.
Also, he opened a record store on 14th Street. At the Grand Opening, Noro and his orchestra performed in a window display to attract consumers into the shop. Both the record label and store were short-lived.
In addition, he appeared in films such as The Gay Ranchero (1941), Cuban Pete (1942), Ella (1942), and Mexican Jumping Bean (1942).
Noro was equally famous in Puerto Rico. He performed for the inauguration of the island’s first elected Governor, Luis Muñoz Marin, which led to a recording contract with MGM Records. According to Basilio Serrano, “On the first MGM LP, Morales recorded (the tune) Rum & Soda, which he dedicated to the Governor and a campaign to popularize Puerto Rico’s rums.”
During the 50s an RCA A&R representative convinced Noro to record American pop standards, which lacked Noro’s trademark sound and swing. It led to a decline in his popularity. Also, after over 25 years in New York, he became homesick for Puerto Rico. According to the author, historian Joe Conzo: “In the late 1950s, the music business in the United States was on a downward turn. The big bands for the swing era were replaced by small conjuntos, ensembles, and venues such as the Palladium Ballroom were no longer profitable. Noro suffered from diabetes and was beginning to lose his eyesight, which contributed to his decision to return home.” His sister Alicia, negotiated a contract for him to perform at the prestigious La Concha Hotel in San Juan for six months. He performed for four years.
Morales was also known as the “Latin Duke Ellington,” and the “Dean of Latin Jazz.” There is some debate as to whether or not Noro was a jazz musician. Max Salazar is dismissive of Noro’s jazz “chops.” Basilio Serrano describes Noro’s sound as “bright and syncopated” and “jazz with a Latin ambiance.” This much is for sure; Noro was a masterful, innovative pianist whose sound encompassed Puerto Rico’s flavor with New York City sensibilities. Also, he was popular and successful in the New York scene for roughly 20 years.
Noro’s influence extended to Machito, Tito Rodriguez Tito Puente, and Charlie Palmieri and to 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.
Noro Morales died in January 1964 at the San Juan Jorge Hospital in Puerto Rico. The official cause of death was uremia (kidney failure).
Throughout his life, Noro married and divorced three times. According to Salazar, he made bootleg recordings using a pseudonym to pay alimony.
For a taste of Noro, check out Charlie Palmieri’s A Giant Step (Tropical Budda Records, 1984), which includes Rhumba Rhapsody. Also, Noro’s No More Blues (Tico, 1960).
- Blondet, Richie (Contributor)
- Conzo, Joe with David A. Perez – Mambo Diablo, My Journey with Tito Puente (Author House, 2011)
- 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)
- 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)
NORO’S DISCOGRAPHY AND FILMS: Noro’s recordings are available on a variety of platforms (Amazon, iTunes, Discogs, etc.). Also, clips from Noro’s films are available on youtube.com.