Home PR Project Boricua Pioneer, Noro Morales

Boricua Pioneer, Noro Morales

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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 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 title 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 (Esy) 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, father Louis Morales, his wife, and nine children moved to Caracas, Venezuela, and he 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 relocating 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 drummer Humberto, flutist Etsy, and Pepito. Their first six recordings were 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 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.” Afterward, Noro composed the tune, Walter Winchell Rumba.

Noro 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, 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. The performance led to a recording contract with MGM Records. According to 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, which led to a decline in his popularity. 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 play with his band at the prestigious La Concha Hotel in San Juan for six months. He performed there for four years.

Morales was  also known as the “Latin Duke Ellington,” and the “Dean of Latin Jazz.” There is a difference of opinion 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 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. Technically, his discography is incomplete.

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).

SOURCES

  • 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)

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)

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.

A graduate of Empire State College with a dual major in journalism and Latin American studies, Editor-in-Chief Tomas Peña has spent years applying his knowledge and writing skills to the promotion of great musicians. A specialist in the crossroads between jazz and Latin music, Peña has written extensively on the subject. His writing appears on Latin Jazz Network; Chamber Music America magazine and numerous other publications.

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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