Carlos Manual “Charlie” Palmieri (November 21, 1927 – September 12, 1988) was a renowned bandleader and musical director and known as the “Giant of the Keyboards.”
Palmieri’s parents migrated to New York from Ponce, Puerto Rico in 1926 and settled down in the South Bronx where Palmieri was born. As a child, he taught himself to play the piano by ear. At age 7, his father enrolled him at The Juilliard School, where he took piano lessons. By the time Palmieri was 14, he and his 5-year-old brother, Eddie, participated in talent contests, often winning prizes. At this time his godfather introduced him to the music of the Latin bands – an experience which inspired him to become a musician.
In 1943, at 16 he made his professional debut as a pianist for the Osario Selasie Band. He graduated from high school in 1946 and immediately went to play for various bands. He made his recording debut with the song “Se Va La Rumba” as a member of the Rafael Muñiz Band.
In October 1947, Tito Puente, the musical director of the Fernando Álvarez Band, was impressed with Charlie and hired him to play with his band at the Copacabana Club. He played with Tito until 1953. Also, with Pupi Campo’s band, Jack Paar’s CBS daytime television show and formed two bands that performed at the Palladium Ballroom.
For several years, Charlie worked in Chicago, but returned to New York and formed a band called Charanga La Duboney. While performing at the Monte Carlo Ballroom, Palmieri heard flutist Johnny Pacheco and hired him on the spot. The mixture of Pacheco’s flute with Palmieri’s band led to the 1960s Charanga craze in the United States.
Palmieri was signed by the United Artists Record company and had several Latino hits however he suffered setbacks. Among them, Pacheco left the band, and United Artists canceled his contract because of a conflict of interest with Tito Rodríguez. This led to Palmieri’s signing with the Alegre Records with whom he had several hits including Como Bailan La Pachanga and La Pachanga Se Baila Así (with Joe Quijano).
When the Charanga craze declined in popularity, Palmieri switched to the Boogaloo, reconfigured the band, dropped the word “Charanga” and renamed it, La Duboney. In 1965, he scored a hit with Tengo Máquina y Voy a 60 (Going like 60) and in 1967 with Hay Que Estar En Algo/Either You Have It or You Don’t. Also, in 1968, Palmieri recorded Latin Bugalú for Atlantic Records.
In the 1970s, Palmieri worked as the musical director for Tito Puente’s television show El Mundo de Tito Puente (Tito Puente’s World). He also taught and lectured at various educational institutions. After reorganizing his band, Palmieri played the organ and recorded La Hija de Lola (Lola’s daughter) and La Vecina (The neighbor). Also, he played the organ on several of his brother’s recordings (see below). In 1978, he recorded The Heavyweight for Alegre Records
Among the artists Palmieri worked with were Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Herbie Mann, Ismael Rivera, Rafael Cortijo, Ismael Quintana, Bobby Capó, Mongo Santamaría and Ray Barretto.
In 1980, Palmieri moved back to Puerto Rico. On a business trip to New York, he suffered a massive heart attack and stroke. He soon recovered, recorded the landmark album, A Giant Step (1984). Also, he performed as a sideman with various bands. In June 1988, he debuted in the United Kingdom accompanied by London’s Robin “King Salsa” Jones.
Palmieri gave private piano lessons to students at the Schuylerville Music Center in the Throggs Neck section of the Bronx in New York City. Also, he appeared in the 1988 film Salsa.
Four days before his death, Palmieri gave a private show at La Fortaleza in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he performed (solo) for the Governor of Puerto Rico (Rafael Hernández Colón) and guests. On September 12, 1988, Charlie Palmieri suffered yet another heart and died one day later at Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx.
On November 6, 2004, a Big Band Tribute to Charlie Palmieri was held at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. Also, The Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts hosted an annual competition for the Charlie Palmieri Memorial Piano Scholarship.
Maestro, Charlie Palmieri has earned a special place in the pantheon of Latin music.