PEDRO JUAN RODRIGUEZ FERRER aka Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez, was a consummate vocalist (sonero), composer, and showman. His good looks, coiffed hair, chic attire, smooth dance moves, and regal bearing earned him the moniker, the “Black Count.”
Rodriguez was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, in 1933, the second of three children to Emiliano Rodríguez and Anatilde Ferrer Colón. He grew up in the barrio called El Ligao but often said he hailed from La Cantera. At five, he played the bongos in his father’s quartet, El Conjunto Gondolero. At thirteen he moved to New York.
In an interview with Mary Kent, Rodriguez spoke about his first encounter with New York. “The day I arrived, nobody picked me up at the airport. They gave me a little note with an address written on it. The taxi driver took me to 100th street between First and Second Avenue. At that time, First Avenue was mostly Italians. You couldn’t go to that side because you’d get beaten up by the Italians. The first year was very hard.”
Rodriguez graduated from Patrick Henry High School. Also, he graduated from The New York School of Printing, Up until the time he was drafted, he worked as a printer however, it’s worth noting he was denied a union membership because of its discriminatory practices.
From 1953 to 1956, Rodriguez served in the U.S. Army as a paratrooper stationed in Fort Benning, Georgia, and Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in the Jim Crow South. “The nearest town to Fort Bragg was Fayettville,” said Rodriguez. “My Puerto Rican friends were white, so when we got to town, everybody had to go their separate ways. I used to cross the train tracks to where the Black restaurants were and eat with the poor blacks. It was a very trying time for me. I was proud to be a paratrooper, but I was discouraged because of racism.”
After his discharge, Rodriguez returned to New York and began the arduous process of honing his chops with groups such as La Oriental Cubana, Los Jovenes Estrella de Cuba, and Hector Ceno’s La Novel. “I was acquiring experience. I had to take a lot of humiliation,” says Rodriguez, “but I kept on.”
Rodriguez’s primary influences include Pedro Ortiz Davila (Davilita), Miguelito Cuni, Cheo Marquetti, Abelardo Barroso, Benny More, and the trumpeter, Felix Chappotin y sus Estrellas among others. He is remembered by many as, “the most Cuban of Puerto Rican soneros.”
While performing with Johnny Soler at the club, Los Panchos, he met the Dominican flutist, bandleader Johnny Pacheco, who was seeking to replace the vocalists, Rudy Calzado and Elio Romero. Pacheco hired Rodriguez and Vitin Aviles as their replacements. “People thought Pachecho would lose popularity, but we were young, and we knew how to dance. People liked us very much.”
Between 1963 and 1973, the duo recorded seven highly acclaimed albums for the Fania label, including Canonazo (1964), Pacheco at the World’s Fair (1964), La Perfecta Combinacion (1970), Los Compadres (1972), Tres De Cafe y Dos De Azucar (ds1973), and Pacheco y El Conde con Celia Cruz (1980) among others.
As a member of the Fania All-Stars, Rodriguez and the all-star cast served as entertainers and cultural ambassadors who spread the Salsa gospel throughout the world and took the genre to its highest peak.
In 1974, Rodriguez left the Fania All-Stars and embarked on a career as a soloist. His debut album, El Conde Negro, and recordings such as Este Negro Esta Sabroso (1976) and A Touch of Class, were well received and withstood the test of time.
In 1980, Rodriguez and his family moved to Puerto Rico. Initially, he was successful, but as the Dominican merengue and Salsa erotica crazes took root Salsa’s waned. In () he returned to New York.
Between 1983 and 1989, Rodriguez released several albums with Pacheco, including the Grammy-nominated Salsobita.
One of Rodriguez’s most memorable perfomances took place on September 8, 1996, at the Teatro La Perla in Ponce. Titled, 35 Years of Royalty and dedicated to Rodriguez, the celebration featured Johnny Pacheco, Papo Lucca and La Sonora Ponceña, Andy Montañez, Ismael Miranda, Bobby Valentin, Camilo Azuquita, Los Guayacanes de San Antón, Ruth Fernández and his children, Pete Jr. and Cita Rodriguez.
In the 90s, Rodriguez recorded two acclaimed albums: Generaciones (1993) and Pete and Papo (1995). Also, in 2000, Rodriguez and Tito Puente collaborated on a tribute to Beny More. On October 6, 2000, Rodriguez and an all-star cast celebrated the release of Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri’s Masterpiece – La Obra Maestra at the Tito Puente Amphitheater in Puerto Rico.
On December 1, 2000, at 67, Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez died in his sleep. The official cause of death was cardiac arrest. He is buried in Bayamón’s National Cemetery.
Today, a street in Ponce’s La Cantera neighborhood bears Rodriguez’s name. Also, his legacy survives through his daughter, Cita Rodriguez, a vocalist and the creator of the play El Conde y La Condesa, and the jazz trumpeter Pete Rodriguez Jr.
Also, he was a masterful “bolerista” (bolero/ballad singer). Songs such as Este Negro Esta Sabroso (This Black Man is Tasty), La Abolicion (Abolition), El Conde Negro (the Black Count), and Yo Soy La Ley (I am the Law) expressed Afro-Puerto Rican pride and spoke truth to power. Emerging salseros and salseras would do well to study Rodriguez’s extensive body of work, his unique style, and swing. Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez was a national treasure.
- Este Negro Esta Sabroso
- A Touch of Class
- Pete Rodriguez Jr. El Conde Negro
- Cita Rodriguez – Un Homenaje a Graciela Perez
- Lechner, Ernesto Pete El Conde Rodriguez Profile (Fania)
- Kent, Mary – Salsa Talks, A Musical Heritage Uncovered (Digital Domain, 2005)
- Ortiz, Lopez Miguel Rodriguez, Article: Fundacion Nacional Para La Cultural Popular.
- Wikipedia – Rodriguez, Conde, Pete,