PEDRO JUAN RODRIGUEZ FERRER, better known as Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez, was a consummate singer (sonero), songwriter, and showman. His good looks, coiffed hair, chic attire, suave dance moves, and regal bearing earned him the moniker “El Conde,” a.k.a. 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 El Ligao but said he hailed from La Cantera. At five, Rodriguez played the bongos in El Conjunto Gondolero, his father’s quartet. Rodriguez’s father died of tuberculosis when he was twelve. Shortly after that, his mother sent him to New York, where he lived with his aunt.
In an interview with Mary Kent, Rodriguez spoke about the day he arrived in 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 beat up. The first year was very hard.” Rodriguez graduated from Patrick Henry High School. Also, the New York School of Printing. After graduation, he worked as a printer. Still, the printer’s union, notorious for its discriminatory practices, denied him membership.
In 1953 he was drafted and inducted into the U.S. Army. From 1953 to 1956, Rodriguez served as a paratrooper in Fort Benning, Georgia, and Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in the Jim Crow South. “The nearest town to Fort Bragg was Fayetteville. My Puerto Rican friends were white, so everybody had to go their separate ways when we got to town. 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 discouraged because of racism.”
After discharge, Rodriguez returned to New York and performed with La Oriental Cubana, Los Jovenes Estrella de Cuba, and Hector Ceno’s La Novel. Rodriguez cites Pedro Ortiz Davila, aka “Davilita,” Miguelito Cuni, Cheo Marquetti, Abelardo Barroso, Benny More, and the trumpeter Felix Chappotin y sis Estrellas as primary influences. While performing with Johnny Soler at the club Los Panchos, he met the Dominican flutist and bandleader Johnny Pacheco, seeking replacements for the singer’s Rudy Calzado and Elio Romero. Pacheco hired Rodriguez and Vitin Aviles as Calzado and Romero’s replacements.
Between 1963 and 1973, Pacheco and Rodriguez recorded seven 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” (1973), 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 internationally and took the genre to its highest peak. In 1974, Rodriguez left Fania and embarked on a solo career. His debut album, El Conde Negro, and recordings, such as Este Negro Esta Sabroso (1976) and A Touch of Class, are acclaimed salsa classics.
In 1980, Rodriguez and his family moved to Puerto Rico, but the journey was short-lived. Initially, he enjoyed success, but as the Dominican merengue and Salsa erotica crazes took root, Salsa’s waned, and the family 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 performances occurred on September 8, 1996, at the Teatro La Perla in Ponce. Titled “35 Years of Royalty,” which paid homage to Rodriguez and featured an all-star cast, including Johnny Pacheco, Papo Lucca, La Sonora Ponceña, Andy Montañez, Ismael Miranda, Bobby Valentin, Camilo Azuquita, Los Guayacanes de San Antón, Ruth Fernández and Rodriguez’s 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. The same year, 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. The cause of death was cardiac arrest. Rodriguez 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 singer, and creator of the play “El Conde y La Condesa.” The jazz trumpeter Pete Rodriguez Jr.
Though he has not received recognition, Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez was a masterful “bolerista” (ballad singer). Also, 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) were expressions of Afro-Puerto Rican and Black pride.
Emerging salseros and salseras would do well to study and absorb Rodriguez’s extensive body of work, unique style, and swing. Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez was a national treasure.
La Perfecta Combinación (with Johnny Pacheco, 1970)
Este Negro Esta Sabroso (1976)
Soy La Ley (1979)
Celia, Johnny and Pete (1980)
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,