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Pedro Juan Rodriguez Ferrer, known as Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez, was a consummate vocalist (sonero), composer, and showman. His good looks, coiffed hair, chic attire, and regal bearing earned him the moniker, the “Black Count.”
He was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, in 1933, the second of three children to Emiliano Rodríguez and Anatilde Ferrer Colón. He grew up on the mains street of a barrio called El Ligao in Ponce that longer exists but repeatedly said he came from La Cantera because the neighborhood is better-known. At five, he played the bongos in his father’s quartet, El Conjunto Gondolero.
At thirteen, he moved to New York. “The day I arrived, nobody went to pick 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 that side because you’d get beaten up by the Italians. That first year was very hard and remember being beaten up by four black Americans in front of the teacher and he didn’t do anything.”
Rodriguez attended and graduated from Patrick Henry High School. Also, he attended the New York School of Printing. “I used to do four-color process work for magazines, and although I was very good at printing, I couldn’t get into the union because it was, for white people. Then I was drafted.”
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 in an interview with Mary Kent. “My Puerto Rican friends were white, so when we got to town, everybody had to go 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 because an inferiority complex was creeping into my heart. I was very proud to be a paratrooper, but I was discouraged because of racism.”
After an honorable discharge, Rodriguez returned to New York and honed his chops with 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 drew inspiration from Cuban singers such as Pedro Ortiz Davila (Davilita), Miguelito Cuni, Cheo Marquetti, Abelardo Barroso, Benny More, and the trumpeter, Felix Chappotin y sus Estrellas among others.
Rodriguez also performed with the pianist, Johnny Soler, at the club, Los Panchos, where he met the Dominican flutist, bandleader Johnny Pacheco, seeking replacements for the vocalists, Rudy Calzado and Elio Romero. Pacheco invited Rodriguez and Vitin Aviles to join his. “We used to sing in unison (the same key). People thought Pachecho would lose popularity, but we were young, and we knew how to dance. People liked us very much.”
In 1964 Pachecho switched from a charanga to a conjunto format. The same year, he and Rodriguez performed at the New York World’s Fair’s Caribbean Pavilion and recorded Pacheco at the New York World’s Fair (Fania, 1964).
Between 1963 and 1973, the duo recorded seven highly acclaimed albums for the Fania label, including Canonazo (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 lineups were entertainers and cultural ambassadors who spread the salsa gospel worldwide. “We took salsa to the highest peak,” Rodriguez.
In 1974, Rodriguez left the Fania All-Stars and launched a career as a soloist. His debut album, El Conde Negro, and subsequent recordings such as Este Negro Esta Sabroso (1976) and A Touch of Class, which were well received and have withstood the test of time.
In 1980, Rodriguez and his family moved to Puerto Rico. Initially, he was successful, but the merengue and salsa erotica crazes, and salsa’s decline forced him to return to New York.
Between 1983 and 1989, Rodriguez released several albums with Pacheco, including the Grammy-nominated Salsobita.
One of Rodriguez’s most memorable events took place on September 8, 1996, at the Teatro La Perla in Ponce. Titled, 35 Years of Royalty, the celebration featured Johnny Pacheco, Papo Lucca and La Sonora Ponceña, Andy Montañez, Ismael Miranda, Bobby Valentin, Camilo Azuquita, Los Guayacanes de San Antón, and 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). In 2000, Tito Puente, who died before the project was completed, hired Rodriguez to participate in a tribute to the late, great Benny More.
On October 6, 2000, Rodriguez and 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, Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez died in his sleep. The official cause of death was cardiac arrest. He was 67. He is buried in Bayamón’s National Cemetery.
Today, a street in Ponce’s La Cantera neighborhood bears his name. Also, his legacy survives through his daughter, the teacher, vocalist Cita Rodriguez, and the creator of the play, El Conde y La Condesa, a tribute to her father, and son Pete Rodriguez Jr., a jazz trumpeter and educator.
Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez was known as, “the most Cuban” of Puerto Rican soneros” for his mastery of the Cuban son. He is lesser-known as a crooner and 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 Black (Afro-Puerto Rican) pride and spoke truth to power and those who discriminated against him.
Emerging salseros and salseras would do well to study Rodriguez’s extensive body of work, his unique style, and swing, and the manner in which he used his art to speak out. Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez was a masterful sonero, a consummate showman, and a national treasure. Long live the legacy of El Conde Negro!
- 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,