William Correa, more commonly known as Willie Bobo, was an exceptional musician known for his percussion, drums, and singing expertise. He was born to Puerto Rican parents on February 28, 1934, in Spanish Harlem and was influenced by a diverse range of music genres such as Latin rhythms, Jazz, Blues, and R&B.
His first gig was as a band boy with the legendary Cuban bandleader Frank “Machito” Grillo and The Afro-Cubans. Shortly after, he appeared as a sideman on pianist George Shearing’sThe Shearing Spell (1955).
At fourteen, he gravitated to the bongos, congas, timbales, and trap drums and studied under the legendary master Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria. “Willie was mesmerized by Mongo,” says writer and historian Max Salazar, “Mongo took him on as a student and taught him everything about the drums.”
In 1954, Santamaria convinced Tito Puente to hire Bobo and replace Manny Oquendo on bongos. According to Joe Conzo Sr., “There was a bit of a rivalry between them,” but Puente grudgingly conceded, “He was a guy who could go toe to toe with me and not even blink.”
In 1955, Bobo appeared on the album Piano Contempo: Modern Jazz Piano with the jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams. It’s unclear why she gave Correa the nickname “Bobo.”
Bobo’s Beat (Roulette) was released in 1963, followed by Do That Thing/Guajira (Tico). Both albums achieved moderate success.
In 1965, Bobo was invited to perform as a sideman on the Swedish vibraphonist Cal Tjader’s phenomenally successful record, Soul Sauce (Verve). “Tjader invited Bobo to overdub the jawbone (a percussion instrument made from the jawbone of a donkey, known as a Quijada, or Charrasca). His inspirations, ‘Sabor, Sabor, Salsa Ahi Na Ma,’ satisfied Tjader. Bobo explained to Tjader that Pantano, Maramoor, Tanya, and Leyte’s tracks were fiery and exciting, like a well-seasoned sauce. As a result, the album cover exhibits a fork on a plate of red beans and chili alongside an opened bottle of Tabasco sauce labeled, ‘Cal Tjader, Soul Sauce.'”
Shortly after that, Bobo signed with Verve Records and launched his career as a soloist, followed by a string of successful recordings, including Spanish Grease (1965), Feelin’ So Good (1966), Uno Dos Tres 1-2-3 (1966), Feelin’ So Good (1966), Bobo Motion (1967), Juicy (1967), The Spanish Blues Band (1968) and A New Dimension (1968).
During the late 1960s and 1970s, Bobo was very active. In 1969, he moved to Los Angeles, where he led several combos. Also, from 1969 to 1971, he appeared as a member of the cast of the Bill Cosby Show. During that period, he also traveled to Ghana with guitarist Carlos Santana and appeared in the documentary Soul to Soul. Moreover, in 1976, Bobo appeared in a short-lived variety show and recorded for the labels Sussex, Blue Note, and CBS Records as a sideman with Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Stitt, Herbie Mann, Gene Ammons, Shelly Mann, and Terry Gibbs.
Despite being diagnosed with cancer, Bobo reunited with Mongo Santamaria at the 1983 Playboy Jazz Festival and was active until the end of his life.
In 2010, I interviewed master conguero Poncho Sanchez, and he spoke candidly about the last time he saw Bobo. “I was playing at The Baked Potato Club with the (pianist) ‘Claire Fischer and the group Salsa Picante.’ Willie came by to see us play, and he had a patch behind his ear. I asked him about it, and he told me he had just come from the doctor and had a malignant cyst removed. He died six months later. The last time I saw Willie was when I and other musicians got together and raised money for his medical expenses. He was in a wheelchair and wanted no one to see him in that condition, so he came to the venue’s back door and asked me to thank everyone for what they were doing. Then he got into a van and drove off.”
Bobo died on September 15, 1983, at the age of 49. The cause of death was brain cancer. Bobo’s son, Eric, a drummer and percussionist, led his father’s band for a time. He also performed with Cypress Hill and toured with the Beastie Boys. His grandson, William Valen Correa, co-founded the Los Angeles-based non-profit organization HNDP.
Some of my favorite Willie Bobo classics include Herbie Hancock’s Inventions and Dimensions (Blue Note), Tito Puente’s Top Percussion (1957), featuring Puente, Bobo, Mongo Santamaria, and Carlos “Patato” Valdes, Cal Tjader’s Soul Sauce (1965), Latino! (1960) and Spanish Grease (1965).
According to his wife, Alicia, “He once said that a great artist always gets recognized at the end.” “He wanted everyone to be happy, no sorrow,” said Eric. “This is how his life was: happy, smiling, and having a good time.” Thankfully, Willie Bobo’s extensive body of work is widely available.
Cerra, Steven – Remembering Willie Bobo: 1934-1983 (2016)
Conzo, Joe with David A. Perez – Mambo Diablo, My Journey with Tito Puente (AuthorHouse, 2010)
Diamond, Richard – Bobo’s Beat – Liner Notes (1963)
Last.fm.com – Willie Bobo Biography
Salazar, Max – Origins of Salsa (Latin Beat Magazine, 1991)
Salazar, Max – Origins of Salsa (Latin Beat magazine, 1991)