WILLIAM CORREA, better known as WILLIE BOBO, was a consummate percussionist, drummer, vocalist, and showman.
He was born to Puerto Rican parents on February 28, 1934, in Spanish Harlem and was influenced by 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 that, he appeared on pianist George Shearing’s, The Shearing Spell (1955).
At fourteen, he gravitated to bongos, congas, timbales, and trap drums and studied under the master Cuban percussionist, Mongo Santamaria. “Willie was mesmerized by Mongo,” says writer, historian Max Salazar, “and Mongo took him on as a student and taught him everything about the drums.”
In 1954, Santamaria convinced 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 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. For reasons that are not clear, it was she who gave Correa the moniker, “Bobo.”
1963 saw the release of the album Bobo’s Beat (Roulette), his first as a leader, followed by Do That Thing/Guajira (Tico), which were moderately successful.
In 1965, Bobo was invited to perform on the vibraphonist Cal Tjader’s phenomenally successful record, Soul Sauce (Verve). “Tjader invited Bobo to dub 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 the tracks Pantano, Maramoor, Tanya, and Leyte, 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 launched his career as a soloist, signed with Verve Records, and released a string of successful recordings including Spanish Grease (1965), Feelin’ So Good (1966), Uno Dos Tres 1-2-3 (1966), Feelin’ So Good (1966), Uno Dos Tres (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. From 1969 to 1971, he appeared on Bill Cosby’s comedy series. He also traveled to Ghana with and with guitarist, Carlos Santana, and appeared in the documentary film Soul to Soul. In 1976, Bobo appeared in a short-lived variety show. Also, he recorded for 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 almost to the end of his life.
In 2010 I interviewed the master conguero, Poncho Sanchez, and he spoke candidly about the last time he saw Bobo. “I was playing at a club called, The Baked Potato 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. When I asked him about it, 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 me and other musicians 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. That was the last time I saw him.”
Bobo died on September 15, 1983 ar 49. The cause of death was brain cancer. Bobo’s son, Eric, a drummer and percussionist briefly led his father’s band. He also performed with Cypress Hill and toured with the Beastie Boys. His grandson, William Valen Correa, is the co-founder of the Los Angeles-based non-profit organization HNDP.
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 wanted to come to New York…he wanted to come home…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, to have 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)
- Wolff, Carlo – Willie Bobo’s Finest Hour – Liner Notes (2003)
PHOTO: Tito Puente, Willie Bobo, going “toe to toe.” Photographer unknown.
© 2020 Tomas Pena
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