In many ways, Larry Harlow — one of the central figures of salsa and its defining label, Fania Records — was a master at mixing the diverse musical connections between New York and the Caribbean. In a career that spanned six decades, he stitched together overlapping genres like rock, jazz and R&B and various Cuban genres like rumba, son and guaracha through intimate, soulful knowledge of both musical traditions.
Harlow grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and studied classical piano. His father, Buddy Kahn, was a Jewish mambo musician who led the house band at New York’s Latin Quarter club. The musician and scholar Benjamin Lapidus writes in his new book that Jews were sponsoring Latin dances with live bands as early as the 1930s in New York City. Harlow came out of a tradition of mamboniks, Jews who danced mambo at spaces like Midtown’s Palladium, various spots in Brooklyn and the Catskills hotel circuit. Jewish musicians like Marty Sheller often wrote arrangements, and radio D.J.s like “Symphony” Sid Torin and Dick “Ricardo” Sugar promoted the music. Immortal Latin band leaders like Tito Puente regularly played the Catskills, a space where young musicians like Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros, who became a Harlow collaborator, cut their teeth.
Yet Harlow, who died on Friday at 82, wanted to go beyond the Europeanized mambo performance styles heard in the Catskills and be true to the music’s African roots. He traveled to pre-Castro Cuba in the 1950s and returned determined to combine what he learned with what was happening in New York, creating a modern synthesis of the traditional and the avant-garde. Seeking acceptance among core post-mambo musicians, he even went so far as to become initiated to the Afro-Caribbean religion of Santería to stake his claim to authenticity and earn respect from the music community.
“Here was a Jewish guy hanging out with all these Cubans and Afro-Caribbeans,” he told me in a 2004 interview. “I figured when in Rome, do like the Romans do.”
Harlow never tried to pretend he was not who he was. Even after achieving insider status in the Santería community, he was often photographed wearing a Star of David around his neck. He was affectionately known by Spanish-speaking audiences as El Judío Maravilloso (the Marvelous Jew), a sobriquet given to him because of his devotion to the music of the blind Afro-Cuban bandleader and mambo progenitor Arsenio Rodríguez, known as El Ciego Maravilloso (the Marvelous Blind Man). When he chose, in the early 1980s, to release an album called “Yo Soy Latino” (“I Am Latino”), the lead vocalist who delivered the lyrics was the much-loved Puerto Rican singer Tito Allen.
Beyond immersing himself in Afro-Carribean spirituality, Harlow was directly involved in the evolution of salsa music, collaborating with Johnny Pacheco and Jerry Masucci, the founders of Fania. According to Alex Masucci, Jerry’s surviving brother, Harlow was the first artist contracted to record for Fania. His first few albums, “Bajándote: Gettin’ Off,” “El Exigente” and “Me and My Monkey,” which includes a version of the Beatles song “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey,” traded on the bilingual, R&B-influenced bugalú sound, which united Black and Latino listeners.
Harlow’s move away from búgalu to a jazz-influenced update on Rodríguez’s more Africanized conjunto sound — which added more trumpets and percussion like conga and cowbell — was crucial for salsa’s gestation. His blend of jazz, mambo and conjunto would become one of the primary influences on the emerging idea of salsa. While Eddie Palmieri and Willie Colón’s innovative use of trombone gave the horn sections a more aggressive, urban sound, Harlow and Pacheco’s influence was also decisive. Harlow’s early ’70s releases, “A Tribute to Arsenio Rodríguez,” “Abran Paso” and “Salsa,” crystallized his new aesthetic. He pioneered recording with both trumpets and trombone. He gave the Cuban charanga sound, which featured flutes and violins, new life. And he incorporated the batá drum, used in religious ceremonies, into his decidedly secular project.
Harlow exulted in the spirit of the late 1960s — Rubén Blades told me he was the “Frank Zappa of salsa” — and was a voracious collaborator. His bilingual Beatles cover and the album artwork for “Electric Harlow” flaunted psychedelic style. He played piano for Steven Stills and Janis Ian, and had a rock-jazz project with the Blood, Sweat & Tears keyboardist Jerry Weiss. In 1972, after Miranda left his band temporarily, he painstakingly adapted the Who’s “Tommy” as the salsa opera “Hommy,” transferring the original British characters to New York’s Latino barrios.
Although salsa’s burst in popularity during the mid- to late 1970s was organic, feeding off the hip young Latino audiences from the Bronx and Uptown, Harlow helped it blow up by taking a major producing role in Leon Gast’s vérité concert film “Our Latin Thing.” The film was a breakout party for the Fania All-Stars, a supergroup featuring Ray Barretto, Colón, Cheo Feliciano, Pacheco and many others, with Harlow on piano. Last week Masucci told me that Harlow was the connection to both Gast’s involvement and the appearance of authentic Santería devotees that appear late in the film. In 1976, he recorded a celebratory musical history, “La Raza Latina Suite,” with Blades singing in English.
Though Harlow wasn’t born into the traditions that birthed salsa, throughout his career he was widely accepted as a pillar of the music. He was one in a long line of Jewish musicians who have played a key role in Afro-Caribbean music, going all the way back to Augusto Coén, a Jewish Afro-Puerto Rican who led a Latin big band in 1934 that was a predecessor to the mambo kings Puente, Machito and Tito Rodríguez. (The exchange went both ways: Even the Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz, recorded the Jewish folk song “Hava Nagila” with her band La Sonora Matancera.)
For Harlow, blending cultures and genres was simply second nature. In 2005, he contributed a wide-open keyboard solo to “L’Via L’Vasquez,” on the Texas psychedelic punk band the Mars Volta’s album “Frances the Mute” — a choice that shouldn’t be considered out of the ordinary. Several musicologists and writers have recognized the influence of Cuban bass patterns, called tumbaos, as well as cha cha cha patterns, on early rock hits like “Twist and Shout,” and “Louie Louie.” To Harlow, the connection between rock and Latin, funk and salsa was natural, a product of the era when he came of age.
“It was revolution time,” he once told me. “People were writing songs about protest, and me and Eddie and Barretto were changing the harmonic concept of Latin music. I was the one who psychedelicized them a little bit.”