(By Frank M. Figueroa)
(A Selected Discography from the Puerto Rican Diaspora - Pt. I)
(by William Millán)
NORO MORALES: BACK HOME AGAIN
(by Frank M. Figueroa)
People who have to leave their birthplace at an early age generally want to go back home to live the last years of their lives. No matter how much success they have achieved or how happy they have been in their adopted surroundings there is always a yearning to return to one's native soil. Some are lucky enough to realize this dream. Noro Morales, the great Puerto Rican pianist and band leader, was one of those fortunate people who completed the cycle and returned to his beloved island. His last years in Puerto Rico were not lived exactly in retirement and inactivity. He organized a big band with which he played and recorded until his death.
Noro Morales left Puerto Rico in 1935. Like many ambitious young musicians he was seeking fame and fortune in the Great Metropolis. Upon arriving at the big city, he settled in the heart of the Barrio Hispano in an apartment at 116th Street between 5th and Lenox Avenues. There, he joined a large number of Puerto Rican expatriates who longed for the warm sunshine and familiar surroundings of Borinquen. Among his neighbors were Rafael Hernández and his sister Victoria. From these humble beginnings, he rose to become the leader of one of Latin music's top bands. He played at New York's famous: Stork Club, Copacabana, la Conga, and China Doll nightclubs. The New York Daffy News selected his orchestra to play the prestigious Harvest Moon Ball. While doing all this he remained true to his Puerto Rican barrio roots playing at Hispanic community dances and being recognized by the leading Spanish newspaper, La Prensa, as "King of Latin Music." Even while appearing on Broadway's most exclusive cabarets he always managed to include a few bars of La Borinqueña or some other traditional Puerto Rican songs in his piano solos. Noro Osvaldo Morales did it all. He wrote hit songs, led one of the nation's top Latin bands, made top-selling recordings, appeared in movies, and became a symbol of pride for his fellow Puerto Ricans and for all Hispanics.
After more than 25 years in New York, Noro began to feel the lure of his native island calling him back. In the late 1950s the music business in the States was in a slump. Big bands were being replaced by small combos, and venues such as the Palladium Ballroom were no longer profitable. Noro suffered from glaucoma brought on by diabetes and was beginning to lose his eyesight. All this contributed to his decision to go back home. In 1960, he did just that. His sister Alicia, through some business connections in Puerto Rico, negotiated a contract for him to play with his big band at the La Concha Hotel in San Juan for six months. He ended up performing there for nearly four years. Noro actually organized a new band in Puerto Rico. He chose the best local musicians he could find and brought others from New York with him. One of these was saxophonist and arranger Ray Santos. Ray couldn't join the band from the very start because he was attending Columbia University and had to complete the college semester. He did join Noro a few months later and played with the band for more than a year. Other members of the orchestra were: Jorge López, Rafí Carrero, and Juancito Torres on trumpet; Pin Madera, alto sax; Ralph Kemp, saxophone; Pepito Morales and Carlos Medina, baritone sax; Lidio Fuentes, and Simón Madera, bass; Ana Carrero, female Cuban drummer; and Vitín Avilés, singer. Humberto Morales, Noro's brother, led a small combo that alternated with the big band at the same hotel. Noro's orchestra played for all the stage shows and provided music for dancing.
As a person, Noro Morales was a rather pleasant, easygoing individual. He had a winning personality and could charm even the most calloused state trooper. Ray Santos tells the story about a cross country car trip he took with Noro. The band completed its contract in California and the musicians had to return to New York. Noro asked Ray if he would ride back with him in his car. Ray saw this as a way to see the country and save money at the same time. He didn't know that Noro was not a good driver. He drove the way he played the piano, looking at the road as he did the piano keys, only occasionally. The pianist was a portly man and his bulk kept him a good distance from the steering wheel. While driving through the straight highways of Nevada and Arizona, Noro would be reclining way back on the seat with the car weaving from on side of the road's center line to the other. All this while looking at Ray as he spoke. Soon enough Ray could hear and see the blinking lights and siren of the highway patrol. In his mind, Ray could imagine what was going to happen to them. As a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, he had heard about the prejudiced police in the hinterland. Ray could see Noro and himself locked up in some dilapidated hoosegow and being fed bread and water. Noro wasn't shaken at all. He slowly stopped the car on the shoulder of the road and slowly got out of the car and met the trooper. Ray didn't want to even look at the scene. A few minutes went by and the next thing that Ray knew Noro and the highway policeman were laughing together and Noro was showing him photographs of his family. After exchanging pleasant goodbye, Noro got back in the car and they drove away without even getting a reprimand. That is what you call charm and Ray claims that it happened more than once during that trip.
On the bandstand Noro Morales was a demanding and at times strict band leader. He was especially tough on bass players. Perhaps because his father was a very good bass player, Noro would compare other bass players to him. Ray Santos quotes him as saying: "No, you can't tell me, man, 'cause my father played bass and he was the greatest." During his many years in New York the bass players he selected were: Billy Richtko and his brother Rudy Ritchko. In Puerto Rico he used Lidio Fuentes and Simón Madera, two of the best musicians available on that instrument.
Noro, the disciplinarian, applied his rules equally to everyone in the band, including his brothers. The story goes that while playing at La Concha in Puerto Rico, there was some dissension among the musicians because the band had a female drummer. Ana Carrero, the musician in question, was a competent drummer, she read music well and could play all the shows without difficulty. She was a woman nevertheless, and the male-dominated Latin bands had never included a female drummer. One of the most outspoken of Ana's critics was Pepito Morales. One evening, after Pepito had more than his share of drinks, he couldn't control his emotions and started yelling obscenities in Spanish at Ana on the band stand while all the microphones were open. Those present heard it all. Fortunately, it was the last number of the set and the musicians left the stand. Noro took his "little brother" downstairs and gave him a tongue-lashing he would remember for the rest of his life. In addition, he fired him on the spot. Pepito was replaced by Carlos Medina on the baritone sax. With the passing of time Ana became accepted by the band members and they played together at La Concha for several years.
An important member of the Morales band at La Concha was singer Vitín Avilés. Noro who had a long history of hiring top vocalists for his band recruited him in New York. Vitín had a big following in Puerto Rico that he earned with hits records such as La television, ChampLi de cariño and his duets with Tito Rodríguez. During his many years in New York, Vitín had learned to be a complete entertainer. While singing with Pupi Campo, Xavier Cugat, he learned to make use of his malapropisms and heavily accented English to make the audience laugh. At the La Concha Hotel in Puerto Rico, he got his opportunity to talk to the people since Noro was too shy to do that. At first Vitín only introduced the band's numbers. Later, he introduced the stage shows and became a full-fledged Master of Ceremonies. Vitín Avilés remained as singer and Master of Ceremonies at the La Concha Hotel for a period of ten years.
Accompanied by the distinguished group of musicians he had brought together in Puerto Rico, Noro Morales continued his recording career. He made at least two albums for the Marvela and Fragoso labels. Accompanied by a small rhythm group he re-recorded some of his old hits such as: Perfume de Gardenias, Silencio, Arráncame La Vida, and Malditos Celos. The albums also include new interpretations of old tunes, among them: Nada Es Verdad, Tres Palabras, and Palmeras. There are some swinging big band numbers with vocals by Vitín Avilés. The versatility of this singer is demonstrated in his bolero renditions as well as in his soneos in the upbeat numbers.
The band leader's last marriage was to Vilma Curbelo, a member of the Curbelo musical family. The couple lived with Noro's sister, Alicia, at her house on Figueroa Street and Stop 18 in Santurce, Puerto Rico. As Noro's eyesight continued to decline, he needed assistance to get around. His wife Vilma and Vitín Avilés were his guides. Ana Carrero, the band's drummer, had been a practical nurse in Cuba and came by the house every day to give Noro his insulin shots. Eventually, Noro's failing eyesight did not permit him to read the music for the stage shows. He hired a substitute pianist to play for him. No one could keep Noro away from playing his regular repertoire and he remained active until the end of his life.
In spite of his indomitable spirit, besieged by diabetes, glaucoma, and kidney problems, Noro Morales had to be confined to the San Jorge Hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He died on January 14, 1964, at the relatively young age of 53. He is buried in the Puerto Rico Memorial Cemetery in Isla Verde. If he had his way, I am sure he would have closed with the last few bars of "Skip to My Lou" with which he ended many of his piano solos. Tan tara tan, tan, tan, tan.
[I would like to thank Ray Santos, David Carp, and Vitín Avilés for providing information for this article. F.M.F.]
NUESTRA HERENCIA Poética y MUSICAL
(A Selected Discography from the Puerto Rican Diaspora - Pt. I)
Johnny Albino y su Trío San Juan - Epoca de Oro
Marc Anthony - Otra Nota
Batacumbele - Batacumbele
Ray Barretto - The Message
Lucesita Benítez - Lucesita Benítez
Steve Berrios - First World (with Son Bachéche
Willie Bobo - Spanish Grease
Juan Borria (El Faraon del Verso Negro) - Que Negrota!!
Canario (Manuel Jiménez) y su Grupo - Plenas
Bobby Capo - Luna de Miel en Puerto Rico
Pablo Casals- The 6 Cello Suites by J. S. Bach
Lenny Castro - Africa (with Toto)
Modesto Cepeda - Meloso y Picante/Raices de Bomba y Plena
Chuito El De Bayamón (con Maso Rivera y su Conjunto - Puerto Rico Canta
Cesar Concepción y su Orquesta (canta Joe Valle) - Plenas
Cortijo e Ismael - Los Internacionales
Johnny Colón - Boogalu Blues
Santitos Colón - El Bolero De Amor; Mis Grande Éxitos
Willie Colón (con Hector Lavoe) - La Gran Fuga
Joe Cuba - Steppin' Out
Sammy Davis Jr. - Mr. Bojangles
De Aquí Pa'lla - De Aquí Pa'lla
Descarga Boricua - Abrázate
Cheo Feliciano - Cheo
José Feliciano - Feliciano!
Ruth Fernández - Yo Soy La Que Soy (con La Orquesta Panamericana de Lito Peña)
Fran Ferrer - Yerba Bruja
El Gran Combo - Por El Libro
Eddie Gómez - Intuition (with Bill Evans)
Pedro Guzmán & Jíbaro Jazz - Live at the Blue Note
Mario Hernández y El Sexteto Borinquen - bajo un palmar/Las Canciones de Pedro Flores
Rafael Hernández - Danzas Puertorriqueñas
Haciendo Punto En Otro Son - Haciendo Punto En Otro Son
Giovanni Hidalgo - Worldwide
Los Hispanos - Como Una Bendición
La India - Llegó La India via Eddie Palmieri
Andes Jiménez - El Jíbaro
Carmita Jiménez - Homenaje Musical a Puerto Rico
Kenny Kirkland - Kenny Kirkland
Lo Nuevo En Tres - El Quinque
Elías Lopes - (con Trovadores) Vistiendo De Gala Nuestra Música Típica
Jennifer López - On The 6
Los Pleneros de la 21 - Somos Boricuas (Bomba y Plena en Nueva York)
Felipe Luciano (with The Last Poets) - Right On!
José Mangual - Buyú
Ricky Martin - Ricky Martin
Ladislao Martínez - Música Típica Navideña
Mayarí - El Cuarteto Mayarí de Plácido Acevedo/Así Canta Puerto Rico
Menudo - Ayer y Hoy
Ismael Miranda y su Orquesta Revelación - Así Se Compone Un Son
Yolandita Monge - Mi Encuentro
Gilbeto Monroig - Interpreta a Plácido Acevedo/Añoranzas y Quimeras
Rita Moreno - West Side Story (Soundtrack)
Ednita Nazario - Espíritu Libre
Chuck Negrón - Portraits (with Three Dog Night)
Tito Nieves - Clase Aparte
José Nogueras - Versos De Nuestra Cultura
Tommy Olivencia - Planté Bandera
Tony Orlando - Tie A Yellow Ribbon (with Dawn)
Luis "Perico" Ortiz - Vuelvo Otra Vez
Mario Ortiz - The Trumpet Man
Charlie Palmieri - Gigante Hits
Eddie Palmieri and his Orchestra - Campagne
Angel "Cucco" Peña - Con La Música Por Dentro/"Cien Años De Historia"
Plena Libre - Juntos Y Revueltos
Tito Puente - The Mambo King (100th LP)
Puerto Rico All-Stars - Puerto Rico All-Stars
Domingo Quiñones - Quién Mató A Hector Lavoe?
Ismael Quintana - Ismael Quintana
Nieves Quintero - Danzas
Humberto Ramírez - Portrait of a Stanger
Louie Ramírez - Vibes Galore
Ramito (Flor Ramos) - Las Raices de Puerto Rico
Ricardo Ray - On The Scene With Ricardo Ray
Danny Rivera - Alborrada
Maso Rivera - 60 Años de Música y Arte
Mon Rivera - Forever
Felipe " La Voz" Rodríguez - La Última Copa
Johnny Rodríguez y su Trío - Volume 1 & 2
Tito Rodríguez - En Escenario
Willie Rosario y su Orquesta - Otra Vez
Frankie Ruiz - Mirándote
Hilton Ruiz - Doin' it Right
David Sánchez - Sketches of Dreams
Gilberto Santa Rosa - Esencia
Adalberto Santiago - Calidad
Al Santiago - The Alegre All-Stars
Daniel Santos - El Legendario Daniel Santos
Ray Santos - Frenesí (The Ray Santos Orchestra backing up Linda Ronstadt)
Myrta Silva - La Compositora e Interprete
Arturo Somohano - Fiesta En San Juan
Sonora Ponceña - Sabor Sureño
Olga Tañon - Éxitos y Mas
Piri Thomas - Sounds of the Streets
Juan Tizol - Caravan (with the Duke Ellington Orchestra)
Yomo Toro - Celebrando Navidad
Dave Valentín - Musical Portraits
El Trío Vegabajeño - Canta sus Canciones Favoritas
Yayo "El Indio" (Eladio Peguero) - Yayo El Indio con La Orquesta Panamericana
Edwin Colón Zayas - (con su Taller Campesino) Bien Jíbaro
(This list reflects only a fraction of the talent that Puerto Rico has produced. We have chosen to limit ourselves in this compilation to only 100 artists as a beginning point.)
St. Brigid's Church (Avenue B and 8th Street-Loisaida)
[Photo: William Millán]
(The following piece of music was written for a St. Brigid's Church summer reunion-1997).
(Letra y Música: William Millán)
Aquí estamos juntos de nuevo - Con la familia
Compartiendo viejos cuentos - Con la familia
Abrazando y recordando - Con la familia
Celebrando un día nuevo - Con la familia
Un brindis pa' Loisaida - y la Santa "B" también
Por tantas buenas memorias - recuerdos de un gran ayer
Brindemos a Loisaida - la Avenida B también
Por todos los buenos tiempos - de aquel alegre 'va y ven'
Aquí estamos juntos de nuevo - Con la familia
Todo juntos dando gracias - Entre familia
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