Underground King of New York City Salsa Benny Vargas
The Return of Mr. Nice Guy
Much is rightly celebrated about the rich legacy of the Bronx, El Barrio, and the LES and their contributions to salsa and Latin music in general. But often overlooked is the contribution of Brooklyn, New York City’s most populous borough. While Fania was blowing up worldwide with its master catalogue of salsa and boogaloo, back in Brooklyn a number of independent labels and acts were putting out some of the heaviest sounds salsa music ever heard. Fania managed to swipe up some of BK’s greats such as the Lebron Brothers, Richie Ray, and Ray Barretto. Yet in the streets and clubs throughout Nueva Yol other groups such as Orquesta Dee Jay, the Brooklyn Sounds, and the Orchestra Soledad were holding it down for the Planet of Brooklyn. Another of Brooklyn’s finest that emerged from the golden era was the Dax Pacem Orchestra. Their 1969 release on Amaral Records has become one of the holy grails of Latin records and a perfect example of the trombone and percussion madness of true NYC Salsa. I was able to sit down with Benny Vargas of Dax Pacem (the band’s name means Give Us Peace in Latin) aka Mr. Nice Guy aka the Underground King of Salsa to talk, bochinchar, and smoke cigars on a snowy Sunday at his home in Flatbush.
Tell me how it all began.
I was 10 years old performing with my uncles. (One of whom is legendary vocalist Pete Bonet.) We were playing in clubs in the “Puerto Rican Catskills,” Which is where everyone would go to get away and have a good time. Eventually we were able to get booked in the Palladium. The Palladium was where everyone would go. The Roseland, which was the other spot, was more of a “society” spot. The Palladium was more democratic. You would go in and you would see people on the sidelines, before the bands would play, learning to dance. You would see Cuban Pete in there. I actually learned to dance from Cuban Pete, who was really Boricua. You have to remember this is the ’50s and ’60s so to have a place where you would see all of New York, white, black, Latin, all in one place dancing and interacting, it was revolutionary in a way. I would be in there dancing with Jewish girls. I would be dancing with Puerto Rican girls, whose parents would be all ready to marry us just off one dance. It was beautiful.
Tell me about your first performance there.
My uncles and I were doing the early show. It was a special all day show where they would have younger acts in the morning and build up throughout the day to have the hottest bands playing at midnight, such as Tito Puente, Machito, etc. So my uncles and I were playing. I used to play maracas while my uncles performed. That night Moncho Leña y Los Aces del Ritmo with Mon Rivera were the headliners. I was a big Mon Rivera fan. My uncle used to play me his 78s and I would sing and play my maracas along to them. So we finish our set and Moncho and Mon come up. My uncle didn’t tell me who Mon Rivera was, I had never seen him, only heard him. They also didn’t tell me that I would be doing something with Mon Rivera. Mon was known to challenge people to do his famous trabalenguas, tongue twisters (see “Karakatis-Ki”). So as they are into their set, Mon announces to the audience that a young kid was going to join him on stage. As soon as he says my name, I froze. My uncles had to essential threaten my life to get on stage and perform! So here my little ass is on stage next to my idol, he hands me the mic, the band gets going and I do my thing! Mon’s mouth drops and the rest is history.
You mentioned the Palladium and the Roseland. What were some of the other spots, in particular in Brooklyn?
In Brooklyn you had the Knickerbocker, The Hotel St. George, The Stardust, the Red Plum, and M&Ms on Flatbush, which was owned by Ralphy Mercado. Ralpy would go on to manage the Cheetah Club and then later begin RMM Records. Very good guy, he was loyal to me and gave me some great opportunities. When he was managing the Cheetah he got us booked to perform with 16 other bands including Eddie Palmieri, Joe Cuba, La Conspiración, Willie Colón, and Larry Harlow. The show started at 2PM and ended at 3AM, and this was on a Sunday! This is six months before the legendary Fania All-Stars performance. That was a great night! Definitely the highlight of our performing career as Dax Pacem.
When was this, ’71?
Yeah, 1971, Easter Sunday. A good story from that night was when Irving Soto, our conguero, and I were in the crowd watching and talking shit, Irving says to me I want to challenge Ray Barretto to a conga battle.
Ray Barretto, the conga god?
Exactly. Irving, who was 15 at the time, said to me he wanted to challenge Barretto, who was one of the performers that night. I told Irving, no, you want to rumbiar with him, don’t tell him you want to challenge him, tell him you want to rumbiar with him. So anyways Barretto agrees and Irving is on stage with Ray just going at it doing “Que Viva La Musica.” Mr. Hard Hands and this 15 year old kid. Ray is killing it as usual and looks over to Irving and gives him the “oh shit little kid, good job” face. At one point Ray just stops and leans on his conga watching Irving play. Irving was going at it like he was battling! On one strike of the conga I hear this loud sharp noise—Irving had hit one of the congas so hard he split the skin! So they finish the descarga session, Irving comes off stage and we go backstage. I am back there yelling at Irving like what the fuck are you going to do now genius, you broke one of the conga and we have another set to do. As I am yelling at him in walks Barretto and taps me on the back and tells me. “Don’t be so hard on him, he can borrow mine.” Barretto tells the stage people to leave his conga up there so that Irving could have a set for our set. At the end of the night Barretto actually gave Irving the conga to keep.
Let’s rewind a little bit. Talk to me about the recording of the Dax Pacem album.
It took two days.
[laughs] Yeah, two days. We recorded it at Mastertone Studios. It was one day with the whole band, the other with just the singers. Orquesta La Moderna also recorded while we were recording actually.
How old were you?
I was 17, I was 17 when we recorded it and 18 when it was released. We pressed up 5,000 copies only. I personally went to Long Island where they were being pressed and watched them come off the machine. The first 1000 or so have a strong maroon Amaral label, and the latter ones kept coming out lighter, some of the last were almost pink. So if you have a maroon one, you have one of the first 1000 copies. Same with the 45s. The 45 has “La Tumba” on one side and “I Do Love You” on the flip. That actually worked out great for us when it came to getting it played on the radio. Because on one side you had “La Tumba,” which is a straight up heavy guaguanco, and then on the flip you had “I Do Love You” which appealed to the younger kids because of the English lyrics.
How was the record pushed in terms of distribution and radio?
Me, I was the one who the old man, Don Amaral, would get to distribute the record throughout the city. The old man would call me and say “I need you to take 100 records to so and so record shop.” I would go with a shopping cart and load it up then hop on the train and go wherever. To the Bronx or El Barrio or throughout Brooklyn. Back then you would have entire blocks lined up with record shops. Entire blocks! So I would go down the block with my shopping cart, dropping off records, talking with the shop owners seeing what was selling and what wasn’t. We had a healthy competition with La Orquesta Moderna de New York, our label mates, so I would always talk smack when I would find out our record was outselling theirs!
The same with pushing it to radio?
Yeah, it was me. Back then you would have to pay the radio DJs to play your records or have a big label to approach the DJs. I had neither. I just knew all the DJs from hanging around the clubs. I knew Dick “Sugar,” I knew Symphony Sid. They all knew me because I was going to the clubs since I was a kid. So when I had the Dax Pacem album, I just went straight up to them and asked them to play it for me.
What was the last memory you had of Dax Pacem performing live?
It was 1973 at Brooklyn College. We all knew it was going to be the last show. Jose Velez, the lead singer, and I already had our falling out and a lot of the guys were already going through the difficulty of maintaining a regular job while still rehearsing and doing shows. After that it was done.
How about Amaral Records?
In the summer of 1975 I went to go visit Don Amaral at his Real Estate office on Atlantic Avenue, which is what he used to do and how he got the money to start the label. I went down like I used to and he tells me he was no longer going to keep doing the music thing. The money was no longer coming in and he wanted to refocus everything on the real estate business. So he tells me that because he knew I loved it and was essentially the only one really pushing it that he was going to sign over the label to me. So he went over to a notary and had everything signed over to me. That was the end of Amaral Records. By that point the band had already gone through its changes and struggles, and so had the guys from La Moderna.
That wasn’t the end for you though?
No, I went on to do session work for a number of guys. Harlow always looked out for me. Whenever he needed someone to play maracas or sing background he would call me. [Fania owner Jerry] Massucci loved it because they would pay me under the table, so the budgets were always kept. I did work with Hector Lavoe. I could go on for days with stories about him. He was a riot! It was great because I was always hanging around with the guys. We would goof around and party. Great times, great memories! I also did work with Little Louie Vega. He knew me because he knew I knew his uncle, Hector Lavoe. He had me help, or at least attempt to help, this young kid he was trying to make into a salsa singer, this skinny long haired freestyle singer by the name of Marc Anthony.
So this year is a great year for you, you have a return to the stage, interestingly enough, with a young salsa group from Brooklyn, La Mecánica Popular, tell me about that.
Well, thanks to you and YouTube, I was able to see this group in action and they truly swing! It’s been a while since I sang with a band. I had some health issues I had to take care of, so it should be an interesting experience for me. The leader of the group has given me carte blanche to work with La Mecánica Popular. I‘m very excited to be working with them and who knows maybe record a couple of tunes with them.
On Friday, March 14, Benny will be joining La Mecánica Popular onstage at Radio Bushwick for ¡Dura!—a new series dedicated to the roots and future sounds of Salsa Dura in NYC and around the globe. Led by a collaborative crew of Brooklyn-based heavy selectors and deep crates that includes Monk-One & E’s E of Greenwood Rhythm Coalition, Ridegwood’s Boogieman and Christian Mártir, the team promises to touch on the many styles and influences of Salsa that have been circulating on record from the 1960s until now.
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