Barretto, Ray

  • Birth name: Ray Barretto
  • Born: April 29, 1929 NY, NY USA
  • Died: February 17, 2006 (Age 76)
  • Genres: Latin Jazz
  • Occupation: Musician
  • Instruments: Congas, drums, percussion
  • Labels: Prestige, Blue Note, Riverside, Columbia Records, and Fania
  • Associated Acts: The Blackout All-Stars, Fania All-Stars, Adalberto Santiago

A Grammy Award-winner, who was credited with being the first American born percussionist to integrate the African-based conga rhythm into jazz.

Ray’s real name is Barreto but was misspelled on his birth certificate. His parents, who moved to New York from Puerto Rico in the early 1920s, raised Ray in Spanish Harlem and at a young age was influenced by his mother’s love of music and by the jazz of Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

Once Ray heard Dizzy Gillespie‘s “Manteca” with Gil Fuller and Chano Pozo he immediately realized his calling.

In 1949 Ray started attending jam sessions in clubs perfecting his conga playing. On one occasion Charlie Parker heard Ray play and invited him to play in his band. Later, he was asked to play for José Curbelo and Tito Puente, for whom he played for four years. Ray developed his own style of playing the conga and was soon sought after by other jazz band leaders. Latin percussionists started to appear in jazz groups as a consequence of Barretto’s musical influence.

In 1960, Ray was a house musician for the Prestige, Blue Note, and Riverside labels. He also recorded on Columbia Records with Jazz flautist Herbie Mann. New York had become the center of Latin music in the United States and a musical genre called “pachanga” was the Latin music craze of the time.

In 1961, Barretto recorded his first hit, “El Watusi.” He was quite successful with the song and the genre, to the point of being typecast, which was something that he disliked.

After recording a number of albums for the United Artists label, Ray joined the Fania record label in 1967, and his first recording for the new label was the 1968 album Acid, an experiment joining rhythm and blues with Latin music. During this period, Adalberto Santiago was the band’s lead vocalist. In 1972 Ray’s Que viva la musica was released. “Cocinando,” a track from the album, opened the soundtrack of the Fania All Stars film Our Latin Thing in which Ray had a role.

In 1973, Ray recorded the album Indestructible, in which he played “La Familia.” After a number of successful albums, and just as his Afro-Cuban band had attained a remarkable following, most of its members left it to form Típica 73, a multinational “salsa” conglomerate. This left Ray depressed and disappointed with salsa so he began redirecting his efforts to jazz, while remaining as musical director of the Fania All Stars. In 1975 he released Barretto, also referred to as the Guarare album, with new vocalists Ruben Blades and Tito Gomez.

Ray played the conga in recording sessions for the Rolling Stones and the Bee Gees. In 1975, he was nominated for a Grammy Award for the song “Barretto”. From 1976 to 1978, Ray recorded three records for Atlantic Records, and was nominated for a Grammy for Barretto Live…Tomorrow. In 1979, he recorded La Cuna for CTI records and produced a salsa record for Fania titled Ricanstruction, which was named 1980 “Best Album” by Latin N.Y. Magazine. Ray was also crowned Conga Player of that Year.

In 1990, Ray won his first Grammy for the album Ritmo en el Corazón (“Rhythm in the Heart”), which featured the vocals of Celia Cruz.

Also in the 1990s, Latin agent, Chino Rodríguez, approached Ray with a concept he also pitched to Larry Harlow. The idea was “The Latin Legends of Fania”, and Barretto, Harlow, Yomo Toro, Pete “el Conde” Rodrguez, Junior González, Ismael Miranda, and Adalberto Santiago came together and formed “The Latin Legends of Fania”, booked by Chino Rodríguez of Latin Music In 1999, Ray was inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame.

Ray lived in New York and was an active musical producer, as well as the leader of a touring band which toured the USA, Africa, Europe, Israel and Latin America.

Ray Barretto died of heart failure and complications of multiple health issues on February 17, 2006 at the Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. His body was flown to Puerto Rico, where he was given formal honors by the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. His remains were cremated.