Johnny Pacheco, the legendary bandleader who cofounded Fania Records in the 1960s and became one of the leading architects of the music that would come to be known as salsa, has died. He was 85 years old.
The Dominican-born, New York-raised Pacheco, who lived in New Jersey, died at Holy Name Medical Center, according to published reports. Sources say he had been hospitalized for complications stemming from pneumonia.
Pacheco, a Juilliard-trained multi-instrumentalist who’d found success recording with his band, Pacheco y Su Charanga, sparked a musical revolution when, in 1964, he met Jerry Masucci and together, they founded Fania Records. The two started the label with $5,000, selling albums in Spanish Harlem from the trunks of their cars.
Fania soon became known as the Latin Motown, home to superstars like Celia Cruz, Cheo Feliciano and Héctor Lavoe, and the breeding ground for seminal artists in the genre of music that would come to be known as “salsa,” a collision of traditional Cuban song and pan-Latin rhythms with American jazz and funk.
Fania’s musical scope was breathtaking. Its roster included Willie Colón, Ruben Blades, Larry Harlow, Hector Lavoe, Ray Barretto and Bobby Valentín among many, many others. The Fania sound would rule the ‘70s in New York City, where the Fania All Stars headlined Yankee Stadium in 1973.
When the label closed production in the early 1980s, it boasted over 1,000 albums, 3,000 compositions (under Fania publishing) and approximately 10,000 master tracks, many written or recorded by Pacheco.
A congenial man known for his sense of humor, his limitless enthusiasm and an abundance of talent, Pacheco was a generous artist who happily endorsed a generation of artists –his more than 10 albums alongside Celia Cruz are legendary—and was fearless in his willingness to experiment with all genres of music.
“Maestro of maestros and my good friend,” wrote Marc Anthony via Instagram following the news of Pacheco’s death. “You were there for me from Day 1, and I am forever grateful for your support, for the opportunity to be in your presence and for your amazing legacy.”
In concert, Pacheco was a dynamo, clad in bell bottoms and tight shirts – often rhinestone-studded – that would be soaked in sweat by the end of night after his tireless movement as bandleader and owner of his stage.
“What I most remember about Pacheco is his enthusiasm, his happiness,” says José Alberto “El Canario,” who collaborated numerous times with Pacheco and Cruz. His last show alongside Pacheco was five years ago in the Dominican Republic, when Pacheco turned 80, and many of Fania’s alumni showed up to sing “Happy Birthday” to him. “He always said that when he died, his tombstone would read: ‘Here lies Johnny Pacheco, against his will,’” El Canario told Billboard.
Born Juan Azarías Pacheco Knipping in the Dominican Republic, Pacheco and his family moved to New York when he was 11 years old. A precocious talent, he studied percussion at Juilliard and was already successful with his group when he met Masucci, a former New York City cop who had fallen in love with Cuban music while stationed at Guantanamo Bay during the Korean War.
When Pacheco’s first marriage fell apart, he turned to Masucci, who had studied business and law, to handle the divorce. Together, they had an idea: a Latin music label. Each of them invested $2,500 and their album, from Pacheco, included an old Cuban song by Reinaldo Bolanos, “Fanía Funché.”
“Between [Jerry and I] we couldn’t come up with a lot of money,” Pacheco told Billboard in 2014, when Fania turned 50. “So I said, ‘Let’s do the recording and see if we sell it.’ The Fania name came from a Cuban song called “Fanía Funché” on that album. The word Fania was catchy. It sounded good. Fania Records.”
Fania took off. The money made from record sales, Pacheco and Masucci reinvested in the label. Their first signing was a Jewish pianist, Larry Harlow. Acts like flutist Bobby Valentín and a teenager trombonist and arranger named Willie Colón followed.
It was Pacheco who suggested to Colón that he change the singer in his band and hire a young Hector Lavoe. “It was a great combination,” Colón told Billboard. “It was total New York. I barely spoke Spanish. And Hector spoke zero English. Hector had a repertoire of all that [Puerto Rican] stuff. He was also a very funny guy. I would write songs that were almost like parodies, satires. It was really something fresh from what was going on. We were doing what rappers are doing now.”
Everything Fania did seemed to be groundbreaking, and often, historic. In 1968, Pacheco had the idea for a superband of the label’s top talent: the Fania All Stars. Live albums and a concert documentary, Our Latin Thing, followed. In August 23, 1973, Musucci rented Yankee Stadium for $280,00 and the Fania All Stars performed for nearly 50,000 people. More than 40 years would pass before another Latin act, Romeo Santos, would play to that size of a crowd at Yankee Stadium.
The boom years continued with a concert for over 100,000 people in Zaire 1974, helmed by Cuban superstar Celia Cruz, as well as history-making albums by Ruben Blades and Colón.
Masucci passed away at 63 in 1997, and the Fania catalog was sold in 2005 to Emusica Entertainment Group. In 2018, the label was bought by Concord Records.
Pacheco’s legacy, however, was never diminished. In 2004, he received the ASCAP Silver Pen Award and in 2005, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Latin Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences. Pacheco is survived by his wife, María Elena Pacheco, In addition to this wife, Mr. Pacheco’s survivors include two daughters, Norma and Joanne; and two sons, Elis and Phillip.
With additional previous reporting by Judy Cantor Navas.