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El Gran Com­bo de Puer­to Rico

El Gran Com­bo de Puer­to Rico.jpg

Lead singers from left to right: Jer­ry Rivas, Char­lie Aponte, and Papo Rosario.

Back­ground information

Also known as The Uni­ver­si­ty of Salsa

Ori­gin Puer­to Rico

Gen­res Sal­sa music

Years active 1962[1]–present



El Gran Com­bo de Puer­to Rico, com­mon­ly known as El Gran Com­bo, is a Puer­to Rican Sal­sa music orches­tra based in San Juan, Puer­to Rico.[2] Cel­e­brat­ing its 50th anniver­sary in 2012, it is Puer­to Rico’s most suc­cess­ful musi­cal group, and is con­sid­ered “the most pop­u­lar Sal­sa group that has ever existed”.[3] The group received the moniker La Uni­ver­si­dad de la Sal­sa (The Uni­ver­si­ty of Sal­sa) in Colombia,[4] due to the sheer num­ber of famous sal­sa musi­cians and singers who devel­oped their careers with it, who start­ed with the group (par­tic­u­lar­ly Andy Mon­tañez), or who were occa­sion­al­ly backed up by the band (includ­ing Celia Cruz, Héc­tor Lavoe and La India).


The Sal­sa Orches­tra was found­ed in May 1962,[5] by Rafael Ithier.[6] Ithi­er is still nom­i­nal­ly its musi­cal direc­tor, and is the only remain­ing mem­bers from the band’s orig­i­nal line­up. As of 2010, Willie Sote­lo, who joined the group in 2006 as pianist, has become the band’s de fac­to musi­cal direc­tor on tours, with Ithi­er con­duct­ing the group and play­ing occa­sion­al­ly in select live per­for­mances. They are still active­ly per­form­ing after 50 years together.[7] The group was sched­uled to cel­e­brate its 50th anniver­sary on 11 Novem­ber 2012 at the Col­iseo de Puer­to Rico.[8] The group start­ed its cel­e­bra­tion with a grand world tour that took them to five continents.[9]



1 His­to­ry

1.1 Incep­tion

1.2 First albums

1.3 The 1970s

1.4 Recent years

1.5 The new millennium

2 Discog­ra­phy

3 Cur­rent members

3.1 Singers

3.2 Orches­tra

4 For­mer members

4.1 Singers

4.2 Per­cus­sion

4.3 Bass

4.4 Brass section

4.5 Oth­ers

5 Bib­li­og­ra­phy

6 See also

7 Ref­er­ences

8 Exter­nal links





Rafael Ithi­er had been a mem­ber of Rafael Cor­ti­jo’s “Cor­ti­jo y su Com­bo” orches­tra. After singer Ismael Rivera faced legal prob­lems when arriv­ing from Pana­ma, some of the group’s musi­cians depart­ed, with Ithi­er relo­cat­ing tem­porar­i­ly to the east­ern Unit­ed States. Rafael Álvarez Guedes, the Cuban-born own­er of the Gema record­ing label (and broth­er of comedic actor Guiller­mo), need­ed a back­ing band to record an album for leg­endary Domini­can merengue singer Joseí­to Mateo. He asked Ithi­er for assis­tance, and Ithi­er respond­ed by bring­ing in many of his for­mer col­leagues to the stu­dio. For their first record­ing ses­sions, the orches­tra includ­ed some musi­cians from Cor­ti­jo’s orig­i­nal line­up, includ­ing sax­o­phon­ist Hec­tor San­tos, trum­pet play­er Roge­lio “Kito” Velez, and per­cus­sion­ists Martín Quiñones, Miguel Cruz and Rober­to Roe­na. Alvarez Guedes want­ed to name the group Rafael Ithi­er Y Su Com­bo In rela­tions to Cor­ti­jo , but Ithi­er refused the name and the name El Gran Com­bo was born, as to refer to the musi­cians’ for­mer affil­i­a­tion, but address­ing their regroup­ing as a “new and improved” ver­sion of Cor­ti­jo’s orches­tra. The album they record­ed was titled Menéame Los Man­gos, El Gran Com­bo con Joseito Mateo (the phrase trans­lates as Shake My Man­goes, a play on words).[10]


The group met again to define the foun­da­tions of a prop­er orches­tra and chose singers Daniel Vázquez, Pel­lín Rodríguez and Chiq­ui­tín Gar­cía (who lat­er com­posed among oth­er major EGC hits, “No Hago Más Ná”,‘and many of Gran com­bos Hits. On May 21, 1962, El Gran Com­bo was heard for the first time on Puer­to Rican radio. Lat­er on, they became the in-stu­dio musi­cians of the live tele­vi­sion show, “La Taber­na India”, spon­sored by India Beer.


After their live debut at Hotel La Con­cha in San Juan, Puer­to Rico, Chiq­ui­tín Gar­cía left the orches­tra. Vocal­ist Sam­my Ayala, who had also played with Ithi­er in the Cor­ti­jo orches­tra, rec­om­mend­ed the hir­ing of Andy Mon­tañez. Andy Mont­nez wassinger for a TRIO IN Puer­to Rico and had nev­er song salsa.

First albums


On Novem­ber 20, 1963, El Gran Com­bo released their first group album, Menéame los man­gos, with Joseito Mateo as lead singer. Lat­er came Acán­gana This album became a num­ber one hit in New York, Pana­ma and Puer­to Rico. Their suc­cess opened doors for them in many Latin Amer­i­can mar­kets and they gained an exclu­siv­i­ty spot on the Puer­to Rican tele­vi­sion show El Show de las 12. The album also reached gold status.


On 1964, trum­pet play­er and arranger Elías Lopes joined the orches­tra, coin­cid­ing with the group’s first pop­u­lar­i­ty wave. With their dai­ly TV appear­ances and exten­sive tour­ing, how­ev­er, demand for the group declined due to over­ex­po­sure. Still, in 1967, their album Booga­loo con el Gran Com­bo also reached gold sta­tus. In 1969, Roe­na and Lopes left the orches­tra to form the Apol­lo Sound togeth­er. Despite all this, that same year the group was award­ed an Agüey­bana de Oro in Puer­to Rico. Also, in 1969, Rafael Ithi­er hired dancer/choreographer Mike Ramos. Ramos came from the world famous New York City Pal­la­di­um Ball­room scene.

The 1970s


In 1970, El Gran Com­bo’s con­tract with Gema Records was not renewed. Despite offers from oth­er record com­pa­nies includ­ing the renowned Motown label, the group decid­ed to self-release record­ings under their own new­ly cre­at­ed inde­pen­dent label, Com­bo Records (alter­na­tive­ly known as EGC Records). The first album released on the label was the 1970 album enti­tled Esta­mos Primeros.


In 1971, El Gran Com­bo intro­duced the trom­bone to their instru­ment mix. The trom­bone was played by Fan­ny Cebal­los. Soon after, their pro­duc­tion named De Pun­ta a Pun­ta (slang for “From Coast to Coast”) was released. After record­ing that album Pel­lín Rodriguez left the group to embark on a solo career. Rodríguez was replaced by Char­lie Aponte at the rec­om­men­da­tion of Jer­ry Con­cep­ción and the well known sports­cast­er Rafael Bracero, both friends of Ithier.


In 1973, El Gran Com­bo sang in front of 50,000 fans at the famous Yan­kee Sta­di­um in New York City as the open­ing act for the Fania All-Stars’ sold out concert.


Mon­tañez left the band in ear­ly 1977 and went to live in Venezuela where he replaced Oscar D’León in anoth­er orches­tra, Dimen­sion Lati­na. Jer­ry Rivas was then cho­sen to join the orches­tra. Both Rivas and Aponte are still mem­bers of the orches­tra to this day. The suc­cess of this new duo was proved with their 1977 album Inter­na­tion­al and 1978’s En Las Vegas which reached gold record status.


In 1967, El Gran Com­bo en Navi­dad, a Christ­mas album, was released, with Martín Quiñones appear­ing as San­ta Claus in the album’s cov­er. After an auto­mo­bile acci­dent in ear­ly 1977, Quiñones was replaced in the band by his son, Martín Quiñones Jr. He stayed until 1979, being replaced by Luis Díaz.

Recent years


The band con­tin­ues to receive numer­ous awards through­out Latin Amer­i­ca. In 1984, they trav­eled to Alas­ka where they received a great wel­come soon after they released their album titled Break­ing the Ice which gar­nered them their first Gram­my nomination.


In 1982 they cel­e­brat­ed their 20th anniver­sary play­ing at Madi­son Square Gar­den. They also reached Europe that year play­ing in Paris, France.


In the ear­ly 90s, they were hon­ored in the city of Madrid, Spain to open the decade on the right track. On March 29, 1992, they cel­e­brat­ed a huge con­cert in the Hiram Bithorn Sta­di­um in front of 30,000 peo­ple. Also dur­ing the 90s they signed on with Chi­no Rodriguez as the book­ing agent for El Gran Com­bo, at the time Chi­no was book­ing many of the well estab­lished artists and bands (ie Lar­ry Har­low, Ismael Miran­da, Ray Bar­ret­to, and Andy Mon­tanez as well as the Fania All-Stars, among many oth­ers. The rela­tion­ship last­ed until 2001.

The new millennium


In 2002, El Gran Com­bo cel­e­brat­ed their 40th anniver­sary with two sold-out con­certs at the Ruben Rodríguez Col­i­se­um in Bayamón, Puer­to Rico. This cel­e­bra­tion spawned a renowned album that was rec­og­nized as one of the best of the year. A year lat­er, in 2003, they received a Grammy[11] for Best Trop­i­cal Album. Among oth­er musi­cians, they are one of the “endur­ing super­stars of the island”[12]


As of 2006, the orches­tra has released over 40 albums or CD’s, and it has received many awards, includ­ing gold­en albums, a “Cal­en­dario de Pla­ta” in Mex­i­co, a “Gold­en Com­bo” in Colom­bia, a Paoli Award in their native Puer­to Rico, an hon­or­able dis­tinc­tion in Spain and count­less others.


In 2006, they released their lat­est album titled Arroz con Habichuela (“Rice and Beans”). It has already spawned three hit sin­gles. The first one titled “No Hay Man­era” (“There’s No Way”), the title song, and “Si La Vez Por Ahí”.


Around 2006, Rafael Ithi­er became ill and decid­ed to take a back seat for live per­for­mances and although he most­ly still tours with the band, Ithi­er is just con­duct­ing the com­bo rather than play­ing the piano, how­ev­er he is still very much the band­leader of the group. Willie Sote­lo has tak­en the place of Ithi­er on the piano and has also tak­en on some of the trav­el man­age­ment duties as well.


In 2007, El Gran Com­bo per­formed two mas­sive con­certs at the José Miguel Agrelot Col­i­se­um to cel­e­brate their 45th anniversary.


In 2010, two trib­ute albums were released, one by for­mer mem­ber Andy Mon­tañez and anoth­er by the bank Ban­co Pop­u­lar, as part of their annu­al music series.


In August 2011, El Gran Com­bo rewrote the lyrics to their own hit “No Hago Más Ná”, or “I Don’t Do Any­thing Else” that sang in satire about the day of a lazy per­son to a more pos­i­tive “Echar Pa’lante” or “Mov­ing For­ward” which sang about the virtues of going to work. They also released a video with a pos­i­tive intro­duc­to­ry mes­sage which showed clips of work­ing peo­ple in sim­i­lar­i­ties with them play­ing instruments.


The group is still going strong and work­ing con­tin­u­ous as the moniker says La Uni­ver­si­dad de la Sal­sa (The Uni­ver­si­ty of Sal­sa) and as a uni­ver­si­ty it shall always continue.