El Gran Combo is undoubtedly an institution in Puerto Rico's music history. The internationally reknown salsa band was born in the aftermath of the breakup of the Combo de Rafael Cortijo in 1962. Some of the combo's members reunited for the production together with Dominican artist Josíto Mateo resulting in the release of "Menéame los mangos". The group was dubbed El Gran Combo by empresario Rafael Alvarez Guedes, who was instrumental in arranging for the album's production. Members included Rafaél Ithier, Eddie Pérez, Héctor Santos, Kito Vélez, Martín Quiñones, Miguel Cruz and Roberto Roena.
The sheer talent of the musicians helped the group overcome a stormy start. Their first public appearance was Rock and Roll club in Bayamón, Puerto Rico. Radio spots and a television appearance later that year helped spread the word that this group could produce quality salsa music.
Singer Chiqui Rivera left the group and was replaced by Junior Montañez based on his performance during a radio broadcast singing a song by Bobby Capó. Not long after, he changed his name to Andy. Roberto Roena rejoined the band and stuck with them for the next seven years until he left to found his own band: Apollo Sound.
The group's first album: "Acángana" was released in 1963 only two days before the assination if United States President John F. Kennedy. In the aftermath of that horrific event, the distribution of the album in Puerto Rico was postponed. Instead, the initial distribution was made throughout Mexico, Panama and Venezuela where the album was well received and widely played. The album was later distributed in New York then Puerto Rico, where it became a gold record hit.
The band had great success in appearances in various Latin dance halls throughout New York City in the year following the release of that first album. This included the Palladium Ballroom, the Manhattan Center and El Caborrojeño. This success paved the way to similar appearances in other countries, including the Dominican Republic, Panama, Colombia and Venezuela. Thoughout Latin America, the album consistently hit the top hit list. Their popularity won the band an exclusive television contract on "El Show de las 12", in Puerto Rico. The ensuing popularity of the TV show increased the demand for the band in all sorts of dance and music events and pushed sales of their album even higher.
The viability of the group was put to the test two years later with the departure and replacement of various members of the band. Roberto Rohena and Elías Lopés were substituted by Baby Serrano y Edwin Cortés. Héctor Santos and Víctor Pérez also left and were replaced with José Duchesne and Mike Torres, who was later replaced with Tommy Sánchez. Later, Edwin Cortés left and was replaced with Gerardo Cruz, who stayed with the band over the next ten years. Despite these distracting changes, the band thrived and even won the "Agüeybaná de Oro" prize in Puerto Rico, as the best band of 1969.
The next decade started with yet more changes with the replacement of Milton Correa by Miguel Marrero. Then Mike Ramos was brought in to replace Mike Torres, and was then subsequently replaced by Alfredo (Taty) Maldonado. Yet again, the band played on to great success, even winning more awards. The group's fame spread internationally. Problems with record labels forced the group to produce their own albums independently for a while, forcing one of the members to mortgage their house to fund their production costs. This resulted in the establishment of their own label: EGC and its first production; an album entitled: "El Momo de Oro".
In 1971, the trombone, played by Epifanio (Fanny) Ceballo, was introduced by the band. Ceballo stayed with the band until his death from cancer in 1991. The first album featuring this new sound was "De punta a punta" which included such classic hits as "Don Goyo", "Achilipú" and "Le dicen papá". The album won the best album award at Miami's Gold Record Festival. Shortly thereafter, Pellín Rodríguez, left to launch his solo career and was replaced by Marcos Montañez, brother of Andy Montañez, who worked with the band for only six months, himself replaced by the virtuoso sonero: Charlie Aponte.
In 1975, Miguel Cruz, one of the founding members of the band left the group due to health reasons, and was replaced by Fernando Pérez. The following year the band won the Honorary Award in New Orleans and Venezuela's President's Cup award for best international music band, in 1977. But that year also saw the retirement of Martin Quiñones and the departure of Andy Montañez, who left to sing with a Venezuelan group called La Dimensión Latina. Replacing Andy was difficult but Jerry Rivas came onboard to contribute his ample talents.
The release of gold record El Gran Combo en Las Vegas in 1978 allayed the fears of many who worried about the band's personnel changes. By the close of the 1970's, the band had won other honors as well, such as the recognition at the Bomba and Plena Festival of the Puerto Rican Institute of Culture.
The 1980's opened with the release of yet another gold album: Aquí no se sienta nadie and a successful tour in Peru. The next year saw them acheive recognition in the tough Mexican market, with the Silver Caldendar award.
On their 20th anniversary, the group received several local and international awards, including the "El Congo de Oro" in Colombia, an honarary resolution from the Senate of Puerto Rico and another from the town of Dorado, and the Paoli Prize ( Puerto Rico). Two years later they toured Alaska, bringing the hot sound of salsa to that snowy clime and producing the album Breaking the Ice - El Gran Combo en Alaska, which earned them a Grammy nomination. That year the band won the Paoli Prize yet again. Their success by this time was truly international in scope; garnering audiences in the United Kingdom, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Argentina, Venezuela, Japan, the United States, and elsewhere around the world.
Madison Square Garden in New York City was the venue for a historic concert for the band in 1982 where they triumphantly celebrated their silver (25 years) anniversary. The event was soon followed by yet more awards and recognition, including the "El Guayaquil Luminoso" from Ecuador, the "Premio Aplausos a la Mejor Orquesta", an honarary resolution from the Puerto Rico House of Representatives, and another from the town of Bayamón, Puerto Rico, and a proclamation from the town of Juncos, Puerto Rico, and more.
Only five years later, on their 30th anniversary, similar special events were scheduled to celebrate the occasion. The celebrations continued in Madrid where audiences and the press raved. On their return to Puerto Rico, the Senate awarded them with a resolution proclaiming the band "Ambassadors of Our Music". But the final capstone event was a concert in San Juan's Hiram Bithorn stadium before 30,000 fans, joined by Andy Montañez, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Jerry Rivera, Alex D'Castro, Johnny Ventura and La Sonora Ponceña.
Throughout the years, this legandary combo has produced uncounted salsa hits with a distinctive sound, as is evident in this song: Aguacero, known as salsa vieja. Some of their better-known classic hits are: El Menú and Timablero.
Today, El Gran Combo's members include: Rafael Ithier (musical director, piano), Charlie Aponte, Jerry Rivas and Papo Rosario (vocals); Taty Maldonado (trumpet); Víctor Rodríguez and Moisés Nogueras (trombones); Freddie Miranda (sax), Eddie Pérez (alto sax); Freddie Rivera (bass); Miguel Torres (congas); Domingo Santos (timbales) and Mitchell Laboy (bongó). ~ Music of Puerto Rico