Bandleader, pianist, composer, arranger and music director, Rafael Ithier is a legend in the history of salsa music for more than 40 years. Born on August 29, 1926 in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, he is best known as the leader of El Gran Combo; an institution in Puerto Rican music history.
A talented, self-taught pianist, Ithier described himself, saying, "Ever since my childhood, music was my love. I never studied how to play any instrument. I am practically self-learned, an innate musician, because music comes easy to me. It takes me a month to learn what normally it takes someone else to learn in a year. And since I take it to a practical level because I work so often, it's been easy for me to learn."
Ithier's professional career as a musician started when he was 18 years old with s small band called Conjunto Lucerito, then other similar bands. But his career flowered as a member of the Conjunto Taone formed and led by Faustino "Tito" Henriquez. During active duty in the United States Army, he formed a band that remained active until 1955.
Ithier was first noted in music circles that year as the pianist with the band led by Rafael Cortijo and Ismael Rivera, together with such other salsa greats as Roberto Roena, Martin Quiñones, and Kito Velez. While the band had great success it was also rife with internal turmoil, prompting Ithier and others to leave and form El Gran Combo.
Ithier gave birth to El Gran Combo in 1962 with the help of Alvarez Guedes, Eddie Pérez, Héctor Santos, Roberto Roena, Rogelio Vélez, Martín Quiñones, and Miguel Cruz. Their debut album, called Meneame Los Mangos, and made first concert live appearance later that same year. Pellín Rodríguez and Andy Montañez joined El Gran Combo soon after. While yet other changes in the band's roster would change of the years, Ithier and his role as bandleader, remained a constant.
Over the many years that the legendary band has perfomed around the world, they released more than sixty studio recordings and many compilations. Among the many hit songs that the band is remembered for are "Un Verano En Nueva York", "Jala Jala", "La Calle Dolor", "Acangana", "La Salsa De Hoy" and "Milonga Sentimental". Throughout all of these contributions to salsa music, Ithier resisted many changes and remained committed to his roots. "People say that Gran Combo is about the rhythm, and as long as that hasn't changed, then, the same sound and style are there", says Charlie Aponte, one of the vocalists of El Gran Combo.
Perhaps no one could explain why Ithier and El Gran Combo stubbornly clung to these musical traditions better than Ithier himself who explained, "We understand, accept and consider the evolution of salsa and music in general that has started in the recent years. However, we can not and do not want modify the musical structure that has brought us success, because that is how the public want El Gran Combo to be. Of course, he says, our sound has also evolved from the point of view of the arrangements in the songs, but this evolution happened inside the original concept, always being cautious not to change the musical structure of El Gran Combo".
But Ithier's sense of musical tradition and consistency was not absolute. In 1972, a very important change was intrododuced in the sound of El Gran Combo when Ithier introduced the trombone to the band that had previously relied two saxophones and two trumpets in its horn section. Other artists such as Willie Colón and Eddie Palmieri had made great use of the trombone and Ithier believed it would add a needed dimension to the sound of his venerable band.
Although Ithier was proven right on the addition of the trombone, the popularity of El Gran Combo had declined and ebbed to its lowest point by the late 1970's. The rebuilding plan consisted of concert tours that took the band to the cities throughout the United States and Latin America.
In 1992, the many contributions over years by Ithier and El Gran Combo were honored at the Festival De La Salsa at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The concert featured Celia Cruz, Cheo Feliciano, Orquestra De La Luz and Grupo Niche. ~ Music of Puerto Rico