Roberto Roena was born on January 16, 1940, in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico. A noted salsa bandleader, Roena actually began his musical career as a dancer and was known as "El Gran Bailarín" (The Great Dancer).
While performing as a dancer and chorus singer with Cortijo y Su Combo, the band's leader Rafael Cortijo gave Roena his first percussion lessons. He stuck with the bongos and became a member of Cortijo's band between 1957 and 1962 as a percussionist.
He later moved to the orchestra of Mario Ortiz. After some months with Ortiz, Roena was asked to become part of El Gran Combo and he seized the opportunity. But he was not alone. Seven others, led by pianist Rafael Ithier, defected from Cortijo's Combo in May 1962. The new group would go on to international fame.
In 1966, Roena made his recording debut as a bandleader with the "Megatones". The group recorded "Se Pone Bueno" on the Alegre Records label. Camilo Azuquita provided the lead vocals with Andy Montañez and Pellín Rodríguez, who were the lead vocalists at the time for El Gran Combo, in the chorus.
Roena left El Gran Combo in 1969 and formed a new band: Apollo Sound. He signed with Fania International, a division of Jerry Masucci and Johnny Pacheco's Fania Records, for which he recorded Roberto Roena y Su Apollo Sound. Well-known composer, Catalino Curet Alonso, was the musical director and wrote the smash song "Tu Loco Loco, y Yo Tranquilo".
Apollo Sound featured two trumpets, trombone, tenor saxophone, rhythm section consisting of bongo, conga and timbales, bass and piano, as well as lead singer and chorus. A third trumpet was added in the mid-1970s.
Roena y Su Apollo Sound developed into one of the more progressive and sophisticated salsa orchestras with their own distinctive style. Their sound was created with the help of some of the most creative arrangers in Puerto Rico, including Bobby Valentín, Louis García, Elías Lopes, Papo Lucca, Luis 'Perico' Ortiz, Julio "Gunda" Merced, Tito Rivera and Humberto Ramírez.
Roena joined the Fania All Stars at the beginning of the 1970's and has continued with them up to the present day. With them he appeared in the films "Our Latin Thing" (1972) and "Salsa" (1976), and made his UK debut in 1976. He can be seen performing as a percussionist and dancer with the band in the 1991 UK video release "Salsa Madness", filmed in Zaire in 1974.
Roena went on to relase many albums with Apollo Sound, such as El Progreso in 1978, which was one of his strongest albums. It contained "Lamento De Concepción" composed by Catalino Curet Alonso and arranged by Papo Lucca. Tito Cruz was joined on lead vocals by Carlos Santos, who had previously been with Kako and Vilató y Los Kimbos.
Also in 1978, Roena produced "La Practica Hace La Perfección" for Apollo Sound founder member, trumpeter/vocalist Mario 'Mickey' Alvarez Cora, leading his own band called Orquesta Cabala.
Roena released four albums on the Fania label between 1980 and 1982. Looking Out For 'Numero Uno', released in 1981, contained the dark bittersweet "Se Esconde Porque Me Debe", superbly arranged by Louis García, and three interpretations of songs written by Cuban composer/bandleader Adalberto Alvarez. The next year, Roberto teamed up with vocalist Adalberto Santiago for his last release on Fania, Super Apollo 47:50.
Also in 1982, Roena participated in a reunion of some ex-members of El Gran Combo on El Combo Del Ayer, and again in 1983 on Aquel Gran Encuentro. Roena re-surfaced with Apollo Sound in 1985 on Afuera y Contento on Pa' Lante Records. Piro Mantilla, and Sammy González, both co-founders of Apollo Sound, together with Junior Reynoso, comprised the album's trio of lead singers. The album included a great version of Adalberto Alvarez's composition "A Ver'.
Roena's more recent releases include El Pueblo Pide Que Toque released in 1994 and which produced the hit title song El Pueblo Pide Que Toque and En Vivo Desde Bellas Artes in 1995.
Roena has contributed to recordings by various other salsa artists and bands, including Charlie Palmieri, Roberto Lugo, Ismael Quintana, Cheo Feliciano, Julio "Gunda" Merced y Su Salsa Fever, Pedro Arroyo, Harold and Andy Montañez and Willie González. ~ Music of Puerto Rico