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Fania Records Co-Founder Johnny Pacheco Dies At 85

Fania Records co-founders Jerry Masucci (left) and Johnny Pacheco (right)
Courtesy of Fania Records
Fania Records co-founders Jerry Masucci (left) and Johnny Pacheco (right)

Johnny Pacheco, one of the founders of the iconic Latin music label Fania Records, died Monday at age 85.

Pacheco had been hospitalized in New Jersey for undisclosed reasons, according to Alex Masucci, the brother of Fania co-founder Jerry Masucci. No cause of death was provided.

Fania Records revolutionized the sound of Cuban dance music in the 1970s. During that time, Pacheco was a prolific songwriter and musical arranger whose work helped fuel the careers of Celia Cruz and Ruben Blades. As a producer, his vast musical knowledge of various Latin musical genres helped ignite the rise of the Latin dance genre known as salsa and he became its biggest cheerleader.

The label's influence extended for several generations, well into the 21st century. DJs and producers have used tracks from the golden age of salsa to create remixed club hits around the world.

Pacheco was born in the Dominican Republic to a musical family in 1935. His father was a band leader that played popular dance music including the Cuban danzón, which would have an influence on the younger Pacheco's musical career.

When the family moved to New York in the late 1940s from the Dominican Republic to escape the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, Pacheco became immersed in music. He taught himself to play accordion, violin, saxophone and clarinet. He attended the Juilliard School of Music to study percussion and soon became a busy A-list studio musician, playing on sessions for commercial jingles, record dates and with the NBC Studio Orchestra.

In the early 1960s, his band Pacheco Y Su Charanga popularized a style called pachanga and soon he was touring throughout the US, Latin America, Europe and Asia, where he learned how to appeal to larger audiences.

In 1963 he partnered with attorney Jerry Masucci to form Fania Records and under Pacheco's guidance as talent scout, composer, arranger, musician and record producer, the label ushered in the international popularity of salsa, a term that encompasses a variety of mostly Cuban dance styles including mambo, guaracha, cha cha cha and also included Puerto Rican rhythms like bomba as well as the Dominican merengue.

"At first we didn't think we were anything special," Pacheco told NPR in 2006, "Until every place we went, the lines were unbelievable. They tried to rip the shirts off our backs. It reminded me of The Beatles."

The label helped make stars of lead vocalists like Cruz, Blades, Hector Lavoe, Pete "El Conde" Rodriguez and Cheo Feliciano, as well as band leaders Ray Barretto and Willie Colón.

Pacheco spent the remainder of his career continuing to search and develop new talent, all the while promoting the vast Fania catalog with concerts and lectures. Ever the creative band leader, in his later years he led yet another band under his name, Johnny Pacheco Y Su Tumbao Añejo (Johnny Pacheco and His Vintage Groove).

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Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.
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