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One On 1: Salsa Legend Johnny Pacheco On The Power Of Music

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After more than 50 years in the business, Johnny Pacheco continues to play all over the world the Latin music genre that he named – salsa. NY1’s Budd Mishkin filed the following “One On 1” report.

Latin music great Johnny Pacheco is credited with coining the term “salsa” to describe his brand of music back in the 1960s.

But not only has Pacheco created one of the world’s most popular genres of music – he has also created some of his own instruments, out of material he found on the streets of New York City.

He says he used airplane metal, “Because it had a different sound. For cowbells it was the best.”

"One day, I saw a bed that somebody had threw out,” says Pacheco. “One of those tubes, you know, from the old bed, and I wanted to bring it home and make a saxophone out of that. But my father would have killed me.”

Likewise, when he came up with the name “salsa,” Pacheco was inspired by his surroundings.

"Salsa is sauce, and to make a good sauce, you need different condiments to make it tasty,” says Pacheco. “And in [my band] Fania All-Stars we had Puerto Ricans, we had Cubans, Dominicans, two Jews and an Englishman. You have the condiments, so you have a nice salsa.”

At 74, Pacheco is still performing and being honored for his work, like at a recent birthday celebration at Town Hall.

Pacheco once moved smoothly across the stage, but now he has been slowed by surgeries to replace both hips.

At a rehearsal for the Town Hall concert, Pacheco talked about his flute playing, and how he's tried to confront the inevitable effects of age.

"I simplified things and make it nice and sweet, to make up for the speed,” he says. “I never went for that - I go for phrases, pretty melodies, and you don't need all that technique."

One of the charms of Pacheco’s music, like any other kind of lasting music, is its appeal to people who weren't even born when it was first composed.

"One of the things that is happening is that they come up to me and say, ‘I love your music.’ And I say, ‘But you're too young,’ and they say, ‘Oh, but my parents have all your records,’ which is nice,” says Pacheco.

Pacheco sponsors a scholarship fund that assists young musicians from the New York area with college tuition. This year's winner, Michael James, right, attends the Bronx’s Celia Cruz High School, which is named for the late Cuban salsa singer and one Pacheco's old musical colleagues.

When advising young musicians, Pacheco cites a story from his own formative years.

"I was playing with a band, and I told them, ‘Listen, I'm gonna give you two weeks because I'm gonna see if I can be a musician outside of this group. I want to grow up and better myself.’ [They] said, ‘You're gonna be sorry in two weeks,’" says Pacheco.

"I did a demo and I went around all around the different Spanish labels,” he continues. “And they said, 'Éste es una porquería' - 'This is junk, you're not gonna go anywhere.' Until I brought it to a radio station and it became one of my biggest hits. I never gave up."

Even while looking at old album covers, Pacheco is not one for living in the past - but he will make a comment on his appearance.

"You know I look at this, I wasn't that bad looking when I was young," he jokes.

But Pacheco has quite a past. His father was a prominent bandleader in Pacheco's native Dominican Republic, and all five Pacheco brothers wanted to be musicians.

"[My father] heard me play the harmonica and he got everybody together and he says, ‘I got news for you, the only one that's gonna be a musician is him. The rest of you guys are deaf, tone-deaf,’” remembers Pacheco. “And that's when he noticed I had the talent.”

The family arrived in New York after fleeing the Dominican Republic - ironically, because former Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo was such a fan of Pacheco's father's orchestra.

"The president, that was his favorite orchestra, and he wanted to change the name to ‘Presidente Trujillo.’ And my father said, ‘You can go to hell.’ And we had to leave,” says Pacheco. “And thanks to him, I came to the United States.”

Pacheco was 11 years old when he moved to the big city.

"I was scared to death, because everything looked so big. Scared the hell out of me," says Pacheco.

But he could play music - first in public school in the Bronx, then at Juilliard, first on percussion and then the flute.

Initially, at his father's request, he tried working in electronics.

"I went home for about five days of work, about $28, until I got a call to play a quarter in the merengue group. They were gonna pay me $95, for three days,” says Pacheco. “When I got home, I took all the tools, put them in a box and put it away, never took it out again."

Pretty soon, Pacheco was playing with the big boys.

"One time I got a call to play with [jazz bandleader] Woody Herman. And my brother used to play all the recordings, [swing bandleader] Glenn Miller, all that stuff in the Dominican Republic,” says Pacheco. “So I was so excited, I call him up and I say, ‘Joe, guess who I'm working with?’ He says, ‘Who?’ and I say, ‘Woody Herman.’ He says, ‘Ah, baloney,’ and he hung up on me."

In the early 1960s, Pacheco was unhappy with how his Afro-Cuban sound was being promoted. So he created his own record company, Fania, in 1964. Initially, Pacheco drove around the city, stirring up business and taking orders for the records out of the trunk of his car.

But the Fania All-Stars caught on, eventually playing and filling Yankee Stadium.

"I saw this huge place, and it scared the hell out of me. But I said, ‘We're gonna do it with salsa and Latinos,’" says Pacheco.

The band's appeal was global. The Fania All-Stars appeared at the music festival for Muhammad Ali's famed fight with George Foreman in Zaire in 1974. Pacheco says when the musicians arrived, James Brown was first off the plane.

"He saw the crowd and he started yelling, ‘My people, my people,’” says Pacheco. “And all of a sudden, the whole crowd went like this, and they went past James Brown and they started singing, ‘Pacheco, Pacheco, Pacheco,’ and I was so happy. And he was going, ‘What the hell is going on?’”

It's inevitable that after 50 years of playing, Pacheco has outlived more than a few friends and musical colleagues, like Celia Cruz.

"When we went to a stage, she made the job easy because we were having so much fun,” says Pacheco. “Sometimes we'd finish a gig and we'd want to continue playing. And she was amazing."

Pacheco doesn't care much to talk about the end of the Fania record company and his business disappointments. But through it all, he's never stopped playing.

This year, he's traveled to Colombia and his native Dominican Republic to be honored. His true legacy - the global appeal of salsa music - is undeniable.

"Music is amazing. Because of my music, I've been traveling all over the world," says Pacheco. “And I looked at myself and I said, ‘Look at this little kid from the Dominican Republic, traveling all over the place, first-class. It’s beautiful."

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