elWatusi is thrilled to include the catalogs of COMBO RECORDS and RICO RECORDS. Formed by Mr. Ralph Cartagena in the mid ’60s, Combo Records was pivitol in helping the Puerto Rican mega-band El Gran Combo reach world-wide audiences. In association with the great Tony Pabón, Rico Records is considered one of the most historically important salsa catalogs. Today the combined catalogs make up of hundreds of gems that include the artists Mario Ortiz, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Hermanos Colón, Cano Estremera and much more. Other catalogs, like Spanoramic and Neliz, have been included as well, and these, too, will be added to elWatusi as they are made available. Below, Derek Cartagena, son of label proprietor Ralph Cartagena, talks a bit about the label’s early years as well as what’s in store…
José Miguel Class LP Release, 1971. Ralph is on his right.
In 1962 Ralph Cartagena opened his first record store in the Bronx, NY called R&R Records. The store prospered, and he opened another. He eventually opened 4 stores (3 R&R Records and 1 Hi-Tone) throughout the borough and did very well. In early 1969, Ralph opened the largest Latin one-stop called Rico Records Distributor. At that time, a friend named Nelson was in the process of purchasing the Neliz label. Being uncertain, Nelson sought Ralph’s advice. Ralph assured Nelson that it was a good deal because 8-track tapes were being introduced to the public and people would now re-purchase the recordings they love. Nelson said he would go through with the deal only if Ralph was a partner. Ralph accepted, and they acquired Neliz Records and started producing José Miguel Class “El Gallito De Manati”. El Gallo was one of the most successful artists of the time. So successful that Ralph began to manage him. His outlook was, “If you are promoting an artist and can make money from selling a lot of records, it only makes sense to manage him and make money on that end as well. Why should another manager gain from your hard work?” A system that he invented and still practices today. They eventually went on to produce Felipe Rodriguez, Ramon Torres, Jose Manuel Calderon and Mariachi Jalisco to name a few.
Later that year, a family member named Tony Pabon approached Ralph looking for a job. Tony had just left Pete Rodriguez where he was the primary song writer and trumpet player. Ralph hired Tony as his Music Director.
Without hesitation, Ralph created the Rico Records label where he recorded his first salsa act, Tony Pabon Y La Protesta (RCD-701, 1970) They quickly began to discover and produce quality bands which gained Ralph recognition and a name in the business. Not an easy feat, considering that Fania Records was in its heyday and controlled the airwaves. Ralph’s success, along with his clean cut image and straight-shooting, caught the attention of Jerry Masucci, president and founder of Fania. Jerry approached Ralph with a proposition. He told Ralph that he had just purchased Tico & Alegre Records. He asked Ralph if he would be willing to go partners with him on the two labels. Ralph would get to run the labels on one condition, he would have to throw Rico Records into the mix and share the profits. Ralph turned down the offer and continued on as an independent label with much success.
Jerry Masucci with groovy pants with Ralph C., 1972
Not long after, Ralph got the opportunity to sign, record and manage El Gran Combo De Puerto Rico. That was when the label Combo Records was created. Next, Johnny Ventura came knocking on Combo Records door looking for the same opportunity, which Ralph gladly gave him. Ralph was also in negotiations with his lifelong idol, Tito Rodriguez. Ralph never could have dreamed to one day have El Gran Combo, Johnny Ventura and Tito Rodriguez recording for him on the same label. Unfortunately, Tito passed away before Ralph could get anything started.
Ralph on the left, with José Miguel Class, Nelson, Felipe “La Voz” Rodriguez (kneeling), 1972
Fast forward to 2012, and Combo Records is still in production. The big players of the past are long gone. The industry has changed dramatically along with technology. Combo Records is one of last, 100% independent, Latin labels still in existence today. Combo is currently in the studio and will be releasing new projects from Edgard Nevarez Y La Tropica and Las Estrellas Cubana. Combo is very excited about this record and the all-star line-up it features. The album has just finished its recording in Cuba and is about to be mixed. Everyone who is anyone in Cuba is on this record. Stay tuned.
Derek Cartagena, 2012