El Señor Booking Agent: Richie Bonilla By

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El Señor Booking Agent: Richie Bonilla

By Eric E. González
Photography by Bruce Brewer and Eric E. González

Interview conducted May 26, 2001

"Richie Bonilla is my mentor. He is what I want to be like when I grow up. Unfortunately, promotion is not a business in which you find many ethical people. He makes the difference. Richie Bonilla is the most ethical person that I have ever met in my life."
Albert Torres, Salsa's number one promoter.
Los Angeles, California. April 15, 2002

If you have been reading the interviews that we publish, you have probably noticed that the subjects are mostly singers, musicians, and/or band leaders. However, the work of other players, who are equally important, usually goes unnoticed. They are truly the movers and shakers of the industry, and many times they play a significant role in the evolution of the music. One of these unsung heroes is Richie Bonilla, who, along with José Curbelo, Federico Pagani, Ralph Mercado, and others, was instrumental in promoting and expanding the ferocious sounds that were coming out of New York during salsa's heyday. Their stories are legendary and their legacy will live forever.

Even though Richie Bonilla describes himself as a booking agent, he, at one time or another, was part in the career development and promotion of known talents, such as Ray Barretto, Héctor Lavoe, Ismael Rivera, Monguito El Unico, Vitín Avilés, Eddie Santiago, and Frankie Ruiz. During and after the boogaloo era, he managed names like Joey Pastrana, Kako, Pete Rodriguez, Landy Nova, Orquesta Flamboyán, TNT band, La Conspiración, Ralph Robles, Ralphie Pagan, Ray Jay, Latin Teens, King Nando, Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe, Johnny Zamot, Joe Acosta, The New Generation, Sonora Borinquen, Latin Souls, and others. Do you, respected reader, remember all of these bands? Well, you shouldn't worry. Most of their recordings are slowly being reissued as compact discs.

These days, Richie Bonilla has been associated with some of today's hottest stars, such as Cachao, Nettai Tropical Jazz Big Band, Giovanni Hidalgo, Ralph Irizarry, The Bronx Horns, Carlos "Patato" Valdés, Jimmy Delgado, Jimmy Bosch, Los Hermanos Moreno, Richie Ray & Bobby Cruz, Son Boricua, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Willie Colón, Ismael Miranda, Machito Jr., Son Reinas, Lalo Rodriguez, Frankie Morales, Yomo Toro, to name a few.

According to Bonilla, he was also responsible for taking the afrocuban bands out of New York City to other states and cities of the United States, including Chicago, Ohio, Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, Connecticut, Los Angeles and San Francisco. He was also among the first to take talent out of the United States, to countries like Panamá, Venezuela, Curacao, Aruba, Martinique, Guadalupe, St. Thomas and St. Croix. He fondly remembers his trips to Panamá with Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe. I can say that I was lucky to be a witness to that and the great times they represented. I can still remember seeing the TNT Band playing "Sabré Olvidar" in "La Avenida Central", in Panamá City, during those glorious "carnavales".

I had the opportunity to talk to Richie Bonilla during Albert Torres' Third Annual West Coast Salsa Congress, in Los Angeles, California. During that event, Bonilla was honored due to his contribution to afrocuban music. Even tough this interview was improvised, Richie was generous enough, and provided some details about the history of promoting and booking salsa artists in New York City and some insights on the lives of some the salsa's most beloved icons. As you will notice, Richie has a million of stories to tell that require many more interviews.

Acknowledgments: This interview would have not been possible with the steady support of el maestro Albert Torres, to whom I am very grateful. Muchas gracias also to my friend, Cynthia Semon, for being the best in what she does.

Eric E. González (EEG): OK, Richie, tell me a little bit about your background.

Richie Bonilla (RB): I'm a Nuyorican. I'm 64 years old; I was born on January 12, 1937. My mother and my father were born in Puerto Rico. My older brother, Benny Bonilla, was a musician. He played timbales en el tiempo de Vicentico Valdez. During the boogaloo period, he was the timbal player for Pete Rodriguez. So, as a little brother, I was trying to do what the older brother did. I started playing congas, I started a band  different phases.

EEG: What year are we talking about?

RB: Oh, in the early fifties. And then, I always seemed to be an organizer. I was always organizing house parties, dancing, and, through my brother, I met Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto, Johnny Pacheco...all these guys. They were unknown; they weren't famous, yet. So many musicians had come from the Bronx: Willie Rosario, Orlando Marín...We were all from the same neighborhood, so I was fortunate to know them as a kid. So, because I was always like an organizer, I started booking the bands that my brother was working for, because my age group was starting to get married --- I was 20, 22 --- and all my friends were starting to get married, so they always asked me to get them a band for their wedding. So that's how I started: booking bands for weddings.

EEG: Who was your first "official" big name client?

RB: Pete Rodriguez, el del boogaloo (not to be mistaken with Pete "Conde" Rodriguez). They were working for two years before they had a hit record.

EEG: Do you happen to know the story behind the Rubén Blades - Pete Rodriguez album ("De Panamá a Nueva York", 1969/1970)?

RB: Well, everything in life is timing. It's not only talent; it's timing. What happened was that Pete Rodriguez hit it big with "I like it like that" and "Micaela", and I was booking the band. We were traveling all over the world. And the Pete Rodriguez band was a brothers band; he had two brothers in the band, my brother was in the band, we were all from the same block --- we were family! And yo no sé qué pasó (I don't know what happened) with Pete Rodriguez. He had like a personality change, and he would say that he didn't need me as a booking agent, that my brother was a lousy timbalero, that he didn't need anybody. This happened in Panamá. So, when we came back from that tour, the whole band quit, and they started a band called "La Protesta" (de Tony Pabón). That's is how La Protesta was born. I had nothing to do with Pete Rodriguez after that. But I understand that the next album he recorded was with Rubén Blades and nothing happened.

EEG: Do you think he recruited Rubén Blades in Panamá?

RB: Yeah, because I was bringing so many bands to Panamá. I knew Rubén Blades when he was an unknown kid. Every time I brought Pete Rodriguez, or Willie Colón - Willie Colón started with me -, everybody I brought there, Rubén would ask me if he could sing with the band. So that's how he got to meet a lot of the people. I already didn't have any association with Pete Rodriguez, so I can not help you with that story.

EEG: Let's go back when you began booking for Pete Rodriguez.

RB: Yeah. So then, in 1962, I opened my office on Broadway. I was booking before, but I had a day job. I got married in 1959; I have been married for 41 years now. So I had a good job. I told my wife that I wanted to try this, and that if it didn't work out, I would go back to what I was doing. At that time, el boogaloo pegó (was a success), and I had all the boogaloo bands: Joe Baatan, Frankie Dante, TNT Band, Joey Pastrana, Ralphie Pagan, Ralph Robles, King Nando, Ernie Agosto y la Conspiración...

EEG: The Lebrón Brothers...

RB: They were with José Curbelo. He had a few people.

EEG: Richie Ray?

RB: No, he was always a competitor, you know, like Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez. When I had Pete Rodriguez in boogaloo, our main competitor was Richie Ray. In fact, two weeks ago, on May 12, I booked Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz at the Copacabana in New York. The first time they play in 20 years in a club, in New York. We knew each other, but were really never friends; we were only competitors. So we had like a reunion, and they told me that, even tough we weren't really friends, that they always respected me, because of the manner I took care of business, and how well I maintained the Pete Rodriguez band up there. But we really got close, and I admitted to him after the performance, that I never noticed what a great talent Richie Ray is. I think that he is a very underrated piano player! He is an incredible piano player, an incredible arranger, but I wasn't paying attention to him at that time. So we re-established our relationship and friendship now, and I'm going to be booking the attraction now all over.

EEG: OK. You opened your own business with your wife's approval.

RB: I opened my office in 53rd and Broadway, at the Ed Sullivan's building, a very famous musical building. There was a Broadway recording studio there. That was where everybody was recording at the time. All the Fania people were recording at that studio. At that time, I had an unknown artist --- nobody knew him; he was about 19, his name was Willie Colón (with Héctor LaVoe). I was bringing all the bands to Panamá at that time, so I was in Panamá five times a year for all the festivals: for the carnavales, for the anniversary of the independence, for the anniversary of the revolution...The salsa (as a name) was just starting to get known, so they used to call me and tell me, "Bring two bands, without names. I want two salsa bands." So I took Willie Colón and Héctor LaVoe to Panamá. They were unknown, but, after that first visit, Willie Colón became God in Panamá. And the son of [Omar] Torrijos was only 15 years old and loved the Willie Colón band, so every time we came, we used to go and play for Torrijos and all the other generals, [including] Noriega. When we used to go to Panamá with Willie Colón, we always had military escort, with motorcycles, everywhere we went.

EEG: Who was your most serious contender in New York? José Curbelo?

RB: Curbelo was the main guy. I was a young kid. I am the one that created another avenue to go anywhere in the world, because Curbelo had all the control. He really was a tough agent. He had the top artists. I opened new avenues, so I could take the bands to Venezuela, Panamá...At that time you had to have a license to be a manager or booking agent. All the musicians had to be in the local musician's union, the local 802. When they used to play in a club, the local 802 would send a representative, and he would check all the memberships cards. If they didn't have the membership cards, they would have to get off the stage. If they were behind their dues, they had to get off the stage. It was very strict at that time. So that is what helped me get established. I had a license to be a manager, and Curbelo was trying to stop me. For me to break that, I pressed charges on him with the local [802]. He was trying to close doors on me, so they warned him that he could loose his license. That was like the first strike.

EEG: Did you win that one?

RB: I won that one. And then he helped me so much, because he was such an SOB with people ? the promoters, the Hispanic Society...Everybody that had a bad experience with him, they would run to my office. He was on 52nd and I was on 53rd. So they would come to my office complaining about him. They would come to my office with their tails between their legs, crying about how he didn't give back their deposit, about how he did this...So I would help them, I would always cooperate with them, I would give them a fair price, so that they could run their dance. So I got a lot of clients that didn't want to deal with him anymore. That helped me at the beginning.

EEG: Which were the dancing halls that were popular at that time in New York City?

RB: In the sixties, everybody danced mambo: the Italians, the Jews, the blacks...

EEG: The best place being the Palladium...

RB: The Palladium was the best thing. Pete Rodriguez was my main band there. I had a good relationship with the owner (Max Hyman) and his wife. Me and my wife may be one of the few people that went to his house to eat. I used to go in the afternoon and hang out at the Palladium, because Tito Rodriguez used to rehearse there in the afternoon. Catalino Colón was there, Federico Pagani was there, and they were all good friends of mine.

EEG: Wasn't Federico Pagani also a fierce booking agent?

RB: No, he wasn't a booker; he was a promoter. He is the godfather of the promoters. He started the whole thing. He is the one that made the Palladium, because during that period, after World War II, there was an influx of Puerto Ricans into New York. Many Puerto Ricans got jobs in the garment district. So Federico went and spoke to Max Hyman; he wanted to do this Latin idea. He did. He made a lot of flyers and he would go to the garment district and handed out his flyers, because that was were all the Puerto Ricans were. So that is how he packed the Palladium. He was also a great story teller; he loved to have an audience around him. Another one like that was Machito. If you had two persons together, he would start telling a story. And Federico was a character. He promoted not only the Palladium, but promoted a lot of stuff in the Bronx ? the Embassy Ballroom, the Bronx Casino...

EEG: Were you and Pagani good friends?

RB: Oh, yeah, he helped me tremendously, because I had all these young unknown bands. He would perform my bands, because of the relationship. This is a business of relationships. Like Albert Torres (Top promoter in Los Angeles). He brings all my bands here because of our relationship. Albert can bring any band he wants! Everybody wants to work for Albert Torres!

EEG: What bands are your clients these days?

RB: My main artist is Cachao; I'm his manager. Also Los Hermanos Moreno; Nora, from la Orquesta de La Luz...I do things with many people. I have been an agent for 39 years! I put festivals all over Europe, Japan, and the United States. So I book Tito Nieves, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz...Everybody is available to me, because everybody wants to travel. And now there are so many freelance artists, and they call me and say, "Consígeme a Ismael Miranda, Richie". I just had him here last year. We did a few jobs; that was me.

EEG: What do you think has been your greatest accomplishment?

RB: At the beginnings, at the early days, because I was fortunate to be growing when I did. Thirty nine years later, I'm still doing it. It has been my sole source of income. My greatest [accomplishment] has been that I brought a lot of unknown artists into big stars. Eddie Santiago started with me, Lalo Rodriguez...But let me tell you about one of my biggest accomplishments. There was an artist that was a loved artist, from Puerto Rico. El era de la tierra de Puerto Rico, but he had a drug problem: Ismael Rivera. He never showed up; when he showed up, he sort of played. He wasn't working. But, then, he came to my office and I took him under my wing. When I took him under my wing, él me dijo: "Richie, yo voy a ir a Panamá, a curarme a Panamá, porque van a llevarme a ver el Cristo Negro allá". So they took him to Panamá, and they did a lot of things; they took him to bathe in the ocean, and then he had to carry the big heavy cross. He told me that when he was kneeling in front of the Cristo Negro, that he could see the marks disappearing from his arms. When he walked back into my office a month later, he had no beard, he was completely shaven, and he had this aura above him --- he looked so holy. And, from that date, he started showing up, he started traveling all over the world again. He was doing wonderful and he had a great band.

EEG: Was that prior the Fania years?

RB: Oh, yeah, this was all prior to Fania. See, my period and all my successes were mostly prior to Fania.

EEG: Do you recall the year when the "miracle" with Ismael Rivera occurred?

RB: OK, it had to be in the late sixties, early seventies. Then, what happened to Ismael is that he didn't change his friends. And the friends are the ones that brought him back down. And then we argued and I wasn't representing him anymore. He went back to Puerto Rico; he had an apartment in New York at that time. He always said that the thing that he liked most about me is that I looked like an agent (LAUGHS). So then, I had the same problem with Héctor Lavoe, because when he started with me, he was unknown...

EEG: Was that before he was with Willie Colón?

RB: No, no. He met me in the street in the Bronx, in front of the Bronx Casino. He told me that he just started singing with a new band, con Willie Colón. He wanted me to come down and see the band, to see if I could book the band. I went and, of course, I loved the band. But the band had a bunch of drug addicts: the piano player --- Mark Dimond, the timbalero...So what I started doing, I kept the band alive for two years before "Che che colé". I was booking them for two years.

EGG: Was the drug problem that bad in the years preceding "Che che colé"?

RB: Yes, they had a lot of bad drug addicts in the band. Mark Dimond was a great piano player and was a drug addict.

EEG: Did he die due to AIDS or the drug problem?

RB: I don't know, but they are connected.

EEG: And Frankie Dante?

RB: Frankie Dante died of cancer. I was Frankie's manager from the beginning. During the last period --- the last 10 or 15 years of his life, we didn't have any relationship. I built my relationship with him in the sixties and into the seventies. After that, I would see him once in a while, because he was going to college. But his mother was his angel. He was always with "my little viejita". He loved her so much, and she saved his life over and over and over.

EEG: OK, let's continue with Héctor Lavoe.

RB: I kept their (Willie Colón) band very busy, because there were so many clubs. Then I found Professor Joe Torres (piano); he was with [Orquesta] Flamboyán. He replaced Mark Dimond. So he went with Willie Colón. Then I got Louie Romero (timbalero), who I met at a gig. He went to audition, and we got him.

EEG: And Santi "Choflomo" González, the bassist?

RB: He was with Willie from the beginning. He was no problem. The only problem that he had is that he made a lot of kids (LAUGHS). So Willie was with me for two years before "Che che colé". But I have already taken him to Panamá, because Panamá used to call me, and Fania (the label) wasn't born yet. So, when Willie went there, we went walking around and Willie saw a military marching band, and they were doing "La Murga" with a big tuba (he imitates the tuba's sound with the "Murga" notes). So Willie adopted that, but only for el tema (the theme), you know, when you finish a set and you are going off the stage. He would go: (imitates the famous "La Murga" trombone). And then he would say to todo el mundo: "Voy a regresar en media hora." So I just to told Willie, "Oye, Willie, you got to put that number, you got to finish it." One day he did the number, and the rest is history. That was like a national anthem in Panamá.

EEG: Tell me about Héctor's drug problem.

RB: I knew he had a drug problem, but I never saw him, because we didn't hang out. I never, never, was with him. Héctor always used to wear long sleeve shirts. You know, everybody talks about the drugs all the time, but nobody talks about the person. He was a tremendous person! He always dressed sharp. He always dressed beautifully. Héctor and his wife used to come to my house with their kid, so that he could play with my kid, because my son is a year older than his son.. So I used to tell Héctor --- those years when his kid was a baby ? , I was trying to encourage him to leave the band, and go as a solista (soloist), because he was such a tremendous talent. Not only vocally, but he was such a funny guy. At that time, Tito Rodriguez left New York and went to Puerto Rico, and he was doing two shows a day. I told Héctor that he could do that: "You do two shows a day, and you live like a king. And not only like a king; you live to be forty. The way you are going now, playing in the after-hours clubs, with the element..." Everybody just gave him the stuff, you know. So I told him that he could follow the sun; he could do the Caribe Hilton, or go to Venezuela and do the Hilton there. I was trying to encourage him to go as a soloist, because he could have done it. ¡El era tan querido! But he said that he wasn't hurting anyone but himself.

I happened to manage Frankie Ruiz, too, so I had the same problem with him. He was a great talent. So Héctor had his accident in Puerto Rico, when he jumped out the window. Whatever happened, nobody knows. A lot of people are blaming Puchi (his wife), because they were always arguing, and they say that Puchi probably pushed him out. They were always fighting. But she told me that they were going down, and she went down before him. And I asked Puchi what happened ? we were real close. I know them since they were kids. She says and knows that they were arguing --- she admits that. And that he left and that she went down to wait for him. I week later, you hear him on the phone and you think that nothing happened to Héctor. After the accident, when they brought him back to New York, and that he was in the hospital, he was clean. So I told him that this was his second chance. Now, what he has to do when he comes out of the hospital is to cut his friends, because if he hanged out with the same friends, they would bring him down, because that is what happened to Maelo (Ismael Rivera). I lived it with Maelo. I wish Puchi was a stronger person; Puchi had problems, too, with cocaine. If she was a stronger person, it might have been a different ending for Héctor. Like Cheo (Feliciano).

EEG: Cheo cleaned himself in time...

RB: Because of his wife, Coco. She is strong. She helped him. If it wasn't for her, they would be no career [for Cheo].

EEG: I have noticed that some of the wives of the Fania old timers are very protective and strong...

RB: I wrote a story about the females in the business. Pete "El Conde" Rodriguez' wife, Pacheco's wife, Johnny Rivera's wife...

EEG: So what happened with Héctor?

RB: I talked to Héctor in the hospital and told him: "This is your chance to turn your life around. You have to stop hanging out with same people you hang out with. But he didn't do that. So they brought him back down. Then, he couldn't heal, because he had a metal tube in his leg, because his leg was destroyed. Así que estaba mal. I wasn't booking Héctor any longer. What happened was that, when Fania came into business, and they became so strong, everybody just wanted Fania artists. So I started loosing my Fania artists, like Pete Conde, who was with me. When Héctor split with Willie Colón, because Willie left the band, Héctor kept the band together, and I was still the manager for Héctor Lavoe. So I was managing Héctor when Fania was really strong. Fania was controlling the radio; they had Polito Vega, Joe Gaines...They had Héctor Maisonave running the dances. They were doing their own booking. That was a monopoly, that was illegal. So they started to complain. At that same time, Jerry [Masucci] called me and asked me if I would be interested in booking all the Fania artists. But, at that same time, the Cheetah (dance room), which Ralphie [Mercado] was running, started to go down and they were almost ready to close. So, then, Ralphie was looking for something else to do. He took Eddie Palmieri and, I think, Tipica '73. So, because of the relationship that Ralphie had with Jerry [Masucci], they decided that Ralphie open up a booking agency, and that one of the Fania people - Ray Avilés - to go in with Ralphie. And then they would use it as an umbrella to promote the Fania artists under their umbrella. To make a deception that they (Fania) weren't controlling, they spoke to Ralph to open up a booking agency and they got Ray Avilés to go with Ralphie Mercado. Ray Avilés was a Fania man. Ralph Mercado managed the office, so now it didn't look like Fania anymore. Ralphie was a promoter, not a booking agent. At that time, Héctor [Lavoe] told me that they wanted him, but Héctor was signed with me. He asked me if I would sell his contract to Ralphie, because he didn't want to be in the middle of a fight. And he made sure that I got what I deserved, so I sold his contract to Ralphie. That is how they got Héctor. But, when Ralphie got all these artists, he needed a booking agent. So he and Ray Avilés took me out to dinner and they offered me to come over to RMM and handle all the bookings for them. And I was loosing all my artists to Fania anyway! En esa época everything was Fania. So I closed my office and I worked out a deal with Ralphie. I started doing the booking for Ralphie.

EEG: I'm assuming that this happened after the Fania All Stars concert at the Cheetah, Right?

RB: Ralphie opened his office after that. But the Cheetah was no more. That was way after [the concert].

EEG: What do you think caused the downfall of the Fania empire?

RB: Well, it's just a cycle. You know, when I started in the business, Seeco Records was the biggest one. And then it was Fonseca. Entonces was Alegre...It's just a cycle. Alegre was big.

EEG: Now that you mentioned Alegre, What can you tell me about the late Al Santiago?

RB: He was always a gentleman with me. In fact, I'm the one that booked that last Alegre All Stars [performance] at SOBs. Al Santiago called me because he wanted to do two shows again with the Alegre All Stars, and I said, "Who's left? You tell me who's left and we'll do it." Kako was gone, Charlie [Palmieri] was gone...so many people were gone. So I booked it; there were enough guys. He (Al) died shortly after that. I'm glad that I helped him realize his dream a little bit.

You know, I'm the one that buried Héctor [Lavoe]. That's a long story that needs to be written. [Johnny] Pacheco and Cookie (Pacheco's wife) took care of all the arrangements for the wake. But, for the actual day of the funeral, we had a mass for him, and the burial. Pacheco had to go to the hospital, so he couldn't be there. So I went in the morning by eight thirty to the funeral parlor; his daughter, her husband, somebody else, and myself were there. So then, with the people that worked in the funeral parlor, we put the casket into the hoist...You know the last viewing before the burial? Well, Puchi (Héctor's wife) wasn't there. Puchi didn't go to the funeral home. So we put the casket into the hoist and we went to the church. And then we brought the casket up to the church. Puchi wasn't even at the mass. After they did the ceremony, they brought Puchi to the church. After the mass, and we were coming out with the casket, when we opened the door, Oh, my God, there were so many people outside the church! Ismael Miranda was there and asked if he could help. Larry Harlow was there; they wanted to be pallbearers. There were three lines of cars! We got Puchi in the first car, I was at the third car. When we started pulling out, there was comparsa in front of the hearse, so everything was moving very slow. We were going to bury him in the Saint Raymond's cemetery in the Bronx. So we started going down First Avenue, and we have to go over a bridge called Willis Avenue Bridge (also known as Third Avenue Bridge) to get into the Bronx, and we were going slow because of the comparsa in front. They made a left turn, because there is a barrio on Grand Concourse - a big avenue, mucho Latino allí . So the comparsa went that way and, when we started going trough Grand Concourse, it created such a traffic jam that the police cars would go up ahead to block the intersections so that we could keep going. People had their heads out the windows, screaming "Héctor Lavoe!". Every car was blasting Lavoe's cassettes, playing his music, beeping their horns. It was really something. So we went slow, slow, slow. Finally, when we reached a point, the comparsa pulled aside and we started rushing to Saint Raymond's cemetery. When we get to the cemetery, it looked like Woodstock! There were thousands of people all over the cemetery! They were standing up on top of the mausoleums! You know that they have like a little canopy where they are going to lower the body? Well, we only could go so far, because of the people. When we pulled Héctor's casket out of the hearse, everybody crushed in to see. So I'm standing there; I couldn't move! And the canopy was about 30 yards away. So, we finally made a space and we got to where they were going to lower him into the ground. You know about the reputation of Héctor Lavoe, llegando tarde a los sitios (being late all the time). Bueno, él llegó tarde to his own burial, because the priest that was supposed to be there had another appointment, and he could not wait any longer for Héctor; so he left. So Héctor Lavoe llegó tarde to his own burial, man. So true to Héctor Lavoe. So then, when we there, I asked Ismael Miranda --- he was in the religion --- if he would say a few prayers over Héctor Lavoe. So he said a few prayers. Now, Puchi says that she wants them to open the casket, because she wants a last viewing of Héctor. She did not go to the funeral home for a last viewing, so she wanted the last viewing. The funeral director told me that that was very unusual. And she kept insisting. And I told him: "Do not open the casket!" If you opened it, there was going to be another crush, like when we pulled the casket out of the hearse. If you opened the casket, there was going to be such a crush, that everybody was going to push in to see! There was going to be a serious problem there. And, nowadays, they don't lower the casket into the ground until the family leaves, because it is too emotional. But she insisted. So I said, "Look, you have to lower the casket into the ground, because there is too many people here, and they aren't leaving. And that is going to be an indication that the show is over. So lower it into the ground now." So, as they began to lower the casket into the ground, Puchi wants to jump down onto the casket. She gets so upset, she gets hysterical! So they are holding her. Ahora parece como una pelea. She is kicking, screaming and all that, and they are holding her. So that affects her daughter in law - Zeraida (??) Pérez -, the one that married her son. Her son has died, too. Héctor's son died. And she starts screaming also, and they are holding her. Es una locura. And I'm telling them: "Keep lowering the casket. Get Puchi and Zeraida and put them in a limo, because this people are not leaving until this show is over. Drag them, do whatever you have to do." You should have seen the scene; it was powerful. So they put them into the limousine and closed the door, and then everybody started disbanding.

EEG: Let's talk about another tragic life: La Lupe. What can you tell me about her?

RB: We were friends. I managed her in the last year or so of her career. I used to go to her house to pick her up; she used to live in Washington heights, donde viven los dominicanos ahora. Pero, en esa época, todos eran americanos. When I used to knock at her door, she said, "¿Quién es?" I said ,"Bonilla." Ella dice: "Okay. Espera." She had about five locks at her door, "Click, clack, clock..." Tenía como cinco o seis cerraduras. Su casa estaba oscura. En la esquina ella tenía todos los santos, all the offerings, las velas, muchas velas...

One time we went to Boston. I booked her for Boston in a ballroom of a hotel. We get there a few minutes before we were supposed to start. El sitio está lleno, esperando a La Lupe. So we asked them, "Where's the dressing room?" They said: "There is no dressing room." She used to put a lot handkerchiefs, and lot of stuff on. So there is no dressing room and a few minutes to get dressed. The stage was in the middle. She went to the left hand side, to the corner. Yo me paré así (covering her), y ella se quitó la ropa. Right there in the corner, man!

EEG: She was famous for her semi-stripping act.

RB: She was busty and she would jump so much. She would tear her stockings and throw them. But, what we used to do at the Manhattan Center, on 34th street, we would have a bottle of oxygen on the side of the stage. When she finished her performance, she would come out to the side and she would collapse! Then we had to put the oxygen on her to revive her. She put so much energy into her show.

Then she was pregnant of her child, she worked until the eight or ninth month! She used to stomp and jump. Estaba preñada. We used to be so worried. We used to say, "Oh, my God, that kid is going to come out!" (LAUGHTER) But the kid was born all right.

EEG: Do you think La Lupe was a serious competition to Celia Cruz?

RB: I don't think she would have been a competition to Celia Cruz, because Celia is one of a kind. But so is La Lupe one of a kind, she was very successful. We started together; we used to do a lot of small theaters en todos los diferentes barrios de Nueva York, were the Puerto Ricans were starting to move in --- lower Manhattan, the Delancy theater. We used to do shows once a week. I would see her; that's the way I met her. I was there with the Pete Rodriguez group. Danny Rivera started the same time as we did. And then we parted. I know that she was living in Puerto Rico, and that she got real heavy.

EEG: Who do you think is responsible for the creation of la salsa monga: the labels or the musicians? They say this trend began with Louie Ramirez and Ray de La Paz.

RB: Every five or six years a new generation comes out that wants something that is theirs. I think that is the biggest responsibility for the change in music. They are looking for something different. And I have an interesting story about Louie Ramirez and Ray de La Paz. Ralphie Mercado told me that he wanted to start a record company. He told me that he wanted to record Louie and Ray. And I said, "Don't do it, because they are always fighting and they are going to split up and then you are going to have a record there..." Those were the first persons that he wanted to record. So I advised him against it. Somebody else recorded it and it was a tremendous hit! (LAUGHS) So I don't have all the answers, you know.

EEG: Do you have any Rubén Blades - Willie Colón stories?

RB: Yeah, because I managed Willie Colón for many years. When they left Ralph Mercado, then I managed Rubén and Willie the last couple of years.

Rubén Blades always stood to himself. He never hung up with the guys. When we went in a gira (tour) in a bus, he would stay in the bus, reading. He wasn't a womanizer; he wasn't looking to have, you know, women in his hotel room. He kept to himself.

EEG: What do you think was the main reason for the Blades/Colón split?

RB: I think one of the main reasons of why they broke up was that Héctor Lavoe promoted Willie Colón to such stardom, that it was Héctor Lavoe that made Willie Colón. [Thas was] because Willie Colón was in the background with his trombone, and he was very shy, he didn't talk. Héctor Lavoe was always saying, "Willie this, Willie that..." Héctor era tan querido. I mean, Héctor Lavoe was the one that promoted Willie Colón! Now, Willie Colón is a big star and everybody loves Willie Colón. So now he hooks up with Rubén Blades. Rubén Blades is a composer, he writes all the tunes, he sings all the tunes...Meanwhile, they would say "La orquesta de Willie Colón" or they say "El Cantante de Willie Colón". That used to kill Rubén Blades; he used to hate that. "¿El cantante de Willie Colón? Yo no soy el cantante de Willie Colón. Yo soy Rubén Blades; Willie Colón está acompañándome". Rubén Blades never went to Willie Colón's house. And Willie Colón never was invited to Rubén Blades' apartment. That is interesting. And, if Willie Colón had a couple of rum and cokes, he would get very bravo, he wanted to fight, you know. Rubén used to hate that. One time we were in Venezuela, and they were arguing about that. And I saw what a professional Rubén Blades was. He was so angry, and then they announced the band. And then Willie Colón goes up and he plays, right? And then he says: "¡Y ahora Rubén Blades!" And Rubén Blades goes up there and he hugs Willie, and they play beautiful. They sing and do the job. He was smiling and everything. But, when Rubén came offstage, as soon as he gets offstage, UFF! tenía una cara de perro (he was angry). I said, "Oh, my God, what a performer!" Porque tenía una rabia before he went on, he put it aside, did his job, came back, and la rabia returned. They didn't get along. Oh, another thing! They would always say "Willie Colón's tunes", "Las canciones de Willie Colón". But they weren't Willie Colón's tunes! They were Rubén Blades' tunes!

EEG: Is there anything that you haven't done that you still want to do?

RB: I'm so satisfied. I'm not the person that talks about, "I did this, and I did that." I opened a lot of doors. I brought a lot of unknown artists into stardom. I opened up so many avenues to a lot of different countries, to el caribe, to Panamá ? I am the one that brought prior Fania all the music to Panamá for years before Fania! Después de Fania, everybody wanted Fania. My bands were the first bands to work en el Club Unión. I always also sent the bands to the Club the Yates y Pesca. Also para los toldos they used to have at Plaza 5 de mayo. I used to have five or six bands at the same time! I'm willing at this stage to pass the torch to the Albert Torres' and all the young promoters that are out there. I wish them a lot of success. It's their time now.

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