Issue 6 - Fall 2007 - The Sound Issue
Memories from the days of the mamboniks

It was a December night in 1959. The Jews had finished their dinner. The Puerto Ricans had finished tuning up. Then the lights dimmed and a voice came over the ballroom PA: “Grossinger’s is proud to present Tito Puuuuuuuuuuuuuuuueeeeeente.” A melody jerked from a piano, sticks rolled over taut timbales, and a historic night began.

Elton John at the Troubador. The Who Live at Leeds. Dylan at Newport. And yes, this, too: Tito Puente at Grossinger’s. It was a concert for the history books — the forgotten apex of a forgotten era. On December 4, 1959, in front of 1200 Jews on break from life in the city, the legendary Puerto Rican bandleader and blond Afroed timbale master Tito Puente headlined the grand ballroom at Grossinger’s hotel, the flagship Jewish resort in the Catskills Mountains. It was not the first time the beloved Boricua had played for the vacationing Jewish masses, but it was the first time that one of his Catskills performances was recorded. Soon after, the full-length album was released by RCA as Cha Cha with Tito Puente at Grossinger’s. The album remains a documentation of a cross-cultural, mid-century relationship between Latinos and American Jews.

The liner notes of Cha Cha ask: “Would the band and the crowd ‘dig’ each other?” But there was really never any question of that. This was, after all, America in the fifties, the golden age of the Jewish-Latin craze.

Journalist Mark Schwartz has spent the past few years gathering the stories of some of the key figures from this fiery phase. What follows is an oral history of that time, straight from the people who lived it.

Every affair — a wedding, a bar mitzvah, a retirement dinner — always had live music. No one would ever think of having any type of affair without live music. That was the first thing: “Who’s the band?” As a matter of fact, I played bar mitzvahs where it was Emilio Reyes, Tito Puente, and Duke Ellington — at a bar mitzvah!

—Charles Klaif, piano player with the orchestras of Alfredito, Xavier Cugat, Tony Norvo, Joe Quijano, and Emilio Reyes, among others

You used Jewish musicians or you didn’t have a band! They did the show bands, everything.

— Eddie Palmieri, Latin music piano maestro and leader of the legendary La Perfecta

They became quite astute as Latin players ... So if you wanted quality from your timbre, your attack, your intonation, then you had to go for the American players, and they were mostly Jewish who ran the ball game.

— Eddie Palmieri

Where there’s plenty of dancers, there’s always gonna be musicians learning to play that music, because there’s work. Because of the job. That’s what’s important. Apart from the artistic affinity for something. It’s a job skill; you better learn it if you wanna make a living.

— Dan Weinstein, Los Angeles–based Latin music reed man

Jewish players wouldn’t stay with any band steady. You booked ’em. Except a steady band, for a while they’d stay — Tito Puente had his four trumpets for a while. But in general, they were all doing one-nighters. Club dates is what they called them. You went to the union hall on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and you booked everyone you could find.

— Eddie Palmieri

Unfortunately, Jewish musicians didn’t respect the masters of their own thing. Jewish musicians did not. It was, “Eh, who wants to play this garbage.”

— Pete Sokolow, New York pianist and reed man with dozens of Jewish bands, including those of Dave Tarras and the Epstein Brothers

I got a call to play for permanent with Tito Puente ... I was in heaven, man. I walk into this big auditorium at the Malibu, and that was my start with Tito. The beginning of nine years of nothing but sex and good times.

— Schep Pullman, saxophonist with Tito Puente’s orchestra

You could make a living playing in Tito Puente’s band. He had four trumpets back then, four trombones and three saxophones. Those cats were making a living. They would play Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and playing doubles and triples on weekends. The thing about Latin bands is they employed large amounts of musicians.

— Steven Bernstein, New York–based trumpet player and leader of Sex Mob

From ’57 we did the Palladium, ballrooms in Manhattan, ballrooms in Brooklyn, ballrooms in the after-hours clubs in the Bronx. We were working seven days a week, and Saturdays we’d do four jobs before Saturday night into Sunday afternoon, when we’d work again. I’ll give a schedule: from nine to one we’d work at Riverside Plaza on 71st Street, we would go from one to three at the Hotel Taft Grill, then at three o’clock we’d go up to the Bronx and play an after-hours till six. In the Bronx it was after-hours clubs. They were in lofts; most of them probably were illegal. Then you’d go back to Manhattan and have to be up for a three o’clock matinee at the Chateau Madrid and in the evening back to the Palladium. We were working a steady Monday night, Tuesday night, and Wednesday night at the Palladium. Seven nights.

— Schep Pullman

I would say the binder, the thing that put it all together better than Krazy Glue, was the art of dancing. See, they became great dancers, the Jews did, and they would come to the Palladium on Wednesdays and they would run the place.

— Eddie Palmieri

Surely Schlemmy and Malky from some shtetl in Russia were into “Mein Shtetele Belz” and whatever else. But it was their children — the Meyer who became Mike, the Yitzie who became Irving — these are the people that were looking for the rumba and the cha-cha. They were looking to learn. And it became hip in that social circle to go from the rumba to the mambo, then cha-cha. That became the thing to do.

— Pete Sokolow

The “mamboniks” was a big gang of Jewish boys and girls from all boroughs who used to converge on the Palladium on Wednesday nights. A mambonik was a trombenik who loved mambo — trombenik being a Yiddish word for a bum. A knockaround guy. It was a badge of who we were, you know? There was really thousands of people into it, but there were a couple hundred core faces. You’d see them all the time. Wherever the dances were. And when I opened up my club, hundreds of them came. I kinda knew everybody. I was part of that clique.

— Norby Walters, nightclub owner and later Hollywood impresario

The owner of the Palladium was a Jewish guy, Max Hyman, and he knew we were Jewish. He knew we were underage, and he let us come in anyway.

— Larry Harlow, “El Judio Maravilloso,” bandleader, piano and keyboard player, salsa producer, director of the legendary Fania All-Stars

You could go to the Palladium four nights a week and hear great music every one of those nights — Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, but Wednesday was the best night of the week. The evening would start out with dance lessons taught by “Killer Joe” Piro, the MC. After that, it was time to get out on the dance floor and show your stuff. Later on came the dance contests, with contestants that were unbelievably good. Then came “showtime,” the fabulous dance teams, all great dancers.

— Rae Arroyo, Bronx-born Latin music DJ and entrepreneur from a Turkish Jewish family

The crowd was maybe 35 percent Puerto Rican. Some blacks. Fifteen percent Italian and 50 percent Jewish. Wednesday night was when we all went. I have no idea who was there on a Friday or Saturday, because I never went.

— Norby Walters

You know what, it didn’t matter if it was Jewish or black or Spanish — it was just great music. Nobody really thought about it that way. It never even entered the picture. It really wasn’t an issue.

— Adele Zeretsky, wife of bandleader Al “Alfredito” Levy and Catskills habitué

The first time that I had in my entire life seen a white person dance with a black person was at the Palladium.

— Don Kellin, Palladium habitué and mambo dancer

All the celebrities sat along these tables on the left. In the very front, the dancers from the show sat. Now, on the inside dance floor portion of the left side of the ballroom, the first third of that section, there were some very good dancers. The middle third and the back third were people who couldn’t dance. But in the center there were people who came often but couldn’t dance, at the back were the tourists who came but couldn’t dance. Got that? Down the center ... I don’t know who danced down the center.

— Don Kellin

There were areas at the Palladium where if you didn’t know how to dance and you wound your way into that area, you were banished. They would tell you, “Go dance over there.”

— Andy Kaufman, owner of New York’s Birdland nightclub and Latin music record producer

There was dancing at the beach on Long Island. And that, next to the Palladium, was the highlight of the period. There were three clubs: Malibu was the furthest east, the Colony was a bit west, and the Sands. And on any given Saturday night for the entire summer, Puente played the Malibu, Tito Rodriguez played the Colony, and the Playa Sextet played the Sands. And they competed like maniacs.

— Don Kellin

There were a load of clubs in Brooklyn. Ben Maksik’s on Flatbush Avenue used to be one of them that had show bands. The Elegante, that was another one, and then on Flatbush and Avenue U there was a very important club. As well as the Palladium in those days, that was the place. The Latinos went there, but it was really the judios and the italianos, the Jews and the Italians, that really built it up. And that’s where Puente, Rodriguez, and Machito really made their names and reputations. From there, the rest was history. The Catskills, the beach resorts, they all played there.

— Charles Klaif

I worked with a little Latin trio at a club called the Elegante in Brooklyn. It was a really successful nightclub and restaurant. As a matter of fact, when I was working there, it was the only five-night-a-week job in the city. They had fourteen musicians who worked in this place. It was between Avenue J and K on Ocean Parkway. Forget it, when the guy opened on Wednesday, the line was around the corner.

— Charlie Hersh, reed man with various New York bands, including Alfredito’s

Town and Country was the major number-one nightclub in Brooklyn. It originally had been called Ben Maksik’s Roadside Rest. Then they tore it down and he built this fantastic place for a couple of million dollars called Ben Maksik’s Town and Country. He played Harry Belafonte, Judy Garland — the biggest acts in show business of the time. But they also had a Latin band, because, once again, it was in Jewtown. Now, Ben Maksik’s had a Sunday afternoon dansant. That was when all the mamboniks would go to Ben Maksik’s. Maybe three, four, five hundred guys and gals would go on a Sunday afternoon.

— Norby Walters

All the temples and synagogues would do these dances on Saturday night, and they would all advertise in the Post on Friday. The Rego Park Jewish Center, the Menorah Temple, the Kingsway Jewish Center. Then the churches jumped on the bandwagon: St. Rocco’s, St. Fortunato’s ....

— Charles Klaif

They used to have Sunday afternoons in the temples in Brooklyn when the elderly Jewish couples would get up and dance the rumba. I was dancing rumba in ’38, and I performed at a synagogue. I had to wear a rumba shirt, with ruffles.

— Vincent Livelli, New York dancer and Latin music enthusiast

I had my own little group playing at a Jewish center in Brooklyn. I had my own band under the name of Chepito. I spelled my first name S-c-h-e-p. This drummer who had the American band on the job, he suggested that I get myself a Latin-sounding name.

— Schep Pullman

Arnie was Jewish, myself was Jewish, Pat Russo was Italian, but he liked Jewish girls so he used to change his name. He used to change his name to Rushowitz or something for the girl’s parents.

— Schep Pullman

The Jews were the ones who were supporting Latin music. Not 100 percent. 1000 percent. Sure, they had a bunch of Jewish promoters running the dances and getting rich, but they were still hiring those bands. And there were all these Jews going to the dances and supporting these bands at the hotels, and all the disc jockeys on the radio. All Jewish.

— Charles Klaif

The DJs I listened to were Art “Pancho” Raymond and Bob “Pedro” Harris. Up in the Catskills, it was Willie and Ray out of Liberty, New York. Later on it was Dick “Ricardo” Sugar and then Symphony Sid.

— Rae Arroyo

My attraction to Spanish music was that a lot of it was written in a minor key, as is a lot of Jewish music. It sounded almost like Jewish music, many of the songs. And then the rhythm attracted me. The other thing, the other reason for getting involved was that I couldn’t do what other DJs were doing. All my disc jockey friends were playing rhythm and blues; that was the hot thing at the time. But I just couldn’t see that music for dust. I didn’t like it.

— Art “Pancho” Raymond, pioneering Latin music DJ, later hosted the long-running Jewish music programs Raisins & Almonds and Sunday Simcha

A bunch of the boys, we used to go to Rockaway, we’d rent a room in the basement, the seven of us, and check out the boardwalk and see the girls. My job was checking out what Art Raymond played every Saturday.

— Howard Roseff, partner with Sidney Siegel in Seeco Records and Tropical Records

Symphony Sid, Dick “Ricardo” Sugar, they gave me a basic understanding. They played their commercial Latin music. I listened to them all the time. But I also used to listen late at night to the Spanish stations. AM stations broadcast live from the Palisades amusement park, from the Caborojeño nightclub, from Havana and San Juan. From the Colgate Gardens — they would have Latin bands: Eddie Palmieri, Pacheco, Fajardo, Broadway ... who’d play live over the radio at one o’clock in the morning on a Friday night.

— Andy Kaufman

WEVD would carry Joe and Paul, a whole lot of Jewish programming. Art Raymond had a show on WEVD that was strictly a Jewish show. All kinds of people had Yiddish shows on WEVD, rabbis and whatnot. Then, at night, suddenly you had Puerto Rican music.

— Stanley Lewis, partner with George Goldner in Cotique Records, an early Latin sounds record label

In the fifties, every Catskill Mountains hotel had a person come in, maybe once or twice a week, to teach the cha-cha and variations to these forty-, fifty-, sixty-year-old people. And it became the Jewish national dance.

— Pete Sokolow

The dance teachers were prominent people in hotels, because at that time, they didn’t have golf. They had tennis, but it wasn’t such a big thing because you’re talking about elderly people. So the dance teacher was the star of this whole thing.

— Mike Terrace, dance instructor at the Concord and other Catskills hotels

The Catskill hotels had a ton of Latin bands. They had Machito at the Concord, Tito Puente at Grossinger’s, Eddie Palmieri at the Raleigh, Joe Cuba at the Pines, La Playa Sextet, La Plata Sextet, Jose Curbelo, Joe Loco, Noro Morales ... they worked at different hotels. So the Jews that went up to the Catskills also heard the music that played in the most authentic styles by these bands. They weren’t watered down cha-cha bands. They were the real thing.

— Andy Kaufman

For Latin musicians, the thing was to play the mountains in the summer. You went up there, you played the shows, you brought your family, you got a nice room, you got fed, and it was a fun job. You got away for ten weeks. And that’s what we did every summer.

— Adele Zeretsky

They used to have mambo shows at the Raleigh and at Schenk’s Paramount in the Catskills. And it used to get packed. They used to have mambo shows in the Pines. All Jewish clientele. This was a true happening, not a spur of the moment thing. Some of these people became professionals, some of the dancers, you know what I mean?

— Jimmy Sabater, vocalist with the Joe Cuba Sextet, native of Puerto Rico

We got a bungalow from a guy named Shapiro, an Orthodox Jew. And I bring in a salsa band for the whole summer there, with the congas, and poor Shapiro, we almost put him in an insane asylum … I think they chased me out of Sullivan County.

— Eddie Palmieri

We used to wear yarmulkes for Shabbos, man, in the dining room. In the synagogues they would have us on Friday, Saturday, or early Sunday. In the Catskills, we’d be eating in the main dining room, certain nights, and have to put ’em on. When in Rome ....

— Jimmy Sabater

As I remember it, every hotel had two bands. You went out by the pool, there were bands. The men would deposit their wives up at the hotel and they would come up for the weekends. All the women would be fooling around with the musicians, the busboys, and the waiters. And every hotel was like that. It was a scene. From the little ones to the big ones, every hotel was like that.

— Adele Zeretsky

People went to the Catskills to earn some extra money for going to college, whether they were busboys, or waiters, or bellhops, or musicians, or counselors in camp, or what have you ... I used to teach a guy conga lessons on the weekends, and he used to go home to work during the week, and I used to fuck his wife at night and his daughter in the afternoon, then he used to come back Monday and say, “You know, I think my wife’s fooling around. Would you keep an eye on her for me?”

— Larry Harlow

The food was Jewish-style, the entertainment was Jewish, they had Jewish comics, and sang Jewish songs. Even the Koreans and the Chinese people that came sang Jewish songs — you know, the Barry Sisters. All the comics, they catered to a Jewish audience.

— Adele Zeretsky

Well, my first year at the Pines, I made the mistake of ordering schav. The waiter told me, “Are you sure you want that?” Boy, poison in a glass! Man, that shit tasted like death on wheels. I got used to the menu, the borscht, all of that ... but that was my first day.

— Jimmy Sabater

Just to get to the mountains, to get the kids to the fresh air in the country was like, hey, that’s a step up. Getting into another type of music, this is what the Jews looked to to improve their status. Like having another home and having two cars, and that helped, liking that type of music. A little panache. It gave another facet to their life; they weren’t just going to the sweat shop anymore.

— Howard Roseff

It was probably the best experience of my life having gotten into Cuban music as a twenty-two-year-old and spending about eight to ten years doing that. I mean after all, we were two Jewish kids from Brooklyn who loved Latin music, and there was a whole crowd of Jewish kids from Brooklyn and the Bronx and Manhattan who were into Cuban music, but there were very few of us who actually got to play it. So all of these contemporaries of myself and my brother, these Jewish and Italian kids, they really looked up to us. Here we were on the bandstand of the Palladium, playing with probably the hippest, most typical Cuban band in New York City.

— David Hersher, bass player with Orchestra Broadway and Eddie Palmieri’s groups, alongside his brother, Ira,
on piano

It took a long time for the Hispanics to accept me, go through all that shit. It wasn’t easy. I used to sit in Jose Curbelo’s office, and I’d say, “Gimme a gig, get me a job,” you know? He used to manage Puente and Rodriguez. The only way I’d get to work is if a promoter would come in and say, “I want Tito Puente” — and Curbelo would say, “Oh, you want Puente? You gotta take Larry Harlow.”

— Larry Harlow

Larry Harlow? That guy’s Puerto Rican! He ain’t Jewish. He walks, talks, eats, sleeps, drinks Puerto Rican. He’s mishpucha.

— Jimmy Sabater

We used to go out to band rehearsals in Brooklyn. Everyone used to say, “You’re taking your life in your hands!” We didn’t care. We would go anywhere. Two idiots. Nothing bothered us. We’d stop and get a corned beef sandwich or a tongue sandwich. That was it: we’d get one tongue sandwich and one corned beef and we’d split it. And a Dr. Brown’s cream soda and a Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray. He liked the Cel-Ray, I liked the cream. Oh, the fun we had.

— Stanley Lewis

I compare it to Chinese food. Without the Jews going to have Chinese food, I don’t think it would have been a very successful undertaking for the Chinese in this country. That’s how Jews helped Latin music.

— Howard Roseff

Italians and Jews were on the periphery, even though New York was a Jewish town. The Latinos were just the next band of the periphery out away from the nucleus. We were all out there dancing around this mainstream white society, the 1950s America. And I think it happened that we all found something in common that was ours.

— Don Kellin
Purchase  Cha Cha Cha Live at Grossingers!