The Impressions‘ 1961 ”Gypsy Woman“ reappeared in 1966, brought back by Joe Bataan, an unknown Latin singer-pianist. Curtis Mayfield’s delicate baion was replaced by a driving Latin rhythm and two edgy trombones; the gentle gospel vocals became the chant ”She smokes! Ha! Ha!“; the Gypsy Woman‘s exploits were reported with a Wilson Pickett growl. This was Latin soul.
”The rhythm & blues was me,“ says Bataan. ”There wasn’t a lot of that in Latin then. I played piano in Latin groups, but what I loved was the Cadillacs, the Flamingos . . .“
Bataan, born in 1942 to an African-American mother and Filipino father, was a typical Spanish Harlem youth. His primary activities involved doo-wop and street crime. From age 15, he spent five years at Coxsackie juvenile reformatory. He made the most of the situation.
”I liked singing, and I decided to learn piano. When I got out, this guy I had sung with said that the scene had changed. He took me to a rehearsal. I saw him playing Latin. After that, I was determined to start my own band.“
He assembled a Hanson-aged group from the neighborhood youth centers, and it attracted a following. Bataan sought management, signing with anyone who‘d hand him a pen, including infamous Roulette Records head Morris Levy, who helped perfect the accounting procedure that made many doo-wop singers what they are today (destitute). Though studied in streetology, Bataan found Levy intimidating.
”I was tough, but these guys with their cigars . . . Morris asked what I wanted. I told him I wanted to record. He said, ’Fine. Book the studio and the musicians.‘ Then I said I wanted to read the contract before I signed it, and he got a little mad.
“I signed with all these people at once, and I was blackballed from playing in New York. It was a stroke of luck when I ran into Jerry Masucci.”
Masucci and arranger Johnny Pacheco, either unaware of or indifferent to Bataan’s contractual difficulties, started New York‘s Fania Records with Bataan in 1964. Latin music was ripe for its own Motown. In 1965, Joe Cuba’s soul-spiced Tico Records single “Bang Bang” electrified Latin music. Latin labels pursued similar groups, and Bataan‘s was the scrappiest. “Gypsy Woman” was much more raw than Cuba’s hits, with as much soul as Latin in the equation.
“We recorded the whole album in one day. I was afraid they wouldn‘t let us come back. That’s what got the rasp in my voice — working too hard. But that became my style.”
Bataan recorded a series of classic Latin soul albums for Fania, the best of them being Gypsy Woman and Subway Joe, forging a true Latin–African-American synthesis years before bands like War and Mandrill reached prominence. The lyrics in “Subway Joe” and “Under the Street Lamp” described working-class Latino Manhattan, while the music reflected the LatinR&B alliance. “Ordinary Guy” is a poignant poor boy–rich girl opus. He has re-recorded it throughout his career.
In 1968, Bataan‘s songs became socially charged, as “Young, Gifted, and Brown” and “Riot” illustrate. This heightened consciousness was common at Fania; just as SoCal Chicanos awakened to their cultural heritage, so did East Coast Latins. The late ’60s also saw Bataan making a successful return to his R&B roots via the LP Singin‘ Some Soul. Soul’s “My Cloud,” included on Art Laboe‘s new Dedicated to You Volume 9 (Original Sound), never charted but has long been a staple of call-in dedication on R&B radio shows. It deserved better, but Fania was unable to crack the mainstream.
Contention festered between Bataan and Fania. He confesses to having an ego and wanting his bank account to reflect more than the pre–Ricky Martin ethnic marketplace offered. Bataan stopped recording, and Fania dropped him. In 1969, his Upfront Records single “Crystal Blue Persuasion” hit No. 41 on the R&B charts.
In 1973, Bataan signed with a tiny label, Americana, which offered a scant $5,000 recording budget and 25 percent of the company. “I told them to change the name of the company to ’Salsoul,‘ because that was me — half salsa, half soul.” The high-water mark of his early Salsoul period was his 1973 instrumental cover of Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Bottle.” “That song was scratching the surface in the discos, but Gil‘s record label was in trouble, so I decided to record it. The record sold 80,000, and Columbia took it over, but we lost momentum.” (That sales figure seems high for a record that hit only No. 59 on the R&B charts.)
Bataan’s Salsoul output — also now reissued — was more R&B than Latin. Unfortunately, there were again arguments between label and artist. Bataan signed over his 25 percent, which he regrets today.
Frustrated by his career history, Bataan rightfully suggests that he was a pioneer. Yet, unlike many older artists who feel cheated, Bataan doesn‘t assign blame. He admits to his shortsightedness in business matters, and instead of vilifying the labels for which he recorded, cites limited indie-label finances and the inability of Latin artists to cross over when he was coming up.
Leaving Salsoul around 1975 — “I was dead for a while” — Bataan worked at a youth center on 110th Street. A new rhythm & blues trend emerged to deaf industry ears. But Bataan’s “field research” came from discos and youth centers, not office buildings.
“A thousand kids showed up at the youth center for a show by Jeckyll & Hyde, who I had never heard of. They were rapping, and I knew something was happening.”
Rap seemed brand-new in the mid-‘70s, but Bataan recognized its precedent in the on-air patter of Jocko Henderson, the 1950s DJ who spoke in on-the-beat syncopation between R&B records. Henderson claims to be the father of rap. The record Bataan made at RCA — “Rap-O Clap-O” — acknowledged Henderson’s paternity. “Rap sounded like Jocko to me, so I figured I could do it. I made the record myself, and nobody believed in it. I couldn‘t get arrested. So I made a medley of ’Rap-O,‘ ’Mestizo‘ and ’Sadie‘ and took it to the discos. It was 20 minutes of continuous dance music, and the DJs jumped on it.”
Labels didn’t — until Fat Larry‘s Band and the Sugarhill Gang had hits. “Rap-O” predated those records, Bataan insists, but “I wound up being the third to release a rap record.” Bataan, convinced of “Rap-O Clap-O”’s potential, “gave it to Salsoul for $1, just to get it out there. It was the best move I ever made.”
While it didn‘t chart domestically, “Rap-O” went Top 10 throughout Europe. Stardom beckoned, finally . . . but didn’t happen. Bataan gradually vanished. He insinuates about label problems, gambling addiction and the need to make a living for his family. Whatever the causes, by 1985 it had been reported that Bataan had last been seen pumping gas, or that he had died. The Latin Eddie and the Cruisers?
Neither dead nor checking people‘s oil, Bataan was counseling youthful offenders in the Bronx — for the most part staying offstage until 1995, when he played a benefit at NYC’s Hostos College and a few dates in Colombia. “I was shocked that so many people came, that people remembered.”
Last Album, Last Song (Bataan Music) is Bataan‘s first new release in decades. While many older artists attempt to update their classic sound, Bataan knows his strengths. Free of self-conscious modernizing, Last Album is a Latin-tinged old-school delight. “I sing Latin soul. I love singing these kinds of songs — ’Cowboys to Girls‘ and all that.”
Bataan has, again, recorded “Ordinary Guy.” “I’m still that. I‘m proud of what I accomplished in music, but I’m also proud of working with young people, showing kids an alternative to some of the stuff they learn on the street.”
Sometimes boastful, sometimes resigned, Bataan seems content. With his entire back catalog seeing reissue, he feels vindicated. He doesn‘t try to convince the interviewer that he could be the Next Big Thing, nor is he overly bitter. He is, in fact, an ordinary guy, and comfortable with that.