(JTA) Fania Records, often called the “Motown of Latin Music,” announced the passing of Larry Harlow on social media last week. Once the record label broke the news on Aug. 20, a who’s who of Latin music offered tributes.
“Larry’s contributions to what today is known as salsa are immense,” seven-time Grammy nominee Bobby Sanabria wrote online. “A true part of NYC’s history has been lost […] to our Latino community and it is heartfelt.”
But Harlow was neither Latino, nor did he have Latin American roots. In a nod to his heritage, he was known in the Latin music world and beyond as “El Judio Maravilloso,” “The Marvelous Jew.”
For three decades Buddy Harlowe led the house band at the legendary Latin Quarter nightclub in Manhattan, and Larry spent hours backstage with the daughter of owner Lou Walters.
“When I was a kid, 10 or 11 years old, Barbara and I used to sit in the booth next to the spotlight.” Harlow recalled in a New York Times interview.
Barbara, of course, would become the famed Jewish journalist Barbara Walters.
Harlow allegedly used his bar mitzvah money to buy a reel-to-reel recorder and one-way ticket to Cuba in the 1950s to study the music scene. He traveled the country by bus, learning Spanish, attending Santeria ceremonies, immersing himself in Cuban culture. Cuban music became a staple in many of the resort hotels of the so-called Borscht Belt, which employed dance instructors and mambo bands. Tito Puente played at Grossinger’s. And there was the popular Irving Fields Trio, whose best-known work, “Bagels & Bongos,” combined Jewish (often Yiddish) songs like “My Yiddishe Momme” (“My Jewish Mother”) with Latin rhythms.
At Schenk’s Paramount Hotel, the musicians would get together for jam sessions. That’s where Harlow met many of the future superstars of Latin music.
Harlow became one of the most prolific artists, recording more than two hundred albums by various artists and fifty of his own. He was the first to develop the front line of two trumpets and two trombones that most salsa bands use today.
When Arsenio Rodriguez, a blind Afro-Cuban musician died in 1970, Harlow recorded a tribute album.
“Without Arsenio there is no salsa,” he said. “This man, who was the first to add the conga drum, the piano, multiple trumpets and more to the music, had died in obscurity. No one in the Latin scene did anything in tribute to him. As a Jew I would hear the occasional snide comment about me being an outsider. That album helped to erase some of that snide commentary and got me some respect.”
Soon Harlow would be called “El Judio Maravilloso.” At concerts, hosts and emcees would shout out in Spanish: “And now the amazing Jew!” No further explanation was needed. Harlow proudly embraced the moniker.
In 2008, Harlow would receive the Trustees Lifetime Achievement Award.
Many Latinos declared him an honorable Puerto Rican. It was an honor that he gratefully accepted, but he would often declare: “I’m a proud SOB,” or “Son Of Brooklyn.”
“You can take the boy out of Brooklyn, but you can’t take Brooklyn out of the boy,” he also liked to say.
As Harlow proudly declared, “I never pretended to be someone I wasn’t. I was always proud to be Jewish.”
Visiting Cuba exposed him to music’s African roots, and as part of his immersion into the culture, he became a Santeria priest in 1975.
“There is no conflict in me being Jewish and a santero,” he explained. “Whether it’s Kabbalah or Santeria, it’s as a form of protection.”
As Aurora Flores, who had worked with Harlow on his memoirs, put it: “A new music was born on the streets of New York, and Larry Harlow was one of its fathers. […] It was a sound conceived by the American-born children of Puerto Rican citizens, Cuban and Dominican immigrants, African-Americans and the great-grandson of an Austrian rabbi.”