Larry Harlow, salsa music pianist/bandleader and Fania All-Star passes into ancestry.
Facing the music: going home.
A founding member of the Fania All-Stars’ supergroup of bad-boy bandleaders, co-producer of the salsa music cult film classic “Our Latin Thing,” storied producer of hundreds of hit recordings and gold albums, and a fierce activist who successfully campaigned the National Academy of Recorded Arts and Sciences (NARAS) to designate a separate Grammy Award category for Latin music in 1976, pianist Larry Harlow nee Lawrence Ira Kahn died at Calvary Hospital in New York at 82 years old on August 20, 2021. He is survived by his son Myles Kahn and his grandchildren Aaron and Sasha Kahn; his brother Andre Kahn; his daughter Haiby D. Aparicio, and his wife Maria del Carmen Kahn.
He marked his territory with style, panache, and innovation. Larry Harlow, el Judio Maravilloso was a marvel in modernizing Latin music while sticking to the roots. He helped assemble a crew that reflected the color, ethnic and racial mix of New York City. They expressed a hip blend of rejuvenated and fused Cuban and Caribbean music rooted in African soil, developed, and influenced in the Antilles, and made famous in New York City.
Together, they traveled the world as the Fania All-Stars, were greeted like the “juvi” rock stars of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Santo Domingo via New York; they indulged in orgies, drugs, and excess the envy of many rockers like Winwood, Stills, and Clapton who attempted to hang with these rebels. Nevertheless, their music was a “happening” where Andy Warhol would escape to peek backstage and admire the hot virility of Latino musicians, sweating, gyrating, dancing, and playing to a packed Madison Square Garden.
Extreme and edgy, stretching boundaries and breaking barriers of resistance to outsiders, Larry Harlow not only survived a niche industry like Latin music, he marked his territory on a foundation of innovation without compromising quality. Harlow reliably led a tight, well-rehearsed orchestra: in tune, in pitch, and harmonized, producing classics still fresh and vibrant today.
Larry formed Orchestra Harlow in 1964 in New York. As his reputation climbed, he got signed to a new label that same year — Fania Records, the Motown of Latin Music. Co-owned by Johnny Pacheco and attorney Jerry Masucci Larry Harlow was both talent and producer, the creative-mad studio alchemist of that sonic clave beat, and a founding member and recording producer of the Fania All-Stars’ albums. He generated some 270 records for other artists and his own with so many hits, DJs immediately recognized the stamp-sized caricature branded onto his productions as chartbusters. As musical director and producer for the Fania All-Stars, his stage antics and wardrobe were legendary. He updated the Latin music dress code from crew cuts and mambo sleeves to long hair, bell-bottom pants, and his own personal T-Shirt emblazoned in Hebrew lettering: 100% Jewish Meat across his chest, a Puerto Rican flag on his back.
Tagged by his peers after his musical idol, the Afro-Cuban tresero guitarist Arsenio “el Ciego Maravilloso” Rodríguez, as musician and bandleader Harlow shaped an orchestra with firm roots in Afro-Cuban structures while sparking the future on cutting edge experimentation with electronic instrumentation and quadraphonic sound. Innovation followed the bandleader leading to the first dramatically staged salsa opera, Hommy, performed in Carnegie Hall. He collaborated with singer/songwriter Genaro “Heny” Alvarez setting the stage for Celia Cruz’s 1973 reboot to a younger, urban market in her role as Gracia Divina.
However, what most marveled fans, peers, and family was his public appearance in 1975 wearing santero beads over all-white clothes. Yes, Larry Harlow was a son of the African orisha saint, Oshun, but he was still a Jew. Oy Vey! A glimpse of glitter from the Star of David around his neck flashed above the water he placed for the santos at his altar in his Upper West Side apartment. “El Judio Maravilloso” was a Jewish marvel indeed!
Lawrence Ira Kahn was born March 20, 1939, in a Brooklyn unrecognizable today. The last community built in New York, Brownsville was rural, it was urban, and it was gangster.
Home to Eastern European immigrants, the throaty sounds of Yiddish peppered the air as cars and horses shared pastoral streets rolled up on Friday nights for Sabbath. Concrete kissed dirt roads.
The great-grandson of an Austrian rabbi; the grandson of a cantor and columnist for the Jewish Daily Forward (New York’s first radical Yiddish newspaper); and the son of a bandleader who worked vaudeville before he took the stage to sing the popular rhumba and mambo ’50s tunes, Larry Harlow’s lineage was steeped in spirit, ritual, politics, and music.
His father, Nathan “Buddy” Harlowe (his stage name), was a popular bandleader/bass player. As a result, Larry and his brother Andy were quickly immersed in music. Larry started piano lessons at five and later played organ, oboe, English horn, flute, and bass while studying harmony and composition.
By age ten, the rhumba mamboed with his soul. Every summer, the “Ran Kan” Kahns, as Tito Puente might say, vacationed in the Catskills to the sounds of Latin beats as Jews danced to the Meshuggah Mambo with crazy passion. The biggest names in Latin music — Xavier Cugat, José Curbelo, and Puente himself — performed at the luxurious hotels of the Borscht Belt. Every hotel hosted a rhumba band in its lobby and a big band on its ballroom stage.
As many fathers did, Buddy took his eldest son to work on weekends, but Larry’s dad was the leader of the house band at the renowned Latin Quarter. The ten-year-old Larry sat in the balcony alongside a teenaged Barbara Walters, whose father, Lou, owned the always packed to the rafters club. She completely ignored Larry as they watched Sophie Tucker, Milton Berle, Dean Martin, or Larry’s favorite, the Can-Can Girls. After his father’s set, it was up Broadway to 52nd Street and the after-hours jazz joints where Art Tatum and many of the great jazzers of the day hung and played.
Yet, the most significant musical lure for the young musician poured out of the streets of Harlem. It was 1955 when Larry found the bridge that took him to Latin music’s metronomic clave at the high school of Music & Art. At fourteen, as he walked up the steep hill on 137th Street from the two-hour train ride from Brooklyn, the Medieval-styled castle beckoned before him. He heard familiar melodies from speakers outside bodegas, but… these rhythms were different. He was hooked.
He became a trombonik — Yiddish for troublemaker — famous for cutting classes to catch the Count, to hear Parker, or watch Dizzy at Harlem’s Apollo Theater.
Anxious to play, Harlow got his first taste of Afro-Cuban charts with saxophonist Hugo Dickens’ band in Harlem. Although he didn’t pass that test, the heat of that taste led him to the Palladium Ballroom. He and his schoolmate partners in crime devoured every bit of music in their path, sneaking their way into the Palladium, where they grooved to the greatest in Latin music along with thousands of other mamboniks. They watched celebrities like Marlon Brando tip the bandleader to play the congas on stage, or James Dean transformed as he slapped the bongos.
It was at the Palladium where a teenaged Larry was told by musicians to go to Cuba if he was serious about learning the music. They didn’t have to tell him twice.
Much to his mother’s chagrin, Larry put Brooklyn College on hold, cashed in his Bar Mitzvah bonds, bought a bulky reel-to-reel recorder and a one-way ticket to Cuba.
After kvetching how his Cuban journey was cut short by revolutionary bullets where he danced in a Havana nightclub that New Year’s Eve of 1958 — not long after being transfixed by his first Santería ceremony, he recounted how gunfire replaced the music as he boarded a plane with his tape recordings in a suitcase and the clothes on his back.
Back in New York, Larry performed with his childhood heroes — Puente, Machito, and Tito Rodríguez. He jammed with Charlie Palmieri and Johnny Pacheco.
Bold, brash, and downright outrageous, Larry Harlow resonated with a creativity that could not be ignored or excluded. Larry’s search for identity in Latin music, his push/pull relationship with his musical brothers, his lawsuit against the record company that made him famous while taking his royalties, and his calling foul on Tito Puente over a second Grammy nomination of a not yet finished album made Larry Harlow a name colored with contention and controversy.
In a world where not everyone could hang, Larry Harlow became a legend.
His orchestra was a showcase for singers, arrangers, and composers. Tunes such as “La Cartera,” “El Jardinero del Amor,” “Abran Paso,” “Señor Sereno,” “Tumba y Bongo,” “Arsenio” and “Venceré” continue to appear on compilations. They are favored fan requests for the vocalists who made them famous even as they enjoyed their own solo careers, such as Ismael Miranda, Junior Gonzalez, and a young Ruben Blades, who Larry met while the singer/songwriter worked at the Fania mailroom.
Harlow flirted with the rock world when he signed his brass-based rock band Ambergris to Paramount Records in 1970. Later, with second then-wife Rita Probst, he produced the first all-female salsa group: Latin Fever.
By the 1990s, Larry Harlow founded and recorded the Latin Legends counting on the talents of his former Fania fellows: Ray Barretto, Yomo Toro, Adalberto Santiago, Chembo Corniel, and Nicky Marrero to start all over again. However, this time, he added another member to the mix with his fourth wife of thirty years, Wendy Caplin.
Harlow performed off-Broadway in the children’s musical Sofrito before lecturing on Latin music over Ivy League podiums. In August of 2010, he broke all attendance records at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park when he produced his Raza Latina, a Latin music timeline never performed live featuring Ruben Blades and a forty-piece orchestra including his brother Andy on flute, his son Myles backstage alongside his children who watched their famous grandpop and uncle perform for the first time.
In October of 2013, Harlow played for 20,000 in Puerto Rico with the Fania All-Stars. In January of 2014, he packed Japan’s Blue Note and Cotton Clubs for a ten-day tour with his own Latin Legends band. In 2015, ASCAP bestowed its prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award to the Fania All-Stars, where Harlow stood as proud heir alongside his brothers in music as they enter their fiftieth anniversary since the founding of Fania records from the trunk of Pacheco’s car.
The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences also honored Harlow with a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 2008. Some 33 years after, as a NARAS governor, Larry stormed their televised red carpet wearing the all-white garb of a santero, leading a large group of angry, screaming Puerto Rican radicals in protest (with Stevie Wonder in his corner), demanding a separate category for Latin music in 1975.
A new music was born on the streets of New York, and Larry Harlow was one of its fathers. Most people think salsa sprang from Cuban soil or Puerto Rican shores. It didn’t. It rose from the streets of East Harlem and the boulevards of the South Bronx. It was an outgrowth of the embargo, inbreeding among blacks, Jews, and Latinos, the offspring of a changing community. 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.
Unlike the rock movement, where fans rejected their parents’ music, Latinos embraced their elders’ beats creating their own fused reality alongside the R&B and doo-wop harmonies that sparked the English language ’60s boogaloos. Together, they spiced up the Afro-Antillean music’s flavor with a dollop of jazz, a splash of rock, a pinch of classical, and a dash of soul; these New York musicians threw it all into one big pot, cooked it over a high flame, brought it to a boil and presto…they called it salsa!
Most artists dream of crossing over into the mainstream. Larry did the opposite, crossing over into an unconventional community, where he discovered a culture very much like the one he grew up in; a warm and struggling clan that embraced him.
From one very Jewish world, Larry Harlow ventured into two others — pre-Castro Cuba and Latin New York.
He loved them all. Quite vocally, Larry shouted his amor as he lifted his champagne glass in celebration of his fifth marriage in January 2014, toasting loudly to the world:
“L’chaim, la rumba!”