The bomba and plena traditions of Puerto Rico's slums were given respectability through the music of Rafael Cortijo (born Rafel Cortijo Verdejo). Inheriting his band, which he renamed Cortijo y su Combo, when bandleader Mario Roman retired in 1954, Cortijo went on to become one of the Caribbean's most successful artists of the 1950s and '60s. His many hits include "El Bombon de Elena," "Quitate de la Via," "Pedro," "Maquinolandera," "El Negrito Bembon," "En un Solo Pie," "Tuntuneco," "Con la Punta del Pie," "Yo No Quiero Piedras en Mi Camino," and "Saoco."
Cortijo's involvement with music began at the age of nine, when he played a set of bongos a cousin had made of milk tins. A master percussionist, by his teens, he accompanied the Matamorsa Trio on shows broadcast by radio station WNEL. A professional musician since 1942, Cortijo served his musical apprenticeship in bands led by Monchito Miranda, Coricua Sonant, Miguelito Miranda, Frank Wood, and the Sustache Sisters. He accompanied vocalists Myrta Silva and Miguelito Valdes on the radio. He was a member of the Mario Roman Combo in the early '50s, and made several major changes after taking over the band's leadership in 1954. He replaced the band's pianist with Rafael Ithier and, although he initially retained vocalist Sammy Ayala, he installed childhood friend Ismael Rivera one year later.
Under Cortijo's guidance, the band rose to the upper echelon of Puerto Rican music. In addition to performing at dances and festivals, they appeared daily on a popular radio show and in a number of films including the Harry Belafonte-starring Calypso. Cortijo was at his peak in 1962 when he was arrested for drugs. While he was imprisoned, several members of his band defected to form their own group, El Gran Combo. Cortijo and Rivera collaborated on an album, Con Todos Los Hierros, in 1967, although it wasn't until June 25, 1974 that the 11 original members of the band reunited for a concert at San Juan's Roberto Clemente Coliseum. (A live album, originally released as Juntos Otra Vez, was later reissued as Ismael Rivera Sonero Numero Uno.) Although he traveled with Rivera to New York, in hopes of catching on with the Latin music scene, he soon missed Puerto Rico and returned.
Cortijo attempted to regain the momentum with a variety of projects. He formed a new band featuring his daughter, Fe, on vocals, and worked with Puerto Rican bandleader/percussionist Kako on updating his earlier repertoire. His efforts began to pay off after trumpet player Elias Lopes and percussionist Roberto Roena were added to his group in 1969. Although Motown showed interest in signing Cortijo and his group, negotiations reached an impasse and Cortijo launched his own label, EGC, instead. His decision proved fortuitous, as his 1974 single, "Time Machine," provided him with his final hit.
A major feature of Cortijo's band, in the 1970s was the exciting interplay of three vocalists: Charlie Aponte, Andy Montanez, and Jerry Rivetted. When Montanez left to join Latin Dimension in 1977, Cortijo's glory days were behind him. He died of cancer in the liver and pancreas in October 1982. His funeral was filmed by the National Film Library of Venezuela, and it was also the subject of a book by Edgardo Rodriguez Julia, Cortijo's Wake. ~ Craig Harris