Latin Percussionist Newsletter Issue 11 Fall 2000
Monchito Muñoz: Puerto Rico's Little Secret
by Victor Rendón
Drummer/timbalero, Ramon Muñoz Rodríguez better known as Monchito goes back to the early 1940's coming to New York to work with his father's orchestra, the Rafael Muñoz orchestra. From there he went on to work with Noro Morales, José Curbelo, Tito Rodríguez, Eddie Palmieri, and Tito Puente to name a few. Heavily influenced by the likes of timbaleros; Humberto Morales and Ubaldo Nieto as well as jazz drummers; Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, he studied with renown teacher, Henry Adler, becoming a very much in demand session player throughout the 1950's. He moved to Puerto Rico (where he now resides) in 1959 to work in the hotel show bands of San Juan backing up top acts.
∞ Interview ∞
LP: Please give us your full name.
MM: Ramon Muñoz Rodríguez known as Monchito.
LP: How was it that you came to play drums and percussion?
MM: I started in my father's orchestra (Rafael Muñoz). The singer was José Luis Moneró. They made famous boleros like, "Olvídame" and "Corazón". It was an orchestra for older people. Actually, they are older people now (laughs). The drummer was one of the best during that era. I always liked percussion. My parents wanted me to study piano but I was always drawn towards the percussion. I was already playing on stage with the band by the time I was five years old.
LP: What decade are we talking about here?
MM: We are actually talking about the late 1930's going into the 40's. I was born in 1932. I have some material of the orchestra in 1936. It was at a place called El Escambron Beach Club. Affluent people patronized it. When some of those people see me they know me as the drummer who played with José Luis Moneró who was the singer with the band. He continued in that tradition with his own orchestra. I played with him and he would present me to people as his son. He knew the alcaldes in many towns and other people. Sometimes people would ask him, "Why don't you start that orchestra again?" Moneró was good but it wasn't the same. My father's music was a tradition that had been established. Moneró played the same numbers but changed the arrangements. I have a project now. I did it several times with my brother who passed away. He was a singer. Now, in September (2000), I will start the orchestra again. That's why I have to leave because we have to start rehearsing on the 18th. Otherwise I would have stayed longer.
LP: How was it that you came to New York City?
MM: Well, like I said, I started off very young and I learned from one of the best (drummers) in Puerto Rico of that era. His name was Tony Sanchez. I used to sit on his lap at the age of five while he played. I used to hold a pair of drumsticks but he would do all the playing. Later, he went into the army and my father was left without a drummer. I told him, "Let me play". He said that I was too young because I was eleven years old. He didn't get a drummer so I ended up doing it. That was my first professional job.
LP: Were you playing timbales or drumset in this band?
MM: In those days timbales were not used in Puerto Rico. I started off playing the drumset. It was not until I came to New York to play with my father that I started to learn timbales.
LP: Were all the Latin rhythms played on the drumset?
MM: Yes, they were played with a bell mounted on the bassdrum.
LP: Was there a reason why the timbales were not used?
MM: The timbales were played in Cuba for danzónes. The orchestras did not use timbales in Cuba either. Of the few Cuban orchestras that I saw there was one called Orquesta Riverside, which was very good. They used a drummer. He would just do the band hits. He would not even play paila. The conguero and bongocero would carry the rhythm. It was later that the drummer started to play time. Now it’s different. There are many Cuban drummers that are monsters. It was the same thing with the Latin music here in New York with the orchestras of Tito Rodríguez and Tito Puente. You heard more of the punch figures with not much fill-ins. Now drummers do a lot of fill-ins. But before, music was stricter. If the paila was played, it was all that you did. If you did anything else then you were wrong. Now you can change and invent.
LP: How did you start to learn timbales here in New York?
MM: My father, who was acquainted with everybody, knew Noro Morales and his brother, Humberto who played timbales in Noro's band. So, my father asked Humberto to sell him a pair of timbales for me. I went to Humberto’s house and the timbales turn out to be a wooden set of Gretsch timbales. From there I started playing timbales. Charlie Palmieri was the pianist in my father's band. He was the one who helped me learn to play timbales. He showed me the basics and would tell me what to play.
LP: Who were the first timbaleros that you heard?
MM: I started listening to Humberto Morales because he was the first timbalero that I met. Then I started to listen to Tito Puente. I was like a mixture of both. Charlie would tell me, “You have to listen to Machito’s orchestra. That is the school”. They used to call it “la escuelita” (the school). We were very young. I was about fourteen years old and Charlie was about eighteen. I was crazy to hear Machito but they always played on weekends and so did we. There was no way of catching them until one day, Charlie comes and tells me, “Listen, Machito is going to play this Wednesday at a place called the Palladium”. That’s where I first saw Machito and it was true what Charlie used to say about that band.
LP: Was Ubaldo Nieto playing?
MM: Yes, Uba was playing. I really liked Uba’s style of playing and it made me change my way of playing completely. He never showed me anything directly but I used to spend hours in front of him. I used to copy his hits and style. He was not flashy nor did he do a lot of things but he was a tremendous timekeeper. I feel lucky to have passed through that era. Those people started to play here like in the 1930's. I came here in 1944. Since I was into music as a little boy my father used to take me to a place downtown. They called it La Chismosa (La Salle Cafeteria). Many musicians like Machito, Miguelito Valdés, and many others used to go there to drink coffee, etc. during a break. It was there that I met all these people.
LP: Whom did you study with?
MM: Well in Puerto Rico I learned by just watching Tony Sanchez and another drummer named Candito Segarra. They were top drummers. In New York, my father asked Uba and Humberto who would be a good teacher for me. They referred me to Henry Adler. I started to study with him around 1947 or 1948.
LP: What kinds of things did you work on with Mr. Adler?
MM: He was the teacher to many heavies. He taught drummers like Louis Bellson, Buddy Rich and Ed Shaughnessey. In those years, there were no instructional independence books like the Jim Chapin book, etc. Now we have all these independence books but at that time they did not exist. He would have me play the jazz ride pattern with my right hand while playing quarter notes, triplets, etc. with my left hand. He would take horn stock arrangements such as a trumpet or saxophone part and tell me to read and play the horn part with my left hand on the snaredrum. Now, we have books that deal with that.
LP: What would you do with your feet?
MM: He would have me keep time with the bassdrum and hi-hat. But later, he would also have me play the figures with the bassdrum or hi-hat. He was a very good teacher. He also had a store on 46th street. He had his studio there and sold Leedy drums exclusively. His technician did repairs. So all the drummers from bands such as Les Brown, Charlie Barnett, and Harry James would go there to hang out and study with Henry. They would also take their instruments there because the technician was very good.
LP: Many of the Leedy timbales have different badges that say Leedy-Ludwig or simply Leedy? What is the difference between the two?
MM: The ones that say only Leedy are older. The Leedy products were merged with Ludwig which became Leedy-Ludwig. This happened in the late 1940's. I have one of the first ten pairs of Leedy timbales. The one who came up with those timbales was the technician who worked for Henry Adler. Uba and Humberto were using timbales that I believe were made by "El Indio" in the barrio. They were made of metal like in Cuba. However, the metal was very weak and so was the stand. They were made by hand with calfskin wrapped around the rim. Whenever Uba or Humberto would break a skin, they would take it to Henry's technician to have a new skin tucked. The technician would always jokingly say, "Ah, esto es una mierda, una puerqueria" (That is a piece of garbage). One day I will build a good set of timbales".
LP: How did these timbales become known as the Humberto Morales Model?
MM: Well the technician whose first name was Charlie built those drums. I don't remember his last name (Tappan). He was a drummer also. He presented these timbales to the Leedy Company. Uba and Humberto tried them out and everybody just went crazy over them. They were very professional. So, Henry Adler sold the patent to Leedy. The first ten sets that were built before they went out into the market came to Henry Adler. He gave one set to Uba, Humberto, various others, and me since I was his disciple. I believe the cost was about $75.00 with case and everything.
Gene Krupa was endorsing the Radio Kings made by Slingerland. Therefore, Leedy needed a model name for these timbales. These people didn't know anything about Latin music. They were Americans from Chicago so they asked Henry Adler for advice. The head of Leedy wanted to come to New York and go to a club and see a heavy timbalero play on these drums. Henry was going to take him to see Uba with the Machito orchestra. The timbales were going to be named after Ubaldo Nieto. When the head of Leedy came, Machito was on the road. Therefore, Henry took him to see the Noro Morales orchestra at the China Doll with Humberto on timbales. That is how the timbales became known as the Humberto Morales Model. This was around 1948 or 1949.
LP: Were there many Latino drumset players in the 50's that could play Latin and read shows?
MM: During the 50's, there were very few Latin drumset players. Everybody was a timbalero. I was a drummer since my days in Puerto Rico. There were three drummers that were doing most of the work. They were Pete Gutierrez (Pete Terrace). There was another guy with a Spanish background. His name was Jimmy Naveira. They could play Latino and read shows. There were many cabarets that had small groups like the Havana Madrid. So the three that were doing most of that work during those years were Pete Terrace, Jimmy Naviera, and myself. We would also play a lot of clubdates. On Mondays, Wednesday, and Friday, musicians would go to the union floor to talk, hang out, and look for clubdates, and any other work. Whenever I did a gig, I would always ask to sit next to the trumpet so that I could read from his part. It would seem like I had rehearsed because I would hit everything.
LP: What can you tell me about another drummer from that era by the name of Willie Rodríguez?
MM: He was my uncle. He is another drummer who was one of my teachers. He was one of the first drummers to come to the United States. He was the timbalero for Paul Whiteman. One day, the drummer didn't show up. Willie played the show in his place. From there, he stayed as the drummer. He died very young in his 40's. They used to call him Wee Willie. He did a lot of recordings with Perez Prado, Aldemaro Romero, Perry Como, TV shows, and many others. They would hire the best musicians like Doc Severinson and Clark Terry. I was like his second general. They would hire three percussionists, so I would play in addition to another. If he got called to two recordings on the same day, he would send me to the other.
LP: How did you learn to read music?
MM: I started to read on piano because that's what my father wanted. I never pursued the piano but it did give me a better background.
LP: So now we are into the 1950's and you are doing the bulk of drumset and Latin percussion work in New York. What would you consider your first major gig in the business?
MM: I was playing with various groups in dances, recordings, Latino cabarets, and the hotel jobs which we called clubdates. Sometimes I had to play bongos or some other percussion instrument. It was around this time that I did my first recording with my father. My father's recording was the first recording session for both Charlie Palmieri and me.
The first top gig that I had was with Noro Morales. Noro and his brother Humberto were always fighting/arguing until finally they separated. I was on the union floor one day and Noro came in looking for me. He said, "I want you to come and play with me". I said, "Me? I won't dare". I wouldn't attempt to fill in Humberto's shoes. He was a tremendous drummer. The musicians in the room made a circle in the room with Noro and myself in the middle. Noro says, "Chico, I came here looking for you because you play well". The musicians were saying, " No seas pendejo, no seas pendejo (don't be a fool)". So, with the support of Noro and the musicians, I took the job.
LP: Did you record with Noro and do you remember what albums?
MM: Yes, I did record with Noro. In those days they weren’t albums. They were put out as 78’s. Musicians were hired through the union for a three-hour session that consisted of four numbers. I recorded with Noro and only heard it once until just recently. Max Salazar sent to a friend of mine a cassette of Noro. He said it was recorded in 1950 with Humberto Morales, his brother, playing timbales. I know he is mistaken because I was playing with Noro from 1950 through 1952.
It’s difficult to tell you what records I recorded because now a lot of CD’s are being reissued and the numbers are all mixed. If I’m in a store I can tell you from the titles. In the cha cha chá era, I’m in there with Tito Rodríguez. (See discography).
LP: Who is playing timbales on the albums such as Live at the Palladium and Return to the Palladium?
MM: On those albums we have Papi Pagani, Pat Rodríguez, and Mike Collazo. Those were the timbale players after I left.
LP: Can you tell us something about the bell playing technique of Uba and Tito?
MM: Uba Nieto didn’t play the bell like Tito Puente. He had a different bouncing style on the bell. Tito Rodríguez liked that style. Tito Puente had a pressing style on the bell. Uba had a very loose technique as if playing jazz. When I left, Tito Rodríguez was looking for someone who played in that style. The one who could do that was Mike Collazo. Mike was with Vicentico Valdés in which Manny Oquendo also played. Manny was a disciple of Uba. Many times when Machito played, Manny would go with Uba. He would carry his timbales and Manny’s girlfriend would carry the stand.
LP: Did you have to play solos on any records?
MM: I never played a solo on a commercial record. The only solo that I did was on "Sun Sun Babae" with José Curbelo. Santitos Colón was on vocals. The solo was 32 bars. In those days a record could only be a little over three minutes in order to be put in a jukebox. There wasn’t much of a chance for improvisation.
LP: I noticed the other day that you play very relaxed.
MM: Yes, the only thing that I am lacking right now is chops because I’m not playing that much these days. One has to always be playing. When you are constantly playing you get very loose.
LP: Back then, you couldn't just go out to a music store and buy an LP or Toca bell because those companies did not exist. Where and how did you get your bells back then and how were they different from the bells used today?
MM: Those bells were not manufactured bells. They were bells that were actually used on cows (cowbells). When we got them, they even had the beater inside that makes that "ting, ting, ting" sound. They were very hard to get. Manny Oquendo and I used to follow these horse carts in el barrio that used to pick up trash and newspapers. They would always have two or three bells. If it was a big bell, we would try and buy it. If the person wouldn’t sell it then we would grab it and start running (laughs). I still have a large long bell like the ones that Uba and Tito used. Today that bell cannot be used because it won’t be heard. In those days, not everybody played with a microphone. Before, they used to tell the bongo and conga player to quiet down because they were playing too loud. Now, it is the reverse. Now, everybody uses a microphone and the percussion has to play hard.
LP: I have seen photos of Uba with the timbales in front of him with a bassdrum and cymbal. I have also seen photos of other drummers where the timbales are setup to the left or right of the drumset. How was it that most drummers set up? Also, did they use a snaredrum?
MM: If we didn’t have to play American music we would set up the timbales directly in front of us like Uba. He would set the timbales in a sitting position with the bass drum in front and a cymbal to the right. They were not played sideways by turning the body like the way many Cuban drummers do today. That is a little uncomfortable. The timbales were placed next to the bassdrum instead of the snaredrum. If we had to play American music, then we would move the timbales out of the way and place the snaredrum just like in a regular setup. The bass drum was mainly used only for band hits or played very lightly. Sometimes I would set up the timbales to the right where the floor tom is normally placed. If I had to play something like a bolero I would completely turn around to play the timbales and maybe play the bassdrum with my left foot.
LP: When did you start playing with Tito Puente and what instruments did you play?
MM: I started with Puente during the Dancemania period around 1956. I took Willie Bobo's place on bongos. I also played güiro on the cha cha chás and the pachanga. Whenever Tito wasn’t playing timbales I would play in his place. We used to go to Miami to do a show in which he needed a drumset player. He would eliminate Ray Barreto on congas and add an extra horn to augment the sound of the band. It was just a show so we would do well without the congas. If we needed to play some dance music, then I would play congas and Santitos Colón would grab the handbell. Ray would resume his position upon the return to New York.
What other drumset players were in Puente’s band?
MM: The first drummer that Puente used was Julito Collazo. He was told by Tito to play the hi-hat pattern (sings) and to play the hits with the band*. After Julito left, Mike Collazo came into the band who was a better drumset player. Mike was much more flexible just like Willie Bobo who could play jazz well. Puente recorded a jazz album called Puente Goes Jazz. The drummer was Ted Sommer. When Willie Bobo was in the band, Puente would sometimes play those tunes towards the end of a night in which Willie would play drumset. He couldn’t read music but he was a natural.
I eventually left to Puerto Rico in 1959 until now. I did come back in 1991 for three years when Charlie Palmieri passed away. In Puerto Rico I always worked in the hotels, showbands, or my own group. There were basically five hotels. Each hotel had at least twenty musicians working. They would have a showband in the cabaret that would employ ten to twelve musicians. I would always do the show unless they brought their own drummer. They would then have a group that would alternate with the showband. That would be a quartet or quintet.
I understand that some of the other drummers were Walfredo de los Reyes and Alex Acuña.
MM: Yes, Walfredo de los Reyes and Alex Acuña were there. Alex was in Puerto Rico for about ten years. We studied and hung out together.
Do you feel that you were able to apply the knowledge on drumset that you gained from studying with Henry Adler, Willie Rodríguez, and others?
MM: I studied drums here in New York but I always had to play timbales unless I went with Puente to do a show in Florida. But, when I went to Puerto Rico and started playing shows my playing on drumset developed in such a way that I had never been able to do in New York. I got good playing in all the styles. When I was in New York I would sometimes record on bongos for Steve Allen or Perry Como. It would be only like two numbers or so. Afterwards I would sit or stand next to the drummer during the rehearsal or recording looking at the music and checking out what he was doing. That helped me out tremendously in all the different genres of American music which includes playing with brushes. When I went to Puerto Rico to play shows I was prepared because I was educated in that sense. LP
Rhumbas and Mambo with Noro Morales and his Orchestra: Tumbao TCD-027
recorded in 1950: # 16 Guarare, # 17 Que Problema, # 18 Mambo Mono, # 19 Mambo Coco, # 20 Sha-Wan-Ga Mambo, # 21 Jungle Bird, # 22 Up and Down Mambo, # 23 Cuban Mambo
José Curbelo and his Orchestra: Live at the China Doll in New York Tumbao TCD-074
Recorded 1952-1953: # 10 La-La-La, # 11 Poco Pelo, # 12 Guaguanco en New York, # 13 Rendezvous, # 14 Telaraña, # 15 Sun Sun Babae, # 16 Guayaba, # 17 Que Se Funan, # 18 Eque Tumbao
Tito Puente: Dancemania (Monchito plays timbales on Hong Kong Mambo)
Refer to Latin Percussionist, issue 7: Mike Collazo article for hi-hat pattern information.
I would like to extend my thanks to David Carp who also interviewed Monchito. He was very generous letting me read his manuscript allowing me to double check on much of the historical information provided by Monchito.