Episode 015: Living Legend Sal Cuevas Reveals How He Transformed The Sound Of Salsa

Truth be told, we’ve been dying to get this interview for over two years now. The Salsa Legend, Salvador “Sal” Cuevas, a Puerto Rican ñ from New York (Newyorican), was surrounded by not only the Latin side of the city, but also the sounds of rock, funk, afro-cuban, jazz and so much more. He quickly picked up the bass guitar in middle school and forever transformed. Sal was for many years a member of the salsa music group Fania All-Stars circa (1978–1985), as well as several other top name salsa groups of the time such as Johnny Pacheco, Héctor Lavoe, Willie Colón, Ruben Blades, Celia Cruz etc. During this time he was one of only five bass players in New York City who recorded many of the “jingles” for T.V. and Radio. In fact, as a world class bassist, Sal helped establish an entire musical genre — Salsa, by reinventing Latin music with rock n’ roll and jazz influences and smashing basses along the way with Johnny Pacheco.

Sal currently lives in Miami and is working on a musical project with Gloria Estefan.

Mentioned in this episode:

Willie ColónRuben BladesHéctor Lavoe, Ray Barretto, Tito Puente, MachitoFania All-StarsCelia CruzJohnny PachecoBilly Idol, Lenny Kravitz,  Harry Belafonte, Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, Gloria Estefan

Transcript: My name is Salvador Cuevas. I am a New York born Puerto Rican. My parents both were born in Puerto Rico so I am what is known as a Newyorican. Being from New York you are exposed to not only the Latin part of music, you are also exposed to Rhythm and Blues, Punk, and also Jazz, so I started playing all of that stuff when I went to Junior High school.  I spoke to my teacher and he said “why don’t you play the bass?”  He doesn’t know how right he was, remember “Blatico”? The Fania All Stars was comprised of all the singers, Celia Cruz, Rueben Blades, Jose Feliciano, Willie Colon, Mongo Santamaria, Hector Lavoe and the main musicians that they would use for all the sessions and I happened to be one of them. That’s the way someone would play it normally, the thing that I do is I’ll come and I’ll take the same notes, more or less, but I’ll add you know like (plays bass guitar) you can hear all the notes that I added. It gives it a totally different swing. (plays guitar) what I added was like the slap and the poppy style on the bass and just playing slides, playing cords on the bass and just a whole array of new totally different things that I know you could do but nobody was doing it. I says, “why not?” and so I would do them not to be bored and then all of a sudden it became like a thing, it was new. It was different. They were like ‘wow, this guy is playing something we’ve never heard, not in Latin music anyway. Besides of all the playing, the totally different style that I developed, I used to do stuff like this I would leave, you know, go and throw myself on my knees and take solo and smash instruments and, you know, like a whole— it wasn’t just musical, it was visual as well. This is me with the Fania All Stars getting ready to smash a bass. I was into the Rock and Roll thing so I use to buy a bunch a basses go on tour and each concert I would smash one. Then later on it was a wireless system that I had I would go out into the audience and play and dance with some chic and match her up with some guy and then I would take the instrument and smash it , that was forget about it, everybody—they would forget about everything I played. What I played didn’t mean anything. Then I started working with Johnny Pacheco and he let me do stuff. Then I got called by Willie Colon.

Denise: What did this feel like, all these greats are calling you, what was that like for you?

Sal:   Oh, for me it was just another gig.

Denise:  Were they just not as big as they are now, these people?

Sal: Yeah, you’re kidding? Johnny Pacheco, Willie Colon, Reuben Blades, Celia Cruz. With Celia Cruz I recorded like, 18, 19 albums. When I was playing with Fania All Stars the word ‘Salsa” came up, believe it or not, out of nowhere. Emcee Sanabio, who was the emcee the master of ceremonies  for all the Fania All Stars concert he would always come up, he would say’… con ustedes como sabor latino que tiene mas SALSA que pescao because that was the same mas SALSA que pescao. The people in the audience were the ones that started the whole thing; SALSA, SALSA and that’s how that whole term started. Play by the rules and never leave.

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Thanks for watching!

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