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POP MUSIC | Latin Pulse

Reevaluating the Legacy of a Salsa Pioneer

October 03, 1999|ERNESTO LECHNER | Ernesto Lechner is a frequent contributor to Calendar

On Aug. 9, 1998, salsa singer Frankie Ruiz died in a New Jersey hospital of liver failure after a long struggle with alcohol and drug addiction. He was 40 years old.

Thus, Ruiz became another example of the salsero as tragic figure, joining such other tropical artists as Hector Lavoe and Felipe Pirela.

Now Universal Music has released a collection of the Nuyorican performer's music. Titled "La Leyenda de un Sonero," the two-CD set will be a revelation for those unfamiliar with his contribution to the genre, and it might inspire a reevaluation of his artistry. The compilation boasts superior sound quality and copious liner notes. It is one of the most important Latin reissues of the year.

Ruiz reached his commercial peak during the late '80s as part of the much criticized school of salsa romantica, a style that sought to combine Afro-Cuban beats with pop production values. An offspring of the movement was the short-lived salsa erotica, which accompanied smooth grooves with semi-pornographic lyrics. Ruiz was at the forefront of both styles, and the connoisseurs dismissed his music as superficial.

But the new collection tells a different story. It starts with "La Rueda," a 1980 hit Ruiz recorded with Roberto Rivera's La Solucion, the first orchestra he worked with. The song showcases Puerto Rican salsa at its best, marked by uncomplicated, highly danceable choruses, and supple melodies and arrangements. It is a different sound from the more African-accented music done in Cuba and the jazz- and R&B-tinged salsa from New York.

In the early '80s, Ruiz recorded with bandleader Tommy Olivencia's acclaimed combo, and in 1985 he released his first solo record, "Solista Pero No Solo." This masterful album included one of the singer's biggest hits, the infectious "La Cura," and a tribute to his Puerto Rican roots in "Cosas Nativas." At this point, the material showcased a drive, focus and swing that are hard to find in salsa today.

Ruiz was on a roll. His next album came out two years later and eagerly exploited the salsa erotica fad. One of its hits was "Desnudate Mujer" ("Woman, Get Undressed"), and although its rhythmic drive is combustible, you could sense an overall decline in quality.

The singer kept recording and touring, but his personal life was plagued by demons. Two events had left an indelible mark: His mother had died in a car accident in 1980, and his first romantic love was murdered a few years later.

Ruiz, who grew up without a father and started frequenting nightclubs when he was 14, became an alcoholic and drug user with a violent temper. In the early '90s, a scuffle on an airplane led to his arrest and a subsequent conviction for possession of crack cocaine. In typical salsero fashion, Ruiz's first record after his release from jail was titled "Mi Libertad" (My Freedom).

When he was admitted to the New Jersey hospital last year, Ruiz apparently knew his time was short. He broadcast a message on the radio, thanking his fans for the inspiration they had given him and telling them that he was leaving his music behind as a final tribute.

Ruiz's death left unfinished a much anticipated project. Aided by producer Vinny Urrutia, the singer was planning to record a tribute to the mercurial Lavoe, another salsa singer who was addicted to drugs and who died young.

As with Lavoe, one can only revisit Ruiz's recorded legacy and ponder the connection between the aching passion of his music and his volatile life. Could one quite exist without the other? Does a great salsero have to experience a life marked by pain, addiction and disappointment?

"Many of these artists actually believed that if it wasn't for the drugs, they wouldn't have been able to express themselves," says Albert Torres, Los Angeles' leading salsa concert promoter. "And it's true that neither Ruiz nor Lavoe was singing about pain they had heard or read about. They sang about the pain they were living."

Torres believes the public has encouraged their heroes' excesses.

"The fans were very codependent with somebody like Hector or Frankie, because they would put on a great show. With Hector, they kept throwing him the drugs, thinking it was a way to gain his friendship. In reality, they were loving him to death."

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TROPICAL TRIBUTE: Both Lavoe and Ruiz are represented in "Una Voz . . . Mil Recuerdos" (One Voice . . . A Thousand Memories), a moving tribute album by singer Cheo Feliciano that's just been released by RMM.

One of the most distinctive voices in Latin music, Feliciano was the lead singer with the Joe Cuba Sextet in the '60s before joining the Fania label and recording his biggest hit, the smoldering "Anacaona," with the Fania All Stars. In recent years, he's released a bolero collection with Mexican composer Armando Manzanero and a live album recorded in Cuba.

The concept behind the new record is to remember some notable figures in tropical music, from legends such as Beny More and Tito Rodriguez to lesser-known but equally important artists such as Tito Puente's vocalist Santos Colon.

Feliciano does a wonderful job of reviving past hits such as Ruiz's "El Camionero" (written by Brazilian pop star Roberto Carlos) and Lavoe's bittersweet "Todo Tiene Su Final," while infusing them with his own style--an old-fashioned approach that emphasizes clarity and grace. Feliciano's album is likely to inspire visits to the works of the artists he honors.

Interestingly, the singer has admitted that his own past drug problems almost cost him his life and career. But he managed to bounce back, and "Una Voz" demonstrates that he is enjoying a creative renaissance. It appears that tragedy is not an inevitable ending for to an illustrious salsa artist.

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