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Tito Gomez, 59; vocalist for popular salsa bands

June 14, 2007|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

Tito Gomez, a veteran vocalist who fronted some of the top salsa bands of New York, Colombia and his native Puerto Rico, died unexpectedly of a heart attack Tuesday in Cali, Colombia, during a reunion tour with the popular dance band Grupo Niche. He was 59.

Gomez fell ill at his hotel and later died at a local hospital, according to news reports from Colombia. His death surprised colleagues who had worked with the singer in recent days and found him to be in good voice and in his usual jovial mood.

"Tito always worked with a lot of spirit," salsa singer Ruben Blades told The Times on Wednesday. "He was a good colleague, and his sense of humor always helped make our professional tasks a little less difficult."

Gomez started his career at age 15 and made an early mark with powerhouse Puerto Rican bands, particularly La Sonora Poncena.

He moved to New York in the heyday of the 1970s salsa boom and soon joined the band of the late Ray Barretto, giving his career a star turn with hits such as "Guarare."

For a time, Gomez shared lead vocals with Blades, then a young up-and-comer. The pair recorded together on Barretto's eponymous 1975 album, which remains a classic of the era.

In an interview with a Toronto webzine, Mosaico21, Gomez recalled that he first saw Grupo Niche in 1985 at a club in Queens called Abuelo Pachanguero (Party Grandfather). He was invited to sing with the band and caught on so quickly to the Colombians' distinct vocal style that director Jairo Varela instantly offered him $5,000 and new clothes to move to Colombia as his lead singer.

After an eight-year stint, Gomez left Niche to launch his solo career in the early 1990s, signing with Miami-based Musical Productions, for whom he recorded seven albums over nine years. He had moved back to the U.S., but his career collapsed in 2000 after his conviction for transporting counterfeit money, for which he served time in federal prison.

Despite his problems, and recent weight gain, Gomez was still actively pursuing career opportunities, said label president Tony Moreno.

"He had a privileged voice, up until the end," said Moreno, who recently met with the singer.

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the singer's remains will be transported to his hometown of Juana Diaz, south of the Puerto Rican capital. He had been scheduled to perform at the town's annual patron saint festival Sept. 1.


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