Commentary

Yankee Stadium fielded a memorable night of music in 1973

Updated: September 22, 2008, 3:19 PM ET
By Will González | ESPNdeportes.com

The House That Ruth Built will fall under the wrecking ball soon, but nothing will erase in the memories of Latin music lovers the role that a concert at Yankee Stadium played in popularizing salsa music and in developing the genre's most famous record label, Fania Records.

For one memorable night, Aug. 24, 1973, more than 44,000 people converted Yankee Stadium into a center of Puerto Rican pride and the stage for one of the most significant concerts in Latin music history.

The concert started out as a jam session of the Fania All-Stars, a collection of the best artists of Fania Records, a small record label from Spanish Harlem.

[+] EnlargeYankee Stadium
Diamond Images/Getty ImagesInside Yankee Stadium in August 1973 was the scene of a legendary night of Latin music.

The event blossomed, however, into an affirmation of the importance of Latino culture in New York City. It consolidated the Fania All-Stars as Latin music pioneers, and it almost prevented the Yankees from playing their remaining home games in the Bronx for the rest of that baseball season.

Before the concert, the Fania All-Stars had shaken up the Latin music scene in the Big Apple with gigs at two clubs in the city. The first, in 1968 at a club called The Red Garter, didn't generate as much enthusiasm as the second, in 1971 at The Cheetah Club.

The Cheetah Club gathering was the source of a two-record set, "Fania All-Stars Live at The Cheetah, Volumes 1 & 2," and of a documentary, "Our Latin Thing -- Nuestra Cosa." The set was such a sensation that to this day it is the largest-selling recording of salsa music in history.

The All-Stars' popularity emboldened Jerry Masucci, one of the company's principal promoters, to make arrangements to have the Fania team perform at Yankee Stadium.

Organizing a concert in a ballpark that had just turned 50 years old was not easy. The baseball season was in full swing, and although the Yankees were not playing well that year, they still had a month of home games left on the calendar. The city would not allow the concert to be scheduled for the fall because it planned to commence a total renovation of the ballpark soon after the Yankees played their final home game of the year.

Masucci, however, was so obsessed with converting one of baseball's foremost cathedrals into a salsa amphitheater that he invested large amounts of money to stage the event.

[+] EnlargeRay Barretto
AP Photo/Andres LeightonLegendary Salsa musician Ray Barretto (pictured in 2002), and Mongo Santamaria played a congo duel in Yankee Stadium that prompted the crowd to go "wild," Harlow recalled. Barretto died in 2006.

"Aside from the cost of renting the stadium, we had to put down a deposit of $25,000 as a guarantee against any possible damage to the playing field," explained Larry Harlow in a telephone interview with ESPNdeportes.com a few weeks before the 35th anniversary of the event. "We set up the stage over the area around second base," said the pianist, arranger and producer.

Masucci, who died in 1997 at 63, planned to record the entire show to produce another set of live albums and a documentary.

The concert date fell on a Friday. The Yankees were in Oakland, Calif., playing the A's. In the Bronx, however, the stadium became "the largest gathering place for Puerto Ricans at the time," said Ray Collazo, a Puerto Rican disc jockey from Philadelphia. He made the trip to attend the historic concert.

"There were Puerto Rican flags everywhere. At one point, people passed around a giant Puerto Rican flag in the stands. There was a deep feeling of 'Boricua' pride," said Collazo, who was 20 at the time. Boricua is the term Puerto Rican natives often use to proudly identify themselves.

In 1973, most of the Latin population of New York was Puerto Rican, and the Bronx was the center of that community in the city.

The lineup for the concert was phenomenal. Not only because it gathered the legendary Fania All-Stars but also because the opening acts were three great Latin bands from the era: Tipica 73 with Adalberto Santiago; El Gran Combo with Andy Montañez; and Mongo Santamaria.

When the Fania All-Stars finally took the stage, the audience was "super excited," Collazo said. Many people in the crowd became so excited that they could no longer remain seated.

"We played only one set of songs," Harlow said. "During the song 'Congo Bongo' [which featured a conga duel between Mongo Santamaria and Ray Barretto], the audience went wild and stormed the field."

Said Collazo: "Johnny Pacheco [one of the musicians] started screaming and asking people not to enter the field. But the more he said it, the more people jumped in."

Police were unable to contain the crowd, and the musicians stopped performing when the audience overtook the stage.

"A girl started dancing on top of my piano, and I got scared," Harlow said. "We had placed fireworks inside the piano to set them off later, during the show. I saw that crazy crowd taking the stage, and I told Pacheco, 'Let's get out of here before this thing blows up,'" Harlow recalled with a big laugh.

"I ran with some others towards the trailers behind the stage. We locked ourselves in there," he said. "Some of the other musicians ran towards the dugouts and locked themselves in the clubhouses."

[+] EnlargeLarry Harlow
Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images Larry Harlow, a musician and producer, recalled that in 1973, organizers of the Salsa concert had to rent Yankee Stadium and pay a $25,000 deposit in case of damage to the field.

Although the concert was never completed, Fania compiled enough material from it to produce an album of Mongo Santamaria's opening act and to include songs performed by the All-Stars that evening in other albums.

One of those songs was Cheo Feliciano's version of "El Ratón," an ode to the romantic escapades of a pesky mouse. The song is one of the most renowned recordings in the history of salsa music. Historians have singled it out as the song that propelled salsa from a genre that was enjoyed mostly in New York City to one that became popular in all of Latin America.

The concert almost sank Fania Records. "We lost the deposit and much more," Harlow said. "While we were in the trailer, we heard the 'pops' whenever someone in the mob yanked a microphone. Those microphones cost us thousands of dollars!"

The premature ending of the concert did not allow Masucci and his technical team to record everything they needed to produce the documentary and the albums that were to generate the income to offset the costs of the concert.

In 1976, Fania released a documentary, "Salsa," that shows some of the footage from the Yankee Stadium performance with images and songs from concerts that the Fania All-Stars performed in 1974 at Roberto Clemente Coliseum in Puerto Rico.

The concerts at Clemente Coliseum also helped round out the two albums that Fania pressed in 1975 and labeled, "Live At Yankee Stadium, Volumes 1 & 2," according to salsa historian John Child of Descarga.com.

There is no consensus among salsa historians as to how many of the songs in those albums were recorded at Yankee Stadium. Harlow refused to admit that the albums contain material that was not recorded at Yankee Stadium.

The recordings of "El Ratón" by Feliciano and of "Congo Bongo," the song that precipitated the audience's rush to the stage, appeared for the first time in 1974 in an album called "Latin-Soul-Rock."

The Fania All-Stars concert commotion did not disrupt the Yankees' 1973 season. On Aug. 31, the team returned to the Bronx after a road trip of 11 games in which the Yanks lost the final eight games. The field was restored just in time for New York to host a three-game series against division-leading Baltimore. The Yankees won two of the three games against the Orioles to consolidate their fourth-place finish in the standings. New York ended the season with an 80-82 record.

Yankee Stadium successfully underwent a total restoration and opened in time for the 1976 season.

It was never used again for a Latin music concert, although it was used as the stage for three rock concerts and other events.

The Fania All-Stars continued to perform in large concerts around the world, including in Africa, Europe, Japan and several countries in Latin America.

Salsa became one of the most popular musical genres of the planet, and Aug. 24, 1973, is forever etched in the chronicles of Latin music history as a legendary night at Yankee Stadium.

Will González has more than 15 years experience covering baseball and writes for Al Dia, a Spanish-language weekly in Philadelphia. He posts a weekly column for ESPNdeportes.com.