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Johnny Rodriguez, Jr.

In 1964, Bob Dylan and a host of other folk/rock troubadours were down in New York's East Village revolutionizing popular music with voices of protest and defiance. Over in the Bronx, Johnny Rodriguez Jr. was learning to play music that was just as revolutionary in an altogether different way.

"Dandy", as Johnny is known to his friends, was still in high school in 1964. After testing positive for rhythm on a school aptitude test, he became a drummer. He tried playing a traditional drum kit but it didn't hold his interest. Percussion, timbales, bongos, congas did.

His father was the respected Latin musician, Johnny Rodriguez. At that time the New York scene was the heart and soul of Latin jazz in this country. The music was percussive and poly rhythmic when most everything on commercial radio was beat simple. It was a relatively small world, out of the mainstream, below the radar of the national charts, with its own Top Ten , its own record labels, distribution network, and stars. It was also a family affair, players and audience from the same neighborhoods, the same heritage, creating a musical continuity from generation to generation, very much an insiders world of cousins, uncles, brothers, friends. So when Dandy began developing as a player he got to go to work with his dad so to speak. Because of his family's friendship with Tito Puente, the 16 year old high-school student got a tryout and subsequently earned a spot playing bongos in the Puente band. That was the beginning not only of his musical career, but a lifelong association with the man acknowledged as the king of Latin music. Dandy's first recording was on the band's album, Excitante Ritmo. As he recalled in an interview with MPR,(Martin's Percussion Radio):

"It wasn't bad for someone who'd only been playing a year. I can listen to it and not be embarrassed. People said nice things about what I did on the record, to me, to my family. And that felt really good."

The album was a classic with tunes such as Ay Cariño and Mi Bomba Sono. He'd now made a record with the master., playing bongos, and on one song, when Tito switched to vibes, timbales. He was not yet seventeen.

He spent the next 3 years with the Puente band, learning, growing , becoming comfortable with the life. Meanwhile the band had swelled to 16 pieces and needed to be trimmed. It was a good time for a change, and Dandy accepted an offer to play for Tito Rodriguez.

"It was a great band, a great band. And when I came in I was playing the Puente style. Which was very different from what they'd been doing. But they never said anything about it and from then on I kept playing that way. And I kind of loosened up the rhythm.

He made several records with the group. Among the best were Tito No. 1 and Esta es Orquesta. But after Tito's health failed the band broke up.

He started the 70's playing with Ray Barretto and they quickly had a hit with Cocinando. Despite the success, Dandy left the group in 1972 when, for the first time, he got the chance to put a band of his own together. "My dad was playing at a club called And Vinny's and one day he tells me the owner is interested in doing a bigger Latin night, maybe Mondays. So I talk to him and he offers me the night. I. hire a few guys including, Sonny Bravo, Leopoldo Pineda, and Nelson Gonzalez and we just try to do different things, different weeks. And it's real successful crowd wise and musicwise."

They got offered a second night. Then a third. The group didn't even have a name (they would eventually settle on Tipica), but it was a band with a buzz , drawing a good looking crowd of hip young dancers, fielding a number of styles including a growing Cuban influence. They were working all the time now. They were co-leaders, stretching out musically , but conscious of keeping it accessible, danceable. And they loved to play that cubano music. So when things were going really well, they were doing 8, 9, 10 gigs a week. Then they made a sort of musical pilgrimage to Cuba. As it turned out it was not a great career move.

"Our going to Cuba turned a lot of people off. They saw the trip politically, we saw it musically. Even in New York they were turned off. It was hard. We started getting less and less work. A couple of guys left looking for other gigs. And little by little it just fell apart."

Then fate made an appearance in the form of a friend of his father's Dandy had known since high school.

Martin Cohen was the founder and president of Latin Percussion Inc., maker of the world's finest rhythm instruments. But more than that, he was an ardent fan and a fixture on the scene. Everybody knew Martin, and Martin knew everybody. He loved the music, its energy and color, the people, the vibe, and he did everything he could to promote it. So as the 70's closed out, he made a series of cutting edge recordings, the kind of music musicians like to play, featuring Tito Puente, Dandy, and others. Cohen then put together a European tour for the group in 1979. These turned out to be seminal events whose full importance would take a few years to recognize. The tour opened in Copenhagen and closed out at Montreaux. And this band just blew the audiences away. All of a sudden Latin Jazz was front and center on the world stage.

Dandy again:
"Eddie Palmieri is always telling me, 'Johnny, give Martin and yourself credit. You guys started that thing in '79 and that's what's made it possible for all of us to go to Europe like we do'. Because until that time Mongo [Santamaria] was the only one who'd do European trips every once in a while. But ever since we went over the door's been open".

In the twenty years since then Dandy has covered the globe (mostly with Tito Puente) including gigs in places most people have never heard of. His amazing work with , and his commitment to, Tito Puente's organization. continues In addition to his playing, Dandy had become the group's de facto road manager. Over the course of the more than 30 years Johnny Rodriguez Jr. has been one of Latin music's greatest players and innovators. So it was only fitting, given his stature and the history he has helped make, that at the end of the MPR interview he was asked what he saw for the future. Where was the music heading and what were some of the things that had changed in the last couple of decades?

"Well, there used to be this competition between rhythm guys. Like, you knew that so-and-so was playing down the street, so you had to burn. Or so-and-so is going to play tomorrow night night so you had to be really hot. That used to be talked about like, `Hey, did you hear what so-and-so played yesterday'. But you don't hear that so much today. Everybody's playing for themselves, doing their own thing instead of being in competition. And what's happening now is that there's so much Cuban influence that nobody's doing that old, sophisticated style of timbale playing anymore. To play that way today would not be enough, you wouldn't be playing enough.

Where did he see his own evolution taking him?

"There's been some interest in reviving Tipica. The time is really better for what we were doing now. Things that we played that would never have gotten on the radio then, fits within the format now. But I don't see it becoming a full time thing. Everybody is too busy with other projects."

And given Tito's age of 76, what were his thoughts about a post-Puente world?

"As far as what happens when Tito is no longer with us, his wife or someone will continue the music and I'll probably be one of the people who'll have the job of keeping it all togetheróthere's too much Puente out there to just put it away, you know".

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