Always Johnny

In the work Antología del Merengue, published in 1988 by the Banco Antillano, presided over by our good friend Polibio Díaz, its authors José del Castillo and Manuel García Arévalo, after exposing in the section they called “La Era de las Grandes Orquestas” the imprint of the big bands -with their marvelous arrangements- in the development of our danceable musical genre, outlined the emergence of what they called “La Fase del Combo” (The Combo Phase). The explanation offered reads as follows.

“After Trujillo’s death, the great orchestras -which had received direct or indirect sponsorship from the regime’s institutions and members of the ruling family themselves- began an irreversible process of decline. Groups comprising some twenty musicians, plus a cast of singers, with conductors who had achieved a high reputation in the artistic world, would become unviable in economic terms, under the new context.

“At the same time, a new model of musical organization – the combo – was gaining ground, as revealed by the success achieved by Cortijo y su Combo in Puerto Rico. A smaller number of musicians, ranging from eight to ten, made it more functional, facilitating its presence in dance halls, television shows and other presentations, at a lower cost.

“The big dance floors, which had reached their apogee during the Trujillo Era (the Night Club of La Voz Dominicana, the Patio Español of the Hotel Jaragua, the Salón Cinco Estrellas of the Hotel Embajador), progressively gave way to more modest centers, such as the boites, which began to proliferate. Combo and boite became consubstantiated as expressions of a new phase of musical and dancing sociability.

“In the United States, the avalanche of rock and roll and the twist, brought into fashion musical groups smaller in number of members, enhanced by the use of the electric guitar, the electric piano, the prominent role of the drums and deafening sound amplification equipment. Bill Haley and his Cometas, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chubby Checker, with their infectious rhythm and stage presence, became standards for young people to follow.

“And the Dominican Republic would be no exception. This is what Johnny Ventura confesses: “What I thought of doing was a bit of a mix between classic merengue and that ‘rock’ and ‘twist’ music that occupied all the attention of the youth and the radio stations we had at that time”. In a recent interview, the charismatic artist claimed that his choreographic style was a mixture of his own, harvested from the gravitating influence exerted on him by Joseito Mateo -the first to recreate merengue on stage with little steps marked by Gene Kelly-, the immense Cuban Benny Moré and the frenetic rock idol Elvis Presley.

“The consequences of this initiative -we pointed out with certainty- would translate into a rhythmic acceleration of the merengue and the consequent variations in the choreography, stimulated by the movements of the singers, placed at the front of the ensemble, to which a set of dancers would later be added.”

Thus we introduced in the referred work what we baptized the “Combo Phase”, which would not only include Johnny Ventura in a special way, but also other musical groups such as that of Felix del Rosario and his Magos del Ritmo -which competed vigorously with the Combo Show-, La Tribu de Cuco Valoy, Wilfrido Vargas and his Beduinos, among many other ensembles.

More than three decades ago, in pondering their singular stamp in the history of our musical phenomenon par excellence, we indicated that “Johnny Ventura and his Combo would lead the movement of this new type of merengue in the early 1960s. In the atmosphere of political effervescence that Dominican society was experiencing, of greater liberality and freedom, of questioning the traditional – to the extent that Ventura went so far as to affirm that “traditional merengue was completely committed to tyranny” – this genre suffered the impact of the process of change. Merengue reached a greater plenitude in its function of chronicling the daily life of the Dominican people.

“For months, the people celebrated in the streets the tragic death of Trujillo, dancing a merengue – performed by the Antonio Morel Orchestra – irreverent for that figure who had been showered with the most elaborate flattery during 30 years of absolutist rule. “Mataron al chivo/en 1a carretera/Déjenmelo ver/déjenmelo ver/Mataron al chivo/ y no me lo dejen ver”. It was a happy fusillade of a Venezuelan merengue by Balbino García, adapted to the circumstances of the Dominican assassination, which Aldemaro Romero recorded in 1956. And in 1996 Gerardo Rosales re-released it.

“Merengue recovered its picaresque value, through the double meaning of many of its texts, so dear to its origin and trajectory. As Johnny Ventura expresses it in the merengue El Cuabero (“Vecina, llegó el cuabero/ A coger su estilla/Juiga…”), or in El difunto, by the prolific publicist Ramoncito Díaz (“Con mi comadre/ siempre ando junto/ Pero es velando/ por el difunto”).

Or more openly in the lyric of this prodigious Cachimbo: “The cachimbo that I have, nobody can match it/ I light it at night and it lasts until dawn/ because it is made of mud with earth from my country/ and even the smoke that is exhaled is from the tobacco from here/ My cachimbo is dangerous because it is always lit/ nobody should play with this cachimbo of mine/ There are many envious people who want to put it out/ I challenge them to try it, they will not succeed”.

“The life of the popular neighborhoods of our cities was strongly present in the lyrics of the songs performed by Johnny Ventura, such as El Carbonero, text by Freddy Beras Goico, a piece that alludes with nostalgia to the disappearance of this character of urban color: “Como cansado buey de carretero/haciendo yunta con su propia vida/va tiznado de negro y cuesta arriba/ voceando su carbón el carbonero” (Like a tired ox of a cart driver/ making a yoke with his own life/ he goes black and uphill/ voicing his coal the coalman).

The merengue La Agarradera -authored by San Juan musician Luis Pérez, director of the Combo Caribe that performed at El Moderno in the early 60’s, with whom the first recording was made in a 1962 single-, was one of the first hits that Johnny Ventura hit at the age of 21, giving title to his first LP, produced by Salón Estudios Mozart of Atala Blandino (“La agarradera no la bailo yo/La bailó una vieja/y del tiro se murió”). Accelerated, at marathon speed, to leave the dancers on the dance floor exhausted, not only the poor old woman of the lyric.

In 1964 Ventura, while still a singer of the Súper Orquesta San José led by Papa Molina -one of the excellent groups of La Voz Dominicana, in whose School of Music and Singing Johnny studied on scholarship, as well as in the Héctor J. Díaz School of Speech-, organized his own Combo. That year, the LP Johnny Ventura El Llorón, subtitled El Florón, was released under the Remo Records label. This song – alluding to a traditional children’s game and its sung versions, from which it takes its title – is recreated by the merenguero ingenuity on the stage of Ramón’s wake.

The singer takes the opportunity to introduce the members of the band in the playful round of the Florón, thus projecting what would become the hallmark of the Combo Show in the staging of its most emblematic numbers, rich in choreographic innovations and hilarious performances of shared invoice. They counted on the presence of the great Luisito Martí -musician, singer, librettist and humorist-, the grace of Roberto del Castillo, Luis Sánchez -merenguero veteran of several orchestras, including Morel-, Pablito Barriga, the versatile Anthony Ríos, Fausto Rey, among others.

In Llegaron los Caballos (“El que venga atrás que arree/que llegaron los Caballos/No hay que cantar como un gallo/pero hay que saberlo hacer”), Ventura alludes to his own musical organization in the competitive terrain of this entertainment industry. This he would later vindicate in an absolutely leading role with the composition Yo soy el merengue (I am the merengue). In El Popular (1974), Johnny refers, in an autobiographical vision, to his attractive personality as an authentic idol of the masses, which would be projected to the field of politics by the hand of Peña Gómez. He occupied a seat in the Chamber of Deputies and the DN syndicate (1998-2002).

El Tabaco “es fuerte, pero hay que fumárselo” -by the beloved FCES/UASD economist William Napoleón Liriano-, a smash hit of 1973, would reach unexpected heights in the epic of politics, as its refrain crowned Peña Gómez’s fiery radio speeches, in the face of the threat of his deportation during the fierce 12 years.

In its prolific career crowned by more than 100 albums with 28 gold records and multiple Grammy Awards, the combo released in 1967 La Muerte de Martín, written by Héctor J. Díaz, masterfully dramatized by Luisito Martí. El Pingüino -by Cuban Ernesto Duarte- performed in the 50’s by Cab Calloway in Havana, also hit hard. Capullo y Sorullo by the unforgettable Bobby Capó and Patacón Pisao by the Colombian Ramón Chaverra, played together with Pitaste de Ventura, René Solís and Huchi Lora. And of course, the picaresque Te digo ahorita. For Chaverra, among more than 20 versions of Patacón Pisao, “Ventura’s was the one that internationalized” his composition.

In 1984 Johnny went to Viña del Mar. The “monster”, as the public of the festival is called, at 3 o’clock in the morning, demanded the presence of “Negro que bota miel por los poros”. Euphoric Chileans welcomed this popular idol to dance in a true marathon to the rhythmic beat of Ventura’s fast-paced merengue.

Actor Denzel Washington, like so many in the world, upon learning of Johnny’s sudden death, expressed his grief and admiration for this gentleman whose music made his body move and gave wings to his soul.

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