Johnny Ventura’s Legacy: Modern Merengue

Johnny Ventura, singer, bandleader, composer and arranger who shaped the sound of modern merengue in the 1960s by maintaining its tropical rhythms while speeding up tempos and borrowing elements from rock ‘n’ roll, died on July 28 in Santiago, Dominican Republic. He was 81 years old.

The cause of death was heart failure, the Clínica Unión Médica de Santiago said in a statement. It also noted that Ventura was eating lunch when he felt chest pain, collapsed and did not respond to cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Ventura, who was often called “the Elvis of merengue” and “the Black Horse,” released more than 100 albums over six decades in which he recorded bouncy hits such as “Patacón pisao,” “Pitaste” and “Merenguero hasta la tambora.” He won six Latin Grammy awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.

However, music was not his only occupation. He later became an entrepreneur, graduated with a law degree and entered politics, where he served as mayor of his country’s capital, Santo Domingo.

His name was Juan de Dios Ventura Soriano and he was born in Santo Domingo on March 8, 1940. As a young man from a modest family, he studied to be a secretary, hoping that an office job would help him finance university training to become an architect, but after winning a radio singing competition in 1956, he focused on music and graduated from the Héctor J. Díaz broadcasting school.

In his youth, the Dominican Republic was ruled by dictator Rafael Trujillo, who promoted merengue, a rural genre, as a symbol of Dominican identity. “But there came a time when the genre stagnated,” Ventura recounted in a 2016 interview with El Tiempo newspaper, “because artists and groups wanted to dedicate most of their work to the boss.”

After Trujillo’s assassination in 1961, merengue began to express a new sense of freedom, adopted unrestricted tempos and uncensored lyrics.

Ventura in 2001, when he was mayor of Santo Domingo, a city of three million inhabitants. With him is Herty Lewites, who was then mayor of Managua, Nicaragua.

“When Trujillo passed away, a political euphoria swept through the Dominican Republic,” Ventura told Paul Austerlitz in an interview for the book Merengue: música e identidad dominicana (2021), “and as 21-year-olds, of course we participated in it.”

Ventura started out playing the saxophone, but soon discovered that his natural talent was as a baritone singer. He was a tall, handsome and charismatic vocalist. He sang lead vocals on the biggest Dominican hit of 1962, Luis Perez’s “La agarradera”, a fast-paced song full of double entendres.

In 1964 he created his own band, Johnny Ventura y el Combo Show. As young Dominicans increasingly listened to rocanrol and salsa, he updated the sound of merengue and incorporated those influences.

“Traditional merengue was completely identified with tyranny and had been usurped by the great popularity that rocanrol had awakened in Dominican youth,” Ventura wrote in a 1978 essay.

The singer turned the Combo Show’s performances into visual spectacles in which he danced so wildly that he was compared to Elvis Presley, something he encouraged by dressing like the American singer and even adopting his trademark smile. Ventura appeared regularly on daytime variety shows and even hosted his own quiz show.

He began performing in New York in 1967 and was a hit with American audiences, recording duets with salsa stars of the time. He became close friends with Celia Cruz, he said, with whom he sang and whom he admired as if she were an older sister.

When disco music became the international sound of the dance floors in the 1970s, Ventura had to take refuge in its popularity. “We incorporated almost all of the Bee Gees’ songs into my group’s repertoire, and the audience applauded a lot when we sang those songs in English,” she told Austerlitz.

But aping disco hits made him feel ridiculous, he said, “because I was used to creating, always creating songs, and modifying merengue.”

“Then I discovered that the basis of disco was in the beat of the bass drum,” he said. “That’s where the appeal was for young people. So I started using the bombo in merengue, and the young people went back to dancing merengue.” The bombo became a staple of the merengue sound.

Ventura resumed his studies while recording and touring, and earned a law degree from the Universidad de la Tercera Edad de Santo Domingo, where he graduated with top honors. He disbanded his band in 1992 in order to devote more time to his career as a distributor of Amway health and beauty products.

He served as vice mayor of Santo Domingo from 1994 to 1998, a position he described to The New York Times in 1999 as “almost decorative,” but when Jose Francisco Pena Gomez, his friend and colleague in the Dominican Revolutionary Party, died of cancer in the midst of a mayoral campaign, Ventura took his place in the election and won. He served as mayor from 1998 to 2002 and, from time to time, gave a live performance.

As mayor, he fought the housing shortage, the inadequate garbage collection process and other needs of the city’s three million residents. “People don’t believe their problem is going to be solved if they don’t see the mayor,” he told the Times.

Ventura recounted that, after his term as mayor, he just wanted to play with his grandchildren, but remained involved in politics (he even ran again to contend for mayor in 2020 with the Fuerza Popular party, this time unsuccessfully). “What does an artist have that does not allow him to be part of the solutions to his country’s problems?” he asked in a television interview.

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