Tito Nieves rides salsa's successive waves
Tito Nieves rides salsa's successive waves

Wave Upon Wave

In the freezing pressroom, a husky man in his early forties shivers in shorts and a T-shirt and eyes the sandwiches set out on the table for whoever has a hankering. He rubs his arms, shakes his legs, and takes a deep breath before talking about his latest release, En Otra Onda (Another Vibe). "A friend of mine said that this CD was made for the blind because anywhere the stylus falls, it's a hit," says salsa singer Tito Nieves. "Since people like different songs, it is a success for me."

His second single from the disc, a duet with the legendary Ruben Blades called "¿Como Llego a Tu Amor?" ("How Do I Get to Your Love?") is all over the airwaves. Produced by hitmaker Sergio George, the CD is one of Nieves's best productions, not only because of the variety of salsa, ballad, and rap but also because of the participation of artists such as Blades, merengue singer Sergio Vargas, tropical crooner Huey Dumbar, and rapper Carlos "Patota" Negron. This definitely is a breath of fresh soneo from the veteran salsero. "I am really happy with the album, with the label, the [CD] cover, the video, the support," beams Nieves, "-- and the sandwiches." His laughter floats through the air and then freezes in the low temperature.

This Puerto Rican raised on the mean streets of New York began his career back in 1975, wandering through nightclubs as part of a small ensemble called Cimarron (Escaped Slave). Two years later the serenader found a steadier gig singing in the chorus in the orchestra of Fania All-Stars great Hector Lavoe. In 1979, at age twenty, Nieves rode the salsa boom to barrio fame as a singer with Conjunto Clasico, the New York outfit that for many years backed the world's greatest guarachera, Celia Cruz.

For more than a quarter-century, Nieves has had his share of highs and lows as a performer. "New Year's Eve 1985, I was in Santo Domingo with Conjunto Clasico," he remembers. "I had a 104-degree fever, but the show could not be canceled. Without a voice I jumped onstage to sing for the public. That was definitely a horrible experience, and the kind of thing that not only touched me but other colleagues." The highlight of his career also came onstage in the form of a thunderous ovation he received at Madison Square Garden when approximately 20,000 people clapped and sang a medley of his biggest hits. His parents stood among the appreciative crowd, proud of their famous son.

Such moments of personal triumph are tempered by the blows dealt by the music business. Like everyone else on the cuchifrito circuit, Nieves remembers finishing a gig without being paid in anything more than fan appreciation. Even after establishing himself as a solo star in 1988, Nieves signed with the notoriously difficult RMM label, owned by salsa impresario Ralph Mercado. "It was twelve long years, a life imprisonment," gripes Nieves of his time with RMM, "but last year I signed a contract with WEA Latina, and I am really happy." Whatever the problems, Nieves admits, "If there is anyone who cannot talk bad about the music industry, it is Tito Nieves, because I have lived pretty comfortably from it."

Nieves, best known for his 1997 blockbuster "I Like It Like That," sets himself apart by singing salsa in English. "I started doing this because one day my older son said he liked my music but he did not understand it," explains the salsero. Realizing that a great many second- and later-generation Latinos in the United States like it in English led Nieves to record not only his megahit but tracks such as "I'll Always Love You" and "Can You Stop the Rain?" Nieves points out that he did not invent English-language salsa (the original "I Like It" was recorded in that language during the boogaloo era), but since the end of the Eighties, he certainly has been at the forefront of it.

Not only the language but the music itself has changed since Nieves went solo in the late Eighties. He rode the wave of salsa erotica or romantica that supplanted the hard salsa popular in his youth. More recently Nieves has joined the ranks of today's timbaleros in turning out a brasher, more complex style of salsa. Although the Cuban islanders who invented timba (including NG La Banda, Paulito FG, and La Charanga Habanera) are still off-limits for commercial radio -- and recent exile Manolín has yet to find his place in his new home -- producer Sergio George ushered in his own version of a commercially palatable timba in the United States. The Sergio George imprint on En Otra Onda is unmistakable.

Nieves takes the sometimes-fickle fashion in salsa in stride. "You never really know [what could happen]," he says of his own success, "because there are better singers than I, and they have not gotten anywhere. That has something to do with luck and time, and I feel very fortunate."


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