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El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, commonly known as El Gran Combo, is a Puerto Rican Salsa music orchestra based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2012, it is Puerto Rico's most successful musical group, and is considered "the most popular Salsa group that has ever existed". The group received the moniker La Universidad de la Salsa (The University of Salsa) in Colombia, due to the sheer number of famous salsa musicians and singers who developed their careers with it, who started with the group (particularly Andy Montañez), or who were occasionally backed up by the band (including Celia Cruz, Héctor Lavoe and La India).
The Salsa Orchestra was founded in May 1962, by Rafael Ithier. Ithier is still nominally its musical director, and is the only remaining members from the band's original lineup. As of 2010, Willie Sotelo, who joined the group in 2006 as pianist, has become the band's de facto musical director on tours, with Ithier conducting the group and playing occasionally in select live performances. They are still actively performing after 50 years together. The group was scheduled to celebrate its 50th anniversary on 11 November 2012 at the Coliseo de Puerto Rico. The group started its celebration with a grand world tour that took them to five continents.
Rafael Ithier had been a member of Rafael Cortijo's "Cortijo y su Combo" orchestra. After singer Ismael Rivera faced legal problems when arriving from Panama, some of the group's musicians departed, with Ithier relocating temporarily to the eastern United States. Rafael Álvarez Guedes, the Cuban-born owner of the Gema recording label (and brother of comedic actor Guillermo), needed a backing band to record an album for legendary Dominican merengue singer Joseíto Mateo. He asked Ithier for assistance, and Ithier responded by bringing in many of his former colleagues to the studio. For their first recording sessions, the orchestra included some musicians from Cortijo's original lineup, including saxophonist Hector Santos, trumpet player Rogelio "Kito" Velez, and percussionists Martín Quiñones, Miguel Cruz and Roberto Roena. Alvarez Guedes wanted to name the group Rafael Ithier Y Su Combo In relations to Cortijo, but Ithier refused the name and the name El Gran Combo was born, as to refer to the musicians' former affiliation, but addressing their regrouping as a "new and improved" version of Cortijo's orchestra. The album they recorded was titled Menéame Los Mangos, El Gran Combo con Joseito Mateo (the phrase translates as Shake Your Mangoes for Me, a double entendre).
The group met again to define the foundations of a proper orchestra and chose singers Daniel Vázquez, Pellín Rodríguez and Chiquitín García (who later composed among other major EGC hits, "No Hago Más Ná",'and many of Gran combos Hits. On May 21, 1962, El Gran Combo was heard for the first time on Puerto Rican radio. Later on, they became the in-studio musicians of the live television show, "La Taberna India", sponsored by India Beer.
After their live debut at Hotel La Concha in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Chiquitín García left the orchestra. Vocalist Sammy Ayala, who had also played with Ithier in the Cortijo orchestra, recommended the hiring of Andy Montañez. Andy Montnez was singer for a TRIO IN Puerto Rico and had never sung salsa.
On November 20, 1963, El Gran Combo released their first group album, Menéame los mangos, with Joseito Mateo as lead singer. Later came Acángana This album became a number-one hit in New York, Panama and Puerto Rico. Their success opened doors for them in many Latin American markets and they gained an exclusivity spot on the Puerto Rican television show El Show de las 12. The album also reached gold status.
On 1964, trumpet player and arranger Elías Lopes joined the orchestra, coinciding with the group's first popularity wave. With their daily TV appearances and extensive touring, however, demand for the group declined due to overexposure. Still, in 1967, their album Boogaloo con el Gran Combo also reached gold status. In 1969, Roena and Lopes left the orchestra to form the Apollo Sound together. Despite all this, that same year the group was awarded an Agüeybana de Oro in Puerto Rico. Also, in 1969, Rafael Ithier hired dancer/choreographer Mike Ramos to implement dance routines, which will became a signature of El Gran Combo's live performances. Mike came from the world famous New York City Palladium Ballroom scene.
In 1970, El Gran Combo's contract with Gema Records was not renewed. Despite offers from other record companies including the Motown label, the group decided to self-release recordings under their own newly created independent label, Combo Records (alternatively known as EGC Records). The first album released on the label was the 1970 album entitled Estamos Primeros. On February 15, 1970, the members of El Gran Combo shared a near death experience. They were returning to Puerto Rico from Curaçao, and had to stop at Las Américas International Airport in Santo Domingo. One of the band's members had a bad feeling about the flight they were about to embark on, and the orchestra decided not to take that flight, which would turn out to be the Dominicana Airlines DC-9 that crashed off the Caribbean coast.
In 1971, El Gran Combo introduced the trombone to their instrument mix. The trombone was played by Fanny Ceballos. Soon after, their production named De Punta a Punta was released. In 1972, they released the album "Por el Libro", which marks the 10th anniversary of the orchestra. Pellín Rodriguez left the group to embark on a solo career. Rodríguez was replaced by Charlie Aponte at the recommendation of Jerry Concepción and the well known sportscaster Rafael Bracero, both friends of Ithier.
In 1973, El Gran Combo sang in front of 50,000 fans at the famous Yankee Stadium in New York City as the opening act for the Fania All-Stars' sold out concert.
Montañez left the band in early 1977 and went to live in Venezuela where he replaced Oscar D'León in another orchestra, Dimension Latina. Jerry Rivas was then chosen to join the orchestra. Both Rivas and Aponte are still members of the orchestra to this day. The success of this new duo was proved with their 1977 album International and 1978's En Las Vegas which reached gold record status.
In 1966, En Navidad, a Christmas album, was released, with Martín Quiñones appearing as Santa Claus in the album's cover. After an automobile accident in early 1977, Quiñones was replaced in the band by his son, Martín Quiñones Jr. He stayed until 1979, being replaced by Luis Díaz.
The band continues to receive numerous awards throughout Latin America. In 1984, they traveled to Alaska where they received a great welcome soon after they released their album titled In Alaska: Breaking the Ice which garnered them their first Grammy nomination.
In 1982 they celebrated their 20th anniversary playing at Madison Square Garden. They also reached Europe that year playing in Paris, France.
In the early 1990s, they were honored in the city of Madrid, Spain to open the decade on the right track. On March 29, 1992, they celebrated a huge concert in the Hiram Bithorn Stadium in front of 30,000 people.
The new millennium:
In 2002, El Gran Combo celebrated their 40th anniversary with two sold-out concerts at the Ruben Rodríguez Coliseum in Bayamón, Puerto Rico. This celebration spawned an album. A year later, in 2003, they received a Grammy for Best Tropical Album. Among other musicians, they are one of the "enduring superstars of the island."
As of 2006, the orchestra has released over 40 albums or CD's, and it has received many awards, including golden albums, a "Calendario de Plata" in Mexico, a "Golden Combo" in Colombia, a Paoli Award in their native Puerto Rico, an honorable distinction in Spain and countless others.
In 2006, they released their latest album titled Arroz con Habichuela ("Rice and Beans"). It has already spawned three hit singles. The first one titled "No Hay Manera" ("There's No Way"), the title song, and "Si La Vez Por Ahí".
Around 2006, Rafael Ithier became ill and decided to take a back seat for live performances and although he mostly still tours with the band, Ithier is just conducting the combo rather than playing the piano, however he is still very much the bandleader of the group. Willie Sotelo has taken the place of Ithier on the piano and has also taken on some of the travel management duties as well.
In 2007, El Gran Combo performed two massive concerts at the José Miguel Agrelot Coliseum to celebrate their 45th anniversary.
In 2010, two tribute albums were released, one by former member Andy Montañez and another by the bank Banco Popular, as part of their annual music series.
In August 2011, El Gran Combo rewrote the lyrics to their own hit "No Hago Más Ná", or "I Don't Do Anything Else" that sang in satire about the day of a lazy person to a more positive "Echar Pa'lante" or "Moving Forward" which sang about the virtues of going to work. They also released a video with a positive introductory message which showed clips of working people in similarities with them playing instruments.
The group is still going strong and working continuously. Some music historians have dubbed them La Universidad de la Salsa (The University of Salsa), which is also the title of their hit 1983 album.
In August 9, 2013 Founder musician Eddie "La Bala" Perez died due health complications.
In December 12, 2014 his lead singer Charlie Aponte retired by personal reasons. His last performance was in Cali, Colombia in December 30, 2014.
In January 24, 2015 Anthony Garcia became a singer as Aponte's replacement.