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Stickball Mambo
by Elena Martínez

Orlando Marín was  known as a stickball player before gaining fame as a musician Click for bigger picture
Orlando Marín was known as a stickball player before gaining fame as a musician
What could stickball and Latin music possibly have in common? A lot, if you happened to grow up in the 1950s in the Longwood area of the South Bronx around Kelly, Dawson and Simpson Streets. Many of the musicians who would have an impact on the development of Latin music in New York City grew up and met each other on the streets of this neighborhood while playing stickball. This includes pianist/arranger Hector Rivera, congüero Benny Bonilla, vocalist Joe Quijano, timbalero/bandleader Orlando Marín and pianist/bandleader Eddie Palmieri.

At the age of 15 Orlando Marín and Joe Quijano started getting some of the local kids together in a band. There was Manny Quintana on conga, Cliff Adams on bongo and Eddie Palmieri on piano. Later they added David Pérez on bass and trumpet players, Larry "Chino" Acevedo, Louis Robles and Claude Espresín. So many up-and-coming musicians lived in the area, though they sometimes didn't realize this until much later. Orlando recalls, "while we were having our stickball games in P.S. 60, Ray Barretto was always in the way playing with his brother. We always had to fight him and say, ‘get out of the way!' You know, he and his brother they're real tall guys, so we didn't argue too much with them, just said, ‘get out of the way.' Later on I found out that he played conga."

Many of them went to P.S.52 on Kelly St., and it was in front of this school that many stickball games, between teams like the Sparks, Jackson Knights, and the Hurricanes (later the Archers) were held. Orlando, always the organizer, remembers, "eventually what happened is, I made a team called Los Músicos and I had Eddie Palmieri. I had Larry Chino there. David Pérez was there. And then we had another guy who played conga. And then we had a couple of guys who weren't exactly musicians but they were our friends from the neighborhood. They called us the team de los músicos. We played well and we played the best teams."

The school was also the place where many of them started their careers as musicians. The band which included Orlando and Eddie began rehearsing in the school's auditorium because there was a piano there they could use. In return they would play the school back by performing at dances there every Friday night. Benny Bonilla, who would later play with Eddie Forestier and Pete Rodríguez remembers, "P.S. 52 was where Eddie and all those guys started. They had school dances, they cost 50 cents or something to get in. Then all the other local guys like myself who were learning, we would go and we would end up sitting in with them." The band built up a following of the local kids and soon played at the Hunts Point Palace.

It wasn't only musicians, but other participants in the Latin music scene, that were also playing on stickball teams. Louis Mercado played stickball and later became one of the original organizers for the Bronx Memorial Day Stickball Weekend, but is remembered by many as Louie Penguin, from the times he used to perform as a dancer in floor shows with Tato García at the Royal Mansion. Frank Rivera, who as a teenager moved to Longwood Avenue and became a member of the Sparks, later was to become one of the owners of the Latin music club, the Tritons. Though Frank left the Sparks to work and join the service, when he returned in 1958, he and four other members from the Sparks put their money together to open the club on the second floor of the former Spooner Theatre on Southern Blvd., next door to the Hunts Point Palace. Not only was this club known for the great bands that played there, but it was also here in the early 1960s that Johnny Pacheco and his charanga orchestra began performing the dance moves that were picked up by the dancers and thus started the pachanga dance craze.

Back to the Bronx South Bronx Latin Music Project

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