Salsa pioneer Larry Harlow, ‘El Judío Maravilloso,’ dies at 82

A report by Jordan Levin for Forward.

Larry Harlow, a Jewish musician who was an architect of New York salsa and a Latin music legend, passed away Friday at the age of 82.

Dubbed “El Judio Maravilloso” (The Marvelous Jew) by the extended family of genre-changing Latin musicians at Fania Records, where he was the only non-Latino, Harlow was a passionate, big-hearted man whose extraordinary talent — as pianist, multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, composer and producer – and love for his adopted culture made him a transformative force in Latin music.

A New Yorker to the bone—blunt, intense, down to earth—Harlow was endlessly curious and passionate about music.

“I want to see what they do and go with the flow,” Harlow, then 75, said in 2014, when interviewed him for the Miami Herald as Harlow was heading to Miami to work with 20-something Latino electronic musicians for a Red Bull Music Academy program. “Maybe we’ll make something fantastic. We have to play with each other – we’re musicians.”

According to multiple press reports, Harlow, who maintained homes in New York and Miami, died of heart failure in New York early Friday morning. He had been hospitalized for kidney problems.

Harlow grew up in a New York where Jews were among the most ardent fans of the mambo and Latin music that boomed in the 40’s and 50’s, mamboniks who danced hip to hip with Puerto Ricans, Blacks, Cubans and Italians at the Palladium and who embraced another exuberant, outsider culture.

Born Lawrence Ira Kahn in Brooklyn in 1939, Harlow’s grandfather was a cantor and columnist for the Forward – but he had his bar mitzvah reception at the famed Latin Quarter, where his father led the house band and Larry grew up backstage, hanging out in the booth with Barbara Walters, daughter of the club’s owner.

After graduating from New York’s High School of Music and Art, Harlow took his bar mitzvah money to go to Cuba instead of college, immersing himself in Cuban music for two years and discovering Santeria (later he would wear a Jewish star amidst the bead necklaces that are a sign of a Santeria initiate), leaving only when Fidel Castro’s revolution swept the island. “I became salsified, totally absorbed into the Latin culture,” he told the New York Times in 2010.

Back in New York, Harlow became one of the first musicians signed to Fania Records, in 1964. With Cuba now cut off, Fania became the center of a new Latin music – salsa – infused with jazz, funk, rock, urgent New York energy and street style, home to Ruben Blades, Willie Colon, Johnny Pacheco, Hector Lavoe, Celia Cruz, and a host of other legends.

Harlow was at Fania’s heart. He was the pianist and musical director for the Fania All-Stars, an explosive orchestra of greats. But he also shaped the new salsa sound. He was Fania’s lead producer, producing over 250 albums for the label, an arranger, songwriter and innovator, enormously respected for his instinct for and knowledge of Latin music.

In 1973 he premiered “Hommy,” a Latin rock opera inspired by The Who’s Tommy, at Carnegie Hall; and in 1978 he composed and recorded “La Raza Latina, A Salsa Suite,” which traced the history of Latin music and won a Grammy – thanks in large part to Harlow, who led demands that the Grammys honor Latin music and, later, to launch the Latin Grammys.

Many Latin music artists paid tribute to him on Friday.

“One of the smartest and most intellectually prepared artists I ever met,” Ruben Blades wrote on Instagram. “The salsa world is in mourning,” wrote Oscar D’Leon. “One of the true pioneers of the classic salsa sound,” wrote Mike Santana on Twitter. “And the most beautiful part, was that he wasn’t even Latino.”

Harlow was active until the end, touring, recording, producing, proselytizing and experimenting, leading The Latin Legends orchestra to keep salsa alive, playing with Mars Volta in the mid-2000’s, reviving La Raza Latina. He accumulated official honors: inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame, presented with the Latin Grammy Trustees Award.

But Harlow is best remembered onstage, like at the club concert that wound up that Miami Red Bull program: pounding the keyboards in an irresistible montuno, alternately grinning and intent, as the awestruck young musicians around him did their best to keep up and the hipsters on the dance floor were swept away by rhythms as fresh and urgent as they were to Harlow 50 years before.

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