Pianist, bandleader, arranger and composer Norosbaldo “Noro” Morales Sanabia was one of the best pianists in Afro-Antillean Latin music of the 20th Century. Equally adept at playing hot up tempo rhythmic mambos, guarachas, cha cha chas and the like, Noro Morales could also play slower, more romantic modes like bolero, tango and danzón. Although he didn’t feel confident playing jazz, his piano playing had an innate sense of swing and playfulness, and he was certainly adept at creating variations on a theme or improvising on a melody over rhythm, and was an orchestra leader of exceptional talent, making him what some called “The Duke Ellington of Latin Music.” He was extremely successful during the mid-point of his career, but health issues exacerbated by a lifestyle of alcohol abuse, gambling, overeating and chasing women took their toll, ending his life before he could really see his influence on the next generation during the salsa boom.
In addition to being a leading light in Afro-Caribbean music himself during the 1940s and early 50s, many musical stars early in their career would pass through Noro’s orchestra, Latin luminaries that would later shine even more brightly on their own: singers Machito, Tito Rodríguez, Pellín Rodríguez, Vicentico Valdés, Joe Valle, Dioris Valladares and Vitín Avilés; the percussionists Tito Puente, “Little Ray” Romero, Sabú Martínez, Johnny “La Vaca” Rodríguez, Manny Oquendo and Willie Rosario; saxophonists Ray Santos and José “Pin” Madera; and bassist Julio Andino. During his relatively brief career, Morales recorded hundreds of singles and over 40 albums, penning such timeless hit tunes as “Bim Bam Boom”, “Indiferencia,” “No Puede Ser,” “Oye Negra,” “Walter Winchell Rumba,” “What Happened, Baby,” “Vitamina,” and “Oye Men.”
Noro Morales was born into a musical family in the small historic working-class subbarrio of Puerta de Tierra (part of the barrio of San Juan Antiguo) in the Puerto Rican capitol of San Juan. Some sources list his birth date as January 4, 1911, others as 1909 (according to the record of his return trip to Puerto Rico from Venezuela with his family in 1933), although his civil record of birth registration lists January 2, 1912 (at 12:30 in the afternoon). His parents were Luis Morales Barada, a tailor, and Mercedes Sanabia, natives of Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. On his mother’s side Noro was a cousin of renowned classical musicians, the Figueroa Sanabia brothers. Noro’s earliest influence came from his father Luis, who was a violinist and personally tutored all his children in music. Young Noro was a precocious learner who began studying the trombone and bass before switching to piano, being in turn influenced by his beloved older sister Alicia, who had taken up the instrument earlier. Morales was in fact one of nine siblings, most of whom dedicated their lives to music; while his sister Marina tutored Noro, four of his brothers became accomplished professional musicians as well; Luis, Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps, taking up the violin; Humberto dedicated himself to the mastering of percussion (in particular the timbales); José “Pepito” (aka Mindinga) became a baritone saxophonist; Ismael “Esy” earned some renown as a great interpreter of wind instruments, in particular dedicated to the flute and saxophone, while a fourth was a conga player.
In 1925 Noro moved with his family to the city of Caracas, Venezuela. His father had been invited by then Venezuelan president Juan Vicente Gómez to lead the official orchestra of the dictatorial regime, with Noro and his siblings playing under their father’s directorship. Unfortunately, his father died soon after their engagement started, but this was a chance for the teenaged Noro to take over the orchestra as leader. With a growing reputation as members of a youth orchestra of some renown, Noro Morales and his family returned to Puerto Rico in 1930. They secured a prestigious hotel contract, reestablishing themselves in their hometown, however they disbanded shortly after. Noro continued his musical education, participating in the Ralph Sánchez symphony orchestra, Augusto Rodríguez and his Midnight Serenaders, and the orchestras of Carmelo Díaz Soler and Rafael Muñoz.
Learning of the “rumba craze” taking New York City by storm, Noro left San Juan for Gotham in 1935, seeking his fortune with the popular orchestras of Alberto Socarras and Augusto Coén. In 1937 Noro set about reorganizing his family’s orchestra, drawing on the talent of his brothers, Ismael, Humberto, José, Luis, Jr. and his sister Alicia, dubbing it the Los Hermanos Morales Orchestra and entertaining enthusiastic audiences at the legendary club El Morocco under that name. By the early 1940s, Noro’s name recognition was such that it was decided his outfit would be rechristened The Noro Morales Orchestra. At that time, Noro resided in an apartment in the same building where the legendary Puerto Rican composer Rafael Hernández Marín and his sister Victoria lived. Every time Rafael Hernández came up with a new idea for a melody, he would go to Noro’s apartment to compose it on the former’s piano, many times with Morales’ assistance. For this reason, and as a gesture of goodwill, Hernández arranged for his colleague and compatriot Noro to be the first musician to record those melodies that resulted from their friendship and close working neighborly relations. Indeed, it was through this fortuitous relationship that Morales had his first big hit in 1938 with Hernandéz’s beautiful bolero “Ahora Sí Somos Felices”, sung by Pedro Ortiz Dávila (“Davilita”). In 1942, Morales recorded what would become his theme song, “Serenata Rítmica,” which caused a sensation in both Latin and Anglo audiences from New York to Miami, San Juan to Caracas. The success of that composition provided him the opportunity to work as a musician in a film project starring Mexican crooner Jorge Negrete. The film was a hit, to the point that “Serenata Rítmica” became an emblematic anthem of Puerto Ricans in the New York diaspora. Soon after this, Noro did a stint with the top ‘New York Society’ Latin band of the era, The Xavier Cugat Orchestra, where his brother Esy was the flutist. His presence in the Latin music scene of New York was so powerful in the 1940s and 1950s that figures of the stature of Xavier Cugat, Miguelito Valdés, Machito and many others couldn’t help but show their admiration for the pianist’s captivating melodies, virtuosic keyboard technique and vigorously percussive performance style, often standing in front of the stage, studying Noro’s every move. According to critics and historians, at the height of his powers, Morales’ sensational sense of hot rhythm coupled with a prodigious precision made him the number one improviser of montunos (piano vamps) performed in the more rigorous ‘rumba’ (Cuban son) tempo. In the 1940s there was not a prestigious nightclub in New York City that Nora Morales had not set foot in, and he was already selling tens of thousands of 78 records and reams of sheet music.
His respected presence on stage made him a ‘musician’s musician’, and in addition to having become the leader of the main ‘rumba’ orchestra in the United States and Puerto Rico, his scintillating rendition of “Tea For Two” (1947) positioned him as the most popular figure in Latin music with Anglo audiences at the time. He performed at the most famous clubs and restaurant cabarets in New York: The Stork Club, Copacabana, La Conga, Palladium and China Doll, where his Sunday concerts were broadcast on the radio. At that time the top three Latin orchestras were those of Miguelito Valdés, Machito and Noro Morales. The New York Daily News selected his orchestra to perform its prestigious Harvest Moon Ball, an honor he held for many years. However, he never forgot his humble “barrio” roots and continued to liven up dances in Hispanic communities, and for this he was recognized by the Spanish language New York newspaper “La Prensa” as “The King of Latin Music.”
Morales had always been short of stature and rotund, but by the height of his fame in the late 1940s to early 1950s he had become obese, a bowling ball of a man who stood five feet eight inches tall and weighed 280 pounds in his prime. Never good with money (he did not like signing contracts and had a bad gambling habit) and chasing women habitually, Noro was also a heavy drinker and smoker who was under a lot of pressure not only from his lifestyle but also to keep on top as one of the most high profile Puerto Rican band leaders of his time. He was a hero among his countrymen in the 1940s, mainly for two important reasons; the first, because some of the titles of the songs he wrote bore the names of various cities in Puerto Rico as well as name-checking Spanish Harlem, and the second, because his works contained lyrics by Rafael Hernández, which evoked and exalted the culture of the island and its people both at home and in the diaspora in New York City.
However, the popularity of the acclaimed “Rumba Man” and his orchestra began to decline in the 1950s because Morales bowed to record industry pressure to please non-Latin American audiences, softening his music and often covering English language tunes, thus damaging his reputation with the Latino public who had bought his records before. However, in 1958 the pianist broke this downward trend with the popular LP No Blues Noro, recorded for Tico Records. With the start of a new decade, Noro decided he needed a break from the New York “rat race” (and cold winters), returning to live and work in his beloved Puerto Rico. During this time Morales was in low spirits and somewhat ill as a result of his diabetic condition (which was exacerbated by his acute alcoholism), to the point of weighing close to 300 pounds and beginning to lose his eyesight.
It is precisely at this time of transition, just before Morales decided in 1961 to leave New York City and take up the musical director chair of the luxurious La Concha Resort in the El Condado sector of San Juan, that Ansonia Records came calling. Label head Ralph Pérez and his partner Herman Glass recorded a series of singles (on 78 and 45 RPM), including the internationally popular originals “Vitamina” (an upbeat “montuno” that is the prototypical salsa tune) and the bluesy “Mi Guajira,” which prefigures the funky Latin boogaloo that would appear later in the decade. Ansonia subsequently released the long-playing album Noro Morales, His Piano And Rhythm with its eye-catching cover design, exceptional musicianship and fantastic audio fidelity. Throughout the dozen tracks on the record Morales shows his rhythmic verve and romantic proclivities, the main influence being Cuban, though he does include Cuban composer Justi Barreto’s ode to Puerto Rico, the peppy cha cha chá “La Isla Del Encanto”.
According to the Beltone studio engineer sheet, the sessions were recorded on May 2 and 3, 1960 and subsequently 2000 records were ordered on the first of August, 1960, with a repress order in December of 1970. In that decade between pressings the record had made a splash with fans around the Latin music world, particularly in Colombia, where the long play was released as were several singles including “Vitamina” and the playfully buoyant “afro” track, “Pica Mosquito”, both of which ended up on several “oldies” anthologies in later years.
The album also included the influential tune “María Cervantes” (the genre was listed as “tema con variaciones”), a brilliant interpretation of a musical theme composed by the Cuban pianist and singer Maria Cervantes, with Noro’s spicy variations taking the ditty to new heights. “María Cervantes” was quite influential in New York where it would famously be reborn on the album Adelante, Gigante (Alegre, 1975), recorded by Nuyorican salsa pianist Charlie Palmieri, probably Morales’ most talented inheritor. Tito Puente, Johnny Pacheco, Frankie Dante and The Flamboyán All Star Band, Ray Mantilla, Luis Benjamin and Samuel Del Real have also covered the tune.
The record also includes the upbeat guaracha “Oye Men” (like saying “Hey, man, what’s happening!”), a Morales original with Spanish flamenco overtones that remains a popular track with salsa dancers today because of its florid piano “guajeos” and consistent clave rhythm. On all the uptempo numbers there is some especially hot bongo playing (check the solo on “Vitamina”), which could possibly be played by an uncredited Johnny “La Vaca” Rodríguez. According to famed salsa percussionist Johnny Rodríguez, Jr. (aka “Dandy”) his father played off and on with Morales from the 1940s through the early 60s and could very well be the bongocero on the sessions. Both “Pica Mosquito” and “Oye Men” include some rather dramatic interplay between Noro’s left and right hand, lending an air of excitement to the rather spare instrumentation. Bass, piano, and percussion are the bare bones of this record, and subsequently there is no brass or string section to distract the listener. Quite a few tunes begin with a dramatic romantic flourish, but then the pace quickens, as with the hot rumba “Oye Negra”, another popular Noro original. On the other end of the spectrum there are an equal number of slow burning boleros like “Que Linda Eres” that conjure Morales in a smoky hotel bar playing for couples as they sip their cocktails or slow dance while the waves softly hit the shore beyond the hotel balcony.
The overall effect of listening to the magnificent and historic Noro Morales, His Piano And Rhythm is as if the listener has time-traveled to sit (or dance) right next to the chubby maestro at the piano accompanied by his hand-picked quartet for an intimate evening showcasing his many moods and talents both as a composer and player. As a fascinating, crucial snapshot of the man at the height of his powers and an introduction to the variety and skill of his musicianship, it’s probably his most satisfying record, and thankfully Ansonia Records has now reissued the album, making it available for a new generation and today’s global digital audience.
As mentioned previously, not long after recording for Ansonia, Noro Morales returned to his birthplace of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and began his residency at the luxurious and modern La Concha Resort. Although at first his busy performance and recording schedule continued apace, sadly his health became severely impacted by diabetes, glaucoma and kidney problems, eventually causing him to cease all musical activity. In fact, Morales had to be confined to the San Jorge Hospital not long after restarting his career in Puerto Rico. He remained there until January 15, 1964, where he passed away at the relatively young age of 52 (according to his original municipal birth certificate, though most histories give it as 53, based on the erroneous birth date of 1911). He was laid to rest in Puerto Rico Memorial Cemetery, where his grave is a pilgrimage site for fans to this day. That same year Alegre Records recorded a musical homage to Morales with an all-star band led by the timbalero Francisco “Kako” Bastar titled Tributo A Noro with several songs being covers of tunes originally found on Noro Morales, His Piano And Rhythm including a super hot rendition of “Vitamina” that became a beloved anthem by salseros the world over.
There is no doubt that, along with maestro Noro Morales, other personalities of popular Latin song—Puerto Rican, Dominican and Cuban—also played an irrevocable role in the creation of the new sound structures of Afro-Caribbean music in the 1940s and 50s. In fact, there were several equally well-regarded pianists more technically accomplished than Noro to be sure, but perhaps none with Morales’ particular performance style, sense of rhythm and warm artistic sensibility. As an epitaph of sorts, veteran singer Ruth Fernández said this of her dear friend Noro, who she performed alongside many times in the 1940s-50s and made an album with late in the pianist’s career in the early 1960s: “He was one of the greatest pianists America has ever had. His way of expression ... those fingers looked like angels. Very few people have, and have had, the interpretive sense of Noro Morales. He never played, he caressed the piano.” Fernández worked with many great pianists and orchestra leaders, but according to her, Noro played differently, with “a different flavor. When Puerto Rican popular music reached the peak of greatness, Noro was already there. He was nice and ‘good people’ too. Noro should be recognized in the cultural history of Puerto Rico as one of its leading figures.”