Félix Frank “Frankie” Figueroa Villa, Jr., better known as “Señor Estilo” (Mister Style), is a native of Guayama, located on the southern coast of Puerto Rico, where he was born on January 27, 1941. The city is known as El Pueblo de Los Brujos (The Town of the Witches) in honor of a legendary pitcher for the Guayama baseball team nicknamed “Moncho El Brujo.” It is also where the most prolific salsa song composer, Catalino “Tite” Curet Alonso, was born. Frankie is not only a son of that storied southern city but he’s also an internationally known and extraordinary sonero (salsa singer and improviser) who can easily interpret a bolero, pop ballad, mambo, guaguancó or son montuno. His emotional interpretation of romantic ballads and torrid boleros made him popular with female listeners. A true ladies’ man, he has been married several times, fathering 13 children and 15 grandchildren.
Figueroa is distinguished by a certain nasal quality and an astonishing ability for rapid-fire versification one often hears in the best soneros. Frankie himself contends that Cuban crooner Benny (also spelled Beny) Moré (aka “El Bárbaro Del Ritmo”) was his biggest influence; “he was the greatest” Frankie would say when referring to Moré. He also admired the Puerto Rican bolerista Gilberto Monroig, as well as more versatile singers like Vitín Avilés, Ismael Rivera (a good friend) and Dominican singer Joseíto Mateo. Like Moré, they were all adept and accomplished in many styles and rhythms of Latin music from fast to slow. Figueroa was part of successful orchestras such as those of César Concepción, Willie Rosario, Kako (Francisco Ángel Bastar), Chucho Rodríguez, Memo Salamanca and Tito Puente, leaving a mark of very high quality on each leader’s output as he passed through. He also worked with Ray Terrace, Héctor Rivera, Joe Cotto and Johnny Pacheco (though he did not record with Pacheco); during the late 1960s he was often hired for substitutions or chorus work. In time, Figueroa also created his own outfit, Orquesta La Madre, which had a distinctive big band sound influenced by the bandleaders he worked for but with its own uncompromising brand of New York City salsa dura and old-school Cuban bolero.
Figueroa entered school at the age of seven; as a child he helped support his family by shining boots and selling newspapers and fruit. Attracted to the rhythms of the Caribbean, he started playing tin cans because he didn’t have enough money to buy drums, going into his mother’s kitchen to practice percussion and using the gallon drum where she kept the fuel to light the stove as an improvised percussion instrument. Soon, he was called to join the Municipal Band of Guayama as a drummer. At that time Figueroa was not interested in singing, he only sang Christmas music at school. He recounted in an interview, “I did not need instructions in drumming at school; I already knew how to play, nobody taught me to play percussion. I learned by ear, listening to the radio.” The first – and most favorite – orchestra he heard as a boy was César Concepción’s big band; back then he never believed that he would someday be part of that great organization. At that time, the guitar trios like those of Johnny Albino, Los Panchos, Felipe Rodríguez, and large orchestras like that of Pérez Prado and Tito Puente were also popular, and young Frankie enjoyed listening to all of them whenever he could.
After finishing his studies in 1959, like many hopeful Puerto Ricans seeking their fortune in what was touted as “the land of opportunity,” Frankie traveled to the United States and began to play as a percussionist in New York with various non-professional groups. He had a fleeting passage through Moncho Leña’s orchestra where he substituted for Mon Rivera who was out due to trouble with drugs. According to Figueroa, some time later, on the recommendation of a great friend of his who was a pianist nicknamed “Macucho,” Frankie joined the orchestra led by Paquito López Vidal, the famous Puerto Rican composer of the bolero “Esperame En El Cielo.” He worked for three years playing the tumbadoras (congas) in Paquito López’s outfit, and the lead singer of that orchestra generously provided him the opportunity to sing a tune during each gig. He then joined the Carlos Pizarro orchestra, in which he worked for almost two years at the Broadway Casino. From there, Pizarro contracted for an extended engagement at the Caravana Club (the former Bronx Casino), which was the best venue for Latin music in New York at the time aside from the Palladium. As Figueroa puts it, “that's where Willie Rosario and Bobby Valentín, who was the trumpeter in Rosario’s orchestra at the time, saw me. They heard me interpret a number that Carlos Pizarro let me sing that night, a bolero called “Negrura,” made famous by Rolando Laserie.” Rosario and Valentín saw Frankie sing and were impressed, inviting him to join their new orchestra on the spot, which, according to Figueroa, Rosario had reformed due to a problem with his original singer “Yayo El Indio” (Eladio Gabriel Peguero), who had been hired to accompany Willie’s orchestra for a residency at the Club Caborrojeño. When Yayo unexpectedly parted ways with Rosario (it was basically a coup d’etat), Yayo and the band’s pianist Héctor Rivera kept all of Willie’s original musicians, with the exception of Bobby Valentín, and maintained the contract with El Caborrojeño, leaving Willie without an orchestra or venue. Frankie was one of Willie and Bobby’s first recruits, and would go on to accompany Rosario to greater fame in the ensuing years. Ironically, Figueroa recorded Willie Rosario’s debut LP (El Bravo Soy Yo!, Alegre, 1963) as the lead vocalist but he was not originally going to be the singer of the new orchestra; Rosario had planned to hire Alfredo Vargas, who was the singer of the oldest orchestra in Puerto Rico, La Orquesta Happy Hills de San Germán, but, according to Frankie, Willie decided he didn’t like Vargas’ voice and settled on Figueroa when he saw him perform at La Caravana.
Figueroa worked with Rosario’s orchestra for two seasons (he would sporadically reunite with Rosario over the years), then joined his boyhood idol César Concepción when the former was in New York on a tour, and they returned to Concepción’s home base of San Juan, Puerto Rico, where Figueroa remained for two years. It is during this stint in Borinquen that Figueroa received his signature nickname, “Mister Estilo.” At that time Frankie was performing every day with the César Concepción orchestra on the San Juan-based television program El Show del Medio Día. The show’s host, soap opera actor and television personality Ulises Frenes, gave it to Figueroa “because, when I sang, I threw myself to the ground and threw up my fists when the trumpets began to sound,” and thus his dramatic on-stage theatrics, as well as his always stylish outfits, earned him the sobriquet by which he was identified from then on. Figueroa contends to this day that he felt most comfortable singing boleros with the César Concepción orchestra, because Concepción arranged his boleros with great skill, and “he was a true teacher and an excellent trumpet player.”
From there, Frankie followed in the footsteps of his singing idol Benny Moré and relocated to Mexico for a time, signing with the legendary Mexican label Musart. According to Figueroa, he was “the first Puerto Rican singer to record with that glorious Mexican company, and I had the great honor of recording with important Mexican maestros like Memo Salamanca, Nacho Rosales and Bobby Ortega.”
Figueroa was back in New York by the late 1960s, where he performed on the Gaspar Pumarejo television show, as well as with the great Myrta Silva on the TV program Una Hora Contigo, which she hosted, as well as with famous radio personality Polito Vega on a program called El Show de La Juventúd. As a result of his work with Myrta Silva, Frankie signed a contract with her to be his manager, which Silva did “until the day of her death” as Figueroa put it. During this time he was also rehearsing with the Pérez Prado orchestra for a tour of Puerto Rico, but in the end Frankie couldn't accompany the Cuban bandleader because of his day job as a paramedic. As a young man in the 1950s and early 1960s Frankie listened to Prado’s recordings a lot and “really liked how the trumpets of that excellent band sounded, and I started practicing the trumpet, I learned to play it by ear, like I also learned to play the flute, but it was only as a hobby, it was not professional at all.” Nevertheless it was this type of interest and skill at familiarizing himself with melody instruments that helped Figueroa form his own notions for what he would want to sound like should he have the opportunity to record as a headlining solo artist or bandleader in his own right. Soon enough he did, making Frankie Figueroa – Mister Estilo for Mary Lou Records in 1970 with the help of Tito Puente, and a three-volume LP stretch with Ansonia Records.
Frankie’s first LP with Ansonia, from 1968, was titled “‘Esa’ Y Otros Éxitos” and consisted of only boleros and was recorded in Mexico, backed by the orchestra leader Chucho Rodríguez. Next up came “Mister Estilo” in 1972, also with Chucho Rodríguez’s orchestra, in which Figueroa displayed his dexterity with a myriad of styles from bolero and balada to guaguancó, as well as son montuno and bolero-rock, a genre pioneered and quite popular in Mexico at that time. Returning to record for Ansonia in June of 1976, this time as a bandleader of his own La Madre orchestra, Frankie cut the sought after collector’s item “Tu Solo Tu.”
With Frankie pointing to a conga drum on the cover and the word “salsa” prominently displayed on the front and back jacket as well as the center labels, “Tu Solo Tu” is chock full of super heavy and hot salsa, with the guaguancó and mambo rhythms dominating, but also featuring a salve merengue, a couple boleros, a guaracha salsa, and even a “ranchero salsa,” perhaps in a nod to Figueroa’s happy time in Mexico. Frankie is credited with “vocals and all special effects” which probably means he was also the album’s producer and had a hand in mixing, using recording effects such as reverb and echo, and perhaps even engineering the session. The brief credits on the back go on to note, “Many thanks to Frankie who assists on coro, and is also the featured soloist on conga, quinto, timbal and clave,” which would indicate that he was no doubt doing some intricate overdubbing in the studio. The album is distinguished in part by its distinctive shuffling cymbal sound (replacing the usual maracas and guiro) that one also hears on Tito Puente albums of this period, and dramatic trap drum accents of kick and snare strategically placed on top, probably executed by Frankie on a custom timbales set.
The album is certainly not a one-man-band production, but it is definitely Figueroa’s most self-determined and fully realized expression of what he wanted in an album as leader, lead singer and percussion soloist. Unfortunately, the rest of the band members are not credited, so it remains virtually a solo effort by dint of their anonymity with the exception of the pianist Rubén Rivera, who gets a shout out during a solo. The prominent low-end sound of the baritone saxophone playing the bass tumbaos (riffs) and balancing the bright and sharp phalanx of trumpets on the fast numbers is a particular type of instrumentation Figueroa most likely learned from his stints with Willie Rosario and his then arranger Bobby Valentín as well as Tito Puente, both orchestras having pioneered the use of the ‘bari’ in salsa in the previous decade with the Dominican saxophonist Mario Rivera.
In the songwriting department, Frankie stands out as well, since six of ten of the album’s compositions are penned by him, and one assumes the arrangements were his idea as well. What makes the album so fantastic is that it’s a summation of his myriad, diverse influences and learning experiences to date. With no one telling him what to do or putting their stamp on the sound this time around, this record is all his (which the album title, “Tu Solo Tu” (You Only You), slyly refers to). The brass and reed section is huge and powerful, while the percussion is right up front, which is great for the dancers. Of the few cover tunes, there is a fantastic rendition of “Cara De Payaso,” a 1962 hit associated with another of Figueroa’s role models, Tito Rodríguez, who was, like Frankie, a singing percussionist excelling both at up-tempo numbers and steamy romantic boleros (and also featured the baritone sax of Mario Rivera in his 1960s arrangements). As in many salsa albums, there is a good deal of boasting and chest-beating going on (check out “Esos” for a manifesto of self-actualization and righteous finger-pointing at those who abused and doubted him), culminating in the intense “El Mejor Soy Yo” (I’m The Best), arguably the top dance floor banger on the release. But the record is not all tough posturing and ace musicianship; Frankie has a softer side, and his mid-tempo interpretation of the bolero “Tu Eres Mi Destino” is a masterful harnessing of the sensitive side of the Latino id. In “Frankie’s Theme” the bandleader gets to show off his band’s chops in a smoking mambo descarga (jam session) workout that can compete with the best Tito Puente or Willie Rosario has to offer.
Though the record remained obscure during the 1970s and became a bargain bin cutout by the 1990s, it slowly gained a reputation over the years, especially in Colombia, where it was bootlegged and the original vinyl goes for top dollar. And thankfully now, for today’s digital audience, Ansonia Records has gone into the vaults to reissue this masterpiece of salsa dura, remastered for the first time from the original studio tapes in all its heavy duty glory, marking a very important chapter in Mister Estilo’s long and distinguished career.
For whatever reasons, unfortunately “Tu Solo Tu” did not afford Figueroa the self-sustaining success he needed in order to keep his own orchestra afloat, and though he was getting occasional gigs with his La Madre outfit, Frankie was also on the lookout for work with a bandleader where he wouldn’t need to be the paymaster and have to worry about keeping a large group afloat. At around this point it just so happened that after the singers Santos Colón and Meñique left the Tito Puente orchestra for good, the pianist and bandleader Charlie Palmieri called Figueroa and, as Frankie tells it, “I thought it was to work with him [Figueroa sang coro on several Palmieri records], but no, he told me to join the Tito Puente Orchestra because Tito’s two longtime singers had withdrawn from his band and he was looking for a new one. At that time I was already working in medical emergencies as a paramedic. I had started studying this profession on my own by reading books related to the subject, then to get my license I took classes at a hospital in New York. At the same time as all this, I worked with Tito's orchestra.”
Though he is most often associated with Willie Rosario, Figueroa worked with Tito Puente for the next 23 years, the longest with any leader. After more than two decades with Puente, Figueroa left in 1990 when music empresario and RMM Records label head Ralph Mercado started working with Puente. According to Frankie, Figueroa and Mercado butted heads immediately; “Ralph wanted to give me orders and not even Tito himself gave them to me, he wanted to force me to sing chorus for Celia Cruz at concerts and I told him that I was not a chorus girl, that Tito Puente hired me as a singer in his orchestra, not as a chorus girl; I told him that I only did backing vocals on recordings, not concerts. That led to my definitive retirement from the Tito Puente Orchestra.” However Figueroa continued with his own group, as he had on and off since the late 1960s, finding an avid fan base in Colombia, playing at the famed Feria de Cali to huge audiences who knew all his songs, though he maintained his day job as paramedic in New York until retiring from the profession in the early 2000s. Thankfully he never stopped performing and recording music, and continues leading to this day both a big salsa band (La Madre) and a smaller son group (the jokingly named Son De La Nariz, because some members “like to, you know, up the nose, ha, ha, ha!”).