It was June, 1983, Willie Bobo was performing alongside Mongo Santamaría at Hollywood's Playboy Club. At the end of the gig, both musicians sat at a table and Bobo told Santamaría, "Mongo, I have cancer. I'm going to die. I've lived my life, I've enjoyed it and did what I had to do. My son will follow in my footsteps." Back in New York, Mongo told a few musicians of Bobo's terminal illness. Percussionist and friend Angel René formed the Willie Bobo committee which would stage a tribute at New York City's Club Broadway on Friday, September 16, 1983, and whose proceeds would go to the Bobo family.
Promotion of the tribute got underway in August, 1983. On Saturday, September 9th, one week before the event, this writer hosted WKCR's The Latin Musicians Show and aired a 2-hour Willie Bobo tribute which consisted of interviews of family members and his recordings. The New York visit of Willie Bobo and family was anticipated. On Thursday morning, September 15, 1983, the news of Willie Bobo's death was heard over all New York radio stations.
On Friday, September 16th, close to 2,000 crowded the Club Broadway dance floor. Among them was CBS TV reporter David Diaz whose film crew presented this historic moment for posterity. Diaz, whose program "Visiones" was seen on a Sunday morning a month later, opened his program with: "We must honor our heroes during their lifetime, let them know we appreciate them... that we love them while they are still alive." That had been the plan here tonight at Club Broadway, to honor and pay tribute to Willie Bobo...tragically, Willie Bobo died yesterday, died at the very young age of 49... so Willie does not have a chance to see this outpour of affection for him tonight." The camera then focused on jazz flutist Herbie Mann, with whom Bobo worked for on and off between 1965-1970. "He was a great friend. I remember a time I needed a pianist and he gave me his, Chick Correa...he was there for me whenever I needed him...he was open to all types of music." Flutist Dave Valentín said: "I never met Willie...I knew of him through his recordings only...I learned of his genius from what Tito Puente and Mongo told me." The camera caught the white haired Tito Puente on stage, mike in hand, recalling his experiences with Bobo. "He was progressive, he was a percussionist, played timbales, conga, bongoes, trap drums, was a singer and had his own group...may he rest in peace."
Alicia, wife of Willie, said: "He wanted to come to New York...he wanted to come home...he once said that a great artist always gets recognized at the end." Willie, the eldest son spoke: "One of my father's memorable words was 'music is an international language, anyone can follow the music."' Eric, the youngest son: "He wanted everyone to be happy, no sorrow...this is how his life was, happy, smiling, to have a good time."
Max Salazar on the bandstand facing the Bobo family: "I feel honored to be the one to present this plaque with 50 names to Mrs. Alicia Bobo...it's our way of saying we love Willie Bobo, before and now, and our way of saying 'thanks' to Willie Bobo for giving us his brand of music over all those years." (the music I referred to was the recordings with the orchestras of Tito Puente, George Shearing, Cal Tjader, Mongo Santamaría, James Moody, Howard McGhee, Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Cannonball Adderly, Hugo Montenegro, Sonny Stitt, Thad Jones, Mary Lou Williams, Herbie Mann and his own group).
On Wednesday, September 14, 1983, a weak and tired Willie Bobo told his family he didn't feel he was strong enough to make it to New York. He recorded a cassette tape which was aired at a quiet Club Broadway to close out the tribute. In a barely discernible voice he uttered, "your being here for me is a most wonderful thing...that has ever happened to me...I want to especially thank the Willie Bobo committee for this labor of love and all of you for being here for me and my family...and I want to thank you." The following morning Willie Bobo died.
Tomorrow Is Here is a 1977 Willie Bobo Blue Note LP in which he is sitting on top of a boulder looking pensively out to sea under an orange colored sky. Bobo never explained the riddle of the title or the photograph. Tomorrow Is Here is also a phrase uttered by musicians when they believe their moment for international recognition has arrived. It is a moment of truth. Everything is riding on the recording which may catapult them into world recognition or back to paying more dues on the band-stand. In 1963 you would have been given 10 to 1 odds that Willie Bobo would never get a chance to say that his tomorrow arrived. Bobo, one of Latin music's all-time great percussionists, was in a state of depression because he was not gigging steadily. A hint of the problem was in the liner...