Walfredo de los Reyes: legendary Cuban drummer Walfredo de los Reyes Sr. reminisces to John Santos about Las Vegas, Louie Bellson, Havana, Tito Puente, and the historic Ecue recording.

Author:Santos, John


Walfredo de los Reyes Sr. is a living legend and pioneer of Afro-Cuban jazz/Latin jazz and Cuban percussion. He is also a walking history book with a keen memory and a large box full of incredible black-and-white vintage photos from Cuba, documenting his incredible musical journey and all the stars (known and unknown), with whom he performed and recorded. A documentary film about his life and career would be fascinating.

The following is an excerpt from a conversation we had at his home in Concord, California, about 40 minutes from San Francisco, in November of 2008. Among other things, it deals with the landmark vinyl recording, Ecue: Ritmos Cubanos, led by Louie Bellson and Walfredo de los Reyes, and recorded at Sun West Studios in Los Angeles, California, on January 20th and 21st, 1977, by the Pablo label. Walfredo's reminiscing is especially poignant in light of the recent passing (February 14th, 2009) of the legendary drummer/percussionist Louie Bellson. I'd like to thank Walfredo for his generosity, sense of humor and humility, and for openly pontificating, as few others can, on a subject extremely close to his heart.

The aforesaid recording boasts several giants of Afro-Cuban music, jazz and Latin jazz, as well as a few who were just embarking on illustrious careers. The line up included:

Louie Bellson--drums, moog drum

Walfredo de los Reyes St.--drums, percussion

Israel Lopez (Cachao)--baby bass, acoustic bass, fender piano

John B. Williams, Jr.--acoustic and fender bass

Francisco Aguabella--percussion

Alejandro (Alex) Acuna--drums

Emil Richards--percussion, mic stand, flapamba

Francisco (Paquito) Hechevarria--electric piano, moog synthesizer (Salsa En Cinco and Ecue)

Lew Tabackin--flute, tenor sax

Cat Anderson--trumpet

Alejandro (El Negro) Vivar--trumpet

Clare Fischer--electric piano

Manolo Badrena--percussion

Luis Conte--conga

Walfredo de los Reyes Jr.--percussion, drums

Walfredo de los Reyes: Cachao gave it the name Ecue. My association with Louie Bellson, the drummer, is very close. Since I was a kid in New York City, when I first saw him with the two bass drums in the 1940s, he became my idol.

John Santos: Do you remember when you first saw him in the 1940s, specifically?

WR: It was 1947, '48 ... something like that. I was like twelve or thirteen years old, and I saw him featured with Tommy Dorsey's orchestra in the Strand Theater, which is not there anymore, on Broadway. So after that, when I moved to Las Vegas many years later (1970), and I was playing the shows there, I met him when he was playing with Pearl (Bailey), who was his wife at that time, at the Hilton Hotel. For some reason or another we started talking and became close friends; not only as musicians and drummers, as I asked him about technique. I also asked him, "Why do you smile when you play?" I realized that he was doing special breathing. He did Aikido in Japan, he does this special breathing so he doesn't get tired, so he always has like a smile on his face. Anyway, we became very close friends. One day, out of the blue, I get a call from him. "Walfretto (he calls me "Walfretto", he can't pronounce Walfredo), I want you to meet Norman Granz--he's a good friend of mine--I want to do something." He had been to my house and we had played together. One day I told him, "Louie, why don't you take a solo on the timbal? I want to see what you do." So he took like a half-hour solo on the timbal. His technique was fantastic. It wasn't Choricera (Silvano Shueg) or Tito (Puente) or anything like that--it was Louie Bellson. He wanted me to get together with Norman Granz, who was an incredible man in those days, doing all the jazz stuff for the philharmonics, and he was always very open-eyed. He lived in Switzerland, but would go to the United States and then go back to Geneva (Switzerland), which he said was the most beautiful country in the world. So I said, "OK, let's do it." At the time in Las Vegas, there were many good musicians doing the shows. There were a lot of good players in every hotel and casino band. Cachao was there playing. This is a story of Cachao that no one knows; the time Cachao spent in Las Vegas playing shows, which is another chapter that, if you want to know about it, one day I'll tell you. Alex Acuna was there, too. I think he had just moved to L.A. to play with Weather Report. Alex was also part of that Las Vegas scene, along with Juancito Torres, Papito Hernandez and many more.

JS: Juancito Torres was living in Vegas?

WR: To tell you the truth, Juan went there to play with Pupi (Campos), and he played with Papito on bass and Alex on timbal. Pupi had a group at Ceasar's Palace, but it was the most incredible group in the world. Cachao and Bol (El Negro Vivar's brother) also played bass with that band. Many of us were in Puerto Rico before moving to Vegas. I was the first one to leave. The 1970s came and things started getting a little slow, so it was like an exodus from Puerto Rico to Las Vegas. I arrived in Vegas in 1970. Right when Roberto Clemente went down on the plane, I heard the story from Vegas; so that's the time. Juan was there and we did a big, special concert at the Thunderbird Hotel, which is not there anymore. In 1972, we played a Chico O'Farrill suite based on La Cucaracha; this amazing thing he did. There was a great Mexican trumpet player who still lives in Vegas, by the name of Luis...

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