When F. Scott Fitzgerald famously quipped, “There are no second acts in American lives,” he couldn’t have anticipated our current mania for recycled celebrities. From VH1’s The Surreal Life to the latest tour by a rock band that hasn’t seen the charts in 30 years, it seems that America just can’t get enough of its fallen idols. But the silver lining in this dubious trend is that some truly deserving artists are getting a second chance, too. And one of the most distinctive and original Latin musicians that New York ever produced, Joe Bataan, has recently reemerged from semi-retirement to reclaim his title with Call My Name (VampiSoul), his first album of new music in over a decade.
If you’re not familiar with Joe Bataan, that’s a shame, because his hard-edged sound helped define Latin music in New York in the ’60s and ’70s. Growing up in East Harlem, Bataan was the son of an African-American father and a Filipino mother, and he was always on the border between the black and Latin musical worlds.
“When I was a kid growing up on 104th St., between Lexington and Park, we had our finger on the pulse of the neighborhood,” recalls Bataan. “We grew up on pop music. Alan Freed came in 1957 and that’s how we found out about R&B And the first Latin music I heard was Tito Puente. ‘Ran Kan Kan,’ ‘Chop Suey Mambo.’ I heard that on the jukebox right next to Patti Page and Frank Sinatra. And then Frankie Lymon came along and the whole thing broke wide open.”
When Bataan began his career as a bandleader in the mid-’60s, his music drew from both boogaloo and doo-wop, mambo and R&B, and was a natural outgrowth of the music he heard on the streets every day. He had also been a gangbanger and a former juvenile offender, so when he sang about teenage hoods and street life, he brought an authenticity to his sometimes strained vocals that few could match.
“I was the leader of the Dragons,” says Bataan. “We were rivals of the Viceroys. We got into trouble—I won’t lie to you—but gangs then were nothing like gangs today.”
Bataan did time in Coxsackie State Prison in New York for auto theft and assault, and taught himself the rudiments of the piano and arranging while he was upstate. When he returned to the block in 1965, he finagled the keys to a neighborhood church, where he would sneak in at night and continue practicing the piano. Eventually, he began working with a group of kids from a local community center, who would form his first band, the Latin Swingers.
Selected Joe Bataan Discography
Mr. New York (1967)
St. Latin’s Day Massacre (1972)
Call My Name (2005)