Willie Bobo was one of the key players who fused influences from Latin soul, rock, and jazz in the late 1960s and 1970s. Willie went on to become an important band leader, whose music reflected the traditions of Spanish and Black Harlem.
Born William Correa of Puerto Rican parents, in 1934, Willie was raised in New York City. In 1947, he worked as a band boy for Machito’s Afro-Cubans, one of the most popular Latin music ensembles of the era. Late at night, during the last set, he was sometimes allowed to sit in on bongos, getting his first taste of performing on a bandstand in the company of world class musicians. Good fortune led him to the side of Cuban conga legend Ramon “Mongo” Santamaria, a recent arrival in the Big Apple from Havana. In exchange for his services as Mongo’s much needed translator, the fledgling percussionist received lessons in Afro-Cuban techniques from the master.
It was jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams who gave Willie the distinctive nickname “Bobo,” which he would soon adopt for his stage name and use for the rest of his life. The Spanish word means, among other things, “clown” or “funny man,” and was perfect to sum up Willie’s lighthearted demeanor and fun-loving attitude.
He worked with Williams as a trap drummer and as a percussionist with Cuban big band leader Pérez Prado before being invited to join Santamaria in the rhythm section of Ernest “Tito” Puente’s mambo orchestra. The five years alongside Mongo and Puente produced what many scholarly observers consider to have been some of the finest Afro-Cuban percussion performances in “Top Percussion and Cuban Carnival” -- ever captured on tape. Bobo’s rendezvous with destiny, however, was just beginning.
While still with Puente, he recorded with pianist George Shearing, on the pianists first album for Capitol, “The Shearing Spell.” Shearing would be the first of many jazz luminaries who would call on Bobo’s talents over the years. Throughout the 1950s, he accompanied numerous jazz artists such as Stan Getz, particularly on studio sessions--especially when everyone had to record a mambo or cha-cha somewhere in the course of their contract. Both he and Santamaria left Puente in 1957 and soon had another opportunity to make more Latin jazz history, joining vibraphonist Cal Tjader’s ensemble from 1958 to 1961 and participating on such landmark Tjader sessions as “Latino” and “Monterey Concerts.” Bobo partnered with the vibraphonist again in 1964 to record the top Latin jazz hit “Soul Sauce.”