In 1957, a 19-year-old named Lawrence Kahn traveled to Cuba after being entranced by the Latin music he had been hearing in New York City. Concerned that the Cubans would have trouble pronouncing his name, he dropped the Kahn and changed his name to Larry Harlow. The switch proved useless, first because Harlow wasn’t any easier on the Cuban tongue, and second because the Cubans were about to give him a new nickname: “El Judio Maravilloso.”
In the 1970s, Harlow emerged as a key figure in the creation of salsa, to which he has devoted his life — recording more than 50 albums. Now, a new project to re-release many of the great salsa records from times past has thrust Harlow and his music back in the spotlight.
Last summer a company named Emusica purchased Fania Records — often referred to as the “Motown of Salsa” — and has since begun a massive remastering and repackaging campaign. Its catalog includes salsa greats like Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Hector Lavoe (subject of an upcoming biopic starring Jennifer Lopez and husband Marc Anthony), Ruben Blades, Willie Colon and, of course, El Judio Maravilloso. Thus far, it has reissued three of Harlow’s albums and intend to release a few more before it reaches its limit. Also in the works is a DVD release of El Judio Maravilloso’s 35th-anniversary concert he recorded in Puerto Rico in 2003 to celebrate his long-running career as a salsero.
“He was a Jewish boy lost among Latinos, but he became a real mover and a shaker,” said Giora Breil, chief marketing officer of Emusica. “Now he is probably the most active artist out of everyone we are reissuing.”
Indeed, as the second artist to be signed to Fania back in the early 1960s and one of the only artists from salsa’s heyday still actively performing, Harlow has become a key figure in the label’s return. And he has promised to keep up his already-busy touring schedule. Though most of July will be spent in Europe, Harlow will be back in the United States for the rest of the summer.
Harlow was born in 1939 to a Brooklyn household heavily devoted to music. His father, Buddy, was a professional bass player, mother Rose an opera singer and his grandfather was a singer as well as a theater critic for the Jewish Daily Forward. Although his first musical love growing up was jazz, Harlow had a quick change of heart after hearing the tunes seeping out of windows and doors in Spanish Harlem.
“When I got out of the subway, I would walk up this huge hill and hear this strange music coming from all the bodegas,” Harlow said in an interview with the Forward. “I thought, ‘What kind of music is this? It’s really nice.’”
Harlow quickly fell for Latin music, as it was called at the time, and he set off for Cuba, where his life as a salsero began. There, after dedicating himself to serious study and unwavering devotion to the Cuban salsa kings of the time, he learned the rhythms and melodies to create the sound. Upon his return to the United States, he was eager to exhibit his new sound and would play anywhere that would have him.
Lucky for Harlow, a large number of city folk, Jews in particular, had begun to flee New York City during the summer and were spending the season in the Catskills. For the most part these vacationers stayed at all-inclusive resorts, where nightly entertainment often included ballroom dancing.
“The Jews who were affluent enough to go to Cuba in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, brought back the mambo and the cha-cha and the rumba here. They went to Arthur Murray to take dance lessons and went to the Borscht Belt, to the Catskills, where there were 25 instructors and a mambo band in each hotel,” he explained. “The Catskills were booming with Latin music. All the busboys and the waiters and the Jewish college kids that were up there were all the mambo-niks. They supported the music.”
During this time, the Catskills were referred to as the “San Juan of the North” because of the large number of Latin musicians present during the summer. It was there that many future salsa stars had a chance to meet, play music and perfect their art, and Harlow was no exception. He met salsa superstar Cheo Feliciano during his tenure at Schenk’s, and the two musicians would engage in late-night jam sessions that helped them evolve from a rumba to a salsa sound.
Harlow’s progress in the Catskills was followed by numerous breakthroughs in his career. His 1973 show at Yankee Stadium was the first time salsa had been performed at a venue of that size in the United States, and he spearheaded the effort to make Latin music its own category at the Grammys in 1975. (Latin was once part of the “ethnic” category. Now Latin music has a Grammy show of its own.) Musical advances credited to Harlow include developing the trumpet/trombone sound that has since become a signature element of salsa’s sound and adding the batá drums of the Yoruba religion in Cuba to the music.
Today, when he is not on the road (which is not often), Harlow lives on New York City’s Upper West Side. He sports a large diamond Jewish star and has various Jewish artifacts displayed around his apartment, mixed in with his large collection of antique instruments. Although no longer an observant Jew — in fact, he is now a practitioner of Santeria and has a large cabinet filled with the materials necessary to make offerings to the gods — Harlow is still deeply connected to his roots. Both Kahn and El Judio Maravilloso, that is.
“You can take the boy out of Brooklyn,” he noted wryly, “but you can’t take the Brooklyn out of the boy.”
Elissa Strauss is a writer and film producer living in New York.
This story "The Jewish Salsero" was written by Elissa Strauss.
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.