" Blues Wax Sittin' "
By Bob Putignano
Ever since he led his first recording date in 1982, Poncho Sanchez has headed one of the most popular and influential Latin Jazz bands around. The youngest of 11 children, Sanchez taught himself to play guitar, flute, drums, and timbales before settling on the congas. After a period playing with local bands, he joined Cal Tjader's band in 1975 and was an important part of Tjader's group until his idol's death in 1982. Shortly after, he formed his own band and has since recorded on a regular basis for Concord Picante. Sanchez's group is very active, playing in clubs, concerts, and festivals on a regular basis.
Poncho Sanchez was born in Texas on October 30, 1951, into a large Mexican-American family (rumor has it that his 13-year-old mother fled to the U.S. after hiding under the bed as revolutionary Pancho Villa stormed her village), but grew up in the Los Angeles area, where he was weaned on a broad range of Latin and non-Latin popular music. Inspired by the conga playing of Cuban great Mongo Santamaria, Sanchez honed his skills as a percussionist. He began his unprecedented twenty-three-year relationship with Concord Records, which has produced two-dozen recordings, a Grammy and several Grammy nominations.
I recently had the opportunity to sit and talk with Sanchez at WFDU, right around the time his latest Concord CD, Raise Your Hand, was released, which features guest appearances by Steve Cropper, Booker T. Jones, Eddie "Knock On Wood" Floyd, and Maceo Parker.
Bob Putignano for BluesWax: How you doing, Poncho?
Poncho Sanchez: I am doing great, Bob.
BW: I love the new CD and, like many of your previous recordings, you have many of my favorite guest stars on it like Cropper, Booker T., Eddie Floyd, and Maceo Parker, who to me is one of the most perfect hookups for you.
PS: Thanks. Actually Maceo was supposed to be on the Outa Sight record with Ray Charles, though we did get Fred Wesely and Pee Wee Ellis of the JB Horns on there, but Maceo was doing a tour of Europe for a whole month, so we were not able to get him. But luckily this time around he was available so here he is on two tracks.
BW: I always enjoy the way you like to mix your Latin Soul with Sixties and Seventies R&B. How did it come about to using Cropper, Booker, and Eddie Floyd on this CD?
PS: Well, Concord Records had just bought Fantasy Records, which included the rich vaults of Milestone, Prestige, and Stax out of Memphis, Tennessee. So John Burk, the V.P. of Concord and one of my best friends, knew I was a big Soul fan. So he came out to my house and asked if I had any old Stax recordings. I said, "Are you kidding me!" And Burk asked, "Do you want to use any Stax guys on your next CD?" So I replied, "Yeah, let's use Booker T." So he gave me Booker's, Cropper's, and Floyd's numbers and I called all of them at home, and it turned out that they were as big of fans of my records as I was of theirs! It was great, as I knew there was no guarantee that when you call cats like that, and I was worried that they would say, "Well hey, I don't dig your music." But fortunately they were all cool and said that they would love to be part of it and they even want to do some live performances with my band, too.
BW: Speaking of your band, you have been quite busy.
PS: Yeah, things have been good as we have been traveling the world and just got back from the Far East with three weeks at the Blue Note in Tokyo. So we are keeping busy. And this is my twenty-second recording for Concord or maybe it's twenty-four.
BW: I was a little concerned when Concord bought out the Fantasy Group that perhaps they would delete a lot of the great albums they have in their vaults, but I must say that I am pleasantly surprised and happy with all that they are doing.
PS: Thank goodness, but I have to say that the management there truly loves all of that music and so do I!
BW: Are you a collector?
PS: Oh, yeah, I got an extra room in my house and I just had a guy make me some seven-foot oak shelves, but man he has to make me some more, because I got more stuff coming in.
BW: Are you an eBay shopper?
PS: Yeah, plus I wander a lot of the Mom-and-Pop stores, of which there ain't too many left. When I travel with my band I'm always looking around for stuff I don't have. I find a lot of gems and jewels, beautiful stuff.
BW: You just mentioned that you might be doing some live shows with the guests on Raise Your Hand.
PS: We are starting to book some shows as I definitely want them to play live with us. Not that we don't do these tunes without them, but it would be a lot more fun if we had the original cats with my band. So we are actively shopping festival gigs.
Poncho Sanchez's Raise Your Hand
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BW: I can't think of anybody who makes records like you do, meaning the Latin/R&B thing? You really are a unique gem.
PS: I'm just doing what I like, as I grew up with this music, what I call my music. I love authentic Latin Jazz, the early Salsa stuff, and of course the early Soul music. I also love Gospel music and straight-ahead Jazz: Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon, Freddie Hubbard, Art Blakely, too. So that is my whole bag.
BW: Speaking of brand new bags, you've always had that James Brown thing going on for quite some time, too.
PS: Funny you should say that, as people think that I just started doing JB and the Latin Soul thing, but I recorded JB stuff many years ago on a live record I did for Concord, and even some Dyke and the Blazers stuff, too.
BW: Dyke and the Blazers! Wow! I haven't heard that group mentioned for some time. You really are a musicologist.
PS: Yeah, in high school we used to play those records to death!
BW: Where did you grow up?
PS: I grew up in L.A. Born in Laredo, Texas. I was three...four years old when we moved west, which is where I got exposed to all of this great music. Had I stayed in Laredo, I don't know if I would have been exposed to what I heard in L.A.
BW: Back to your playing with the Stax guys live. I bet you won't have many problems booking those dates, as that music pretty much stays in vogue.
PS: Actually, Concord is thinking about doing a Soul review record, with me and Booker T., Sam Moore, so there are some ideas floating around. Plus we just had our CD release party at B.B. Kings and Eddie Floyd flew out from Alabama to sit in and sing with me, which was great; so you know we were Raising Our Hands! [Lots of laughs]
Bob Putignano: www.SoundsofBlue.com