Rock'n'Salsa Fantasy – The Art and Design of Ron Levine
Though there were quite a few non-Latino/a graphic designers and cover artists for Latin music in the United States during the 1970s and 80s, the team of Ron Levine and Lee Marshall was arguably the most visible, consistent, and prolific during the salsa era in New York City. Ron Levine is revered among many fans and musicians alike for his masterfully original paintings, logos, and lettering designs and Lee Marshall’s photographs are some of the most iconic and beloved in the industry. Both artists worked for Jerry Masucci’s Fania Records during the period of the company’s dominance and decline, and created covers for some of Fania’s most well-known and cherished releases, starting in 1973, and in Ron’s case, continuing until almost the last years of the label. Though Lee’s wonderful salsa photographs are certainly worthy of a separate study of their own, and indeed there is a plan to do so in the future, what concerns us here more is the work of Ron Levine as a graphic designer and artist who played an essential role in maintaining the high quality of salsa cover art started by Izzy Sanabria, Walter Velez, Charlie Rosario, and others in the 1960s and early 70s. Not only Levine’s paintings and graphic illustrations will be discussed, but also his involvement with staging some of the photo sessions and laying out the graphics for a good deal of photo-based covers for Fania and various subsidiaries like Vaya, Inca, and Cotique.
Ron Levine, late 1970s
From Horses To Art School
Ronald Stuart Levine was born in 1947 in Brooklyn, New York, moving to Long Island at the age of six. His mother’s parents were Protestant Scots, born in Glasgow. His maternal grandmother was once a nurse for Theodore Roosevelt (“she was a big burly woman with hair like lamb’s wool” recalls Levine), and was fond of sitting little Ron on her knee and saying in her thick Scottish accent, “Are ya a good Jewish boy, Ronnie?” Levine’s mother converted to Judaism when she married his father, who worked in the textile business in New York City; she was an artist who had gone to art school and in addition to being a homemaker, also worked for a professional studio photographer, tinting and painting backgrounds in oil colors on black and white photographs for weddings and bar mitzvahs. Levine’s paternal grand parents were Jewish, from Poland and Russia. Ron’s dad was artistic as well, being a window dresser who was talented with merchandising clothing and textiles in the garment district of Manhattan. Both parents were musical, Ron’s mom playing piano and his dad the violin. Young Ron spent his childhood playing drums, dancing Jewish folk dances, riding and drawing horses, and being obsessed with science fiction figures like Flash Gordon (“I couldn’t get enough of him!” says Levine), Disney cartoons, and comic book superhero, horror, and fantasy characters. In fact, Ron states “ever since I was eight, I had wanted to work for Walt Disney when I grew up.” In high school, he often failed art class because he only liked to draw certain subjects (horses, cartoons, and Flash Gordon) and did not like being told to do what he felt were useless and foolish exercises like drawing a still life of a bowl of fruit or a color chart. Levine was mostly into drawing fantasy figures, people with the spark of life, or beautiful horses. Despite the low marks, his parents knew he was talented, and so they encouraged his artistic abilities, “even though at that time there was the stigma that if you went into the arts, you weren’t going to make a dime,” Levine recalls today.
Music was an almost greater passion than art, however; through high school and just after, he played drums in the band The Tensions as well as being front man and vocalist for the group The New Rock Workshop (“best name I ever heard” laughs Ron), touring and recording for several years. It was at this time in the mid to late 60s, gigging in local rock clubs like the venue called My House, that he met and befriended a fellow Long Islander, the young William Martin “Billy” Joel, though at that time Joel had yet to come into his own as a famous 70s singer-songwriter, being a virtually unknown struggling rock musician with the band the Hassles.
In addition to playing and singing in bands, Levine started going to Manhattan to attend art school at The School of Visual Arts, where he took classes in a four year program, though he completed just the first three of those years, from 1966 to 1969. He states now that he felt vindicated with his passion for drawing the human figure because his life drawing teacher at S.V.A., a Mr. Buttons, told him grades don’t really matter, “what’s important is that since you draw the human body so well, now you can draw anything, so you’re OK!”
Ron and Billy became roommates on Long Island towards the end of the decade, and Levine recalls one day in August 1969, Billy coming into their apartment asking if Ron wanted to go up with him to this wild free concert in up state New York. Levine replied “No way – it’s going to be a nightmare!” (he had already heard reports of the traffic jams on country roads, huge crowds, and terrible weather conditions), and so Joel went on his own, wearing a nice suede fringe jacket with Indian beads on it. About five hours later, Joel returned from The Woodstock Music & Art Festival drenched, completely covered in mud, jacket included, saying “You were right man, that place was a mess, it sucked! I went up there, and I came straight back.”
Soon after, Joel left the Hassles and formed Attila (a proto-metal power duo) with Hassles drummer Jon Small, putting out one record on Epic in 1970 (with an intentionally shocking cover). Though Joel has since deemed the record “psychedelic bullsh*t,” the release has quite a few fans these days (these same fans generally do not like Billy Joel’s subsequent music, it has to be admitted). Interestingly enough, Small went on to be an accomplished pop and country music video director for decades, and Ron still keeps in touch with him.
By age 20, Levine had moved permanently to Manhattan, saying goodbye to Joel and Long Island, ready to start a career as a graphic designer. As we will find out though, Joel and Levine’s paths would soon cross again. After the previously mentioned 3 year stint at S.V.A., Ron was not able to attend a final fourth year of art school at New York University as was the original plan. Through an art professor Ron was introduced to several high profile graphic artists like Paul Davis, Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast, and Herb Lubalin, and, once out of school, used his connections with several of these giants in the industry to get work doing magazine covers. He eventually landed a job at an advertising agency, working for famed Creative director Tony Palladino, learning how to do paste up mechanicals on the job and other tools of the trade.
But how did this former musician end up designing record covers? Levine explains it as “happy coincidence.” When the ad agency went out of business, Levine answered an ad in the New York Times for assistant art director at Paramount Records in the famous Gulf and Western building near Lincoln Center. Ron walked in to the office of the art department for the interview, when who should he meet but Mr. Ruby Mazur, senior art director at Paramount, and brother of the Hassle’s manager, Irwin Mazur. Mazur is a well known graphic artist and designer who is perhaps most famous for coming up with a version of the iconic "Jagger lips and tongue" image for the Rolling Stones' "Tumbling Dice" picture sleeve 45. His creative design agency/art studio also produced the famed cover of Harlem River Drive, Eddie Palmieri's underground Latin/funk crossover record from 1971.
Ruby exclaimed “Ron! What are you doing here?”—surprised to see Levine out of context. Ron had hung out in bars and clubs on Long Island like the Locker Room many times with Ruby, Irwin, and Billy Joel, becoming friendly with the Mazur brothers when the Hassles and Levine’s band shared the same bill, but had not seen him in a while. In fact, Ruby Mazur had done the layout for the Hassle’s final album, the acclaimed psych rock classic from 1968, Hour of The Wolf. If you look carefully at the bottom of the cover art, you can see Mazur had rendered the band members in a line art drawing style that recalls Levine’s own. “I came to apply for the art assistant position…” Levine replied to Mazur’s incredulous exclamation. “You got it!” was all Ruby said in return, and so Ron started on the spot. He immediately began working on layouts for a diverse roster of artists, from country star Tammy Wynette to Elton John. Levine also freelanced doing covers for labels like Polydor (Eric Clapton), Dot, A.B.C., Sire (the Ramones’ first) and Speed as well. His embossed, die-cut flap, all board (no pasted paper) jacket 4 LP collection of Cream, Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker records for Polydor (the “At Their Best” series) won a marketing award because Levine’s innovative packaging impelled fans to buy all four disks to complete the set – something that Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker’s solo records had never done before as they had been poor sellers on their own. This was achieved by Ron’s teaming up with the Sherwood Packaging Company to use several deluxe production techniques in order to impress Polydor, and it worked.
Meanwhile, Attila had dissolved in the wake of Joel’s affair with John Small’s wife, and Joel went solo in 1971. According to an unauthorized biography of the singer, at one point, the troubled Joel tried to commit suicide due to the breakup by swallowing shoe polish. That didn’t stop him from signing with Artie Ripp’s Family Productions to release his first album, the ill-fated Cold Spring Harbor, named for the ocean-side hamlet in Huntington, N.Y. (on Long Island) near where Joel grew up. In yet another twist of fate, Family was distributed by Famous Music, so Billy Joel’s album came to the very art department where his old pal Ron worked. As it turned out, Ruby Mazur and Ron both worked on the layout together. Ron elaborates: “It was a black and white photograph, very grainy, of Billy sitting in a scene in Cold Springs Harbor, he was wearing his coat he always wore in the cold weather, he had long hair then and a mustache. It was a nice album cover, I laid it out, did the lettering – it was just hand-lettering [laughs]. You know, it was either that, or press type, that was the way you did it back then [more laughs].”
The record unfortunately was mistakenly mastered at the wrong speed, distorting Joel’s voice, and therefore sounded terrible. Ripp later remastered it after Joel became a top hit maker, but changed some of the instrumentation (adding drum machines, for instance!), re-releasing it through Columbia Records. It seems Ripp was never one to lose an opportunity to make money out of even his worst mistakes. Through a bad contract, Joel never made any royalties from the record, and it appears Ripp made 25 cents for every record sold until Joel had completed the ten records stipulated on said contract for Family. Soon after Cold Spring Harbor, Joel left under a dark cloud for the brighter prospects of California, performing under the name Billy Martin in lounges in Los Angeles for several years. It was while in California that he signed with Columbia and cut his first record with his new label, Piano Man, released in 1973. The following year, still in L.A., he recorded Streetlife Serenade, yielding the classic cut “The Entertainer” but to little commercial success at the time. Growing dissatisfied with his career in the Sunshine State, Billy Joel decided to come back east. Later Joel would contend that the California years were “a big waste.”
Upon his return in 1975, Joel composed the song “New York State of Mind” (released in 1976 on Turnstiles, his third Columbia album), which brings us back to Ron Levine’s story. Without knowing anything specific about the fact that Joel had written a song about missing New York, Levine had created a large stage projection backdrop of the famous Big Apple skyline, with its distinctive features like the Empire State Building, to go on stage behind the band as part of Joel’s set design for his return to performing in his home state in 1975. According to Levine, when Joel performed “New York State of Mind” at the Nassau Coliseum for the first time, Ron was in the audience to witness it. Ron remembers fondly that when Joel’s drummer Liberty “Lib” DeVitto, who previously had been the drummer in Levine’s band The New Rock Workshop back on Long Island, sang a verse during the song’s performance on stage, Ron’s mom (who had gone with him to the show) confided that “Rock Workshop was best band Lib ever played in!” Though it was totally unplanned, the projection of the New York skyline painted by Ron worked perfectly with the song and the crowd “went nuts.” Actually, Joel used several projected backdrops by Ron for about 6 or 7 songs during the show. “It was a real kick,” says Ron of their collaboration.
By 1972, Levine had gained a lot of experience in music packaging and promotional graphics through Paramount; he had done work for Famous Music (a division of Paramount with a lot of Country and Western artists), and also produced original illustrations for scenic rear screen projections for the rock opera The Survival of Saint Joan, based on a revisionist story of Joan of Arc (where she escapes her execution), conceived by the hard rock group Smoke Rise. Starting in New York at the Barbizon Theater, the production was a success; Ron went on tour across the U.S. with the show, performing on television as well. “It really kind of put me on the map, because there was so much press about it, it was one of those things that you did, and you were just like — wow, I didn’t even know I could do that!” concludes Levine. After the The Survival of Saint Joan, Ruby Mazur left Paramount and Ron took over as art director until there was a regime change at the top of the label and the new C.E.O., Tony Martell, a legend in the industry, took over from label boss Bill Gallagher, closed the art department, and brought his own art director, Bill Levy, with him. And outsourced all the artwork.
Levine was there for the transition, and then they closed down the art department and Levine had to hit the pavement again. “The funny thing is, Famous Music ended up seeing me all over again because some of the other labels signed with them started asking me to do their covers and so there I was again as a freelancer.”
Then got a call from Bill Harvey, creative director for Elektra Records, which was also in the same building as Neighborhood Records and just Sunshine Productions, a record label/booking/talent management company we will hear more about later. Bill Harvey asked Levine if he would head up their advertising. “And that’s how I ended up doing promotional stuff for Carly Simon and the Doors (Other Voices, the post Jim Morrison album released in 1971), Bread, and the Incredible String Band,” adds Levine. It was during this time that Levine met Bob Dylan suddenly one day while he was working on an ad for a band. Dylan walks into Levine’s office out of nowhere; “Hey what you doin’?” asks Dylan in his drawl. Levine looked up from his desk and surprise, there standing right in front of him was America’s most famous counter-culture icon. “I’m doing ads for these bands…” – “Oh cool,” was Dylan’s simple reply, and with that, he wandered back out into the hall.
Levine worked on more than advertisements as he was asked to fill in and do album layout work for the art director, Harvey’s son-in-law Bob, who was on the West Coast on assignment. When Bob came back, Harvey told him that Levine was doing an amazing job, finishing up all his work that had been left undone while Bob was away. Bob did not like this and resented Ron intensely: “The guy hated my guts, hated everything I did and was very honest about it, saying ‘This sucks’ to everything I handed in!” After six weeks of terrible treatment at the hands of the jealous art director, Ron decided he couldn’t take it any more and said “I’m outta here!”
Already familiar with the other entertainment companies in the building, Ron walked out of Elektra and just “went upstairs and walked in and started to work for Melanie,” as he puts it. Ron started doing work for the newly founded Neighborhood Records, a small artist-run label that had landed a production contract with Famous/Paramount. The label was started by Peter Schekeryk, husband, manager, and producer of Melanie Anne Safka-Schekeryk, the popular singer/songwriter known as Melanie, primarily for putting out her music on her own terms. Melanie had first gained notoriety during the Woodstock era (her post-performance hit “Lay Down (Candles In The Rain)” being a tribute to rain-soaked concert goers at the festival), and now she was fed up with her contract with Buddah Records, thus the birth of Neighborhood. Ron was already familiar with Schekeryk, as they had met several times in the building during his 6 month stint with Elektra. One day Peter Schekeryk casually asked Levine to create a logo for Neighborhood. According to Levine, when he submitted it soon after the encounter, Peter said he was impressed with the work. When Ron shook Peter’s hand, “I came away with a 100 dollar bill!” Levine states and that was the start of their relationship. Subsequently Ron stayed on as art director during the period of Melanie’s big million-selling hit “Brand New Key.” He even went on tour with Melanie and Peter, because he had to art direct the photography for all the concerts. “She was a great kid!” remembers Ron. “We were driving across the country, she’d have this acoustic guitar out, she’d be singin’ and playin’ as we were goin’ across the Ohio state line [laughs], you know? She was fantastic.” One of the designs Levine did for Neighborhood was nominated for a Grammy, by the New York glam rock band Five Dollar Shoes.
Ron was with Melanie “for a while” (from 1971 to 1972) when he realized he needed to look for more work. He did not have to look far – simply by going up a few floors to Michael Lang’s Just Sunshine offices on the 24th floor the same day, he was able to find plenty to do. Just Sunshine was an informal office where “everybody already knew me,” Levine reveals. Not only was the staff at Just Sunshine familiar with Ron from his time at Neighborhood, but the label was distributed by Famous Music where Levine had worked previously. Just Sunshine had a diverse roster of talent that included management for the British blue-eyed soul shouter Joe Cocker and guitarist Alexis Korner, record releases and management for funk diva Betty Davis, venerable bluesman Mississippi Fred Macdowell, and the Voices of East Harlem. Incidentally, both of the covers Ron did for Voices of East Harlem have visual echoes in later covers he would do for Jerry Masucci at Fania – the first VOEH jacket (Can You Feel It) resembling the Fania All Stars Live cover, and the second VOEH recalling the design for the Cobarde album by Impacto Crea (see samples below).
After creating the Just Sunshine logo, Ron’s first big job for Lang was creating packaging for the funky jazz-fusion/rock orchestra White Elephant, led by vibist Mike Mainieri, who released a self-titled opus in 1972. Today a collector’s item, White Elephant features an award-winning cover with a tricky white on greenish gray embossed image of an elephant with an Art Nouveau lettering and border. As he had done previously for Polydor with the Sherwood Packaging Company, the largest record jacket producers in the U.S., Levine took advantage of Sherwood’s full services to produce a memorable product. Levine felt the packaging should manifest the same commitment to quality as the band did to its music. “It was an incredible orchestra, the level of musicianship was top notch. I used to go to all their rehearsals, it was Mike Manairi’s band, he had all the best studio musicians there, David Spinozza, Steve Gadd, Joe Beck, Jon Faddis, Lew Soloff, the Brecker Brothers, Ronny Cuber, you name it, there was like 26 guys there and each one was incredible in his own right,” Levine recalls; “and me and Michael [Lang] and everyone would just be hangin’ out, partying, you know, listening to the best musicians in the world, our own private concert [laughs]…”
There are some amusing stories from this period – like meeting Sly Stone once in a hotel room that doubled as Lang’s office – that Ron would rather not put in print. Suffice it to say times were wild and creativity and partying went hand in hand – it was all part of the process.
Ron’s work for Lang can also be seen on two seminal Betty Davis masterworks, Betty Davis from 1973 (with a groovy custom font treatment), and the science-fiction themed They Say I’m Different from 1974. “I think I did every package but one for Michael!” laughs Levine.
The Woodstock Connection
Rewind for a minute back to a few years before Levine’s work for Just Sunshine. One might well ask what Woodstock, the supreme 60s apotheosis of the largely white Anglo rock and pop hippie culture, would have to do with our story of Ron Levine’s fantasy salsa graphics for Fania Records. Surprising enough, Latin music in general, plus Levine and Fania specifically, intersect with Woodstock (and the “Woodstock generation”) in several previously unexamined ways, and so the Woodstock angle reveals itself to be a pivotal, if somewhat indirect, part of Ron Levine’s story, just as it is an integral component of our general modern social history. The important thing to remember when looking at Latin music produced in the U.S.A. is that it did not operate in a vacuum – Latin music and its audience came of age, evolved, and engaged with popular culture in a way that influenced mainstream America that is only just now being critically analyzed.
The New York born Michael Lang was first and foremost an “idea man.” At the age of 24, he already had a reputation as the mastermind behind the Miami Pop Festival (1968), and a year later, The Woodstock Music & Art Festival (1969). After moving from Coconut Grove Florida (where he ran a “head shop”), to rural Woodstock, New York in 1968, Lang opened a recording studio and rehearsal space. At this point he teamed up with Artie Kornfeld to start Just Sunshine, and develop the concept for a huge multi-day free counter-culture concert festival. The duo soon became partners with John P. Roberts and Joel Rosenman, who helped the pair realize their plans, settling on Max Yasgur’s Farm (in Bethel, N.Y.) as the fateful place, and August 15 – 17, as the date. A film was made, and after the success of Woodstock, Just Sunshine set up offices in Gramercy Park, Manhattan. The rest, as they say, is history. But not all of that history is so well known…
Michael Lang at Woodstock
Such as Woodstock’s little-known connection to things Latino. At the last minute, as things were starting to get out of hand with preparation for the event, the festival’s producers had brought in genius concert producer Bill Graham to help deal with the daunting logistics for their overly ambitious and poorly planned project (he had to be flown in by helicopter, like many other last minute additions to the show including Joe Cocker). Graham was reluctant at first, but after Lang and co. begged and badgered him, and promised to increase their monetary offer, Graham relented, insisting on one condition: that he be able to bring his favorite band from San Francisco where he was based, the fledgling Santana, yet to release an album (an unheard of thing at the time). Just Sunshine agreed to let the largely unknown Santana to join the roster of performers, and the group stole the show, injecting the rain-drenched proceedings with a much-needed dose of tropical warmth and spicy Latin flavor. Graham had spent his youth in the 40s and 50s dancing mambo and cha-cha-cha in places like the Palladium in Manhattan, and while working in the Jewish resorts in the Catskills, where Latin music was all the rage for many years. Though at this point in the late 60s he was associated with promoting rock music to hippies, he was actually an original ‘mambonik’ and underneath it all, a huge fan of Tito Puente, Machito, Tito Rodriguez, and Celia Cruz. He understood the value of dancing to long jams, as that was how they did it at the Palladium. In fact, he had pushed the bands that appeared at his Fillmore West venue, such as the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane, and Santana, to extend their playing time and enliven their rhythm sections to give the people better beats and more time to dance. In fact, he encouraged Santana to explore a more Latin direction, adding complex Afro-Cuban elements to the group’s blues-based sound, and was probably as influential as anyone in the band in having Latin hits like “Oye Como Va” covered. So in a sense, Graham was largely responsible for ‘Latinizing’ Woodstock and jump-starting Santana’s career. While it is common knowledge that Santana’s records would always be noted for their stand-out cover art, perhaps less known is the fact that Santana’s covers would also greatly impact Latino cover artists from Los Angeles to the Bronx. Likewise, young musicians from East L.A. to Spanish Harlem were stimulated by Santana’s unprecedented mix of hard electric sounds with traditional Latin elements, and Woodstock is arguably the place where it all came together.
The second Latin connection with Woodstock is how it impacted Fania Records specifically. Izzy Sanabria, a freelance graphic designer and artist working for Fania Records since its inception, was also at Woodstock with label boss Jerry Masucci and house producer, pianist Larry Harlow. Masucci was a friend of Lang’s, and having heard about Lang’s plans for a three day love-fest in upstate New York, wanted to check out what all the hype was about, bringing a reluctant Sanabria and exposing him to a world he had never really paid much attention to before. According to Sanabria, the experience really opened his eyes, changing him forever, and consequently, he brought his impressions back with him to the more “square” world of Latin New York. Harlow, who had a rock band at the same time as his salsa orchestra, was much more hip to the scene, so Woodstock probably served only to inspire his more experimental side; indeed, by the late 60s Harlow wore long hair and beads, was using a smoke and light show (probably inspired by Graham’s Fillmore East), and had stacks of huge speakers flanking the stage to amplify his Latin gigs, something unprecedented for salsa artists at that time, but much more common in the Anglo world of rock. Masucci must have been impressed with how Santana was able to “cross-over” from rock to Latin and back again, without losing the audience.
Izzy Sanabria and Walter Velez
It cannot be stressed enough that Woodstock, rock music, and the mass youth counter-culture in general would prove influential to Fania Records in several ways, the most obvious being a shift in the visual presentation of Latin music through the efforts of designers like Sanabria and Rosario, and a shift in the aural presentation of the music from the likes of Willie Colón, Rubén Blades, Roberto Roena, Papo Lucca, and Larry Harlow, all progressive musicians whose albums would be given visual realization by Ron Levine from the mid-70s on.
In addition, the concept of the rock festival itself, as a place where like-minded people could express themselves and enjoy their culture together in a communal show of solidarity, was also something that set in motion a plan at the back of Masucci’s mind to try and do something similar for fans of Latin music, once the time was right. Interestingly enough, several years after Woodstock, Fania artist Joe Bataan planned a massive open air concert at Yankee Stadium, funding it himself because Masucci declined, but had to cancel due to rain and problems with promoters, losing so much money in the process that he seriously considered quitting the music business altogether. Not long after, Masucci did the same (Bataan contends Masucci stole the idea from him), renting out the stadium for the now historic show, staging a star-studded concert with the Fania All Stars, but the night ended abruptly before the event was half over due to audience members rushing the stage and creating mass pandemonium. Remind you of something?
Flash back again to peace and love in the mud at Yasgur’s farm. Also braving the madness that August was the tall and talented Texan Lee “Big Buddy” Marshall, a professional model who happened to be one of several photographers at the event documenting the three days of mud, music, and mayhem. Although at the time of the festival he did not know Levine or Masucci, much less anything about the New York salsa scene, it was on Yasgur’s farm where the strands of our story start to come together and the wheels of fate are set in motion for the formation of one of the most important partnerships in modern Latin music graphics, namely Levine and Marshall. Though on the face of it, especially to some Hispanic salsa fanatics not aware of the true story, having a pair of non-Latinos from the rock counter-culture be responsible for the creation of so many iconic images that signify classic salsa may seem surprising, Ron and Lee’s somewhat circuitous route to Fania doesn’t seem so strange once you delve into all the details.
The Good, The Bad, And La Ponceña
By the early 1970s, Fania Records was the dominant force in Latin music in New York and Puerto Rico, and the label’s influence was spreading to Mexico and South America, especially to Colombia, Venezuela, and Peru. Sanabria, in his capacity as de facto art director for Fania, was pushing to market the music under the easy to remember label of “salsa” and Masucci for his part was obsessed with making the term a household word, utilizing his Fania All Stars as a powerful vehicle for spreading the gospel through global touring (Africa, Europe, Japan), as well as film, print, television, and radio.
Though Levine was operating at this time in the world of rock and roll, he was not un-aware of Latin music per-se; he just did not come into contact with it much. But by the mid-70s, it was hard to be a New Yorker and ignore the salsa boom. As Ron Levine puts it, Musucci and Pacheco “stepped in and seemed to just take over.” Continuing with a wistful smile full of reminiscence, Levine elaborates: “It was a wild time. I met Jerry Masucci in 1973 through his pal Michael Lang.” Yes that’s right, Masucci and Lang were friends. More Woodstock connections!
But where does Lee enter the picture (so to speak) in Ron’s saga? As he explains it, while serving as art director for Michael Lang’s myriad projects, Levine met Lee Marshall through Lee’s first wife Louise. At this point in the story, Louise was a secretary at Just Sunshine Records, though her association with Lang went back to Woodstock. One fateful day, she invited Ron to meet Lee and look at some photos Lee had taken, thinking that perhaps Ron could use something for his next Just Sunshine album cover. Ron met Lee and liked him from the start. Soon after, Ron mentioned Lee to Michael, but nothing came of it initially. “I actually brought Lee in to do something, and in one case Michael didn’t want Lee to work on a record package, and I told Michael, ‘Hey, go ahead, let him do it, and if you don’t like it won’t cost you a dime,’ and guess what? He liked it!” exclaims Ron.
Turned out the Marshalls lived very close by Ron, and pretty soon they started hanging out regularly. Ron continues: “Yes, it’s pretty funny how we ended up working together because ‘Big Buddy’ as we called him—it was his Texas nickname—was a former fashion model for Van Heusen shirts, and I used to see him on TV during the Carson show, so even before I knew him, his face was familiar! Anyway, the modeling thing was over, Louise was promoting him to me, because Lee wanted to break into professional photography, and so once we became friends, I wanted to help him.” Ron continues: “As a matter of fact, I met my first wife through Lee, she was a Swedish model who worked with him. Pretty soon, I started bringing him in on all of Michael Lang’s packaging.”
While Levine was working at Just Sunshine, Michael Lang knew that Ron was not getting enough work to make a decent living, and wasn’t “on the books” either, creating some accounting headaches. “It’s not that Just Sunshine was going out of business, it’s just that there was not always a lot of work coming through consistently,” admits Ron. So at a certain point, Lang took him aside and said, “Listen, Ron, my friend Jerry Masucci’s company Fania is really starting to take off and they need some help. Why don’t you go see him, show him your stuff, I’ll set it up?” Ron decided to put a team together before going to Masucci, to appear bigger and so to get more than one project at a time. “And it worked,” he admits. “I walked out with six packages that same day!” he laughs, describing what went down this way: “My buddy Steve Higgins, who worked at Off Track Betting, wanted something better [in life], and I put together this team, Lee shot the photos, Steve did the mechanicals and production work, and I did the art direction, design and illustration.” Little did he know that there was going to be almost too much work, and that it was going to be one of his most enduring gigs.
In the competitive world of graphic design in New York, having a decent portfolio of work to present was essential if you were going to impress a client. “We got a portfolio together,” continues Levine, “went in [to the Fania offices], made the pitch to Masucci, and walked out with our first six album assignments, of which The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly [for Willie Colón] was not the first, but was the best, and the most fun to do. Even Izzy [Sanabria] couldn’t hate that one! [laughs].” Perhaps it was in a friendly spirit of competition with Sanabria, being the new kid on the block as it were (and being a gringo to top it off), or maybe Masucci wanting to make a splash with the new Willie Colon album, but whatever the reason, Levine’s plan for the record was ambitious. “It was a deluxe package for back then [a gatefold, with four color pictures on the inside].” Levine recounts that the title had already been decided on, and how he and Marshall drove upstate with Colón, Lavoe, and the rotund and jolly cuatro player Yomo Toro, to try and do something inspired by the title: “It was at a penal colony or something. Or maybe someone knew a prison guard who had a farm I think, so we decided to go up there and do the cowboy thing. They had a horse and a mule so it fit the bill. I don’t remember how we even got up there!” It was a bit of a nerve-wracking shoot getting the right look for the musicians and posing them correctly (“Hector was very quiet, Yomo Toro practically said nothing, we had to choreograph the mule, it was pretty wild!”), but in the end, they got it done before nightfall, coming together finally because Levine already knew who was going to be the good guy, who had to be the bad guy, and who was obviously going to play the ugly one — “we had already decided on the trip up who was going to be ‘the Ugly’ —poor Yomo!” Levine confirms with a chuckle.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly was not his first for Colón or for Fania however; that would be the controversial Lo Mato from 1973. Ron elaborates: “You know, that was shot in Lee Marshall’s apartment, on the upper West Side of Manhattan, like most of them [laughs]. His studio was really a living room. Pretty high production values [more laughter]. Fania – or maybe Willie himself, had the idea.” Colón is holding a gun to the head of José R. Padrón. “Willie was sometimes difficult to work with, or at least he could be very serious; Hector was always quiet at the photo shoots, unlike his reputation for being a joker in public.” Marshall states that Lavoe was fun to work with and there was quite a bit of goofing off. “You never knew if he was gonna show up late or something worse…” Marshall trails off, a suggestive look on his face.
When Levine and Marshall started working with Rubén Blades after Lavoe went solo, Ron says Blades “was a sweetheart” on the set. The last time Levine saw Blades was outside the theater at The Capeman on Broadway. “I was with my present wife, who is Puerto Rican, and I ran into him, and we just hugged and hugged. You know, Rubén is just a real, real guy. I knew him when he was just a kid working for Jerry in the mailroom [at Fania]; watched him work his way up, become famous; and he never had an attitude. I did one really good illustration of Rubén in a nice sophisticated style [Rubén Blades With Strings, 1988], and some I did were just portrait photographs.”
It was the start of a very positive relationship. “After those first six [layouts], I was doing the bulk of the work for Fania,” contends Levine. Masucci could immediately see that in Levine and Marshall he had two allies from outside the Latin world who could help him bring his product to a wider audience, and who perhaps wouldn’t give him such a “hard time” as the head-strong and socially conscious Sanabria had done. Sanabria felt his efforts at Fania were not always appreciated and that people, Johnny Pacheco especially, did not give him the credit he felt he was due. Sanabria says on more than one occasion Pacheco told him he wasn’t important because he wasn’t a musician, that Sanabria was just “holding onto the fender of the bus, not driving it.” Aside from one time when Pacheco thanked Sanabria for saving the day in Japan when the Fania All Stars were having technical difficulties (Izzy, as F.A.S. MC, kept the crowd entertained while Bobby Valentin fixed a broken bass string), Sanabria relates that Pacheco pretty much dismissed him as unimportant as far as promoting salsa. Into this atmosphere stepped Levine, who really had no agenda except to make money, have fun, and maybe try and work a little rock and roll magic on things.
At this point, Sanabria was extremely busy with the magazine Latin NY, a very influential and important mouthpiece for Nuyorican musical culture, so he was not too concerned with Levine and Marshall infringing on his turf anyway. In fact, he must have been somewhat relieved, because running a magazine was proving to be a black hole absorbing much of his creative energy, and it was time to release his tight fisted control of the art department at Fania. For Levine, he remembers nothing but positive vibes. “We were all family. You used to walk in there and there would be the Silver Fox, Pacheco, ‘Hey Ron, come here!’ you know, he’d have his cigar, motion for me to come over and listen to some new track on the reel to reel. I used to talk with him a lot. I was a musician and I had a feel for music, had been in a studio and on stage before, so I think he respected me for that, as well as for bringing something new to the table for the look of their product.”
In fact, Levine’s education in Latin music came about by listening to all the great musicians firsthand – in the studio, where he was invited to hang out in the mixing booth with Jon Fausty (“a genius!” enthuses Ron); in Masucci’s office where he heard tracks before they were released to the public (“Listen to this piano part!!” Masucci would say to him); at concerts where he was art directing; at rehearsals where his new friends like Larry Harlow invited to check music out as it was being developed, and even in the apartments of certain musicians like Ray Barretto and Mongo Santamaría. “Those two would be playing Afro-Cuban rhythms for me, teaching me about the clave, and we’d talk,” explains Levine. It was a crash course in some of the most exciting music being made in America at the time – Salsa 101, if you will — all in a rush, right in front of him, the first couple of years he was working at Fania. “And so you’d get an education just being around all these conversations in hallways, in recording studios, at photo shoots on location.” He went from knowing “absolutely nothing” to witnessing Latin music history in the making, but from the privileged position of being one of the guys behind the scenes.
With marketing plan firmly in place, Masucci felt he could conquer the larger music world. Again Ron Levine: “What Masucci was hoping for when he hired me was to get this Rock’n’Roll white boy with long hair dressed in leather to help them compete, put them on par with the mainstream, because Jerry always wanted to cross over, be a success in. I did covers for The Doors, Carly Simon, Billy Joel, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Tammy Wynette. I enjoyed designing the cover for Jerry’s movie Salsa though the logo would have looked better just by itself; even though you thought it would compromise the aesthetic integrity of the design, Masucci felt it was important to sell it to have all that other extra text on the cover.” As previously noted, Sanabria had been top designer at Fania from get go, but nothing lasts forever, and as a result, the label’s look diversified. “I understand and respect people like Izzy’s political stance, that there should be more Latinos in the business, but I was looking for work too, and I definitely felt some sort of connection to the people and the music, it’s not like I didn’t love salsa, and my clients at Fania were cool with me being a Long Island Jew, I mean Jerry was Italian!, Larry [Harlow] and Harvey [Averne] are Jewish, so that was good enough for me.”
Even in this atmosphere of positive relations between Levine and Masucci, forged within a burgeoning industry dedicated to salsa, and in an environment of Latino empowerment that demanded a higher quality product, there were still many pitfalls for salsa designers, as Levine is quick to assert. “I used to fight [with Masucci] about logo and title sizes,” and the two occasionally bumped heads about the direction a cover should take; Levine was often thinking beyond what was expected by Latinos, bringing his outsider’s perspective to his concepts, sometimes with controversial results.
Latin music for decades had been marginalized and that showed in the many cheaply done, low end “cuchifrito” (as Izzy called them) layouts of the 60s and 70s. In the reduced budget market of a niche genre like Latin music in New York, Levine came up against limitations in production values constantly. Many times his ideas did not translate due to poor production. Fania was not Columbia or Atlantic Records, with their large art budgets and huge mainstream market. Consequently, Levine admits “the printing was atrocious; a lot of the lettering was press type or hand done” — inexpensive and fast, but also sometimes severely lacking in artistic merit. He continues: “The printers didn’t have any cool fonts. Photo lettering was expensive, you had to expose each piece of type face, but the advantage was they [Marvin Typographers] had the most design oriented type for headlines.” Photo lettering was also time consuming and not easy to change or adjust, so Levine would have to plan everything ahead with sketches, saving the trips to Marvin Typographers for special projects. Unlike today’s computer aided design software with an infinite capacity for corrections and re-design, so-called ‘paste-up’ jobs in the pre-digital era involved an entirely different and very physical analogue process with special tools and techniques that are now largely lost in the mists of time. It was an art in itself, this disciplined process of cutting and pasting type, creating and positioning graphic elements, using masks, photostats, tape, rubber cement, Frisket, letterpress, employing hand drawn lines and multiple layers of acetate with different screen images on them for screen printing; as a consequence, layouts were not easily changed at the last minute the way they can be today.
There was a lot of hand-done work, where Levine’s graphic skills were pushed to the limit. “All the lines on the covers were painstakingly done with a ruler and rapidograph pen, [as they were] too expensive for the printers to do in production.” Levine also admits that much of his output was just ‘grunt work,’ a mass-production grind to pay the bills; quite a few were simply a head-shot of the artist slapped on with some simple title lettering, with no concept behind it. Making a painting would take more time and so had to be worth the trouble. “There was just such a volume, it was hard to do quality work for each guy.” Many of Levine’s Fania memories make his face light up with a smile. “Jerry was so funny sometimes,” he remembers. “I’d come in and show him a very large painting on illustration board that was 30 by 40 inches, not just some little computer screen jpeg in an email like today, but a big piece of actual artwork, and he’d be sitting there at his desk. Maybe he’d say ‘Aw, man I really like this’ and then every once and a while I’d go in there and he’d say ‘Oh, hmm, not one of your better ones Ron!’ and I’d be like, damn!” But there was no ‘back to the drawing board’ at Fania. Because then, without a pause, while Levine was standing there with the just completed illustration, Masucci would say to someone in the production department “Let’s get this out to the photographer guys right away, I want it hooked up with a mechanical by Friday, to the printer by Monday, to the distributors in 2 weeks!” – just like that.
Amidst the rush and sameness though, there was always humor and certain musicians were a great deal of fun to work with. “Some musicians liked dressing up in costumes, or posing with babes, silly stuff, but they were mellow, you’d get with Tito [Puente] and he’d say “You’re the man, whatever you wanna do!”
Unlike most of the musicians, “Jerry Masucci was a perfectionist, Jerry was really in control of every aspect of the company,” so Levine sometimes encountered this side of his employer in the art department as well. But as far as being treated fairly by the label, Levine has no complaints for himself. Levine concedes that “down the road he [Masucci] was disliked by a lot of musicians because they saw other labels like Columbia were actually paying them royalties, [but] I was paid well. Jerry always treated me with respect, paid me on time, let me work in every kind of medium. They were a great client in that way. And Jerry and I became good friends.”
But even a fun gig like Fania could be too much of a good thing. The limitations could be stifling, and the industry was changing. “In the end,” admits Levine, “I left doing album covers because I couldn’t take working on a 12 inch square any more.” In other words, he was making real fine art that begged to be let out of the small, mass-produced confines of the record sleeve. But did he make the transition to dedicating himself to making gallery paintings? The demands of making a living in the Big Apple kept him from abandoning graphic design altogether, with the result that Levine has continued to expand his graphics portfolio, working in all kinds of digital media, especially DVD film titles, but the time of fantasy painting and Latin themed illustrations ended pretty much with his last Fania commission. “What a great time!” reminisces Levine. “I want to be back there, you know?” The Sonora Ponceña covers, with their flights of fancy, are arguably Levine’s most lasting legacy in the Fania pantheon.
A Great Partnership: Ron Levine and La Ponceña
Many of Levine and Marshall’s covers for Fania challenged standard conventions for the representation of Latino identity. Nowhere is this more pronounced than Levine’s series of artistic LP sleeves executed for La Sonora Ponceña, a long-lived popular group from Ponce, Puerto Rico, initially patterned on típico sounds and the great Cuban trumpet-led combo, La Sonora Matancera, but later morphing into a juggernaut of jet propelled urban salsa popular far beyond the confines of their island home or El Barrio. Early Ponceña records sported the typically boring band shots so prevalent in Latin music at the time. As Izzy Sanabria explains it, the feeling was, we have an orchestra, so why not show everybody on the cover (over and over again); bad idea, as far as advancing art and culture is concerned! In Sanabria’s view, Fania records was giving Latinos for the first time an opportunity to actually say something interesting (or at least aesthetically pleasing) on a mass-produced scale, so why not elevate the presentation of the music to a level consummate with the artistry of the musicians themselves and the culture that produced it. For that reason, he wanted to change the band’s image when Fania took over Inca Records, the label they had been with previously. 1972’s simply titled Sonora Ponceña was a product of the Sanabria (design) and Velez (illustration) We-2 Productions team, and features imagery more in line with Sanabria’s nationalistic tendencies. We-2 had developed their self-coined ‘deluxe-style’ (i.e. illustration inspired by comics, low-brow humor, and Pop Art) by this point, and so the cover is a classic ‘deluxe-style’ depiction of Ponce de León in full conquistador body armor but also incongruously wearing a sweater, with a guitar slung over his shoulder and a maraca in one hand, a scroll in the other. The city of Ponce, named for Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León, happens to be home to the University of Puerto Rico’s Ponce campus, and Sanabria’s concept for the cover is to somewhat humorously re-imagine the blood-thirsty conquistador Ponce de León as a University student. The scroll, which one might assume to be perhaps a map in a traditional depiction of the explorer, seems to be more like a diploma here; the guitar may allude to some of the protest music recently popular on the college campuses of San Juan and Ponce by the likes of Ray Brown and others. The students were at the forefront of the movement for self-determination and independence from the U.S., and several campus clashes with the state authorities were well known to Sanabria, so they were probably forefront in his mind when he came up with the idea to reclaim Ponce de León. Though La Sonora Ponceña themselves were not overtly political, they were extremely proud of their city, their island, and their Boricua culture, so Sanabria was confident that the message of the cover would promote the band with a message of pride and nationalistic identity in tune with their music.
When Ron Levine took over from We-2 in depicting La Sonora Ponceña, there was some controversy about how the group should be packaged. Happily, it was all good in the eyes of the fans, but Levine’s side to the story needs to be told because it illustrates the issues of authenticity and artistic freedom so central to salsa in the early 1970s. “My first cover for Ponceña [Sabor Sureño, 1974] grew out of Izzy and Walter’s great Ponce de León drawing.” Ponce de León, or at least some sort of Spanish knight, also showed up in El Gigante Del Sur from 1977, this time as a fairytale giant (the band being the ‘giant’ in question, from “el sur” – the south) striding across the landscape and conquering the people, “but then,” confides Levine, “I started to change their look, breaking away. I felt like sticking to that first theme of Ponce and Ponce de Leon was limiting me in terms of keeping it challenging and fresh. There was a common thread, though. I sort of saw Papo [Lucca], the leader, as this warrior through the ages. I got fan mail from Puerto Rico on the later Ponceña [fantasy and science fiction] covers. They would say ‘Thanks for changing the image of Latin album covers’ so I guess I was doing something right!” And so the overtly Spanish conquistador morphed into a trumpet-playing mounted nobleman galloping across a cosmic keyboard in Musical Conquest from 1976, an astronautical Scythian warrior charging through outer space on a robo-steed, galloping past exotic-looking planets on Explorando (1978), a Medieval knight kneeling in a magical glade in the forest, seeking inspiration from a kind of enchanted musical wishing pond (La Orquesta De Mi Tierra, 1978). The next year, Masucci wanted Levine to depict a ghostly knight entombed in a tree with Papo and Quique Lucca, and Celia Cruz posing at its base for the LP La Ceiba. Though Ron contends “that painting was a bitch, Masucci wanted it to look like the knight was carved into the tree, I did it in acrylics and it was kind of iffy,” it remains a favorite of many including this author (Levine concedes “ but the portraits were kinda good”). Proceeding from that relatively static scene, we next encounter a much more lively tableau: a Frazetta-inspired sword-bearing Conan the Barbarian type of character, breaking his chains of bondage in a shower of lightening streaks and billowing thunder clouds for Unchained Force (1980). Following this scene of liberation, with New Heights (also 1980), we see La Sonora literally reaching for the stars (well, a planet in the sky at least). Next, fans encountered an avenging angel of death in the form of a fully-armored knight on the back of a winged horse for the hauntingly blue moonlit Night Raider (1981) — it would appear that the band had finally broken free and taken off for the stratosphere. Indeed, in Determination (1982), the knight on horseback (recalling a favorite Boris Vallejo painting influential in my own art career) is seen bursting through a flag of stars and stripes (perhaps a subconscious nod to the movement for Puerto Rican independence). By the time Future rolled around in 1984 (with its Orwellian overtones), any trace of Hispanic historical symbology had been completely erased. It was replaced by a non-culturally specific Tron and Star Wars-inspired vision of a death-ray canon from some sort of space station that was clearly zapping a planet (“though I maintained a sword in the character’s hand to keep it anchored in the history of the series” notes Levine). The Caribbean/Medieval conquistador/knight of old was now the incarnation of an inter-galactic space-warrior! The music by this point, under keyboardist Papo Lucca’s leadership, had also evolved and modernized over the last eight years to include synthesizers, electric piano and funk bass, and elements of contemporary Cuban songo, disco, samba, salsa romántica, even classical and modern jazz, so the space-age imagery was ironically now appropriate – the look and sound had come a long way from 1972’s Sonora Ponceña.
As stated before, Sanabria had always been a booster of ‘message’ covers that stay within the boundaries of Latino culture, and while he acknowledged that Ron’s art was “beautiful,” he took issue with the fact that it “misrepresents the music and culture inside.” But for Levine, the essential ghettoization implicit in Sanabria’s wanting to keep all the imagery tied to Latino themes (and do everything in his ‘deluxe style’) was the problem itself. “To the Latin world, the gringo rock and roll and R&B covers represented bands that were making tons of money while the salsa guys, who were just as good at their craft, were making crap [pay],” said Levine. The high–end production values of rock, country, and R&B covers reflected the success of the acts and served to promote them as such to their fans. “I was always to a certain degree frustrated, even saddened by the reality that they [Latinos] are making all this great music, why aren’t they making the money that the gringos are making? Sure there’s lots of reasons, but why aren’t they crossing over in a bigger way, there’s got to be more than just Santana and José Feliciano!” To Levine’s mind, most salsa covers were not treated to the same quality standards evident elsewhere in the American music industry. He wanted to free Fania’s art department from always having to stay within perceived notions of Hispanic culture. His science-fiction and fantasy covers put Latin music on the same plane as major mainstream artists like Boston, ELO, Earth Wind and Fire, Kiss, and Yes. Elaborating on his theory about how the music should reflect the success of the bands and not be tied to any one cultural theme, Levine goes on to say “It’s all about dollars in and dollars out.” In other words, put your money where your mouth is – if Masucci wanted his label and artists to cross-over, to be taken as seriously by the industry as they took the Anglo market, then the covers would need to reflect that and the label should have spent more money on the covers.
It was clear to many within Fania, Levine included, that Masucci was very ambitious and indeed had designs on crossing over to the white market. Delecate and Jumpy, by the Fania All Stars, was supposed to be his ticket to this success, but it failed to do so, according to Levine. It was released in 1976 through a deal with CBS Records, featuring glossy, slick production and arrangements by famed R&B, pop and disco producer Gene Page, and sported an interestingly feminine and particularly whimsical Levine cover with some appropriately delicate and jumpy insects on a loud magenta background. However, from a title and artwork perspective, it seems an odd choice for reaching the Anglo crossover audience, unless perhaps it was a misguided attempt to appeal to the gay discotheque dance crowd in San Francisco and Fire Island, a notion backed by the Latin hustle and disco flavors featured throughout the record. Maybe Masucci felt disco was the more obvious link to Latin music raking in the cash, but in the end he alienated Fania All Stars fans and aligned himself with a musical form that as a fad died out only a few years later in a haze of coke and drum machines. Thankfully, for the most part La Sonora Ponceña did not try to change its music to cross over (though there is the odd nod to disco, as in the cut “Nocturnal” from El Gigante Del Sur).
Many salsa fans over the years have wondered if there was some hidden message in the later Sonora Ponceña covers with all the fantasy and science fiction imagery; Levine just shrugs and says simply: “The art had nothing to do with the music really, they were just mood pieces. I just wanted salsa covers to be more contemporary,” more in line with what was going on in rock. He admits they were “inspired by the Santana covers, Heavy Metal [magazine], guys like Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo, the Yes covers.”
Not many people realize that at Fania, graphic designers often held sway over the record titles, not just the typography. “I named a lot of their albums, too [Energized, Future, Night Raider]. Jerry would say ‘OK, what you gonna call this one?’ [laughs]. Papo Lucca and the Ponceña guys were thrilled to see all this imaginary art that was universal, that didn’t put Latins in a corner, make them too regional. I put them visually in the same category as anybody else in pop music.” In fact, Ron concedes that Lucca, and most musicians he worked with, were pretty quiet and laid back when it came to packaging their music. “They were just like – it’s your thing, you do it. We make the music. Back in those days, they though people like me and Lee, Izzy and the rest, we have the magic so they allowed you to take them on a little journey they wouldn’t have gone on otherwise on their own — so that was really cool!”
What is interesting is that although Fania’s production schedule forced Levine and his crew to rush a lot of jobs and dash off layouts practically overnight, the covers of Sonora Ponceña records during his tenure in the art department were always detailed paintings or illustrations that took much time and care to execute. It seems that here is where Levine decided to put most of his artistic emphasis. “Some of my paintings took forever to do,” emphasizes Levine. While a Ray Barretto or Pete “Conde” Rodríguez cover could be done relatively easily and quickly with a fairly simple “personality” photograph of the artist from Marshall, the Ponceña covers always got the full artwork treatment. That is not to say that some of Marshall’s shots weren’t complicated, conceptual, or took time to light, style, and pose; rather, once the knight and fantasy covers caught on as an identity for Papo Lucca and his Sonora, there was no turning back to the days of a band member cover shot. “I wanted to show that Latin music was a part of the larger world music scene, that it was truly international, and I felt these covers, with their world warrior characters, could bring in some of that universal appeal, and Jerry was fine with it…” concludes Ron.
In fact, Masucci was more than fine with it; it had become an institution almost beyond anyone’s control. Levine’s last cover for Fania was a Sonora Ponceña job, done in the modern digital age of the shrunken canvas that was the CD cover – On Target (1998) – designed on a computer (Levine laughingly describes the character as “a kind of Samurai/barbarian hybrid”). The CD was actually released a year after Masucci had passed away from peritonitis. “That was when Victor Gallo was running things,” states Levine. Fania had turned into Sonido and from there it morphed into Jerry Masucci Music, and yet another imprint Nueva Fania, distributed by Sony; according to the current owners of Fania, Masucci had wanted to “revive salsa” with contemporary Cuban recordings by Pedro Dikán, Joel, Pedro Jesús, Paulito F.G. and Dan Den of Juan Carlos Alfonso, as well as stalwarts like the Fania All Stars and La Ponceña. When Ron did the last 12” LP cover for La Sonora Ponceña (Guerreando in 1992) at the very tail end of the vinyl era, Fania had fallen on hard times. “Their offices had moved to a smaller place,” he relates. “It was on the West Side, 30th Street or 6th Avenue, I think. I used to go there infrequently. It was a dump! They had gone way down. Jerry still had an office there, I’d see him every once and a while when he was in town. They had a recording studio there too where they still did some sessions. Good old Irv Greenbaum was still engineering and mixing there. He was great, nice guy. We were still like a family even after things slowed down for me with them and I started doing other stuff.”
From All Stars to El Sabio – A Look At Some of Levine’s Most Interesting Work for Fania
Similar to his run of highly inventive presentations for La Sonora Ponceña, Levine was able to go all out for Masucci and Pacheco’s flagship orchestra, the Fania All Stars. Lavine did not want these records pigeonholed as having to look like someone’s clichéd notion of an all star Latin orchestra. As he explains it, it was the “same thing for my Fania All Stars covers. The Fania All Stars Live In Japan (1976) breaks all the perceived boundaries of Latin cover art because it could have been for anybody. It wasn’t sexist, it wasn’t Caribbean. Women dig it. I love that cover. Technically, it’s so well done, I’m proud of that one.” Some of Levine’s rock and roll, biker bad-boy aesthetic comes through strongly in certain F.A.S. covers like Cross Over (1979) and Commitment (1980). These look like they could be Steve Miller or Grateful Dead albums with very little reference to the music within; the imagery on the latter dovetails perfectly with Masucci’s cross over ambitions, with a glitzy show biz angel gracefully dancing (like some Radio City Music Hall showgirl) through the sky, leaping over the gaping divide between the Big City and a tropical island paradise. Levine is particularly proud of his artistic skills on the latter cover (which he also titled himself), drawing inspiration from watching the band and marveling at their camaraderie and commitment to each other and the music. Like the big touring mega-rock acts of the 70s, the F.A.S. had their own satin tour jackets, which Jerry Masucci had made from Ron’s Commitment logo. “I did get a killer tour jacket with my own name on it from Jerry, which was nice,” admits Ron. Though many a rock and pop act at this time in the 70s had t-shirts, jackets, buttons, posters, fanzines, and other merchandise to promote themselves, Fania was the first record company to do so for its artists in the Latin music industry. The fact that the label brought a “rock and roll show biz attitude” to salsa was due in part to forces not only within Latino culture, but just as significantly from elements outside it as well. These forces combined in a new and powerful way, making Fania the little label that could, a Nuyorican Motown, as many have observed. Jerry Masucci, a “gringo” outsider who loved the music, combined an extremely competitive entrepreneurial attitude with crossover ambitions. Levine and Marshall’s roots in the non-Latino world of the rock counter-culture, advertising, and fashion gave them a fresh outlook on the possibilities for packaging and promotion. On the inside, as it were, Johnny Pacheco’s musical obsessions and Izzy Sanabria’s socio-political agenda (coupled with his marketing genius) were the other two essential ingredients in this equation.
In the old days, Latin music acts were promoted primarily as being an orchestra and the vocalist was secondary. By the mid-70s, Fania had ushered in its own era of the cult of personality. Once he left Willie Colon, Hector Lavoe was purposely promoted as a superstar in his own right, and his musical backing was never really mentioned in Fania press releases, much as a contemporary Anglo singer like Elton John would be the star and his musicians seen as secondary. Along the same lines, the Fania All Stars were Masucci’s answer to a supergroup like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (Woodstock again!). And significantly, Fania’s album art reflected this aspect of “cultural-mirroring” during the 70s, especially in Levine’s illustrational work.
Today, Levine says that “the freedom, the respect, and the love that Jerry provided me with was very special,” and he’s sure Masucci would have given him “literally the jacket off his back” if he’d asked. Why? Again, because he was providing Masucci with the level and kind of artistic vision that matched Fania’s ambitious business goals. And what of the Fania All Stars tour jacket? According to Ron it fell apart through much use, but he cut out and preserved the embroidered artwork, which retains its brilliant colors and complex stitching after all these years.
From its humble beginnings of being recorded at the Red Garter club in Manhattan’s Village to the massive undertaking that was Yankee Stadium and beyond, the Fania All Stars sound – and scope – evolved into a project of global ambitions. By the later 70s, F.A.S. recordings were big budget orchestral affairs supported in part by a deal with CBS Records. Unlike some earlier Fania releases, these were recorded with the latest multi-track technology, boasting a wide range of vocal talent, full string sections, and jazzy, Brazilian, or disco-ified arrangements, with the formerly ragged edges smoothed out for maximum effect. Often, there were ‘message’ lyrics from the likes of Rubén Blades and “Tite” Curet Alonso, with occasional forays into English language, rock, or funk territory, sometimes even with guest producers like Vince Montana, Jr. of T.S.O.P. fame. Of all the Fania All Star cover concepts, none was as daring – or perhaps honest – as Levine’s next. Done partly in jest, partly in earnest, Latin Connection (1981) boldly asserts with dark humor the importance of cocaine, and partying in general, in the world of salsa (and disco), as well as the emerging South American drug cartel connection alluded to in the ingeniously spelled out title. Many F.A.S. gigs in Colombia and Peru were both funded and fueled by the white powder, and it is no secret that some musicians were sometimes paid in drugs instead of money.
Aside from the well-known covers he did for Willie Colon, La Ponceña, and F.A.S., Levine (solo or with Marshall) also created some memorable jacket art for the likes of Celia Cruz and Tito Puente, La Conspiración, Joe Cuba, Larry Harlow, Los Kimbos, Johnny Pacheco, Pacheco and Melón, Chamaco Ramírez, Bobby Rodríguez y La Compañia, and Mongo Santamaría, to name just a few.
For Mongo Santamaria’s funk album Afro-Indio, Levine produced a masterful watercolor of Afro-centric ritualistic imagery. The Egyptian temple and noble Massai warrior references, as well as the fantasy comic illustrational style, echo contemporary Parliament-Funkadelic, Earth, Wind, and Fire, or Herbie Hancock packaging, setting it firmly in the mainstream of urban African-American iconography of the time. Interestingly enough, the music on the record is mostly funk-oriented Afro-Latin jazz with strong R&B overtones, so it fits this general cosmic fusion feeling perfectly. Levine describes the cover as “complicated yet primitive” and admits it was “fun color-wise, and has sex appeal” (royal purple being a favorite of artists like Hendrix and Prince). “It has a symmetry that you get in the music,” Levine goes on to elaborate; “Mongo’s African roots are very strong and the picture worked well for his image.” Santamaría himself said he liked Levine’s covers the most for the period he was with Fania, and Afro-Indio stands apart as a wonderful homage to his pride in Afro-Latin culture, demonstrating Levine’s understanding and affinity for the man and his music. Levine was not working in a vacuum – he hung out with almost all of his musical subjects while on the job and understood where they were coming from. “I’d go over to Mongo’s tiny little Upper West Side apartment and he’d just sit in his living room and play conga, same as Ray [Barretto]. My mom used to have the original painting on her wall in Florida [laughs], it probably freaked the old folks out.” Ron continues: “I still have the art, I think my mom gave it back a few years ago when she moved.” It may not be on display now, but thankfully the memorable album art he created for it lives on in people’s collections and reissues.
Santamaría’s Sofrito (1976) bears a close up shot on the cover from Lee Marshall, depicting the colorful and aromatic culinary base for many Caribbean Latin dishes (known as a sofrito), and as Levine explains, “Mongo made the food you see on the cover himself, we shot it at Jerry [Masucci]’s place.” Santamría is on the back proudly displaying his home-cooked comida criolla (Creole cooking), capitalizing on the obvious metaphor of the myriad spicy flavors that combine to make what Fania was marketing as salsa music in the 1970s.
Levine concocted another genius food-related cover for Santamaría, A La Carte (1978), this time rendering a delicate pen and water color painting of a waiter’s hand balancing a tasty tray of Latin instruments set up for a concert. The humor here is in depicting the musical feast within as an a la carte menu where you pick your own meal instead of the table d’hôte where it’s a fixed price menu decided upon by the “house.” The back has the credits set up like a menu, on a red checked cloth, with a place setting of a fork and knife inviting the listener to dig in. The thing about this particular menu is every track is a mouth-watering morsel, so choosing just one is almost impossible!
Joe Cuba’s Cocinando la salsa (1976) serves up a visual feast similar to Sofrito - documenting a little-known side of both bandleaders, that of host and cook. Ron Levine comments: “Yeah, that’s Joe’s cooking, very tasty. I guess it’s like a salsa album, right? Name like that, pretty obvious it’s capitalizing on the term salsa.” The concept for the cover was Cuba’s, as he explains: “This is one of my favorites, Masucci wanted it to be my “comeback” album, so I updated the sound and made it real hot, cookin’ you know? [laughs]. I love to cook, experimental dishes especially. This picture shows me cookin’ all the good Puerto Rican stuff at La Asia [No.1 Restaurant, at 55th St. and 8th Ave., NYC], a Cuban-Chinese joint on the West Side where we used to hang out and talk and eat.” The restaurant was a popular old-guard hang-out joint for the likes of Tito Puente, Miguelito Valdés, Machito, Graciela, and Cuba. These musicians understood that food is culture, and were proud of their culinary heritage because it was seen as a marker of ethnic identity. Like the Joe Cuba song “Do You Feel It” nostalgically states, “our food was really together!” Cuba and Santamaría were both literally cooking with their hands; conga drum or frying pan, it was all food for the soul, and Levine and Marshall were there to document it.
Levine and Marshall also put several Fania artists in humorous or interesting roles in staged photos or delicately rendered illustrations. These depictions seemed to play against type or at least make some sort of intelligent or ironic comment on the specific artist or notions of musicians in Latino society in general. For Pacheco’s The Artist (1977), Levine and Marshall actually went to a real artist’s loft studio in Manhattan’s SOHO district (where many artists had lofts in the 60s and 70s) and had Pacheco pose with a smock, beret, and palette behind an important looking canvas on the cover. Pointing out the spontaneous or lighthearted spirit of some of these cover photo sessions, Levine reveals “We’d say ‘OK let’s go down and get a bunch of costumes’ and we’d just go with it [laughter].” Amazingly, this cover concept was an unprecedented idea for a salsa album at the time – to depict a popular Latino dance musician as an actual fine artist like Picasso or Miró. Despite the obvious humor intended with Pacheco’s impishly raised eyebrows and conspiratorial grin (turn over the record sleeve and you see a sexy model on the back, who doesn’t look anything like the silly painting revealed on Pacheco’s canvas), there is a serious subtext to this cover if you look beneath the surface. It is a fitting tribute to Pacheco, the mastermind behind a lot of musical artistry at the label. “It’s sad what happened to Johnny. Last time I saw him was at Jerry’s funeral. I kept tabs on him through Larry Harlow, and I know he became quite frail. Back then though he was a wild, fun-loving guy, and very sure of himself. I’m glad the packaging came out nice because that’s how I like to remember him…” Ron concludes.
Though the album credits list Elliot Sachs as art director on this photo shoot as well as other concept covers, as far as Levine is concerned, “Elliot Sachs did nothing. He made the telephone call to me or another artist saying ‘Ron I want you to do the cover for the next Pacheco record’ and that was the extent of his involvement. That was all he did. When there was a photo shoot, Ron reveals “sometimes Jerry would have an idea, sometimes the artist, or there would just be a title and we would come up with something to fit on the spot.”
This was true of the cover for the troubled virtuoso pianist Markolino Dimond (Mark Diamond) with singer Frankie Dante, Beethoven’s V. This again was a product of the fevered minds of Levine and Marshall. A “costume drama” if you will.
Though the most obvious explanation for the inspiration to have Dimond and Dante humorously dressed in 18th century garb on the cover is the fact that Markolino musically ‘covers’ the composer in question (calling the track “El Quinto De Beethoven” – a pun on quinto meaning not only “fifth” as in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but also the smallest conga drum in a rumba ensemble, the drum that “talks”), there is a subversive subtext to the cover art (and the music) as well. It’s as if the bastion of European high art music, classical as composed by pianist Beethoven, has been taken over and Afro-Latinized, made hot and Creole. This notion is not new (the danzón is a form of Cuban creolized European court music), but is treated here with both satirical humor and a rich visual palette. This idea of a Afro-Latin cultural take over is reinforced because Dimond, an African American player of popular Latin dance music, is himself dressed as the ‘distinguished’ white European classical composer (he holds and points to the musical score), and so this form of reverse black-face serves to politically charge the situation with the role reversal. The clothing and wigs are also reminiscent of colonial times – in the New World as well as Europe – when Africans were enslaved. Dimond, who could be impersonating any one of the ‘free men of color’ that composed danzas, danzones and other early dance music in Cuba and Puerto Rico in the 17 and 1800s, is handing his musical score to Frankie Dante, a light-skinned Puerto-Rican, who looks here (with his makeup) like either an aristocratic patron of the arts, a plantation owner, or perhaps a ridiculous fop from the ruling class, as portrayed in many Cuban light operas of the 19th Century (zarzuelas). There is also a historical tradition of blacks dressing up as the rich ruling aristocracy in Caribbean carnival that is perhaps unwittingly referenced here as well. Note that Dante is anachronistically wearing modern (and effeminate) tennis shoes, which from a distance may look like the luxurious silk slippers a pampered ponce from colonial times might wear, but up close, they conjure up a contemporary game of tennis. Now that’s a lot of post-colonial subtext for just a ‘simple’ salsa record! “You have to understand,” reasons Ron, “it wasn’t the most sophisticated…you just had to do it. We discussed it briefly, but there wasn’t much time because back then Jerry’s business was so high volume.” Still, some of the photo concept covers, unintentionally perhaps, seemed to pack in a lot of interesting layers and subtexts, despite being done very fast.
In a similar vein, violinist Felix “Pupi” Legarreta and flutist Johnny Pacheco’s impishly fun cover for Los Dos Mosqueteros - The Two Musketeers (1977) flaunts the pair of musicians as dashing swordsmen. “The conversation at the Fania offices was – these guys are buddies,” recounts Levine; they were also united by their mutual love of Cuban style music together utilizing their related instruments (flute and violin), and both fancied themselves sharp dressers in real life as well, so what more perfect way to dramatize this “all for one, one for all” spirit than with fantastical period costumes inspired by Alexandre Dumas’ 19th Century novel of adventure and camaraderie. The very successful film adaptation of The Three Musketeers (1973), and its sequel The Four Musketeers (1974), starring Michael York, Oliver Reed, Frank Finlay, and Richard Chamberlain, had recently been all the rage, so that also came into play no doubt. As Levine admits, “a lot of those references came from our time, our popular history, the media, our movies and TV shows. A lot of that impacts designers today of course, but I definitely think this stuff was of it’s own time.” What is so wonderful about Levine and Marshall’s adaptation of this popular conceit is that unlike the lily-white heroes of Hollywood swashbucklers of yore like Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks, Pacheco and Legarreta are dark brown, from El Barrio, and in masquerading this way, gave Latino/a fans someone familiar to look at as a glamorous and valiant (if somewhat overdressed) roll model. When Izzy Sanabria was growing up, he said there were very few brown heroes in the mass media (especially TV and cinema) he could identify with, and it made him feel good to be a part of something in his adulthood that put these brown, beige, and black Latino/a faces up front and center. In their own unassuming, winking way, two white Gringo musketeers — Levine and Marshall — were also a part of that sociological revolution promoted by Fania.
Several other albums sporting “dress-up” covers where the musicians get to clown around taking on fantasy or comedic rolls are worth mentioning. For the early Levine/Marshall collaboration Cada Loco Con Su Tema/Different Strokes by Ernie Agosto Y La Conspiración (1974), each band member dressed up in a more or less ‘historical’ costume from the past that would somehow comment on their personality or role in the group. Conga player Gene Golden has stated that this was his favorite of all La Conspiración’s four album covers because he loved everybody dressing up according to his ‘different strokes’ and especially liked his outfit. He is depicted as a grinning African warrior with a wild feather and fur headdress. This is interesting because Golden, an African-American from Philadelphia, is a very spiritual man, not one to goof around with his music, well respected and totally accepted in the world of Latin music, a guy in tune with his African roots. And so, even though the photo shoot was done “in the spirit of fun,” something must have resonated deep within him when he donned that shield and headdress. In addition to having played in scores of commercial salsa and Latin jazz bands, Golden has also performed with many Latin folkloric bands and in historic recording sessions. He is an accomplished batá (sacred drum) player in the Afro-Cuban/Yoruba Lucumí (Santería or Regla De Ocha) religion. Orchestra leader Ernie Agosto chose to be a king of course, and Afro-Cuban singer Miguel Quintana is dressed as an Arab sheik. In addition, you have a musketeer, a conquistador, a Chinese nobleman (whose Santería necklace beads are showing!), a U.S. Cavalry officer, and a Roman Centurion soldier. Though some of these costume choices may be part of some ‘inside’ joke known only to the players, on the face of it, one recognizes all the different characters at play in the history of Spain and the New World (minus the Native American Indian figure, perhaps ominously absent due to the efforts of the conquistador and U.S. cavalry officer). Ron remembers the photo shoot fondly, admitting that the shots were taken in Lee’s living room studio. “Lee and I actually put on some of the costumes after the shoot was over and started to photograph one another [laughs]. We were musketeers, and we were conquistadors. And of course he had been a male model, and so he always looked better than me, he knew how to do that posing thing, the costumes made him look great.” One curious addition on the back cover – a photo of a music stand with a World War I army soldier’s uniform draped on it. Could this be a stand-in for the band’s producer, Willie Colón, or an allusion to one of the arrangers (Marty Sheller and José Febles)? Or is it a reference to all the casualties and M.I.A.’s of the Vietnam War (among them, Latinos and African Americans in large numbers)? The colorful and outlandish costumes donned by the band members on the front cover are all from the distant mythological past and so pose no real threat to our entertainment, but the disembodied olive drab WWI uniform on the reverse is much more grimly contemporary, and reminds one of currently popular anti-war narratives about the horrors of world war like Slaughterhouse Five (Vonnegut’s 1969 book was turned into a movie in 1972), How I Won The War (the 1967 movie with John Lennon) and Johnny Got His Gun (a 1938 book adapted for the screen in 1971). “One thing I vaguely remember is wanting to include something from our own time among the outfits,” Ron recalls when quizzed on this detail. “I guess I was trying to be very deep, who knows, back in those days, we were always getting’ heavy!” he laughs. At any rate, the true answer about Levine & Co.’s motivations here is not that important – what matters really is that through humor, something might make you stop dancing for a moment, look at the world around you, and think for a moment.
“But seriously, it’s interesting to think about our process back in those days. We’d talk about things a lot, have rap sessions, everything seemed really quite important.” Back then, there were no computers to help an art director conceptualize something, to aid a photographer in retouching an image, or digitally execute a graphic artist’s every whim and fantasy. Today a client can ask a designer to change the layout infinitely. Not so in the old days. “We were into conceptual stuff, you know it was a time for people who thought out of the box, we were what they called ‘creatives,’ and the creatives ran the business, really. Folks like Michael Lang. They were ‘idea people’ — that’s who you interfaced with on a daily basis.” As previously mentioned, Lang liked to hold court in unconventional venues; he would book a suite as an office at the Plaza Hotel for a couple of nights, and designers, photographers, musicians, production people and PR types would “hang out” while a “pretty girl who worked for Michael (Louise Marshall) from the hotel staff would wait on you and a stand up comedian would entertain you at a certain point” — there’d be a bottle of Southern Comfort, a bottle of Sour Mash, some coke on the table, and people would brainstorm. “It was a wild, inspiring time” admits Levine. So it turns out moving from Just Sunshine to Fania was not such a big leap after all.
Speaking of intellectual pursuits and idea people, Levine’s painting for Héctor Lavoe’s El Sabio (1980) has a pleasantly scientific crispness to it that lends itself to the idea of the math teacher giving lessons, a reference to Lavoe’s instrumental role as El Cantante, the voice of salsa, and as a well-known ‘sonero’ able to make up lyrical and poetic ‘inspiraciones’ (improvised lines) on the spot. The teacher is a figure of respect and position, especially in the urban immigrant Latino community, because education means a chance to “get over” and leave the barrio. And in that sense, it is a positive depiction of a Latino role model not often found in the context of popular Hispanic dance music. As Levine explains: “Jerry said ‘I want Hector as a teacher.’ So for El Sabio [The Wiseman], I used my friend Pierre, who was a linguist and a poet, as the model. It was very simple and stark, but I spent a lot of time on it. I used the blackboard again on the back to list the credits. The mathematical formula on the front changed to read ‘= Salsa’ on the back. Take all these equations, try to explain it, and it just comes up one word - salsa. You can’t really teach that stuff. I just wanted to challenge myself, do the best I could, to please me first, and also make the musical artist look great.” If Héctor “The Voice” Lavoe ‘teaches’ us anything, it is that great talent can be a burden as well as a gift, and that when the gifted cannot handle their special talents any more (due to the pressures of success or personal demons), the equation becomes unbalanced, leading to destruction. By the release date of this record, Lavoe was a bona fide superstar with adoring fans the world over, but was deep into addiction and suffered from depression, resulting in erratic behavior and infamous tardiness to gigs—hardly one to lead by example, he was more like a figure to teach the youth what not to do. In a way, Lavoe’s personal problems echoed Fania’s because at this point in the industry, the pressures of commercial success and cross-over dreams, rampant exploitation and dishonesty, plus the excesses of a trenchant drug culture gone sour, had combined to reduce most New York salsa to an institutionalized formula (like the one on the chalk board!), with diminishing creativity as a result. Ironically, the song that gives the record its title (and inspired Masucci to have Levine depict Lavoe as the wise teacher) is really a put-down of the boastful know-it-all ‘wiseman’ (or wise guy!) who may be knowledgeable, and thinks he can change the world, but is only fooling himself and doomed to be unhappy. As the lyrics say:
Déjate de tanto alarde Leave your boasting
y vive la realidad and live in reality
ay pues por más que tu trates because no matter how you try
el mundo no cambiará. the world will not change.
Sabio, sabio tu eras, Wise, wise you are,
pero con tanta sabiduría, yet with so much wisdom
tu no tienes felicidad. You are not happy.
At any rate, positioning a Latino, especially one as wild and irresponsible as Lavoe, as a bespectacled suit-and-bowtie-wearing professor behind a desk had not been done before, so Levine deserves credit for bringing that vision about in a totally convincing manner. In reality, it was an ingenious device full of bitter-sweet black humor (Lavoe actually did wear shaded glasses and a bowtie on occasions, and though he was at the top of his game, was certainly, like ‘el sabio,’ not happy). In conclusion, it was a step up perhaps from the women eating bananas, gangsters brandishing guns, and superheroes playing congas depicted in the early days of Fania cover art, but a strangely satirical image none the less, fraught with dark, brooding contradictions born of the times.
A decade after his first cover for Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe (Lo Mato), as Fania was beginning to lose its grip on the market, Levine created a Colón/Lavoe portrait full of gritty urban menace with a ‘photorealist’ style airbrushed smoking Colt 45 (next to 3 spent bullet casings) bearing the album’s title, Vigilante. “I loved how the smoke came out for that one!” Levine admits. The dynamic duo of Colón and Lavoe had not done a full album together in years, and their pairing in this proposed gangster flick surely appealed to nostalgic fans of their earlier days. Lavoe himself had not had a record out since 1981 and his career was in shambles due to his myriad personal problems – so in Fania’s estimation, making this collaboration happen was sure to give Lavoe’s career a much needed shot in the arm (no pun intended). To put the record in a larger historical context, New York City was in the midst of its “subway vigilante” phase, with Curtis Sliwa and his Guardian Angels reacting to heightened crime with a supposed “take back the streets” vigilante stance, during a vicious crack epidemic that was in full swing throughout the city.
In a way, Vigilante is like the ultimate end to the long string of crime-themed Colón covers – the veritable “smoking gun” as it were. Originally planned as a soundtrack to a movie with Colón playing the part of “ruthless gang member” Rico Meléndez, the film was put on hold because Colón was already involved in the soundtrack to the Fania-produced picture The Last Fight starring ‘blacksploitation’ film star Fred Williamson. It was with these film projects that Masucci seems to have overstepped his ambition, daringly gambling that his investment would pay off, but almost losing his salsa empire in the process. No doubt he was taking a page from Barry Gordy and Motown’s foray into diversification (i.e. dramatic narrative movie production), and previous concert-oriented films like Our Latin Thing and Salsa had been ground-breaking for the Latin market in the 70s. The music on Vigilante certainly has cinematic qualities, especially the title track, with expansive jazzy musical sections featuring large vocal choruses, squealing Shaft guitar, and typical soundtrack strings – sort of like a Latin Superfly if you will. Levine went ahead and worked slavishly to produce the painting of the gun, using a complex process to get it looking just right; and was duly disappointed when Masucci told him to add the pictures of Colón and Lavoe at the last minute. “They were originally going to have those head shots on the back” he reveals. “And then we were in Jerry’s office, and they go ‘You know, for marketing purposes, let’s put their faces on there’ — so I did them really kind of small and minimal so that the artwork would still stand on its own without detracting from it.” When seen in its original state, the painting is hard core cold-blooded beautiful. Clearly, it would have been nice as an unadorned piece of virtuosic airbrush art, with no marketing ambitions. Levine goes on to point out that back in those days, with Lavoe and Colón’s stature being so elevated among the fans, they didn’t need to be seen on the front to sell merchandise, but there could have been some “behind the scenes” angle because according to Ron, “Willie always wanted his picture on his record covers. It wasn’t always fun – he kept on coming back to check on how his cover was coming along. There were some tense moments working with him.” Whatever the reason, adding the marquee head shots of the two original “bad boy” stars on the upper left corner does lend the cover a certain movie idol poster or tabloid newspaper look.
Like Hector Lavoe, vocalist Ramón "Chamaco" Ramírez had his troubles with drugs but unfortunately fame eluded him as he was forever in the shadow of his main employer, band leader Tommy Olivencia, though he did complete one solo album, Alive And Kicking (1979) that could arguably have been his breakthrough if tragedy had not struck him down soon after its release (he was killed in a drug deal gone bad, falling victim to gunshot wounds in an alley in the Bronx). And also like Lavoe, Chamaco had that incredible high-pitched nasal voice that could send chills up your spine. One discernable difference between Lavoe and Ramírez was that while the former often preferred to be identified as a jíbaro (country boy), Chamaco seemed more comfortable with the “bravo de siempre” (tough guy) street thug identity projected by his use of slang, drug references, and the macho swagger of many of his songs. Apparently he tried to live up to that image by his actions off the music stage as well.
For Alive And Kicking, Levine depicted a smiling Chamaco climbing out of a coffin in a crypt, illuminated by a ray of sunlight, which Levine says was simply inspired by the title that was given to him during production of the album. According to Levine, the illustration was his idea and was done in a lighthearted spirit of fun. He did not know of Ramírez’s personal issues, and indeed, no one knew how chillingly prophetic that depiction would be several years later. For those who did know him well, it seemed the singer, who liked to tempt fate, was moving on a downward trajectory that would probably end badly. His fluid vocal skills, brushes with the law, gangster activities, and violent death have been compared to certain rappers, and indeed, there is a parallel, as music producer Chris Soto has pointed out, between Biggie Smalls (Christopher Wallace) a.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G., and Ramírez. This is especially true as far as their final albums being an ironic commentary on their untimely demise (the latter’s posthumous opus was titled Life After Death). Seen in a more positive light, a performer never dies as long as the music lives on, and in this way, Levine’s portrait can be interpreted as an ironic tribute that brings this final musical chapter of a gifted singer’s troubled life to a close by elevating it to a higher level.
On a lighter note, a lot of Levine’s Fania covers seem gleefully liberated from the burden of requiring the songs to tie together with the title and the art in some sort of integrated, holistic highbrow concept. A record in search of a cover, if you will. As stated previously, the musicians would often have the repertoire already decided, the tracks recorded, and Levine was free to come up with a cover concept totally independent of any themes in the music, and a title equally unrelated to the tracks. A case in point is Flying High (1983) by Pacheco and Melón.
The only real connection is to Johnny Pacheco’s featured vocalist, the famous Mexican Luis Ángel Silva, affectionately known as “Melón.” Levine playfully shows the two enjoying a ride on a balloon where the ballast is – you guessed it – melons! They are attired in fancy tuxedo coattails, with the vocalist toasting his success, and Pacheco greets a curious penguin who is similarly outfitted, albeit in his own feathers. Marshall had earlier done a humorous photo cover for the pair (Llegó Melón, 1977), dressing them up in old time straw “boater” hats, white long sleeved shirts, and bow ties, putting them in a classic New York street market like you might find in Hell’s Kitchen, Chelsea, or Hunt’s Point in the Bronx. While this could be corny, it actually just feels familiar, like a street scene you remember from your childhood barrio. Levine reveals that this time, he “was just handed the picture and told to do the layout.” Ron continues: “I must have been on some other location job so I wasn’t there when Lee shot it. I was always running around, it was so busy, sometimes Lee would be doing one thing and I would be doing something completely different, then I’d finish it off while he went on to the next job.”
Sometimes Levine would just make a painting because it satisfied his own personal artistic desires, and use it for a cover seemingly at random (“Hey! I can use it here!” Ron remembers); but many times that would fit nicely into some cultural aspect of Latino life that had deeper resonance, not always obvious to the artist who created it at the time. A case in point is the masterful and slightly sinister cover Ron executed for the self-titled Los Kimbos (Cotique, 1976), the debut disc for a super-group of sorts formed by some ex-members of Sonny Bravo’s Típica ‘73 and Ray Barretto’s 70s band, including founder timbalero Orestes Vitaló and vocalist Adalberto Santiago. “That painting was just a doodad, a fun little thing I did for myself,” Levine says simply. But let’s dig a little deeper. The liner notes describe the music as “whimsical” and “an enigma” and the band name as “a message” — which seems appropriate for the cover art as well since the term “kimbo” is an Afro-Cuban religious word meaning “little devil.” As Vitaló puts it, “It doesn’t signify anything negative...it doesn’t imply that we were brujos or witch doctors![laughter]” The interesting thing is the colorful devil mask, featuring a writhing serpent snaking its way through one eye socket, seemingly chosen at random (or at least sub-consciously) as an art subject by Levine, fits right in with the afro-Cuban ritual tradition that features dancing ‘diablitos’ (little devils) at folkloric religious ceremonies. In addition, Levine’s artwork recalls related carnival traditions in places like Puerto Rico, featuring the multi-colored ‘vejigante’ masks which are made traditionally from inflated cow bladders (‘vejiga’ in Spanish) or hollowed out coconut, and are sometimes carved out of grotesque wood to look like giant lizard and bat heads with devilish horns and evil grins, or in Mexico, where there is a long tradition of wild and freaky mask-making, including horned devils, that dates back to pre-Columbian times. “I probably saw some crazy street procession scene in an island environment in the James Bond flick Live And Let Die or something,” for inspiration, Levine laughs.
In 1978, vibraphone playing pianoman Louie Ramírez, a house producer at Fania, had a concept to do a tribute album of songs made popular by the great Cuban vocalist and bandleader, Beny Moré. He wanted Tito Puente and his orchestra to head up the recording, and the result, the smoking Homenaje A Beny, on Fania-owned Tico Records, won Puente his first Grammy award. The record release was eventually followed up later that same year with a corresponding concert at Radio City music Hall in Manhattan. Two years earlier, Masucci, along with Pacheco, Harlow, and Ramírez, produced a highly successful homage to the legendary Tito Rodríguez, Tribute To Tito Rodríguez, with the Fania All Stars backing, in a contemporary salsa style. Puente’s Homenaje A Beny was done in a similar fashion, as far as featuring multiple vocalists (from Adalberto Santiago to Cheo Feliciano), though the arrangements and overall sound was more in the old school mode of the big band mambo orchestras made popular by Moré, Pérez Prado and Puente in the golden days of the 40s and 50s. It was not common in the 70s for a Fania recording to feature a 16 piece orchestra! But by combining the venerable music of Moré and the classic arrangements of the 50s with some of the hot contemporary salsa singers of the 70s, Puente was making a statement that there really is no difference between eras – it all has Cuban origins and shares a rich cultural tradition, and thus should be seen as a continuum from son to mambo to salsa.
Knowing a good thing when he saw it (or heard it), Masucci gave the green light for a further two volumes of Beny Moré tributes under the helm of Puente, Homenaje A Beny Moré II (Tico, 1979) and Homenaje A Beny Moré III (Vaya, 1985), thus bringing Puente’s career back into focus among the dancers as well as in the music industry as well. Ron Levine illustrated all four record covers, lending them a consistency and artistic sophistication that no doubt helped promote the product as a high quality item. Arguably the best artwork of the four tributes, volume 3 was credited to Celia Cruz and Puente, rather than just Tito, because Celia had the lion’s share of vocal duties and had been a friend and contemporary of “El Bárbaro Del Ritmo” (though Justo Betancourt, Hector Lavoe and Adalberto Santiago sing solo on three tracks). Taking inspiration from a classic Beny Moré cover on the Discuba label (Así Es… Beny), Levine rendered a magical and sensitive chiaroscuro portrait of El Beny in his guajiro hat, singing and playing guitar, with a rainbow ray of light flashing out from the singer’s noble temple. “I guess the rainbow to me meant a place of fantasy, natural art, magic. During the time these recordings came out, I was hearing wonderful things about Beny Moré from Tito, Celia, and Pacheco, you know, any of the old-timers who knew him personally or grew up on his music. Also the younger guys like Harlow looked to Beny as “the man” you know?” To Levine, it was as if Beny Moré held them all under a spell at Fania. From Ron’s perspective, “he looked kind of cool with his hat and cane and all. I actually did a logo for Jerry with the hat and cane, for Bárbaro Records.”
When asked if his time working for Fania was all roses and big fat cigars, Levine grows quite for a moment to reflect and says it was mainly a very positive experience for him, though he admits “Jerry screwed a lot of people over the years, you know? You hear lots of stories.” Masucci could be very intense and aggressive when he wanted to be.
Ron recounts an anecdote to illustrate this side of Masucci that goes something like this: a certain male Fania staff member that Levine sometimes interacted with in matters of art direction or assignments always “wanted to nail yet another babe,” so one time the individual in question “took away an assignment” that Masucci had expressly given to Levine for a cover design (Ron had already planned it out and started working on it) and said, “I’m taking you off the job and giving it to so-and-so to design it instead” — and, you guessed it, this “so-and-so” was a certain “girl designer he wanted to bang!” laughs Levine. Ron responded that he was already working on it, and the art director (who was not really an art director!) said no problem, he’d give Ron another one instead to replace the assignment. Well, needless to say, Ron was not happy with this turn of events, and explained that that was not how it works, you don’t just yank someone off a job in the middle just because you want to get with some chick! At that point he was fed up with this guy, so Levine called up Masucci and set up a meeting between the three of them. As soon as Levine went into Masucci’s office, the other gentleman “starts screaming at me. I turn to him and say ‘You want a screaming match, huh? I could scream my brains back at you and then walk out of this office, tell you to go f*ck yourself. Is that what you want? Or we could sit down and quietly discuss this, work it out, and continue our very fruitful relationship.’ So we are both standing there in front of Masucci’s desk ...” at which point Masucci stood up abruptly, knocking over his chair, turned toward the guy, and said [Ron intones with a tough guy New York accent] “[Person’s name], shut the f*ck up! You’re a f*ckin’ asshole, apologize to Ron! Keep your dick in your pants, business is business, Ron’s a businessman, he already started workin’ on this!” Ron gives a big laugh after saying this. Needless to say, Masucci went to bat for Levine more than once. Though he does not want people to fixate on a negative story like this, it did happen more than once, but, maintans Ron, “Jerry always treated me with respect as a gentleman, as a peer, it was just a great relationship, and he introduced me to so many great people from Roberto Roena to Pacheco and Tito, Celia, Rubén, the list goes on and on.” Imagine not only depicting these great musicians on album covers, but also getting a chance to be “behind the scenes” with them as salsa history was being made! “I really feel like I was very lucky, and I definitely appreciate the legacy that we were all part of at Fania. Jerry loved the music so much – he would sit at his desk in his office and this huge grin would be on his face as a new song would come over his sound system, and the music would just shoot through him to his soul.” And it must be noted that Johnny Pacheco was just as dedicated to the enterprise, and this love of Latin, in particular Cuban music, showed in the quality (and quantity) of their output during the golden years of Fania Records.
Conclusion – The Gift And The Legacy
So where has all this work in the Latin music industry taken Ron Levine? When asked if doing salsa covers led him to meet and marry his second and current wife who is Puerto Rican, Levine says “That’s a very interesting question!” He goes on to elaborate:
“I think she was the only Hispanic woman I ever dated. When we first started going out, we happened to be talking about music, and I said to her, ‘You know I have so many Latino musician friends and salsa records at my apartment, and I designed a lot of those records too!’ and she thought I was blowin’ smoke up her nose trying to impress her. You know, kind of saying, ‘Yeah, I’m down with the Latin thing’ as a gringo. So we were actually walking down Broadway [in NYC], and we went into Tower Records that had recently opened, and I went to the Latin music section, and I pulled out one, the Fania All Stars Commitment, and I said ‘yeah this one’s mine’ and she said ‘I have that one!’ and I flipped it over on the back, and there was my name! She went ‘Ooh! You really did that!’ [laughs].”
With all the work he’s done over the decades in fashion, fragrance, the movie industry (Sony, Polygram, Turner), all the DVD packaging, title pages, menus, as well as CD covers for the pop music industry, what seems to be so prevalent in Ron’s life is “Latin music and all those memories, all those tunes, and all those people.” When asked if being raised Jewish has anything to do with Ron’s attraction to Latin music, he entertains the possibility. It has been well documented elsewhere that there is a real affinity between Latinos and Jewish people when it comes to the music, and several other cultural factors. Historically speaking, the Jews (and Arabs) were in Spain for seven centuries before the Reconquest when they were forcibly converted or faced expulsion and even death, but not before leaving an indelible mark on Spain. Many traveled to the so-called New Word from the earliest times of Spanish colonial expansion to the present, bringing their culture with them, so there is a common shared heritage with Spain and the Mediterranean, the Caribbean and South America, as well as of course in the entertainment industry in both New York (the ‘mamboniks’ of the Palladium era for instance), and Hollywood (not to mention Miami with its “rhumba dance” scene at the Jewish resorts in the 30s and 40s). as previously mentioned, Levine did grow up singing and dancing Jewish folk songs (“makes you feel at home hearing that stuff” he admits), and many of the melodies and rhythms are reminiscent of Latin themes, a fact that has been explored on several albums from the 50s to the present by various artists (Celia Cruz’s rendition of “Hava Nagila” is quite a revelation for instance). Indeed, Ron Levine was is great company: he was not the only Jewish designer to work on Latin album covers – for example, Ely Besalel, a Sephardic Jew originally from Colombia who grew up in Brooklyn, designed many wonderful covers for labels like Tico and Coco. It’s also well known that Jewish musicians from Irving Fields (Bagels and Bongos, anyone?) to the Harlow brothers and Harvey Averne have distinguished themselves in the realm of Latin music — not to mention the acclaimed filmmaker Leon Gast, director of When We Were Kings and Nuestra Cosa/Our Latin Thing (1971) who chronicled the Fania All Stars live at the Cheetah Club in New York (1971) and in Zaire, Africa as part of the Rumble In The Jungle (1974). Ron Levine himself designed several film soundtrack album covers including Fania All Stars Live At Yankee Stadium (1975) and Jerry Masucci Presents: Salsa (1976).
“And for me to end up marrying a Latina woman, it’s like holy sh*t! There’s somethin’ goin’ on here!” laughs Levine. “What a gift it was for me as a musician, as an artist, and just as a person to have entered that world of Fania” comments Levine as we close our conversation. From his youth on Long Island, to gigging with his band alongside a young Billy Joel, to drawing the human figure at the S.V.A., to working for ABC Paramount Records, and then with Michael Lang’s Just Sunshine, which ultimately led him to Jerry Masucci’s door, it’s been quite a career with some unexpected, but richly rewarding, highlights along the way. “My God, I mean, Jerry Masucci, 20 years later, called me just not too long before he died, and asked me to come down to the Sonido offices on 30th Street, and I hadn’t seen him in quite some time, and he said to me ‘Man, let’s do an album together like old times! It’s been a few years and I love you man.’ And to work with somebody for 20 years like I worked with him, where he gave me the freedom, the trust, the respect, was a gift.”
Below are some additional Ron Levine / Lee Marshall album covers for you to enjoy!
Below are two examples of Lee Marshall's photography:
© Lee Marshall