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Johnny Pacheco, the ‘Godfather of Salsa’ and soul of Fania Records, dies at 85

Johnny Pacheco, legendary bandleader and producer, died at the age of 85.
(Cortesía)

Johnny Pacheco, legendary bandleader, producer and co-founder of salsa label Fania Records, died Monday afternoon at the age of 85.

His wife, Maria Elena Pacheco, confirmed his death at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, N.J., citing complications from pneumonia.

Pacheco was born March 25, 1935, in Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic. Throughout his life, he was known best for his commitment to uplifting the Afro-Caribbean community and its music.

Dubbed the “Godfather of Salsa,” Pacheco composed more than 150 songs, many of which became classics — such as “La Dicha Mía,” “Quítate Tu Pa’Ponerme Yo,” “Acuyuye” and “El Rey De La Puntualidad.”

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Born Juan Zacarías Pacheco Knipping, Pacheco inherited the passion that his father, Rafael Azarías Pacheco, bandleader and clarinetist of the Santa Cecilia Orchestra, had for music.

At the age of 11, he moved with his family to New York, where he was able to continue his musical percussion studies at the Juilliard School, and became one of the best percussionists of his time. He was also known for playing the flute, saxophone and accordion.

In 1960, the young musician organized his first orchestra, the legendary “Pacheco y Su Charanga,” and his first album sold more than 100,000 units in less than a year, thus becoming the best-selling Latin production of the time.

From that moment on, Pacheco and his milieu internationally popularized their own dance style, the “Pachanga” — a fusion of the name Pacheco with “Charanga” — which made him an international star, spanning several tours of the United States, Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa.

Pacheco and his Charanga were the first Latin orchestra to headline at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem in 1962 and 1963. At the end of 1963, his career took a historic turn when, together with the Italian American lawyer Jerry Masucci, he founded the record label Fania Records, which for decades brought together the most renowned Latin musicians of the era under one banner.

As a company executive, creative director and music producer, Pacheco was responsible for launching the careers of many Fania alumni, including Ray Barretto, Bobby Valentín and Rubén Blades.

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Four years later, Pacheco brought together all the label’s musicians to perform as a supergroup named the Fania All-Stars — catapulting Caribbean icons such as Tito Puente, Héctor Lavoe and Celia Cruz to international acclaim, and forever changing the course of tropical music.

In addition, the salsero shared the stage with many American jazz and popular music legends, such as Quincy Jones, Stan Kenton, Tony Bennett, George Benson, Sammy Davis Jr., Ethel Smith and Stevie Wonder.

While building a successful musical career, Pacheco simultaneously produced several films that have helped popularize salsa music internationally, including 1992 film “Los Reyes del Mambo” (“The Mambo Kings”), which starred Spanish actor Antonio Banderas. In addition, he brought his musical knowledge to Broadway, where in 1999, he assisted in the creation of the musical “Who Killed Hector Lavoe?”

Throughout his life, Pacheco was characterized by his commitment to developing the Latino community around the world. In 1994, he established a scholarship program that provides financial assistance to a Latino student in their first year of college.

Pacheco was also known to participate in all kinds of solidarity and charitable initiatives, such as the Concert for Life, held in 1988 in New York to raise funds in the fight against AIDS.

By the time of his death, Pacheco counted nine Grammy Award nominations, 10 gold records and countless other awards that paid tribute to his output as a flutist, composer, arranger, bandleader and producer.

In 1998, he was inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame; and in 2005, the Latin Recording Academy honored him with its annual Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

This report was originally published in Spanish. It was translated and edited for clarity by Times staff writer Suzy Exposito.


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