Most people say the secret to a long-lasting partnership is patience, but after 54 years of playing music together, salsa kings and evangelical ministers Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz say "magic" is what kept them together all along.
"We need each other. Even though we can both function independently from each other, the magic happens when we work together," Cruz said.
In the '60s and '70s, during the rise of Latin salsa, Ray and Cruz were treated like rock stars. The duo packed stadiums and concerts from Puerto Rico to New York and throughout Latin America. In 1991, they played a concert at a stadium in Bogota,Colombia, where more than 100,000 fans packed the venue. An additional 20,000 were left waiting outside.
Next Saturday, they'll be playing at Cafeina lounge in Miami, in celebration of Colombia's Independence. They'll be jamming to classics like "Jala Jala," "Sonido Bestial" and "Aguzate." Their sound is influenced by Afro-Cuban and Boogaloo rhythms, with classical piano strums, full-throated trumpet blows and Cruz's multi-leveled tenor vocals.
The musicians from the "original school of salsa" made headlines when they left the limelight following a religious conversion to evangelical Christianity. But they say their concerts and their life are not about Biblimposing their religious beliefs. They want audiences to know they are just like everyone who has turned to faith for healing and direction.
"We try not to come off as religiosos [fanatical], we are just normal people who happened to enter a relationship with God. People always want to know what it's going to be like when they see us in a show," said Ray, 71. "It's like fasten your seat belts, here we go. It's like going on a rollercoaster or a motorcycle ride. This is really loud music, lively and vibrant. We are going to hit them with the hits."
But when the two reached the top of their music career in the mid-'60s, they said they never felt lonelier. Exhausted from a life of debauchery, women and drugs, on a night of heavy partying and high off marijuana, they opened up to each other about how empty they felt, despite all of their achievements.
"We were philosophizing about what it was that we needed, and Richie said, 'I think what we need has to come from above' and he pointed to the sky and we both cracked up laughing,'" said Cruz, 78. "Under the influence of marijuana, everything is funny, but we both knew exactly what he was talking about when he said it, even if it sounded ridiculous."
In 1974, they both became evangelical Christians while living in Puerto Rico, but with a decade in the music business and ten gold records with sales of more than half-a-million copies, the transition to the church was anything but easy. Fans everywhere felt like they had been abandoned by their favorite musicians and the church deemed their tunes as the "devil's music," inspiring people to lust, drink, and dance. The men felt stuck, where neither side seemed to accept the lifestyle changes they strongly desired.
"The media spoke negatively about us being 'saved' for a year after we told them. We went from being the reyes of la salsa [salsa kings] to the traitors of la salsa. They said that we betrayed them, and the fans didn't know what to expect from us," Cruz said. "They thought we were the messengers of the devil and that we were trying to come into the church and bring all the things of the devil," Ray added, speaking from his Cape Coral home.
One day in the studio in the midst of discussing how they were going to make their music and still respect their congregation, the co-founder of New York-based Fania Records, Jerry Masucci, asked Ray and Cruz to lay salsa tracks with subtle Christian messages. The exchange led to two of their biggest hits: "Los Fariseos" (The Pharisees) and "Juan en la ciudad" (Juan in the city, a tune based on the biblical Prodigal Son).
"It was incredible because we went on to win three Grammys, even after everyone said we wouldn't succeed and after music directors, label people and managers doubted us," Cruz said, calling from his manager's car in Miami.
Years later, both Ray and Cruz became pastors and have since founded 70 non-denominational churches globally. The duo relocated to South Florida in 1980, where Ray still pastors a small Hispanic church, Iglesia Vida Cristiana (Christian Life Church), in Cape Coral. Cruz is no longer an active minister, but his son Bobby Cruz Jr., 51, pastors one of their churches, Casa de Alabanza, at the Intercontinental Hotel in Doral.
"We've been around a long time but maybe it's because of God, the fact we don't do cocaine, we go to sleep relatively early and we only have one woman [each] ... that we're healthy and we can go out there and do a kick butt show," Ray said.
For now, their focus is to continue playing small venues and to mentor a younger generation of salseros. Cruz also started a small group of young musicians, known as the Salsa Factory Bunch, who will open for them at their show Saturday.
"As I get older and think of slowing down … I think we need to pass down the baton of salsa because all of the old salsa interpreters are dying," Cruz said. "My idea is to bring fresh new blood into the system."
Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz will perform 8 p.m., Saturday, July 16, at Colombian Independence Day Concert, at Cafeina, 297 NW 23rd St. in Miami. Tickets cost $45. Go to eventbrite.com for tickets.
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