This curious little record seems like it ought to have a lot of great stories surrounding it. Maybe somebody will come by and tell us some in the comments section here, because there really is not a lot of information out there on the internet. When I bought it, I assumed that Larry Harlow actually played on the session, and I continued thinking that for a while before I stopped being lazy and actually read the info on the back cover. I have been noticing signs that I am getting old lately. One of them is that I do not religiously read album credits like I used to when I was a young lad, back before the days of being flooded with more music than we can possibly listen to in one lifetime. Another clue that I am getting old is that I actually enjoyed the hell out of a Dire Straits album the other day and thought it was pretty groovy.
impressive resume as session musicians, but the idea of an all-woman Latin band was (and still is) rather unusual. One thing that immediately jumps out from the list of credits is that Latin Fever shared many members with another group of women that was shaking up expectations, the relatively unheralded soul-funk band Isis. In fact there is so much overlap that you could say they nearly form the core of the band. I love the first two Isis records, so it is no surprise that I took to this album right away. The soldiers from the ranks of Isis on this album are: Ginger Bianca on drums and Nydia Mata on congas holding down a solid percussive foundation; Ellen Seeling on trumpet, and Jean Fineberg on saxophone and flute. With the exception of Bianca, all these musicians also played on a bunch of records from the likes of Laura Nyro, Chic, Sister Sledge, Teresa Trull. Jean Fineberg also contributed vocals to some classic David Bowie tunes.Latin Fever featured three lead vocalists, often switching up throughout the tracks, which makes it difficult to say anything about them as individuals. Ada Chabrier, Rosa Soy, and Nancy O’Neill all put in time as backup singers with Ray Barretto, Joey Pastrana, Fania All-Stars and Orchestra Harlow, among others. There is quite a bit of talent among the three arrangers as well (who, alas, are all men). The most impressive CV here is from Luis “Perico” Ortiz, who only arranged one track here which happens to also be my favorite on the album. As a trumpet player he appears on dozens of great records in the families of Fania, Vaya, Inca, and Allegre records, but as an arranger he also worked with all the greats, as they say: Hector Lavoe, Cheo Feliciano, Sonera Ponceña, Mongo Santamaria, Roberto Roeno, Celia Cruz, Willie Colon and Ruben Blades, and naturally Orchestra Harlow. Also notable is the presence of Sonny Bravo on some arrangements, who has too many credits to name but in the years leading up to this record had worked with Tipica ’73, Charlie Palmieri, La Lupe, and Azuquita e Su Melao. However the majority of material on the album was arranged by a relatively unknown Marty Scheller, who has a much more modest list of credentials.While the first cut “Digan Que Si” is a reasonably strong opener, the record seems to take it’s time getting down to business. I can’t help but thinking that it was sequenced in a way that wouldn’t threaten too many male egos by having a group of ladies come out and kick serious musical ass, instead opting to ease the listener into the idea of female instrumental virtuosity. My first real “wow!” moment on this record comes with “Chirrin Chirran” which in my opinion could really have opened up the album instead of being sequenced as a deep cut at the end of side one. It’s the song that really ties together their whole aesthetic into one seamless bundle, with melody and hooks galore. I like it so much that it was included on one of my early podcasts here. I can understand why they didn’t want to open the record with it for the simple reason that it isn’t their own song, but a cover of a hit by Los Van Van. The original is classic, so I’ve linked it below (and check out that dragging beat on the drums). It is impressive how Latin Fever managed to turn it into a monster jam, complimenting rather than imitating the earlier recording. They flatten out the jaggedness of the original – which was naturally part of its appeal – but that seems to make it easier for them to stretch it out to jam-worthy lengths, and also add a verse in English of their own.
One function of a great deep cut at the end of Side One is that it compels you to waste no time in flipping the record over, promising more treasures. And indeed things seem to open up a little on the second side, with the immediately compelling “La Mujer Latina,” which must have been something of an anthem for this group and a showcase in their live sets. It is the only completely self-authored composition on the album, credited entirely to Cuban-born vocalist Rosa Soy. Opening with only vocals and percussion that make the hairs on my neck stand up like an invocation to an orisha, it morphs from salsa into jazzy soul, at which point the lyrics begin to sound a bit like a self-help manual of affirmations and aphorisms I might find at Women and Women First bookstore (“show them you’ve got soul; proving you’re versatile / you’re mother and sister and friend in one”). I’m down with the message, though, because they are important sentiments, then and now. The song structure is just as progressive as the lyrics, with four distinct sections that do not repeat.
“Que Te Pasa Corazon” starts as a ballad and ends in a jam. “En La Habana” is a pleasant and uplifting nod to Cuban son music with a deeply grooving bridge section. “Our World” has a riff that reminds me of Chicago’s great tune “Beginnings” – I wish I hadn’t made the association because now I can’t get it out of my head when I hear this song and I probably just passed it along to you too, so sorry about that. It has kind of a disco-gliding-across-the-floor mid-tempo groove to it that almost gets kind of Vegas, before the band once again treats us to a tasty bridge that unfortunately isn’t given the time to come to a full climax before coming back into the final verse.
So what happened to Latin Fever? The liner notes promise more to come, and from the material here it seems like they were off to an auspicious start. One would think that having Larry Harlow’s name attached as producer and presenter would have helped sell records and draw attention. Rita Harlow essentially assembled the band, however, so there is an element of them being “artificially” created by management, drawing from a deep pool of studio talent. Perhaps there were personality conflicts we’ll never know about which kept them from continuing, or perhaps the members realized they could make more money as individual sessions players than as a group, especially since they were probably ceding disproportionate chunks of their income to the Harlows and to Fania’s Jerry Masucci. Or maybe there was just a lack of interest in the record and they gave up on the idea. DJ and music writer Aurora Flores remarks in the liner notes that all-female Latin groups were not completely unknown in the past, but were usually relegated to ‘novelty group’ status. And this LP seemed deliberately trying to avoid that trap, down to the choice not to put a band photo anywhere on the album that would tip off the potential record buyer that this was an “all girl” group. Hell, look how long I had it in my own collection without picking up on that. I tip my hat to them for not relying on sexual exploitation on an album cover to sell records – and remember how this was far more socially acceptable and common in the 70s – and refusing to objectify the women in Latin Fever. On other hand a tasteful group photo, even just on the back cover (I like the painting for the front cover just fine), might have not have hurt. This is a solid record with moments of real brilliance that seemed to hint at greater achievements ahead. It’s a shame they called it a day after this LP.