Born in New York City on December 15, 1936, Eddie Palmieri began playing piano at Carnegie Hall when he was 11 years old. In 1961, he started his first band, Conjunta La Perfecta. His brother, pianist Charlie Palmieri, dubbed their style "trombanga" since they used trombones to make the traditional "charanga" sound. Palmieri won nine Grammy Awards throughout his career, for albums like The Sun of Latin Music (1974), Solito (1985) and Masterpiece (2000).
Early Musical Influences
Born December 15, 1936, in Harlem, New York, to Puerto Rican immigrants, Palmieri grew up with a father, Carlos, who was a radio and television repairman who ran a luncheonette called El Mambo, and his mother, Isabel, who was a seamstress. Palmieri's family was also very musical: his grandmother sang, his uncles played guitar, and his brother attended the Juilliard School for music. The family encouraged Eddie and his older brother, Charlie, to begin piano lessons as young boys. "I was raised in the Bronx, and from one end to the other there were social clubs that are now known as gangs," Palmieri explains. "I was quite fortunate in my mother's insistence that my brother and I learn piano and I had no choice in the matter, even though I tried to rebel."
Eddie felt inspired to practice and perform publicly when he began watching Charlie, who was nine years older, play out with talented musicians. He also started hearing the music Charlie played at home, which exposed him to the music of jazz greats including pianists such as Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, and McCoy Tyner. When Eddie was only five years old, he started entering and winning talent competitions with Charlie.
At the age of 11, Palmieri auditioned to perform classical piano at Carnegie Hall, and made his debut at the famous venue that year. Two years later, though, he became infatuated with the drums. He quit playing piano, and at the age of 13 he joined his uncle's Latin jazz orchestra to play the timbales. The love of drums, however, was short-lived: "By 15, it was good-bye timbales and back to the piano until this day," Palmieri later told reporters. "I'm a frustrated percussionist, so I take it out on the piano.
Conjunta La Perfecta
Charlie, who earned himself the nickname "The Giant of the Keyboards," became instrumental in launching Eddie's career, often recommending his brother to other musicians who needed a sub for their bands. In 1955, Palmieri got his first professional gigs playing with Eddie Forrester and bass player Johnny Segui's bands. A year later he was playing with Vincentico Valdez, the vocalist for legendary bandleader, Tito Puente. After two years with Valdez, Palmieri was recommended to Latin jazz musician, Tito Rodriguez. By late 1961, Eddie Palmieri started his own band, Conjunto La Perfecta.
La Perfecta featured a unique instrumentation of trombones and flutes instead of trumpets. Palmieri also experimented by fusing jazz and Latin-style music, and adding a bassist as well as a vocalist. The unusual mixture became the Palmieri signature sound. Eddie's brother Charlie dubbed the creation "trombanga," a combination of the word "trombone" and the name of the traditional "charanga" musical style. His music struck a chord with New York's Latin community and, not long after he unveiled his cutting-edge style, Palmieri's band members found themselves competing with the big three Latin jazz giants of the time: Machito, Tito Puente, and Tito Rodriguez.
By 1962, Palmieri had recorded the band's first album, La Perfecta, under the Allegre label. The group continued to release albums at a prodigious rate, recording Echando Pa'lante (1964), Lo Que Traigo Es Sabroso (1964), Azucar Pa' Ti (1965), Mozambique (1966), Mambo con Conga Is Mozambique (1967), Bambolv©ate (1967), and Molasses (1967) before they disbanded in 1968.
Returning to His Roots
Palmieri was unfazed by the break-up of his band. Instead, he began a new super-group with his brother Charlie, as well as musicians Victor Venegas, Andy Gonzales, Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, and Ronnie Cuber. Together they started work on a new style that further blended traditional Latin music with Afro-Cuban influences. The result was the popular and critically acclaimed Harlem River Drive (1971), an album that showcased elements of salsa, funk, soul and jazz. When the salsa movement gained momentum in the early 1970s, Palmieri returned to his Latin roots to record Vamonos Pa'l Monte (1971), and the album Eddie Palmieri & Friends in Concert (1971) at the University of Puerto Rico.
Three years later, Palmieri reached the pinnacle of success with his release of The Sun of Latin Music (1974). That year, he won his first Grammy Award, marking the first time that Latin music was recognized by the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS). He won again the following year for Unfinished Masterpiece (1974).
As salsa's popularity began to wane in New York City during the 80s, Palmieri decided to move to Puerto Rico to care for his ailing mother and be with his brother, who had suffered a heart attack. During the five years he spent there, he formed a band called the Eddie Palmieri Orchestra and recorded several albums including Palo Pa ' Rumba (1984), Solito (1985), and La Verdad (1987), all of which won Grammys. In 1988, the Smithsonian Institution recorded two of Palmieri's performances for their catalog at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
Success, however, was bittersweet; on September 12th, 1988, Eddie lost his brother to complications from a heart attack. Charlie was in New York to perform as the musical director of the Joe Cuba Sextet. He died later that day at the Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx. He was 60 years old.
Throughout the 90s, Palmieri recorded more than 14 albums. In 1993, the film Carlito's Way, starring Al Pacino, featured Palmieri's single "Muneca." That same year, he was appointed to the board of governors of the New York chapter of the National Association of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS). In 1994, the track "Puerto Rico" was included in Spike Lee's Crooklyn soundtrack and Palmieri contributed to the HIV/AIDS documentary film, Breaking the Silence. He then helped institute the Latin/African-Caribbean Jazz category for the Grammys, beginning in 1995. In 1998, Palmieri received an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music. A year later, he was commissioned to compose a suite for the Ballet Hispanico of New York.
In 2000, the successful musician announced that he was leaving the world of music. But before his retirement, he released Masterpiece (2000) with Tito Puente. The album won two Grammys and Palmieri earned the "Outstanding Producer of the Year" award from the National Foundation of Popular Culture.
In 2002, Palmieri was awarded the Chubb Fellowship by Yale University for developing communities through music. The award is usually reserved for international heads of state. In 2005 Palmieri received the Alice Tully African Heritage Award from City College, the Harlem Renaissance Award, the Lifetime Achievement Award from Urban Latino magazine, and was inducted into both the Bronx Walk of Fame and the Chicago Walk of Fame. He also reached another landmark achievement that year when he became the first Latino to host a radio show on National Public Radio. The show "Caliente" is broadcast by more than 160 radio stations nationwide.
Palmieri won yet another Grammy in 2006 for his album Listen Here!, and in 2007 he received his most recent Grammy award for his collaborative effort with trumpeter Brian Lynch on the album Simpático. In 2009 the the Library of Congress added Palmieri's trailblazing “Azucar Pa’ Ti” to its national registry. The composition, which broke the recording industry's three and a half minute song length format by lasting eight and a half minutes long, was among a mere 300 songs accepted by the Library of Congress to represent the history of recorded music in the U.S. Other accolades followed: in 2013 the National Endowments of the Arts honored the musician with its Jazz Master award, and that same year, the Latin Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences awarded him a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Despite announcing his retirement, Palmieri continues to make and release music. Collaborating with director Bobbito Garcia, he has also scored music for the basketball-music documentary Doin It in the Park. Those songs in the film are part of his album, Sabiduria, which is set to release in 2017.
Eddie Palmieri currently lives with his wife, Iraida. They have five children.
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