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Mongo Santamaria Dies

Mongo Santamaria, a Cuban percussionist whose unique conga-playing carried a highly conversational tone and who scored a pop-chart hit in 1963 with a Latin version of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” died Saturday, February 1 at Baptist Hospital in Miami while on life support. He had suffered a stroke earlier in the week and was 85.

Born Ramon Santamaria in Havana on Apr. 7, 1922, the percussionist was first a violinist and gave up the stringed instrument for the drums shortly before dropping out of school in order to become a professional musician. Frequent gigs at Havana’s Tropicana Club during the 1940s established Sanatmaria as one of Cuba’s star percussionists, particularly on the congas. In 1948 he traveled to Mexico City to back up a dance team and in 1950 moved to New York, where he immersed himself in the burgeoning Latin-jazz scene. Throughout the ’50s he played with the stars of that movement: Tito Puente, Perez Prado and Cal Tjader.

In the late ’50s Santamaria began recording as a leader, debuting with the acclaimed Yambu and following it up with the equally respected Mongo. It was on Santamaria’s third leader date that he recorded one his most famous compositions, “Afro-Blue,” which became a Latin-jazz standard remade by John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and many others.

Santamaria’s version of “Watermelon Man” came about when Hancock sat in as a substitute pianist for a Santamaria-band club gig in the Bronx in 1962. With only a handful people in the crowd that night, the pianist began playing the song, which was new at the time, and Santamaria’s band supplied a Latin groove. Santamaria made the song, with its Latin arrangement, part of his regular repertoire. Soon later producer Orrin Keepnews heard the band play the tune and brought them in to record it as a single. The record peaked at number 10 on the pop charts in 1963 and gave the label, Riverside, its only top ten hit.

Signed to Columbia in the early 1960s Santamaria continued to work within the context of the Latin-soul sound he had made popular with “Watermelon Man” and recorded numerous albums of Latinized jazz and R&B tunes. He left Columbia for Atlantic in 1971, left them after a year, and recorded into the ’90s for labels like Concord, Vaya, Roulette, Chesky and Milestone. He retired from performing in the mid-’90s and spent his retirement in both New York and Miami.

Santamaria is survived by his wife, four daughters, two sons, two sisters, eight grandchildren and a great-grandchild. A memorial viewing for Santamaria was held on Sunday at Caballero Rivero Woodlawn Funeral Home and Cemetery in Miami, a funeral was held yesterday at the same location.

Originally Published