Sad news: Jimmy Sabater, the “velvet sound” of Latin soul, just passed away. To me, Sabater is one of the most undersung of the boogaloo giants, the literal voice to many of the style’s great hits. I had a chance to interview him a couple of years back for the liner notes to the Joe Cuba Sextet’s We Must Be Doing Something Right and am grateful to have had that opportunity.
Sabater and Cuba were, for the most part, inseparable from one another. It’s impossible to consider the accomplishments of one without crediting the other (ironically though, an issue of “credit” is what ultimately soured their friendship and partnership).
When the Sextet broke out in the mid-1960s, Sabater’s voice was practically the platonic ideal for English-language vocalists in the boogaloo era and Sabater was a key bridge figure. You can hear, in his tones, the influence from doo-wop and Sinatra-style crooners but Sabater began to insert more of an R&B feel into it, helping pave the way for someone like Ralfi Pagan. Here’s the original version of what would become Sabater’s signature hit:
Joe Cuba Sextette: To Be With You
From Steppin’ Out (Seeco, 1963)
Sabater’s biggest hit was undoubtedly “Bang Bang,” a song that many associate with the birth of boogaloo; it wasn’t “the first” but it was likely the first major hit, helping spread the boogaloo gospel. Unlike “To Be With You,” which was written by Willie Torres, “Bang Bang” was Sabater’s own concoction, influenced by the Black and Latino dancers who’d come to the Sextet’s shows. Cuba would later claim to be a co-writer, thus dipping into half the publishing revenue, a move that would ultimately help destroy him and Sabater’s relationship. That unfortunate dynamic aside thought, “Bang Bang” remains one of the great Latin songs of all time:
Sabater also penned this sleeper hit from the next Sextet album, My Man Speedy:
By 1969, Jimmy Sabater left the Sextet and as his new LP title simply stated, he was now Solo. That album yielded what is probably my favorite song by him: “Times Are Changin” (written by boogaloo’s other great, undersung talent, Louis Ramirez).
Jimmy Sabater: Times Are Changin
From Solo (Tico, 1969)
1970’s El Hijo De Teresa/Teresa’s Son found him moving further into funk and salsa, including this multi-genre scorcher:
Sabater even held it down in the disco era, when he re-released “To Be With You” with an updated feel (courtesy producer Bobby Marin).
Jimmy Sabater: To Be With You (disco version)
From To Be With You (Salsa, 1976)
Even by 1980, at a time when many of his contemporaries from the 1960s were out the game, Sabater was still recording, this time with Fania for the LP Gusto, which yielded this very cool Heatwave cover:
Thanks for the memories, Jimmy.