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PEP June 2014
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Public Employee Press

Retired Juvenile Counselor returns to perform this summer at city parks
JOE BATAAN
mixed Soul and Salsa

By ALFREDO ALVARADO


East Harlem native Joe Bataan relaxes in his Mount Vernon home surrounded by memorabilia from his days as a recording artist, including his gold record for his top-selling album "Riot!"

When retired Local 1457 member Joe Bataan was growing up in the 1950s on the streets of East Harlem, he hung out with one of the many teenage gangs that roamed his neighborhood, and often got into trouble. The gangs around Lexington Avenue and 103rd Street were not as violent as today's, although straying into another gang's territory could provoke serious fights. There were the Viceroys, the Enchanters, the Happy Knights, the Trotters, the Larks and his choice, the Dragons.

"Most of our fights were about girls," recalled Bataan, who now lives in Mount Vernon with his family. Describing himself as a "tough guy," he said he had his scraps with the law and was sent upstate to the Coxsackie Correctional Facility when he was 15.

During his time behind bars, he vowed to stay out of trouble and began studying piano. Discharged and returned to his neighborhood, he found the East Harlem streets still had gangs, but instead of looking for trouble, the teenagers were on street corners singing the new doo-wop style of vocal harmony, a craze that spread through U.S. urban neighborhoods in the 1950s.

Harlem's Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers was one of the most popular doo-wop groups. Their hit "Why Do Fools Fall in Love," reached the top of the music charts in 1956 and made them household names and heroes to a whole new generation of young people.

"Frankie Lymon was our generation's Michael Jackson," explained Bataan, who imitated Lymon's singing style on the street corners and in the hallways of the public housing projects. "He was from our neighborhood and we thought that if he could make it, maybe we could too."

Bataan was mostly self-taught, and he made up for what he lacked in musical training with passion and persistence as he organized his first band, the Latin Swingers, with kids from the area. With the help of a promoter, they began performing around the city.


His first band, the Latin Swingers, in 1965.

Bilingual Boogaloo is born

The doo-wop style was influenced by African American rhythm and blues, but in East Harlem the sounds of Latin music and the bands of Tito Puente, Machito, Eddie Palmieri and Tito Rodriguez ruled the dance floor. While singing in English, Bataan added Latin rhythms and developed a unique style that quickly became popular with his youthful peers.

The new style was called boogaloo - a hybrid sound that appealed to young New Yorkers of all races. Bands featuring the new sound popped up all over East Harlem and Brooklyn, and several groups scored big hits that shot up the Billboard charts. Songs like "At the Party" by Hector Rivera, "I Like It Like That" by Pete Rodriguez, "Boogaloo Blues" by Johnny Colon, Joe Cuba's "Bang Bang" and Bataan's version of Curtis Mayfield's "Gypsy Woman" were groundbreaking classics of the new style.

But Bataan and his young colleagues were creating a problem for the more established groups, who were getting less work because of the popularity of the new sound. "This caused a big problem with the older musicians and they wanted to get rid of us," said Bataan.

By the end of the 1960s, boogaloo began to fade. After recording four albums for Fania Records and experiencing first-hand the exploitation that many musicians face, Bataan was ready to move on. He helped establish the new Salsoul Records label and had some suc-cess with his version of Gil Scott Heron's ‘The Bottle" for his 1975 album, Afrofilipino.


The cover of his best-seller "Riot!" album, which won Bataan a gold record and featured the hit "It's a Good Feeling."

With a growing family to support in the 1980s, he left the music scene for steady work as a machine operator in Manhattan's garment district. Seeking greater job security, Bataan applied for civil service jobs and eventually went to work as a Juvenile Counselor at the Spofford Juvenile Center in the South Bronx. For the next 25 years the former gangbanger worked with teenagers from some of the same streets he grew up on.

At Spofford, he became active in Local 1457 (which merged with SSEU Local 371). With former President Ernie Brown, he fought to improve the dangerous working conditions the members faced every day. The counselors were frequent targets of assaults, and management often fired them without regard for their rights or proper procedures. To address the problems, the local leaders "fought for years to get Peace Officer status for the counselors," recalled Bataan, who served as the local's treasurer and vice president.


Joe Bataan plays the keyboards in a recent concert in Spain.

He's no ordinary guy

Eventually Bataan was promoted to Supervisor and was able to develop security measures to protect the staff. He retired in 2010 and feels fortunate to have worked for the city.

"That was one of the best moves I've made in my life," he says, pointing to the health benefits he was able to provide for his family. "There were operations and health issues that I was able to take care of, thanks to the union and our benefits."

Today Bataan enjoys spending time with his grandchildren and driving them to after-school activities in Mount Vernon and Yonkers.

He still gets opportunities to perform, and his Latin soul sounds pop up around the world, thanks to club deejays. Some hip-hop artists have sampled his music on recordings without his permission. The Grammy-award-winning Fugees band featuring Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean worked out a settlement that compensated Bataan for using his music. This summer the former union leader will be a part of the annual Summerstage Concert Series at city parks. He'll be performing his old hits, including "It's a Good Feeling," and "Gypsy Woman," July 31 at Clove Lakes Park on Staten Island and Aug. 6 at East River Park in Manhattan.

"I'm really looking forward to that," he said of his upcoming New York performances. "It's great to perform where everyone can come out and have a good time. I hope to see some of my old union friends there."

One of Joe Bataan's signature hit songs from early in his career was "Ordinary Guy." But the East Harlem native who fought on behalf of his fellow union members for better working conditions, mentored dozens of young men in his more that 25 years as Juvenile Counselor and pioneered a new style of urban music will never be mistaken for an ordinary guy.


 
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