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Public Employee Press
mixed Soul and Salsa
By ALFREDO ALVARADO
"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.
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.
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.
He's no ordinary guy