The Sergio George Interview

Part I


Nestor Louis

Journey Of A Honest Genius

Well, It has been a while since my last review and I know that you guys have been wondering where the hell I've been. I'll tell you; I've been busy coughing up what IMHO has got to be something worth waiting for.

About three weeks ago I had the pleasure of interviewing salsa's premier producer & arranger. What you are about to read is going to blow your mind!  Here I bring you The Sergio George interview

NL - Es la cosa! Sergio where are we? Is this DLG (Dark Latin Groove) studios? This is DLG right Sergio?

SG - No, no, no; this is am?...This is, I dunno wow this has so many different names. This is Sir Sounds Recording Studio/Sir George Entertainment.

NL - Sir George Ent. Has a nice ring to it. What made you come up with your own company? I mean that's a gutsy move.

SG - Yeah It's a gutsy move but then again it's not a gutsy move. I thought it was the next move I had to make, it was just the next thing to do.

NL - What were you looking to do? What ARE YOU looking to do?

SG - I wanted to do my own thing. I wanted to call my own shots. I want to find my own talent and develop it myself. Basically run a (record) company the way I think it should be run. Whether it's right or wrong; I don't care. I have my views and opinions on what I'd like to see done.

NL - Weren't you doing that before?

SG - Well...No! Before I really wasn't involved as much as I am involved now. I was mostly involved with the creative side, as far as musically developing the talent. But aside from that no. Imaging of the talent or whatever no; I had nothing else to do with that.

NL - What are you going to do different in comparison to what you have done in the past?

SG - Musically I am only going to do what I know to do best. I am not going to all of a sudden do Hip Hop or Rap records. No! I am going to do what I've been doing. Now the fusion of, all that stuff yes! I've always been doing it anyway. So I am going to continue doing what I've done but talking it to the next level. Getting artists that are similar to the artists I've done in the past, but on a higher level and perhaps concentrate a little more on image.

NL - Ever since you started your career as a producer and arranger in 1988, and as a musician in 1979 with "Conjunto Clasico", I think that there's a picture of a young Sergio George on their "Piraguero" album.

SG - Yeap! yeap! that is me 1979 with Clasico.

NL - You were always blending the R&B sound with Salsa in your arrangements. Did you do that purposely or was it a freak accident of nature?

SG - It was naturally, I am not going to sit here and tell you that it was done on purpose. I would say it was naturally because I grew up listening to that music, at the same time listening to Salsa. I love playing the Pop and the R&B type of thing, while at the same time playing Salsa. And before I noticed, it became a natural fit.

NL - Did you encounter any objections?

SG - Ah man listen! Since I began all I've gotten is objections you know (chuckles). But hey I got to do what I believe. Objections yes! From the traditionalist, not from the kids. The kids love it, they are eating it up. The traditionalist are not, but I cannot worry about that.

NL - So where do you stand on the whole controversy about Salsa vieja vs. Salsa de hoy? What is your take on that?

SG - Ahm...Is different you know. I mean we've had the same argument with R&B. "the Hip Hop from before is better than now" or "the Jazz players of yesterday are better than today's". You can have that argument in all styles of music - I mean is just different, is the evolution of music. Whether you want to accept it or not, that's where's at, and it is not going to change. Music should and will always move forward. Listen, when I was growing up I was a rebel. I liked the Joe Batan sound, the Willie Colon/Hector Lavoe sound and there were people that were like "Nah El Gran Combo is the thing". Funny thing though; Batan, Colon & Lavoe had the kids - They had me! Gran Combo, Machito, Perez Prado had my parents. Today; Batan, Colon & Lavoe are the old school and the kids are saying "Nah we like Marc Anthony, India, and Rey".

NL - Yeah, but Sergio don't you think that musically speaking "the kids" need to know where the music comes from?

SG - Of course but only a handful of people both young and old actually care about where the music came from. I mean look! I only started listening a little bit closer to the music because, I was more musically inclined than the average guy on the street that only wants to be entertained.

Perhaps you and the rest of folks who complain about today's music are also musically inclined, to the same degree I am. But the fact is that the average guy listening does not care about whether that's a B flat or sharp! Whether that solo is happening or not! All that guy is looking for is to be entertained, amused. And that only happened to me when I became a musician. After I became a musician I started going back and learning about the roots of the music. Much further back than El Gran Combo; I've studied it and I respect it. I have to! Before I start inventing new things for the music, this new fusion that I am trying to do; I have to know where the music comes from.

NL - A lot of your critics say that "Sergio George does the same kind of arranging over and over", however in Tito Puente's 100th album you surprised everyone by throwing the saxophone using the big band sound to your advantage. Did you have to prepare or re-invent yourself for this task?

SG - No because I used to play with Puente. In 1980 I had my first gig with Tito Puente. I was 19 years old at the time, I'll never forget it. It was at the Panamerican Motel by La Guardia Airport. I also played with Machito, hey I did arrangements for Machito when we were on the road in Europe. I mean, listen I know that school because I came from there. Is just that I am doing what the kids - I shouldn't say kids (chuckles); the young people want to hear. So if they want to hear some keyboard, and some nice melodies; I am going to do it. For Tito Puente, obviously that record didn't call for that. It called for a more traditional big band sound, so I had to go back to my roots. But listen to me, I am doing what I enjoy. I get off on the people when I see somebody in a club. 20 to 1000 people reacting to my music that is the bottom line. I am not going to sit here and do music for myself. I am going to do music for the people, so I can adjust. If I got to adjust to do a Machito record, I will adjust. If I got to do a Jerry Rivera record, sort of mellow young kid music I am going to do it.

NL - In the late 80s, how did you hook up with Tito Nieves?

SG - Tito used to sing for Conjunto Clasico, we hooked up there. Then we lost contact for a number of years. I didn't see Tito for at least six years! Then he just called out of the blue and said, "Sergio how you're doing? This is Tito". "Tito? Wow what a shock. I haven't heard from you in years" I answered. "Yeah I am getting ready to do my solo album for Ralph Mercado. He is going to have his own label now and I want you to be my arranger". I said "Sure!". That is why in life, things happen for a reason; and what's going to happen, is going to happen. To this day I don't know how he got my phone number, all I now is that you just don't know what's going to happen in this business.

NL - Was it difficult leaving RMM?

SG - Leaving RMM was difficult they were and still are like my family.

NL - On Miles Peña's first recording you produced two tracks, which were in my opinion the best tracks on the album. How comes you did not produce his follow up album?

SG - I wasn't interested. It wasn't something that I wanted to do. At that point in my career towards the end of my departure of RMM, I was just wanting to do something different. I tried to do it within RMM but it didn't work out, hey things happen. I didn't want to do anything that I wasn't passionate about, and I was passionate about India, Marc, and the Combinacion Perfecta album. That was it! For RMM last year I only did two albums: India's "Dicen Que Soy" and Marc's "Todo a Su Tiempo". I was actually out of RMM two years ago, is just that nobody knew about it. I didn't want to go public, I just wanted to gain my independence quietly but soon I learned that quietly you can't do things.

NL - You talk about being passionate. What piques your interest as a producer and arranger?

What makes you say, "Yeah I want to do this or that project"?

SG - The song. I have to get a song that I like. The song must make say "Wow, I like that song, I like where it is going, I like the melody - I think I can take it over here, over there, anywhere". The passion begins with the song. That's why for all the artists that I produce, I pick all the songs. The only exception has been Marc Anthony. I just laid back and let him get his own Identity. He gathered the material and later consulted with me. Then we picked out the stuff we wanted to record. But on almost all the albums I've produced, I picked up all the songs.

NL - I like the way you do the coros of the songs you select. I believe that in order to have a hit in radio whether is salsa, merengue, balads or whatever; there must be a slamming coro.

SG - You have to be catchy!

NL - Yeah! and most of your coro's and arrangements are funky. They have what Little Judy refers to as "The Groove Factor". How do you design the coros?

SG - For the coros? I have a formula. I imagine myself in front of a stage watching a band. What is this band going to do to keep me hooked and interested? The coro! Remember that I have the ear of the people. I choose not to have the ear of a musician who wants to impress another musician. I am just like the average individual in the crowd singing along. So to answer your question I ask myself "Is this coro a sing-a-long coro? Let me see. Yes it is! I think people can sing to this coro", that's it. I don't mind giving away my little "secrets", but you got to have coros that are dynamic, swinging, and most importantly coros that people understand and follow. If you start making them complicated, with all kinds of big words and out of place pauses, then people are not going to sing. If people have to think, then they are not going to sing period! This is music and I'll say it again: most people are not musicians, and honestly do not care about music. They just want to be entertained. Whenever you try to be too intellectual or do things above people's head then they are not going to listen.

NL - With that in mind, what do you say about the Ruben Blades of music? I mean this guy is a poet and does very well being that. He has said many times that he is not concerned with selling records or having people not liking his music, yet he sells a quarter of a million copies according to my sources. What is your take on that?

SG - The guy is a storyteller. His songs are not your average run-of-the-mill salsa songs. His songs are not predictable. Ruben Blades, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Juan Luis Guerra and others out there are not predictable. That is their success. Predictability can and will kill any career.

NL - but Sergio there are some of your arrangements that are predictable or should we say commercially oriented.

SG - Yes but remember I am doing music for the people and not for myself. I can change, matter of fact I have changed. Remember the keyboard intros or the heavy trombones, I am not going to sit here and tell you that I don't use them. Hey, I still do not as much as before. Now I am working on the caballito strut (chuckles) and things of that nature. Mixed with the R&B things. I have to admit that all of this is due to the fact that I am constantly surrounded with the best musicians. We feed of each other and they tell me things like "man lets do this and mix it with that". Guys like Marc Quiñonez, Ruben Rodrigues, Bobby Allende, Luis Quintero; I mean these guys are very creative. And if I have to used them over and over on every record, then I will. I don't care because they are the best! Not the best in the world, but for what I do they are the best. They know me and understand me. If I say "Let's do this or let's do that" they'll do it plus the extra mile. Take for example that song you like "Llego el Sabor" from Combinacion Perfecta album; that was a head arrangement, I never wrote a note for that arrangement. That song was all done by ear. I told the guys, "over here let's put this". When they heard the groove of the rhythm section I would say, "moña...juega...inventa" I would sing it out to them; and they would start on their own inventing - That is a head arrangement! Another instance of what I am talking about is on Marc's album, "No Hay Nadie Como Ella". The breaks that you hear on that song, were all invented by those percussionist; Those are their brakes! Not mines; Theirs!!!

NL - Marc Anthony's album is very different from what is out there. What do you think is the difference?

SG - The difference is that I believe this recording is more mixed and aggressive. I mean is more old school and it is time. Everything is timing, I am in the market, I am part of the reason why is gotten to where it is at. I mean there are other people making records, and I listen to the feed back I get and the bottom line is that, there is no one else out there doing what I've done or what will I do. People are scared, they don't have the guts to do what I did in Marc Anthony's record. To put a Bachata song in the middle of the album? Common now-a-days that is unheard of! How about that Montuno? Producers have fallen asleep at the wheel because, a song that is 5:30 is cutting into a radio station's Pepsi comercial might be a no go. And I don't want to sound cocky but is the truth. I am bringing back some of the old school because, the kids want to hear it. So! we got to go back and give them the percussion breaks and all that other stuff they want.

NL - Sir George Entertainment. You've got acts coming up how is this going to work? Is your label independent from Sony? How is this going to work?

SG - Sir George/Sir George Entertainment is my own label, and Sony is a partner. Sony is going to promote, manufacture, and distribute the products. Plus fund the records. My job is to find the talent and put it out there.

NL - About two years ago Judy and I, on different occasions and locations (because we did not know each other at the time) saw this guy who was singing the "Vivir Lo Nuestro" duet with India.

SG - Yeah! Yeah! that was Huey Dunbar.

NL - Yes I remember! and I also remember saying to myself, "this guy is bound to land a record deal". So did Judy.

SG - Well you guys were not far off the mark. I signed him three years ago and placed him in the group with India. He did coro on the album and that was the first time he ever did salsa. The very first time he ever sang in Spanish in his life. I signed him way before he was on stage at Les Poulets.

NL - Where did you find him?

SG - (Laugh) I found him in a talent show. I organized a talent show and he came down and trust me they are out there. I truly believe, and I hate to come off as a cocky and arrogant musician because I am not; that if I get anybody that is talented and has the right mind set - I can make them happen. Take Marc, Ralph Mercado signed him and brought him over to me and asked me "What do you think?". I said, "Wow sounds interesting". His first record was done as a total experiment. For starters, it was a low budget record and no one knew what was going to happen. We just went to the studio and started jammin'. We didn't have a clue on what we were doing. All we did was say "Marc I like this song, lets try to record it". We recorded one musician at a time; which goes to show you that we didn't have a clue on what we were doing - All we knew is that we wanted something different. There was never a band, nobody played together. It was all done on computers, then once I did the keyboards I had the guys come in one by one and lay the tracks. It was total experimentation. India's album was very similar and with Huey the process will be similar to those two but with a different outcome. I am not going to complete with India or Marc. Worst yet, I don't want to repeat myself. Now more than ever.

NL - Are you going to work with India or Marc ever again?

SG - Listen, life is too short and too long at the same time. For me to tell you that, "I am never going to work with them again" is ridiculous. First of all is nothing personal and they are still my friends. The moves I've made, have been made to protect my interest. But to answer your question, right now I could tell you no. And that is not to say that "I won't or I can't"; but it's just because I have to commit myself to what I am doing. That is all I have time for.

NL - What artists would you like to work with again or work with in the future?

SG - In the salsa market?

NL - Yeah!

SG - None. Nobody. Not one. And this is not to be taken as a knock on anybody. I am fans of a lot of people. But to put it simply - I rather work with somebody new, or somebody that is unproven?

NL - Well, who is unproven?

SG - I took Victor Manuelle's album because he has so much going for himself. I mean he is a Cheo Feliciano, a sonero de calle. Good looking kid, clean cut kid that for whatever reason the productions that were done for him weren't happening for where he is at. They were good records, but for what he is about; they weren't happening. So when Sony approached me about his record I was like, "wow, I've always liked this guy". I never wanted to work with him to tell you the truth, but it was interesting. I mean he is not like a guaranteed success story like Marc Anthony. Musically speaking, Marc and I come from the same school so I can get crazy. I can go anywhere with him. Victor is more traditional, therefore I have to be very careful. I have to go to the old school again, stay current without giving him a Marc Anthony sound.

NL - O.k same question but this time with producers.

SG - Honestly speaking salsa wise, I can't say I like anybody. Again let use the disclaimer I've used through out this entire interview, but hey! It is not to put any of them down. Right now not one of them is turning me on. I much rather listen to somebody's balada record, or Tafeta Cuba, or a Mexican rock album, Los Fabulos Cadillacs etc, etc. They turn me on more that a salsa record.

NL - Oh so you are into rock en Español?

SG - No, not necessarily - I am into anything that is creative. It could be Reggae, Rap, Rock, Balada or anything! As long as is creative. Much of today's salsa is not creative. And I just don't mean creative for the sake of being creative like "Wow lets listen to my arrangement". That doesn't say anything. Creativity with values that people want to hear and like. I like to do things that are funky for the dancer, the listener, and the masses. I like to take chances.

NL - Outside of the salsa realm who would you like to work with?

SG - Now there is a list! Sarah Vaughn, Barbara Straisand, Luther Vandross, Tony Benneth, Michael Jackson. Aside from all his personal problems, I think that he is a phenomenal talent.

Gilberto Gill, Luis Miguel, Tafeta Cuba. I mean these guys are creative!

NL - Sergio, I really want to thank you for the time you spent with me this evening. I don't want to keep you. You are a busy man, besides you have to finish mixing that Victor Manuelle song!

SG - Nah, that is no problem. You and Judy can come down anytime. Just make sure you call first! Hey you are welcome to check out the studio and the mixing process.

After the interview, Sergio and I went into his recording studio where I was greeted by the rest of his crew. The crew made up of all young guys. Sergio sat on what looked like The Enterprise's captain's chair, right next to Charlie Dos Santos (another engineer). The studio was the perfect hybrid of the bridge on The Enterprise and The Bat Cave. The dark and ominous room was filled with all kinds of sophisticated computers and recording instruments.

Victor Manuelle's song is playing; and from the way it sounds, It will a definite winner. Oh and before I forget, if you get to notice the baritone on that production. Thank me. I gave Sergio a couple of pointers to which he replied "Just for you I'll bring up the baritone".

Tell me something, was this interview worth waiting for?  Are you ready for Part II?

Happy Holidays!

1995 - 99 Nestor A. Louis

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