Vaya Records: Fania Records’ Inspiring Sub-Label

Vaya Records was the home to some of Fania Records’ brightest stars. Jerry Masucci and Johnny Pacheco, the Fania founders, launched the sub-label in 1970 with the Puerto Rican duo Ricardo Ray and Bobby Cruz. But soon after its launch, Fania had signed artists to Vaya Records from all around the Caribbean and the diaspora, including Celia Cruz, Cheo Feliciano, Mongo Santamaría, Ricardo Ray, and Bobby Cruz, among others.

Indeed, if one looks back at the label’s catalog now, it’s unquestionably filled with unforgettable moments – there are classic recordings featuring Cruz and Pacheco, as well as a few unexpected little-known musical forays into rock, jazz, soul, and funk. Below, we celebrate some of the most important figures and eras in Vaya Records’ history.

Listen to the best of Vaya Records on Spotify.

The Puerto Rican Legends

Vaya Records kicked things off with a bang with Ricardo Ray and Bobby Cruz, a duo now remembered as “The Kings Of Salsa.” Ray and Cruz grew up together in Brooklyn, and they’d gained experience playing the club circuit in New York. Ray, a piano player, had trained at Juilliard for a year before deciding to strike out on his own. He formed a band and Cruz joined him as a lead vocalist, cementing a partnership that would last decades. In 1970, the duo decided to move to Puerto Rico together to test their professional luck, which coincided perfectly with Vaya Records’ excavation of the island for potential talent.

Their debut album, El Bestial Sonido, was a hit that gave Vaya the early boost it needed. The song’s lead track, “Sonido Bestial,” is still considered one of the great salsa compositions for its winding, improvisational quality. Ray and Cruz were among Vaya’s most dependable mainstays, with each of them enjoying decades-long careers on the label. Eventually, both Cruz and Ray became religious ministers and released several Christian salsa albums.

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Vaya was also an early home to Cheo Feliciano. The Puerto Rican singer and composer had moved to New York at the age of 17 and introduced the city to his impressive baritone. He’d made fans out of both his audiences and his fellow musicians by singing with the Eddie Palmieri Orchestra in the late 1960s, but drug addiction put his career on hold. He sought treatment in Puerto Rico and spent a few years recovering until Vaya offered an opportunity for a comeback. Cheo was a smash hit that didn’t shy away from moments of vulnerability. “Mi Triste Problema” was a tender ballad, sung over a bucolic guitar, that captured the emotional range of Feliciano’s voice. He went on to record more than a dozen albums on Vaya, often veering between sensitive boleros and high-energy salsa.

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Other talented Puerto Ricans left their mark on Vaya. Rafi Val, a bandleader from Ponce Puerto Rico, recorded several albums on the label, Rafi Val Y La Diferente among the most hard-hitting and memorable. The singer Ismael Quintana, once part of Palmieri’s La Perfecta, recorded five albums on Vaya and later found success with the song “Mi Debilidad,” which he performed with the Fania All Stars in 1976. The Puerto Rican singer Wilkins, who saw fame in the 80s and 90s, also made his debut on Vaya with a self-titled release in 1973 produced by Tito Puente. In 1988, his song “Margarita” was featured in Salsa, a critically panned film that is primarily remembered today for all the star cameos. (Wilkins had a minor role, along with his fellow Vaya labelmates Celia Cruz and Mongo Santamaría.)

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Branching out to the rest of Latin America

Vaya Records started with a focus on Puerto Rico, but the roster eventually grew to include artists who represent all parts of Latin America. Mongo Santamaría, for instance, was born in Havana and became one of the most revered drummers on the label. Santamaría learned the congas as a young rumba player in the streets of the Cuban capital, where he absorbed African rhythms and traditions. Those sounds never left him: His debut album on Vaya, Fuego, is full of Afro-Latin percussion beating under complex jazz and salsa rhythms. “Malcolm X” is a highlight, in which air-light flutes and piano arpeggios dance and improvise around each other. 1975’s Afro-Indio, meanwhile, leans into carefree jazz compositions, with “Mambo Mongo” enlivened by his potent drumming.

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Félix “Pupi” Legarreta, a native of Cienfuegos, Cuba, showed off his myriad abilities as a singer, violinist, flutist, and pianist on several releases on the label. He’d recorded on Tico (his debut was re-launched by Vaya) and soon joined Johnny Pacheco on the charanga-tinged album Los Dos Mosqueteros before firing off a few projects of his own.

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The influence of rock on Vaya Records

Some of the more surprising moments in Vaya Records’ catalog include the occasional flirtation with rock music. Psychedelic sounds were en vogue in the 1970s, and salsa musicians such as Ray Barretto found compelling ways to incorporate more electric influences into Latin genres. Barretto produced Café, the single album on Vaya Records from a rock and soul band of the same name. Songs such as the opening cut, “Sí Dame Tu Amor,” have funk grooves rippling through the arrangements – and it sounds like something Barretto himself would have released.

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Eddie Benitez was a teen prodigy, discovered by Fania after playing local battle of the band competitions. He formed a band called Nebula, and on 1976’s Nightlife he stretched the possibilities between rock, funk, and Latin jazz on songs such as the rollicking “Mariposa” and the melodious “I’m So Sad.” The album even earned praise from Carlos Santana, who would propel the style in his own direction. Benitez later became the first Latin artist to play at New York City’s famed CBGB club.

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Celia Cruz

Vaya Records has the distinction of being the vehicle through which Celia Cruz made her Fania debut. She had been working for years at the point that she came to Vaya, gaining wide recognition for her releases on Tico Records. Cruz had met the producer Larry Harlowe, and soon crossed paths with an enthusiastic Johnny Pacheco, who doubled-down on Cruz’s artistry by giving her music that matched her vocal prowess. The most enduring result of their collaboration is Celia y Johnny, the 1974 record that is now preserved in the Library of Congress. Celia y Johnny changed the course of salsa by marrying Cuban and Puerto Rican traditions together. “Quimbara” is testament to the standout work they recorded, significant and timeless from the first, almost ritualistic percussive beats.

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Cruz released a dozen albums on Vaya, partnering with bandleaders and groups such as Willie Colón and La Sonora Ponceña. Her tribute to Ismael Rivera, recorded five years after his death, is the final album on Vaya. Cruz sings Rivera’s classics, including the booming “A Bailar La Bomba,” bringing her own spirit to each song. Having Cruz interpret the respected sonero’s sound while showing the astonishing range of her own voice was a fitting conclusion to Vaya.

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For more great Latin music, read our feature on the pioneering Alegre record label.

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