It’s the time of year for saving money!
In the early 1970s, pioneering Latin soul jazz performer Joe Bataan walked away from the umbrella of Fania Records to start his own company, Ghetto Records. On this label he issued the records he wanted, made how he wanted them produced. There is a much deeper back story involved here but I don’t want to be a spoiler. Especially as you can read about the label’s rich history in the wonderful new boxed set from the good folks at Vinyl Me Please (VMP) issued in conjunction with Now-Again Records. They have dug deep down into the archives to create a vinyl LP boxed set of six seminal releases from Bataan’s label: The Story of Ghetto Records. The collection includes a brand new seventh album of previously unreleased and long lost recordings by Bataan himself!
On the VMP website, a single sentence goes a long way to summarize this collection:
“A story told through seven albums of Latin soul meeting the hardest salsa, modal jazz, and frenetic boogaloo – sounds you’ve ever heard, with special attention to telling Bataan’s story and his groundbreaking label.”
These recordings, like many vintage Soul and Jazz records are difficult to find in their original vinyl incarnations. These are the kinds of records which were likely played to death as the party records they were, making clean originals elusive today. Additionally, quantities of these records may have been limited and focused on regional markets (such as New York). Distribution was key to a recording’s success and longevity back in the day, so independent labels sometimes struggled getting releases out to the world.
Back in the 1970s, there was no internet, downloads or streaming. So if the records didn’t get into the stores, pretty much no one got them. Thus, original albums on Ghetto Records are now hard to find and collectible. At the time of this writing, not many were available on Discogs and even the unofficial copies there are selling for higher prices.
These recordings are so rare that many of the original tapes are no longer available. Thus the VMP website explains, transparently:
“All titles except for Los Que Son (which was cut AAA from tapes) and “Drug Story” and “Latin Soul Squaredance” from Drug Story (which were sourced from master tapes) were restored and remastered from needle drops of original vinyl copies by Jason Bitner. With the exception of Drug Story, lacquers for all titles were cut by Bernie Grundman at Bernie Grundman Mastering.”
The website continues explaining just what a labor of love this project was:
“Ghetto Records’ master tapes were largely lost in the chaos of the label’s closure in the mid-70s. The team at Now-Again sourced the cleanest copies of rare original vinyl, which mastering engineer Jason Bitner spliced, restored and remastered. The exception was the Paul Ortiz album Los Que Son, whose master tapes Bataan zealously guarded over the years, and which was cut in an all-analog transfer. The never heard Bataan songs on Drug Story were found on a master tape in Spain, decades after Bataan thought he had lost it forever.”
All albums in The Story of Ghetto Records are pressed on high-quality 180-gram, black vinyl, pressed at GZ in Europe. I’ve been working my way through the set and all seem to be quiet and well centered.
Overall I’m really enjoying The Story of Ghetto Records and it’s been an eye-opener in terms of many artists that I hadn’t heard of before. These folks were crafters of some spectacular grooves, for certain.
Some of my favorites so far include the great Latin percussionist Candido’s Y Su Movimiento which sounds fantastic even for a so called “needle drop” copy. “Bochinches” is a fun tune with killer sounding drums, cowbells, shakers and other percussion instruments forward in the mix against a swinging acoustic piano and full horn section.
And how could I not fall in love with a swinging booty-shaker of a tune named “Felix The Cat”? By Papo Felix with Ray Rodriquez, I like this one especially for its rich multi-layered saxophone punches and nice Stereo sound stage.
All Ears album by La Fantastica has some sweet, super tight breaks on tracks like “Ya No Te Quiero” which lead into very jazz-like soloing and jamming, with lovely counterpoint from vibraphonist Gregory Swift.
Paul Ortiz’ Los Que Son — one of the albums made from surviving master tapes — indeed has a somewhat more open and air-y feel to it which no doubt helps slow jams like “Tender Love” sparkle. That song is hyped on the cover as “the hit” and according to the liner notes it went to Number One on Latin radio in New York for several months.
A side note: I don’t know if it is my imagination but this song sounds super familiar to me! Perhaps I heard this on another lowrider compilation? Maybe I remember hearing this chorus as a kid when flipping channels on my transistor AM radio or maybe someone was playing it on a boombox at the beach? Heck, I could have heard it walking on the streets of New York when we went up to see my grandparents who lived in Washington Heights at the time (which had a strong Latin American community living there). I love moments like this when something deeply embedded in the back of the brain jumps to the forefront!
All the album covers are of a classic design, finished in glossy laminated cover stock and made of thick cardboard construction — while I don’t own any originals to compare to, I will risk saying that these are probably better editions than the issues from the early 1970s. One of the albums, All Ears by La Fantastica is a beautiful and near-psychedelic looking gatefold design with super groovy ears, rainbows and other period-graphic flourishes.
As you can tell, I am enjoying VMP’s The Story of Ghetto Records. If you are ready to make the deep dive — and a set like this requires a certain level of dedication on the part of the listener to dig down and fully appreciate the nuanced differences between these recordings — there is much fine music here to discover. You’ll no doubt want to return to these albums a lot. I know I plan to.
If you are a fan of rich rare Latin soul grooves, picking up The Story of Ghetto Records should be a no brainer.