When Celia Cruz and Hector Lavoe pushed salsa into the Latino mainstream in the 1970s, they shared the spotlight and collaborated in an elite Latin tropical ensemble called Fania All Stars.
The All-Stars were part of the mega successful and New York-based Fania Records, which monopolized Hispanic commercial radio throughout the 1970s and part of the '80s. The label catapulted its salsa stars to global fame with multiple best-selling records based on live performances.
So when local producer Sergio George called Marc Anthony and other musicians in 2012 to produce a live all-star salsa album, he wasn't just trying to make music history, but also taking a page from it.
The resulting "Sergio George Presents: Salsa Giants," a star-studded CD/DVD, won a 2013 Latin Grammy for Best Salsa Album and was nominated for a Grammy. On Friday, George will bring six of the original Giants to Hard Rock Live in Hollywood — Tito Nieves, Oscar D'León, José Alberto "El Canario," Charlie Zaa, Cheo Feliciano and Nora, the Japanese salsa diva originally from Orquesta de la Luz.
"I love Sergio. He's one of my best friends," says Nora, who traveled from Japan for the tour. "[In the '90s], he taught me how to pronounce the right kind of Spanish, the L's and R's, which [in Japanese] we don't have that difference. We were raised with Stevie Wonder and James Brown, and we both love classic salsa."
The lineup will also include four new members: Andy Montañez, Ismael Miranda, Eddie Santiago and Aymee Nuviola. One notable missing Salsa Giant is Marc Anthony, who is not part of the international concert tour but did take part in the project's many offshoots, including a behind-the-scenes documentary that George plans to submit to the Tribeca Film Festival.
"Now, for me, it's more business than anything else," says George, 52, during an interview at Top Stop Music, his studio in Delray Beach. "I go into the studio aiming to make music that will sell, and knowing exactly how and where it will be sold."
George has almost entirely produced Anthony's salsa work, including the single "Vivir Mi Vida," which won the Latin Grammy for Record of the Year on the same night in late November that George received his third Producer of the Year gramophone.
Unlike the Fania All-Stars, who were supported by a talented team composed of one hitmaking composer and one savvy entrepreneur, the Salsa Giants count on George to fill both roles.
"[George] is both an excellent producer and an excellent promoter of the music," says Miranda, a performer known as the "Pretty Boy of Salsa" who was part of Fania All-Stars and is joining Salsa Giants on their international tour. "He's a student of what people like. It's how it should really be done."
Until the age of 16, George grew up in the projects of the Hispanic neighborhood in East Harlem known as El Barrio, where most of his friends were African-American.
"I'd listen to a lot of James Brown, the Jackson 5, Aretha Franklin, Carole King. That was the music kids my age were listening to," he recalls.
But his Puerto Rican parents, as well as the radios blasting in his neighborhood, introduced George to the genre to which he would dedicate his life.
"All you would hear was pure salsa coming out of the windows of the houses and the cars," he says. "My best musical era, when I honestly started listening to music like a fanatic, was in the Latino neighborhood in East Harlem, thanks to the music coming out of the bodegas."
George studied classical music and jazz composition in New York's City College after he injured his wrist during a high school baseball game, which lost him a scholarship and dashed his dreams of playing in the big leagues. He bought a used piano, joining local bands and playing freelance for stars such as Tito Puente.
Nieves, a Salsa Giant who is signed to George's record label, gave George his first production gig when he started his solo career with 1988's "The Classic." To this day, Nieves doesn't regret taking a chance on the young pianist, whom he'd met when they both played in an ensemble called Conjunto Clásico.
"He has that New York sound," Nieves said in a Miami hotel room during a press junket prior to the Giants' performance last week at Univision's Premio Lo Nuestro award show. "And he's a tailor. He makes my music a la medida [tailor-made]."
After the success of Nieves' first album, George joined RMM Records, which was owned by entrepreneur and former Fania promoter Ralph Mercado. Together, Mercado and George helped launch the career of Anthony and other salseros who shifted the sound of commercial salsa to a more romantic tempo.
George left RMM "on bad terms" and turned to Sony Music for a new contract and a heftier paycheck. In 2009, he opened Top Stop Music, the label where he handles half a dozen artists.
After 25 years of producing salsa hits, it was as good a time as any for George to thumb through his Rolodex, filled with many of the most renowned performers of that period, to make Salsa Giants a reality.
"I had to say yes," Miranda says. "It's a very ambitious project, and [George] is a visionary. Plus, I'm working with friends. We're all family, and we drop our egos around each other."
D'León, who has worked with George for years, agrees.
"His work makes us trust him because he doesn't pull any stops," D'Leon says. "And he's given us all our place, and we respect that."
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When: 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 28
Where: Hard Rock Live, 1 Seminole Way, Hollywood
Contact: 954-797-5531 or HardRockLiveHollywoodFL.comCopyright © 2015, South Florida