In May of 1962 a group of musicians wanted to work while each of them found a job to sustain their families. El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico as it was named, started working without thinking in long-term goals.
Rafael Ithier has been the Bandleader, pianist, composer, arranger and music director of the group since this meeting, because it was a short-term job he also managed the group. Ithier has demonstrated to be a great self-manager for this group creating euphoria through out the world for 47 years.
El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico is a Salsa band that has opened doors and new markets for other Latino artists. Thanks to Rafael Ithier, El Gran Combo is the most successful salsa band in the country and worldwide. When the group was growing Ithier understood the necessity of having a limited management hiring the owner of the record label they recorded for, Ralph Cartagena. Cartagena was in charge of the international aspect of bookings, while Ithier still had the book and made the contracts in Puerto Rico. Each member of El Gran Combo has a duty making Ithier’s job as a manager a little easier there is a treasurer, travel agent, stylist and choreographer. With this team they have made Puerto Rico understand that if you work as a team, you also win as one. Many have different opinions of their management but the truth is that Rafael Ithier has made wise decisions that have benefited the group in many aspects. We need to remember that when this group was formed having a manager was not a norm, only a few artists had one.
Rafael Ithier was born in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico 29 August 1926. Rafael Ithier has made El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico an institution in Latin music history. “A talented, self-taught pianist, Ithier described himself, saying, “Ever since my childhood, music was my love. I never studied how to play any instrument. I am practically self-learned, an innate musician, because music comes easy to me. It takes me a month to learn what normally it takes someone else to learn in a year. And since I take it to a practical level because I work so often, it’s been easy for me to learn.”” (musicofpuertorico.com)
Rafael Ithier started his career when he was 18 years old with Conjunto Lucerito, then Conjunto Hawayano. There were many groups that did not last long; it was until the composer Faustino “Tito” Henriquez made a group that was named Conjunto Taone. As Rafael Ithier recalls it was in this group that his professional career began. After a few years with the band Ithier left to the Army, there he formed a group called Los Borinquenia Mambo Boys. Even after their duty was over the group travelled to New York, Chicago and other places. The group stayed together until 1955. After Los Borinquenia Mambo Boys Ithier started getting recognition as the pianist of Cortijo y su Combo. Led by Rafael Cortijo and Ismael Rivera.
In the peak of the band career the musicians had controversies with the leaders decisions, the musicians just left the band. It was in May 1962 that a group of struggling musicians had a meeting and created El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico.
“We have manage to be together as a group this long because we are human beings first. We are respectful and educated maintaining the humanism and a direct contact with the fans.” (Rafael Ithier) Ithier never imagined he would manage a group that would last this long or that would be as famous. After el Gran Combo signed with Combo Records, Ithier and Cartagena got to a managing agreement. It was then that Ralph Cartagena became the international manager of El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico and still Ithier had total control of the contracts that Ralph did for El Gran Combo. Rafael Ithier through out these years he would not make any decisions differently. He has never changed his mind or regrets any decisions he has ever made.
After 12 years of surviving with El Gran Combo, one of the members got a note from his mortgage to create their record label EGC. This was a group’s milestone since they created many hits under this label. Another moment that Rafael Ithier realized who they had become was when Motown offered a contract to sign El Gran Combo to their label. For reasons out of their control, El Gran Combo was not added to their roster.
After all this years Ithier has not changed his managing style. “The only change we had was that when we signed with Combo Records and the owner became the group’s international manger.” (Rafael Ithier) As an innate musician, Rafael got to work his business according to him “I studied a little bit of accounting and when I went to the Army the discipline that I have I had applied it in El Gran Combo. Every decision that I’ve made I stood by it until this day. I have learned from my errors.” (Rafael Ithier)
After 46 years El Gran Combo has survived, maintained and lived. They are part of the Puerto Rico History and a pillar of the Salsa history. Ithier knows that El Gran Combo legacy will end someday “I am a firm believer of new talent; we started as one. When we started as El Gran Combo we had many enemies, but still we managed to outgrow it and become what we are today. There is a need to support new talent, new groups. We are united as one, we are Salsa. I did for the gender what I could; we are an established group that has become an icon of Puerto Rico, of Salsa. Now it is time to see new groups write the new history of this beautiful gender that has given us the opportunity to grow and become who we are today. Right now what we can do is give support to this new generation of Salsa, and for us to give all the advice they are willing to take.” (Rafael Ithier)
In this picture with Rafael Ithier at a traditional puertorrican christmas party I did for El Gran Combo ;)