Joe Bataan was bouncing around behind his keyboard onstage at the B. B. King Blues Club in Times Square, turning to cue his 14-piece band and clearly enjoying himself. It was a good crowd for a Wednesday night, and the dancers were getting after it, so he was mixing in a dose of mambo with his signature doo-wop-tinged Latin soul songs like “Subway Joe” and “Ordinary Guy.” Between numbers he pointed out friends in the crowd, including a man he introduced as “Lindy from the Dragons,” a comrade from Mr. Bataan’s wild days running with New York street gangs in the 1950s.
For Mr. Bataan, 73, the performance last month was both a homecoming and a confirmation. He survived a hard start as a young hustler on the streets of East Harlem to rise to become a leading figure of boogaloo, the fusion of Latin rhythm and soul music that he helped pioneer. When his style of Latin soul was eventually supplanted — first by salsa, then by disco and rap — he vanished for years.
Now a style of music once relegated to uptown clubs is enjoying a resurgence. The most visible proof: “We Like It Like That,” a documentary on Latin boogaloo in New York City, after a successful run at film festivals is now heading to streaming services. And after years off the stage, Mr. Bataan has emerged as the face of a rediscovered scene and a barrio legend.
Joe Bataan, 73, grew up in Spanish Harlem, where as a teenager he fell into trouble, spending five years in prison for stealing a car. Growing up there, he said, “Life was very Machiavellian.” James Estrin/The New York Times
“Everybody is calling me now because of ‘We Like It Like That,’” Mr. Bataan said before the show. “When the guy came to me to do the movie I said, ‘Don’t edit me.’ And he did tell the truth.” Mr. Bataan grinned. “I made sure I was all over that movie.”
The brief but ecstatic reign of boogaloo in New York’s dance clubs still vibrates in the music of the era: the irrepressible groove of songs like Joe Cuba’s “Bang Bang,” Pete Rodriguez’s “I Like It Like That” and Joe Bataan’s funky remake of the Impressions’ “Gypsy Woman” captures the convulsions of the ’60s as Latino youth sought an identity.
The great paradox of Mr. Bataan’s career as an originator of Latin soul is that he isn’t Latino. A self-described mestizo — his mother was African-American, his father Filipino — he was born Bataan Nitollano in 1942 and raised on East 104th Street in Spanish Harlem. His family spoke English at home, but as a boy he was drawn to the language and culture of his neighborhood, and he dived in and found a place for himself. “When I look back, I think, ‘Gee, I really had a lot of nerve.’”
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Nervy would not begin to describe Mr. Bataan as a teenager. He ran track in junior high school and dreamed of attending Howard University, but he also joined a street gang, the Dragons.
“Life was very Machiavellian,” he said. “It was very much the survival of the fittest. The only way to get out of our environment was through entertainment, athletics or to be a small-time gangster.”
By the time he was 15, Joe was the leader of the Dragons, had a pregnant 13-year-old girlfriend and was on his way to the new juvenile detention center in Hunts Point. When he was 18, he was sent upstate to the Coxsackie Correctional Facility for stealing a car. He stood in court with a rosary in his hand, stunned when the judge gave him five years. “I thought I couldn’t do it,” Mr. Bataan said.
Hits and deep cuts from the catalog of one of the originators of Latin soul. (To listen, users must have a Spotify account.)
Upon his release, he was unsure of his next move. But his path became clear when he dropped by a band rehearsal to see a couple of friends he used to sing doo-wop with. The band’s leaders didn’t want the neighborhood tough hanging around and asked him to leave. Incensed, Mr. Bataan vowed to start his own band. “Of course,” he said, “I knew nothing about Latin music and couldn’t even dance the mambo. We didn’t have a piano. My mother washed laundry for a neighbor, Mrs. Katz.”
Instead, Mr. Bataan found a pair of pianos on East 106th Street, one in a junior high school and one in a church basement. Through trial and error, he stumbled onto triads, later reading up on progressions and learning the importance of the clave, the five-beat pattern that provides the foundation for a range of Afro-Cuban styles including the mambo and the cha-cha.
Armed with both newfound knowledge and a reputation, Mr. Bataan commandeered an existing band of high school musicians, declaring himself the new leader of Joe Bataan and the Latin Swingers.
What Mr. Bataan lacked in formal training, he made up for in passion, ideas and ambition. “I had an aggressiveness and sense of survival I never would have had if I’d grown up anywhere else,” he said.
To build a following and hustle up gigs, the band played in the subway and at Orchard Beach in the Bronx, combining soul music, doo-wop harmonies and Latin grooves. It was a two-trombone Latin band in the vein of Eddie Palmieri, but with a soul singer more influenced by Smokey Robinson and Frankie Lymon.
They became regulars on a local circuit of uptown and Bronx clubs like the Hunts Point Palace, attracting recording offers from several labels before signing in 1967 with the fledging Fania Records. The scene was initially very local: “Gypsy Woman” broke on New York’s WWRL in part because friends of the band and family members pounded local radio request lines.
“Suddenly I was a household name in the barrio,” Mr. Bataan said. “Everyone knew me, everyone came out when we played. It wasn’t just the success of ‘Gypsy Woman,’ but the fact that the band was made up of neighborhood kids and everyone who knew them from school came. Within three years we outsold everyone, including Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri. It wasn’t just boogaloo: We were singing what’s happening on the street.”
“To me, Joe Bataan is the king of Latin soul,” said Andres Padua, a D.J. for the online radio site Salsa Warriors. “He can play doo-wop, R&B, Latin or tropical, and that’s what makes his music so intriguing. Plus the guy has 1,000 hats. He’s a singer, arranger, writer, bandleader, producer, pianist and an entrepreneur. He’s incredible.”
Fania, which would reign for several decades as the pre-eminent Latin record company, eventually became closely associated with salsa, a more sophisticated style that eclipsed boogaloo in popularity. Despite Mr. Bataan’s frequent complaints that he wasn’t being paid fairly, he recorded eight albums for the label.
His third album, “Riot!,” is credited as the biggest-selling Latin album of 1968, according to Fania Records. It prefigured the turf war between boogaloo and salsa, a rivalry driven in part by stylistic differences but also by the fact that boogaloo musicians were younger and willing to work for less money.
By 1973, Mr. Bataan had moved on from Fania, but he kept his ears to the street . He was just as likely to be found at the Fillmore East checking out the Who and, later, at discos like Paradise Garage where he chatted up D.J.s like Larry Levan.
After leaving Fania, Mr. Bataan produced his own album, “Salsoul,” for Mericana Records. The name Salsoul (Mr. Bataan says he coined the term to suggest the marriage of salsa and soul ) was then given to a new label that Mr. Bataan — its first artist — says he pitched to Mericana’s owners.
Mr. Bataan, center, with his band in 1965. via Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery
Mr. Bataan, who helped guide Salsoul into the disco era, stumbled onto the rap scene in the late 1970s and wound up recording one of its first hits, “Rap-O Clap-O.” But any money he made was lost to a gambling habit. Mr. Bataan bottomed out. “I sold my car,” he said. “I got evicted.”
By the early 1980s, Mr. Bataan was out of the music business. After six months as a machine operator in the garment district, he landed a job as a counselor at the Bridges Juvenile Center in the Bronx, the notorious detention center also known as Spofford — where he was sent when he was 15. For Mr. Bataan, it was a chance to set things right, to help move young people off a path he knew too well.
“When I projected my story, it made a difference,” he said.
He rose to supervisor and became active in union affairs, serving as vice president. “Having a civil service job and being in a union, I was able to make a family for 25 years and sort of be happy,” he said. “I wasn’t interested in music.” But that would change.
In 1994, Mr. Bataan was invited to perform at a benefit concert at Hostos Community College in the Bronx. “Everybody was there,” he said.
He found himself backstage with Tito Puente, and Mr. Bataan couldn’t help expressing surprise that people still wanted to hear him. He recalled the conversation with Mr. Puente: “He said, ‘Joe, you never left. You’ve always been here.’ ”
It was enough to get Mr. Bataan back in the studio. In 1997, he released “Last Album, Last Song” on his own label, Bataan Music. Three more followed, which would be put out by a Spanish imprint. Mr. Bataan is now touring and playing full time. He quit his day job at Spofford in 2010, and the center shut down a year later.
“I was a street singer,” Mr. Bataan said before the show in Times Square. “The neighborhood guy who said, ‘I can do that.’ And that’s what ultimately endeared me: I was like everyone else.”
Correction: March 4, 2016
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated the timing of the documentary “We Like it Like That.” It is now heading to streaming services after a successful run at film festivals. It is not currently touring the film festival circuit.
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