I had many opportunities to work with Lester Lanin during that era, Meyer Davis, other society orchestras for two or three times the amount of money. But I thought the music was terrible, my heroes were Glenn Miller, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Harry James. And then when I first heard Tito and Machito forget it, that really blew my mind. So I had much more enjoyment and much more soul-fulfilling feeling taking my trumpet out, not sucking on a mute or playing extra-soft not to offend diners’ ears playing society versions of Cole Porter but playing this real raucous, uninhibited, wonderful-feeling music.
These reflections on a career born on the eve of World War Two speak for many musicians. As the big band era began to wind down many Jewish, Italian and Irish horn players sensed career opportunities with Latin bands (many of these big band refugees eventually found their niche in the club date field.) There’s nothing inherently wrong with going where the work goes. As Virgil Thompson wrote in “Commissioning Music,” a publication of Meet the Composer, Inc., “Money is money, and is well known not to have an odor.” The career trajectory of Joe Cain was guided by much more than this truism; it was an expression of temperament, a release of deepest feelings and use of a wide range of musical and human relations talents.
Joseph Caiani was born on January 31st, 1929 in South Philadelphia; his family moved to the Tremont section of the Bronx during the early 1930’s. As a teenager he was offered a trumpet and lessons by a cousin of his father’s; after seeing Harry James at the Winsor Theatre he had no further questions about how he wanted to spend the rest of his life. The young trumpet player now had excellent motivation to apply himself in school, since getting top marks provided a possible early exit from school and early entry into the music business. By 1945, the year of Joe’s graduation from Theodore Roosevelt High School, the explosion of social dancing caused by the end of World War Two was already under way. Since continuous music was the order of the day many dances featured at least one “American” and one “Latin” orchestra; listening to the alternate band while on break was Joe’s initial exposure to Latin music.
The first Latin leader to hire Caiani was pianist/arranger Rey Dávila (one of his cousins was Paquito Dávila, a mainstay of Machito’s trumpet section in the late ’40’s and early ’50’s). Joe’s crack sight reading and natural rhythmic feel made him a sought-after player. He remembers, “A lot of good players had discomfort in those situations because Latin music is a bit on top of the beat. It wasn’t a question of rushing, you know, spurting ahead, it’s just that you’re constantly a fraction on top. I loved it, in fact when I went with Dizzy’s band after playing with Latin bands for so long I suddenly had to play behind the beat. I almost had to hold my horses, so to speak, to not stick out like a sore thumb.” While working with the likes of Marcelino Guerra, Elmo García, Tito Rodríguez, Charlie Palmieri, José Luis Moneró, and Johnnie Segui, Caiani was freelancing in television and theaters. “I was doing a lot of Broadway shows and it used to work out just perfectly for me; we’d be out at 11 pm and our set down the street at the Palladium didn’t start until 11:30 or midnight. And a lot of times, if the job started early enough and I really dug the band, I would take off from the show or other job, send in a sub to get away from that to go up and play for less money.”
By 1945 Joe was writing for some of the dance bands that he played with; a saxophone player in one of them suggested arranger Hugo Montenegro as a mentor. Joe approached Montenegro: “I said, ‘Hugo, I want help with my scores.’ He said, ‘The best thing you can do is don’t write for musicians. If you’re writing for the singer he’s the star, you write around the singer. Don’t over-arrange to compete with the singer.’ That was the greatest advice he could have given me, even more than checking my scores. And he’d just say ‘You have to continue to write just to get the experience, arranging is mostly experience and just doing it’ “. By the mid 1950’s Caiani was known throughout the Latin scene both for his trumpet playing and for his arrangements of “Hasta que quiere Diós” and other numbers for Joe Valle. When trumpeter Al Stewart left the Vicentico Valdés conjunto Joe was his replacement; this was the beginning of a relationship that would last until Vicentico’s death in 1995. Caiani didn’t speak Spanish (more about this later) and Vicentico’s English was not his strongest point. However, where it really counted, their communication was excellent. One example is how Vicentico learned his material without reading music: “You could play a melody for him, he’d pick it up immediately and after he’d hear the chords he’d be able to manipulate the melody in such a manner that you’d think it was Sinatra or Sarah Vaughan changing it around. I would sit at my piano, he’d tell me about the words. ‘Vincent, you know I’m not a piano player,’ I told him I don’t know how many times. He says, ‘Joe, just play with your one finger, I learn melody better with your one finger. ‘Cause sometimes piano players play too much and I get confused’ .”
The two main architects of the Vicentico Valdés sound of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s were René Hernández and Joe Cain (the change in his given name coincided with the rise of his activity with Seeco Records.) Joe generally cast himself in the role of ballad writer and René as the uptempo arranger; this is part of a pattern that is typical of his writing collaborations, whether with Tito Puente, Javier Vásquez or Charlie Palmieri: “I did only the ballads, I felt like it was right. Because I could have tried to write the salsa, I felt it, loved it and appreciated it. But I said, ‘Let the guy who really knows write it’, my strength was writing for strings and ballads and horns and the orchestral things”. One night at the Palladium Ballroom he got the greatest compliment he could imagine – René Hernández said that he had never written for strings and wanted advice. Joe provided mentoring á la Hugo Montenegro; the result was a sensational new backing for Vicentico’s record dates. The first fruit of this sound was the album Algo de ti, with obbligatos from flutist Gerry Sanfino and French hornist Dick Berg used to telling effect at Joe Cain’s suggestion. Ä Mr. Exitos, Vicentico Valdes with Trumpets and Violins, Así Canta el corazón and Suave are only a few of Vicentico’s Seeco albums enhanced by Joe Cain’s work as supervisor, arranger and trumpet player (from Algo de ti listen to “Tu manera de ser” and “Y con tus palabras” for some beautiful Cain trumpet obbligatos.)
By the early 1960’s Joe Cain’s producing skills were highly marketable. This left less and less time for his excellent trumpet playing; by the early ’70’s he had given up the horn. Producing records requires the patience of a saint, the testicles of a bull and the unflappability of a short-order cook. It doesn’t hurt to be musically literate (the late Al Santiago was) although not all great record producers have been equipped this way (Teddy Reig didn’t and Jerry Wexler doesn’t know one note from another). The above mentioned qualities have made it possible for Joe Cain to supervise almost 400 records, either as line producer or executive producer, and enabled him to deal with some highly volatile personalities. His editorial abilities were tested by Joe Cuba’s group: “There were points where piano solos were too long or bongo solos shouldn’t have been there, everything was too long. So our rehearsals and recording sessions turned out to be editing sessions where I felt, ‘Hey, I’m taking their inspiration and I’m chopping it up to make it no more than three and a half minutes.’ Joe is a leader, he was the driving force of that group and it was a pleasure working with him because he was a smart cookie, he knew what he wanted and he recognized what I was trying to do for him. And when I told him, ‘Cut this out, make this shorter’ they listened to me and the result is we had ‘To Be With You,’ about four or five hit albums, one right after another.” Having a string of hits like “La hija de Lola” for Charlie Palmieri, “La montaña” or “La noche morena” for Vicentico Valdés, “Temes” or “Porque ahora” for Vitín Avilés, “Mi jaragual” or “Dime porque” for Ismael Rivera, “Puro teatro” or “Como acostumbro” for La Lupe or “Niña y señora” for Tito Puente is no small accomplishment; for a producer who doesn’t speak the language it’s uncanny. Joe recalls “I always wanted to know what the song was about, line by line. And that’s where the producer really started to come out in me because my artists would bring me a song and say ‘He’s a good friend of mine, the guy who wrote this one.’ I’d say, ‘This is a great melody but the lyrics don’t say anything.’ ‘No, you don’t understand, Joe – coño, if you spoke Spanish you’d understand.’ I’d say, ‘If you give me a translation in English and I don’t hear something more than ‘Mi amor, I miss you, you’re the greatest,’ there’s no story. But if you tell me something in English that’s a halfway decent story then I know in Spanish it must be a mother-grabber’ “.
Producing records isn’t just picking songs; it’s matching them to singers and to appropriate presentational styles. Here’s how Joe Cain’s musical matchmaking helped reignite the careers of Charlie Palmieri and Vitín Avilés with one master plan: “When I was working at Tico, I told Morris Levy, my boss, that I wanted to reactivate Alegre Records, Al Santiago’s legendary thing and I told Charlie ‘I’d like you to come with Alegre ’cause I’ve got too many artists on Tico and I could promote it better this way,’ he was using Vitín at that time. They recorded ‘La hija de Lola’ and that became a big hit, Charlie had just been doing his little club dates and now he was back swinging. I told Vitín, ‘Listen, I’d like to record you with an all-string orchestra,’ he was thrilled. I didn’t want to hurt Charlie’s feelings and I said, ‘Charlie, look, even though Vitín’s doing his own albums when he does his album with you I want it to be your album and fresh. So, for that reason, I’m gonna write half the album with strings and bring in Tito to do the rest of the album with horns just to keep the freshness of you and Vitín’ which I thought made sense production-wise, sales-wise and just common sense. And then when Vitín went back to do another album with Charlie it was refreshing, not the old style but it was like a reunion of Joe Williams and Count Basie, so to speak.”
It’s inevitable that producing records brings conflicts with talented people highly aware of the importance of their talent; Joe Cain’s strength of character allowed him to function around balloon-like egos. A case in point was the album cover of Eddie Palmieri – Recorded Live at Sing Sing: “Izzy Sanabria and I clashed on everything. He wanted the title in large letters, I said, ‘No, the whole concept is the outside of the Sing Sing prison.’ I thought Eddie Palmieri at Sing Sing would stand out no matter what the type. He wasn’t going to do it and I said, ‘Izzy, I’m calling the shots or else you can walk’. Izzy’s a ballsy guy but I am not to be walked over. So I said ‘Look, this is gonna speak for itself. This is a grim thing but when they see “Eddie Palmieri” I want it to look classy, I want to add a little class to this misery’ and I got my way.” Confrontational situations were not a given; Joe remembers with particular fondness Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Yayo el Indio, Bobby Capó and Charlie Palmieri for their complete professionalism and lack of emotional complications in the studio.
The impact of Fania Records was as unavoidable for Joe Cain as it was in the rest of 1970’s salsa. In 1975 Morris Levy sold Tico/Alegre to Gerry Masucci, who in effect scuttled the label to eliminate competition with Fania. With some of his best artists let go and his power considerably reduced, Cain accepted an offer from Joe Cayre to work for Caytronics. He became the general manager of Salsoul Salsa and Mericana, producing numerous albums and live events (the best known of these remains the Tico/Alegre All Stars Carnegie Hall concert; this was recorded and is still in print as Tico-Alegre All Stars: Live at Carnegie Hall, Vol. 1.) During the 1980’s he was musical director of the Red Parrot Orchestra; most of Joe’s current work is arranging for mainstream pop artists on a per project basis. Reflecting on how Latin music has changed since the ’70’s brings up some issues that sadden him. Examples include Miami’s domination of the industry, diminished opportunities for young Latino musicians, lack of vision and creativity in broadcasting, and paucity of arranger and producer credits in CD reissues (this applies to many of his own productions.) Having expressed these thoughts, it’s very clear how he feels about the music, which has given him both a livelihood and a spiritual center. He’s never been seen by Latinos as just another gringo pushing records; his talent and his empathy are appreciated by all who know him. As Joe Cain concluded a 1996 interview, “My heart is still with Latin music, I love it and it’ll always be in my blood”