El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico
Rafael Ithier, is a former member of Rafael Cortijo's "Cortijo y su Combo" orchestra. After singer Ismael Rivera faced legal problems in Panama, some of the group's musicians departed, with Ithier relocating
temporarily to the eastern United States before returning to Puerto Rico. Rafael Alvarez Guedes, the
Cuban-born owner of the Gema recording label (and brother of comedic actor Guillermo), needed a
backing band to record an album for legendary Dominican merengue singer Joseito Mateo. He asked
Ithier for assistance, and Ithier responded by bringing in many of his former colleagues to the studio. For
their first recording sessions, the orchestra included some musicians from Cortijo's original lineup,
including saxophonist Hector Santos, trumpet player Rogelio "Kito" Velez, Eddie "La Bala" Perez and
percussionists Martin Quinones, Miguel Cruz and Roberto Roena. Alvarez Guedes was told by Ithier that
the name of the group was El Gran Combo, as to refer to the musicians' former affiliation, but addressing their regrouping as a "new and improved" version of Cortijo's orchestra. The album they recorded was titled Meneame Los Mangos, El Gran Combo con Joseito Mateo (the phrase translates as Shake My Handles or Shake My Mangoes, a play on words).
The group met again to define the foundations of a proper orchestra and chose singers Daniel Vazquez,
Pellin Rodriguez and Chiquitin Garcia (who later composed, among other major EGC hits, "No Hago Mas
Na", or "I Don't Do A Thing").
In May 21, 1962, El Gran Combo was heard for the first time on Puerto Rican radio. Later on, they
became the in-studio musicians of the live television show, "La Taberna India", sponsored by India Beer.
After their live debut at Hotel La Concha in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Chiquitin Garcia left the orchestra.
Vocalist Sammy Ayala, who had also played with Ithier in the Cortijo orchestra, recommended the hiring
of Andy Montanez. Felipe Rodriguez, a legendary singer of romantic music, also followed the group's
career closely, sometimes even making suggestions to Ithier.
On November 20, 1963, El Gran Combo released their first group album, Acangana, with Rodriguez and
Montanez as lead singers. The album became a number one hit in New York, Panama and Puerto Rico.
Their success opened doors for them in many Latin American markets and they gained an exclusivity spot on the Puerto Rican television show El Show de las 12. The album also reached gold status.
On 1964, trumpet player and arranger Elias Lopes joined the orchestra, coinciding with the group's first
popularity wave. With their daily TV appearances and extensive touring, however, demand for the group
declined due to overexposure. Still, in 1967, their album Boogaloo con el Gran Combo also reached gold
status. In 1969, Roena and Lopes left the orchestra to form the Apollo Sound together. Despite all this,
that same year the group was awarded an Agueeybana de Oro in Puerto Rico.
In 1970, their contract with Gema Records wasn't renewed. Despite offers from the renowned Motown
label, El Gran Combo decided to produce their own albums, under the label "Combo Records". Their first
album under their label, EGC, is titled Estamos Primeros.
In 1971, El Gran Combo introduced the trombone to their instrument mix. The trombone was played by
Fanny Ceballos. Soon after, their production named De Punta a Punta (slang for "From Coast to Coast")
was released. In 1973, Pellin Rodriguez left the group to embark on a solo career. Rodriguez was replaced by Charlie Aponte at the recommendation of Jerry Concepcion and the well known sportscaster Rafael Bracero, both friends of Ithier.
In 1973, El Gran Combo sang in front of 50,000 fans at the famous Yankee Stadium in New York City as
the opening act for the Fania All-Stars' sold out concert.
Montanez left the band in early 1977 and went to live in Venezuela, where he received a good contract to replace Oscar D'Leon in another orchestra, Dimension Latina. Jerry Rivas was then chosen to join the
orchestra. Both Rivas and Aponte are still members of the orchestra to this day. The success of this new
duo was proved with their 1977 album International and 1978's En Las Vegas which reached gold record
In 1975, El Gran Combo en Navidad, a Christmas album, was released, with Martin Quinones appearing
as Santa Claus in the album's cover. After an automobile accident in early 1977, Quinones was replaced
in the band by his son, Martin Quinones Jr. He stayed until 1979, being replaced by Luis Diaz.
The band continues to receive numerous awards throughout Latin America. In 1984, they traveled to
Alaska where they received a great welcome soon after they released their album titled Breaking the Ice
which garnered them their first Grammy nomination.
In 1982 they celebrated their 20th anniversary playing at Madison Square Garden. They also reached
Europe that year playing in Paris, France.
In the early 90s, they were honored in the city of Madrid, Spain to open the decade on the right track.
On March 29, 1992, they celebrated a huge concert in the Hiram Bithorn Stadium in front of 30,000
The new millennium
In 2002, El Gran Combo celebrated their 40th anniversary with two sold-out concerts at the Ruben
Rodriguez Coliseum in Bayamon, Puerto Rico. This celebration spawned a renowned album that was
recognized as one of the best of the year. A year later, they received a Grammy for Best Tropical Album.
Among other musicians, they are one of the "enduring superstars of the island"
As of 2011, the orchestra has released over 60 albums or CD's, and it has received many awards,
including golden albums, a "Calendario de Plata" in Mexico, a "Golden Combo" in Colombia, a "Paoli
Award" in their native Puerto Rico, an honorable distinction in Spain and countless others.
In 2006, they released their album titled Arroz con Habichuela ("Rice and Beans"). It spawned three hit
singles. The first one titled "No Hay Manera" ("There's No Way"), the title song, and "Si La Vez Por Ahi".
In 2007, El Gran Combo performed two massive concerts at the Jose Miguel Agrelot Coliseum to
celebrate their 45th anniversary.
In 2010, two tribute albums were released, one by former member Andy Montanez and another by the
Bank Banco Popular, as part of their annual music series.