In the fall of 1957, the Broadway musical West Side Story opened at the Winter Garden Theatre in Manhattan. Featuring a musical score by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, its story centered on two rival teenage gangs — the all-white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks — facing off on the streets of New York City. The play’s showcase number, “America,” dramatized the disparities between life in rural Puerto Rico and the opportunities available to immigrants living in the United States. Bernstein’s orchestrations drew heavily on Latin-style percussion and dance rhythms — sounds that had become prominent in New York over the course of the 1940s and 50s, as the city’s Latino population boomed.
During and immediately following World War II, the United States experienced an historic wave of immigration from Latin America, including a record number of immigrants from the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. In 1940, the U.S. census reported just under 70,000 Puerto Ricans living in the country; by 1950, that number had grown to over 226,000, with eighty-three percent of that population living in New York City. As alluded to in West Side Story, many Puerto Ricans, (who held natural born U.S. citizenship), arrived seeking jobs in factories and on ship docks — industries with greater economic security than the agricultural work available in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rican immigrants who arrived in New York often settled in established Spanish-speaking communities, the largest of which was Spanish Harlem, also known as El Barrio (“the neighborhood”). As the city’s Latino population grew, many New Yorkers from other backgrounds became familiar with the dance rhythms that pulsated from these ethnic neighborhoods. Artists who were particularly affected by these rhythms included Bernstein, who was of Ukrainian Jewish heritage, and Charlie Thomas, an African-American member of the Drifters, an R&B group that would incorporate the Latin feel into several of their recordings. “Brought up in Harlem, you’d be around a lot of Puerto Ricans, so the Latin feel is part of your life,” recalls Thomas. “Weekends and all night long, that’s all you’d hear: the sound of Puerto Rican drums going through your head.” And as many New York neighborhoods vibrated with a Latin beat, television shows like I Love Lucy helped introduce mainstream America to Latino culture through its lead character Ricky Ricardo, a Cuban-American bandleader played by Desi Arnez. In real life, Arnez was a celebrated bandleader who helped to popularize the Conga drum — a prevalent instrument in many forms of Latin music.
As Latin music developed a local New York fan base, Latin musicians, and the promoters booking them, began searching for larger spaces to showcase their music to a wider audience. In 1948, the manager of Manhattan’s Palladium Ballroom began hosting evenings devoted to Latin bands and dance contests, with a focus on popular Caribbean-influenced styles including the Mambo, Rumba, and Cha Cha. Attendance at the ballroom quickly grew, and by the early 1950s the Palladium was widely recognized as one of the nation’s premiere venues to see Latin entertainers, including famous bands led by Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, and Frank “Machito” Grillo — known collectively as the “Big Three” within New York’s burgeoning dance music scene. The shows were a massive crossover success.
Non-Latino musicians and Pop songwriters who worked in Manhattan often patronized the Palladium’s famous dance contest nights. Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman were two Brooklyn-born songwriters of Jewish heritage who shared an office in the Brill Building, the hub of New York’s music publishing industry. They were among several music business professionals who became regulars at the ballroom in the late 1950s, a time when Rock and Roll songwriters and artists were becoming increasingly fascinated with the idea of “the beat” in popular music. Infatuated with the music of the “Big Three,” Pomus and Shuman incorporated Latin-flavored rhythms into many R&B songs they wrote for the Drifters, including “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “This Magic Moment.” Shuman would later describe himself as “a mambonik” [a combination of “Mambo” and “beatnik”] who “wrote Rock and Roll but lived, ate, drank and breathed Latino.” Other Brill Building songwriters and record producers of the early 60s also incorporated Latin beats into mainstream Pop hits, including Phil Spector and Jerry Leiber’s “Spanish Harlem,” performed by Ben E. King, and Bert Berns and Phil Medley’s “Twist and Shout,” popularized by the Isley Brothers and later covered by the Beatles.
This lesson focuses on Latin American immigration to New York City during the late 1940s and 50s and the effect it had on popular culture. Students investigate a 1940 U.S. Department of Agriculture film about Puerto Rico, a graph containing immigration data, an interview with bandleader Tito Puente, an array of clips featuring Latin dance music, and both mainstream Pop songs and Broadway showtunes revealing the “Latin tinge.” As students examine these resources, they will consider and discuss the roles Latino artists played in bringing a Latin feel to American popular culture.