Ray Barretto was born on 29 April 1929, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, of Puerto Rican parents. Noted for his many years as a prominent Latin bandleader, his music career actually began as a studio performer on the conga for jazz recording sessions.
He was raised in the Latin ghettos of East Harlem and the Bronx, in an environment filled with music of Puerto Rico but with a love for the swing bands of Ellington, Basie and Goodman. He escaped the ghetto by joining the United States Army when he was 17 years old, but he did not escape the music.
Influenced by a record of Dizzy Gillespie, "Manteca", with conguero Chano Pozo. He was hooked and he knew then that his calling was was to become a professional musician. Barretto sat in on jam sessions held at the Orlando, a GI jazz club in Munich, Germany. After military service in 1949, he returned to Harlem and taught himself how to play the drums.
Barretto's first regular job was with Eddie Bonnemere's Latin Jazz Combo. He then went on to play for four years with Cuban bandleader/pianist Jose Curbelo. In 1957, Barretto then replaced Mongo Santamaria in Tito Puente's band, with which he recorded nis first album: Dance Mania. After four years with Puente, he was one of the most sought-after percussionists in New York City's thriving music scene. He attended jam sessions with notable artists such as Max Roach, Charlie Parker, Art Blakey and other jazz giants. He also recorded with Sonny Stitt, Lou Donaldson, Red Garland, Gene Ammons, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Cannonball Adderley , Freddie Hubbard, Cal Tjader, Dizzy Gillespie, and others.
Barretto got his first job as a bandleader in 1961 when Orrin Keepnews of Riverside Records, asked him to form a charanga for a recording. Keepnews was familiar with Barretto's jazz work and the collaboration resulted in the album Pachanga With Barretto. This was followed by the Latin jam Latino in 1962, on which Barretto was joined by Jose "Chombo" Silva on the tenor sax and Alejandro "El Negro" Vivar on the trumpet.
In 1962, Ray Barretto released the album Charanga Moderna. The track "El Watusi" reached the Top 20 pop chart in the United States in 1963 and went gold.
His next eight albums between 1963 and 1966 thrashed around in various directions and consistently eluded commercial success. The musical merit of some of his recorded work from this period was not appreciated until years later. His fortunes changed when he signed to Fania Records in 1967. He dropped violins for an all-brass frontline and made the R&B- and jazz-flavoured Acid, which won him major popularity among Latin audiences for the first time.
Barretto's next nine albums on Fania between 1968 and 1975 were increasingly successful. In 1972, with the Ray Barretto Orchestra he recorded the very popular and important album Que Viva La Musica. The following year he records many songs of Cuban composers in the album Indestructible. The only set back was in late 1972 when Adalberto Santiago, his vocalist since 1966, and four other band members, left to found the band "Tipica 73".
Perhaps his masterpiece album, Carnaval, in 1972, included the smash song Cocinando Suave and Summertime. His 1975 album, Barretto, with vocalists Ruben Blades and Tito Gomez was his biggest seller to date. It contained the prize-winning hit "Guarare" and was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1976. He was also voted Best Conga Player Of The Year for 1975 and 1976 in Latin NY magazine annual poll.
Meanwhile, Barretto had tired of gruelling daily nightclub gigs and felt that clubs stifled creativity and gave no room for experimentation. He was also pessimistic that pure salsa could cross over to a wider audience. On New Year's Eve 1975, he played his last date with his salsa band. They continued under the name Guarare and released three albums: Guarare (1977), Guarare (1979) and Onda Tipica (1981).
Barretto went on to organize a fusion-orientated concert band. An agreement was struck between Fania and Atlantic Records and the first release on his new label was Barretto Live: Tomorrow, a two-disc recording of his successful debut concert at the Beacon Theatre, New York in May 1976.
Barretto's 1977 and 1978 albums were his last on Atlantic. However, he still managed to win the Latin NY titles for Musician Of The Year and Best Conga Player Of The Year in October 1977. However, his fusion band turned out to be a commercial flop, as he injured a hand and was unable to play for a while.
In 1979 he went back to Fania and reunited with Adalberto Santiago to produce Rican/Struction, a return to progressive salsa. The album was a smash hit and won him the 1980 Latin NY titles for Album Of The Year, Musician Of The Year and Best Conga Player. Two albums, Giant Force in 1980 and Rhythm of Life in 1982, featured the impressive voice of lead singer, Ray De La Paz (ex-Guarare), and talented young New York-born Latino trombonist, Joe de Jesus.
In 1983, Barretto teamed up with Celia Cruz and Adalberto to make the highly successful Tremendo Trio!, which won an ACE (The Hispanic Association of Entertainment Critics of New York) Award for Salsa Album Of The Year. The superb Todo Se Va Poder (1984) and Aqui Se Puede (1987) included singer Ray Saba on lead vocals. Barretto and Cruz's second collaboration, Ritmo En El Corazon, released at the end of 1988 and issued in the UK on the Caliente label in 1989, won them a Grammy award in 1990.
He joined the salsa romantica bandwagon with the weak Irresistible (1989), his last on Fania.
On 30 August 1990, to mark his long-standing involvement in both jazz and Latin music, Barretto appeared with Adalberto and Puerto Rican trumpeter Juancito Torres at a tribute concert titled Las 2 Vidas De Ray Barretto (The Two Lives Of Ray Barretto) at the University of Puerto Rico. He switched to Concord Picante for the 1991 Latin jazz set Handprints.
Ray Barretto has been a member of the Fania All Stars since their inception in 1968. In the late 1990's he was recording with the likes of Eddie Gomez, Kenny Burrell, Joe Lovano and Steve Turre. His recording with these artists as New World Spirit + 4 in 2000 was one of his finest projects in recent years.
While leading his own stellar Latin jazz bands, his congas have graced more recording sessions than any other conguero. He was inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame in 1999. He was voted Jazz Percussionist of 2004 by the Jazz Journalists Association and won the Down Beat critics poll for percussion in 2005.
In 2006 he received the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Fellowship. "To receive this honor is the gift of a lifetime. Jazz has been my spiritual babysitter since my youth in Harlem and the Bronx, and I've spent my career trying to give something back. With gratitude and respect to everyone at the National Endowment for the Arts, please allow me to consider myself, still, a jazz student," said Barretto.
His last album was "Time Was - Time Is".
Ray Barretto died February 17, 2006, at 5 a.m. at the Hackensack University Medical Center in Hackensack, New Jersey.