Led by pianist and musical director Rafael Ithier (born Rafael Ithier Eddie Perez), El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico is one of Puerto Rico's greatest dance bands. Four decades after their inception, the 13-piece salsa group continues to inspire dancers with its horn-punctuated Latin rhythms and lush vocal harmonies. Officially named "Ambassadors of Our Music" by the Puerto Rican Senate, El Gran Combo's many hits include such classics as "El Menu" and "Timablero." Their 1978 album, En Las Vegas, sold more than one million copies, while its follow-up, In Alaska: Breaking the Ice, was nominated for a Grammy. A longtime member of popular Latin band Cortijo y Su Combo, Ithier formed El Gran Combo in 1962 with eight of his bandmates, including percussionist, dancer, chorus singer, and salsa bandleader Roberto Roena. The Puerto Rican release of the group's debut album, Acángana, recorded two days before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, was delayed until it had already been released in Mexico, Panama, Venezuela, and the United States. El Gran Combo continued to expand its following in the early '60s, performing to enthusiastic crowds in New York, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Colombia, and Venezuela. In Puerto Rico, they appeared regularly on the popular television show El Show de Las 12.
El Gran Combo has gone through numerous personnel changes, with only Ithier and alto saxophonist Eddie Perez remaining from the original group. Roena left in 1969 to form a new Roberta Roena y Su Apollo Sound, and vocalist Andy Montañez left to join Dimensión Latina in 1977. Trumpet player Taty Maldonado passed away in 1991. Despite the loss of talented musicians and singers, El Gran Combo has continued to evolve. They added a trombone player and third vocalist in 1991 and continue to feature top-notch vocalists, including Charlie Aponte, who joined in 1972, and Jerry Rivas, who replaced Montañez. In 2002, El Gran Combo featured vocalists Charlie Aponte, Jerry Rivas, and Papo Rosario, trombone players Victor Rodriguez and Moises Nogueras, saxophonist Freddy Miranda, bassist Fred Rivera, and the rhythm section of Miguel Torres on congas, Domingo Santos on timbales, and Mitchell Laboy on bongos.
In 2004, the revamped group issued Aquí Estamos y...¡De Verdad! to great critical acclaim and a place on the Latin Airplay charts. Two years later, they scored again with Arroz con Habichuela and the holiday set Asi Es Nuestro Navidad, fronted by Gilberto Santa Rosa. In 2008, their Combo label reissued seven classic albums from their catalog, while 2010's Salsa: Un Homenaje a el Gran Combo hit the number three spot at Top Latin Albums, and worked its way inside the Top 200. 2011's Sin Salsa No Hay Paraiso appeared on Sony proper and placed on the year-end Latin Albums charts and several others. The group celebrated a half-century together with 50 Aniversario, Vol. 1, their debut for EGC Records, with three-quarters of it comprising re-recorded songs from the band's storied career and reminiscences with Ithier and others. It placed inside the Top Ten at Top Latin Albums. The group continued to tour internationally to sold-out crowds in Latin America, Europe, and the United States. Vocalist Charlie Aponte retired and was replaced by Anthony Garcia for 2016's Alunizando. The change suited fans, as the album hit number four on the Top Latin Albums chart. ~ Craig Harris