by Jorge Cano Moreno



March 25, 1935 – February 15, 2021 

Juan Azarías Pacheco Knipping known as Johnny Pacheco died on Monday, February 15, 2021 at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, New Jersey at the age of 85 from complications stemming from pneumonia and had Parkinson’s disease. Johnny Pacheco was a Dominican musician, arranger, composer, bandleader, record producer and music label owner. He became one of the leading exponents of a new dance in the late 1950s called the pachanga, a blend of Cuban rhythms and merengue, which propelled him to worldwide notoriety, and had an important role in the evolution of Latin music for decades.


Juan Azarías Pacheco Knipping was born on 25 March 1935 in Santiago de los CaballerosDominican Republic. He inherited his passion for music from his father, Rafael Azarías Pacheco, who was `the bandleader and clarinetistof The Orquesta Santa Cecilia, one of the leading Dominican big bandsof the 1930s, famous for being the first to record Luis Albertis merengue “Compadre Pedro Juan”. Rafael was the grandson of a Spanish soldier who arrived during the Spanish reannexation of Santo Domingo. His mother, Octavia Knipping Rochet, was the granddaughter of a French colonist, and the great-granddaughter of a German merchant who was married to a Dominican woman born to Spanish colonists.

In 1946, when Pacheco was 11, his family moved to New York City. He continued polishing his musical skills, learning to play accordion, violin, flute, saxophone and clarinet. He also graduated in electrical engineering at Brooklyn Technical High School in the 1950s, but he quit his job as an engineer due to the low salary. He also studied percussion at the Julliard School.

In 1953, Pacheco played percussion and sang with Gil Suárez’s band and, in 1954, he formed The Chuchulecos Boys with Eddie Palmieri on piano, Barry Rogers on trombone and other future figures of renown in the New York salsa scene: Al Santiago, Mike Collazo and Ray Santos. They played at weddings and other social events. He later played percussion for several bands, including late-night shows, Lou Pérez’s band The Mambaleros, and the popular orchestras of Tito Puente, Xavier Cugat and Dioris Valladares.



In October 1958, Pacheco met pianist Charlie Palmieri and he joined him to record the Latin jazz album Easy Does It, released by Gone Records. Pacheco played congas and bongos. Palmieri and Pacheco then formed the charanga La Duboney in 1959, where Pacheco played flute. However, he soon grew dissatisfied with his role in the group; Palmieri’s name was featured on the cover of the LPs but not his, despite his role as lead arranger and co-director. Moreover, Palmieri’s style was more sophisticated, while Pacheco favored simpler son-based arrangements. After only one LP, Let’s Dance the Charanga, Pacheco left La Duboney to form his own charanga in 1960.

Pacheco y su Charanga

Pacheco’s first recordings as a leader were the songs “El güiro de Macorina” and “Óyeme mulata”, recorded as a promotional single which enjoyed significant airplay in New York thanks to DJ Rafael Font. This led to Al Santiago, owner of Alegre Records, offering Pacheco a record deal. His first album on the label, Pacheco y su Charanga, sold 100,000 copies within the first year of its release. Pacheco’s success was the result of a new dance fad, the pachanga, a fast-paced mix of merengue and cha-cha-cha created by Eduardo Davidson in 1959 and popularized by José Fajardo‘s charanga in Cuba.

The pachanga had reached New York in the summer of 1960 and Pacheco became its leading exponent. He became an internationally renowned star and toured extensively throughout the United States, Europe, Asia and Latin America. His charanga was the first Latin band to headline the Apollo Theater in New York City in 1962 and 1963.Between 1960 and 1963, Pacheco recorded four more albums for Alegre Records (Vols II–V), as well as the 1961 jam session Alegre All-Stars which he co-directed with Charlie Palmieri, and several tracks for the collaborative album Las charangas. Al Santiago’s financial troubles led to Pacheco’s exit from the label.

       Johnny Pacheco with Charlie Palmieri


In late 1963, Pacheco met Jerry Masucci, a police officer turned  lawyer, and soon they co-founded Fania Records. Pacheco was the VP, A&R creative director and musical producer of the new label. At Fania, Pacheco launched and solidified the careers of many popular salsa artists. He named the label after the song “Fanía” by Reinaldo Bolaños, made famous by Estrellas de Chocolate in Cuba in 1960.

                     Johnny Pacheco and Jerry Masucci

Pacheco reorganized his charanga and transformed it into a conjunto by adding trumpets instead of violins. His first album with his new band, Pacheco y su Nuevo Tumbao, was Cañonazo, the first release on Fania Records. featuring Pete “El Conde” Rodríguez on vocals, the album was the first of many recordings by the “compadres” (literally, “godfathers”), as Pacheco and El Conde were later known. Except for the closing song on the album “Dakar, punto final”, all the songs were covers, including the aforementioned “Fanía”, the title track and “El kikirikí” by Evaristo Aparicio, Eduardo Angulo’s “Cabio sile yeyeo”, Cheo Marquetti‘s “Pinareño” and Walfrido Guevara’s “Labrando la tierra”, all by popular Cuban artists of the 1950s and 1960s.

In 1965, Pacheco recorded three albums, two of which featured Monguito el Único as lead vocalist, Pacheco at the N.Y. World’s Fair and Pacheco Te Invita a Bailar, and a third album consisting of instrumental descargas (jam sessions), Pacheco, His Flute and Latin Jam. In 1966, Pacheco worked with Monguito and Chivirico Dávila to record another album, Viva África, named after the fact that Pacheco had recently toured the continent. He then reverted to the charanga format for one album, aptly titled Pacheco y su Charanga: By Popular Demand.

In 1967, he recorded Sabor Tipico with Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez and Pacheco Presents Monguito, the debut album of Monguito el Único as lead artist. In 1968, he recorded the instrumental album Latin Piper and Volando bajito with El Conde on lead vocals. Pacheco and El Conde then recorded three collaborative albums: Los Compadres (1970), Perfecta Combinación (1971) and Tres de café y dos de azúcar (1973), as well as five reunion albums between 1980 and 1989.

Fania All-Stars

As the founder and musical director of Fania Records, Pacheco became a leading figure in the New York Salsa scene in the 1960s and 1970s. He popularized the use of the term “salsa” and established the Fania All-Stars to showcase the leading artists of the genre. Having recorded Cuban-style jam sessions with both the Alegre All-Stars (1961) and the Tico All-Stars (Live at the Village Gate, 1966), Pacheco decided to record a live album to showcase the Fania roster of salsa musicians. The resulting album Live at the Red Garter (1968) was a success and has been described as an “excellent and promising start for the supergroup”. Among the stars featured in the concert were pianist Larry Harlow, bassist Bobby Valentín and conguero Ray Barretto. The lineup of the group varied over the years, and by the time of their second show, Live at the Cheetah (1971), many members had changed.


In 1973, Mr. Pacheco and Masucci rented Yankee Stadium for a salsa concert of the Fania All Stars, rejecting advice that they also book rock or soul acts to fill the stands. The performance, conducted by Mr. Pacheco in his typically animated style, ended early when some of the more than 40,000 frenzied spectators left their seats and stormed the stage.


Mr. Pacheco took his musicians, including singer Celia Cruz, to Zaire (now Congo), where they performed before more than 100,000 people during the buildup to the 1974 heavyweight boxing championship bout between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali.

Johnny Pacheo and Celia Cruz in Zaire 1974

Fania Records released its final album in 1979, and Mr. Pacheco sold his interest in the business a year later. In a 2003 interview with the Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call, he looked back on the 15 years when Fania was flourishing and said, “I wanted to have a company that treated everybody like family, and it came true.”


Pacheco y su Tumbao Añejo

In 1974, Pacheco replaced “El Conde” (who went on a successful solo career) with Héctor Casanova and renamed his band Pacheco y su Tumbao Añejo (“Pacheco and his old tumbao“, as opposed to his previous band “the new tumbao”). They released El Maestro in 1975 and El Artista in 1977. However, Pacheco’s focus during the 1970s, apart from the All-Stars, was a series of collaborative albums between members of the label, including himself. He collaborated with Celia Cruz, Ruben Blades, Justo BetancourtPapo LuccaPupi Legarreta, Luis “Melón” Silva, Celio González and José Fajardo, among others  With Héctor Casanova he released another album, Los amigos, in 1979. After his various reunion albums with El Conde, including the Nuevo Tumbao 25th anniversary album Celebration, Pacheco released ¡Sima! in 1993, his last studio album.


Pacheco recorded and composed over 150 songs. Among them are “Mi Gente”, “La Dicha Mia”, “Quítate Tú” (Pa’ Ponerme Yo), “Acuyuye,” “El Rey de la Puntualidad,” Tito Puente‘s “El Número Cien,” and Celia Cruz’s Celia y Tito. Pacheco has also been an inspiration to the younger generations. For example, rap artist Mangu asked him to write arrangements, sing chorus, and play the flute in his album entitled Calle Luna y Calle Sol. Pacheco also produced music for feature films; he was the musical director of the film, Our Latin Thing, the first film about salsa and its influence on New York Latinos; he worked on a second film entitled Salsa released in 1974. In the 1980s, he wrote the musical scores and themes for the films Mondo New York and Something Wild. The latter was a collaboration with David Byrne, the lead singer of the group Talking Heads. Several tracks that he arranged, produced, and/or performed were on the soundtrack of the 1992 Warner Brothers film, The Mambo Kings and  “Carlito’s Way” in 1993.

Pacheco participated in the AIDS benefit concert “Concierto Por La Vida” in November 1988 at New York City’s Avery Fisher Hall. He demonstrated his solidarity with the victims of Hurricane Georges  by collaborating with the Hispanic Federation Relief Fund during “Hurricane Georges Relief Fund 1998”. Pacheco also established the Johnny Pacheco Scholarship Fund in 1994, a scholarship fund for students in the United States.

Awards and recognition

Pacheco earned nine Grammy nominations and ten gold records. His contributions to Latin Music have been recognized throughout his career. The following are among the awards that have been bestowed upon him:

In 1996, the then President of the Dominican Republic, Joaquín Balaguer, bestowed him with the prestigious Presidential Medal of Honor. A year later, Pacheco was the recipient of the Bobby Capó Lifetime Achievement Award, awarded by New York Governor George Pataki. In addition, Pacheco was presented with the First International Dominican Artist Award from the distinguished Casandra Awards. In June 1996, Johnny Pacheco was the first Latin music producer to receive the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, (NARAS) Governor’s Award in New York City.

In 1998, Pacheco was inducted to [International Latin Music Hall of Fame] (ILMHF) during the first Induction and Award of the ILMHF. The ILMHF awarded him The Lifetime Achievement Award, in 2002.

In 2004, Pacheco was awarded the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, ASCAP Silver Pen Award. On 5 June 2005, Pacheco was honored by Union City, New Jersey with a star on the Walk of Fame at Union City’s Celia Cruz Park. In 2005, the Latin Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences awarded Johnny Pacheco with its Lifetime Achievement Award at that years Latin Grammys. 

On 24 March 2009, Pacheco was awarded “El Soberano”, the highest distinction given by the Association of Art Columnists of the Dominican Republic. In August 2020, Johnny Pacheco’s composition “Celia y Tito” by Tito Puente and Celia Cruz was featured in the 4th season finale of the NBC TV network program “World of Dance” which is produced and judged by international film and recording star Jennifer Lopez.

Johnny Pacheco is survived by his wife Maria Elena, two daughters Norma, Joanne and two sons Elis and Phillip

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