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Johnny Ventura

Johnny Ventura almost single-handedly modernized merengue during the early 1960s. An imposing singer possessing a smooth, supple baritone, he was also an electrifying dancer, bandleader, arranger, and composer who released more than 100 albums. The six-time Latin Grammy winner influenced virtually every merengue singer who followed him. Fascinated by the energy and dance moves in early rock & roll music -- especially Elvis Presley's -- Ventura grafted them onto merengue on early albums such as 1965's El Boogaloo Esta en Algo and 1966's Figurando. By 1970 he was a best-selling artist across Latin America who performed sold-out concerts in the U.S. and Europe. He embraced salsa during the early '70s and registered hits with Salsa y Algo Más (1971), Salsa Pa Tu Lechón (1972), and 1973's Salsa, but he never abandoned merengue. During the first half of the '80s he scored hits with El Sueño (1982) and the merengue suite collection El Hombre y Su Musica in 1985. He dissolved his band in 1992 to pursue a career in politics but in 2002 he resumed touring and recording. He continued to release charting albums such as 2006's 103 Boulevard, 2013's El Viejo 'Ta en la Calle, and 2016's Tronco Viejo. Johnny Ventura was born Juan de Dios Ventura Sorian in the city of La Vega in the Dominican Republic. His parents divorced when he was five. He was raised primarily by his mother in a lower-middle-class neighborhood. Though he always sang, played saxophone, and wrote music, his youthful desire was to become an architect. His family's financial situation, however, prevented him from attending university. At 16 he enrolled at Ercina Chevalier Commercial Institute to earn a secretary's degree and find a job that would fund his university studies. That changed when he accepted a friend's challenge and entered a talent contest on the radio program La Voz de la Alegria. He won. He also competed on the TV show La TV Busca Una Estrella (Star Search) and won. His prize was a scholarship to study music and voice. After graduation he changed his name to Johnny Ventura and auditioned for and won the job as lead singer in Rondón Votau's orchestra. In 1961 he joined percussionist Donald Wild's group before moving on to Combo Caribe de Luis Pérez in January of 1962. Ventura scored his first hit for the bandleader with "La Agarradera," a song full of double entendres that would have been impossible to release just a year before when military dictator Rafael Trujillo ruled the country with an iron fist. The flipside of the single was "Care con el Cuabero," a Ventura composition. Interestingly, Ventura left Pérez's employ to join Papa Molina's La Super Orquesta San José. They didn't record at all, but they were easily the most popular dance band in Santo Domingo at the time. The tenure with Molina made Ventura a certified star in the city, and others saw his potential. Cuban promoter Angel Guinea prodded him into forming his own group, Johnny Ventura y Su Combo Show, and helped him inject a bit of Las Vegas floor-show glitz and glamour into his presentation. Ventura was obsessed with the energy of American rock & roll performers such as Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry. He loved the slick dance moves Elvis brought to his performances and grafted that genre's kinetic force and the innovative movements to the Combo Show, a band that launched the careers of Dominican stars such as Luisito Marti, Fausto Rey, and Anthony Rios. Ventura cut 1964's El Lloron under his own name for New York's tiny independent Remo Records. He then signed a deal with Phonogram in early 1965 for Johnny Ventura y Su Combo Show. They released three successful albums for the label, including La Coquetona and La Resbalosa (both 1965), and Siempre Pa' Lante (1966). Though a star at home, Ventura was restless for new experiences. He and his Combo Show traveled to New York City in 1966 and began playing dancehalls and concerts. His energy and the band's stellar musicianship wowed audiences and word spread quickly. They cut and released Figurando later that year. Its revved-up boogaloo reading of Mexican folk song "La Bamba" and lush merengue version of "Strangers in the Night" drove the album straight to a gold certification. By the time he released El Turun, Tun, Tun in early 1967, he was melding merengue with guaguancó, descarga, and early salsa. The record buying public -- thanks to Latin radio in the Caribbean and the U.S. -- bought it in droves. Ventura toured across the U.S, Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America. He dug into boogaloo and soul on 1968's now classic El Mamito and offered a further evolved brand of merengue on El Papelito Bronco. In 1969, he delivered Siempre en Orbita, melding merengue, salsa, and guaguancó; it ran straight up to the top of the Latin charts. 1971's Ah! Yo No Sé... No was an instant hit (it reprised that status when it was reissued for the first time in 1976 and re-entered the charts). Its title-track single won airplay all over North, Central, and South America, and the album was certified platinum. Its appeal lies in Ventura's perfect integration of contemporary merengue with salsa, guajira, and Caribbean-styled cumbia. For the remainder of the decade, Johnny Ventura y Su Combo Show couldn't miss the charts if they tried. They released no less than 20 albums that decade. Among them were some of his greats such as 1973's Luisito Marti con Johnny Ventura y Su Combo, El Pingüino, and Salsa y Algo Más, 1974's La Protesta de Los Feos, 1975's live En Accion, Salsa, and El Hijo del Pueblo. In 1977, due to constant recording and touring, conflicts arose within the band. Ventura wrangled three more charting albums from them that year -- 2 Ases al Tiro featuring Rolando Laserie, Excitante, and the compilation Johnny Ventura y Su Combo Show -- then left temporarily to create a new orchestra, Los Caballos de Johnny Ventura. This band only played live but they provided a real stylistic twist on the music he made with Combo Show. Ventura had become obsessed with the commercial appeal of disco. He spent time buying and listening to records and radio hits before trying it out, but it embarrassed him to play it. He did surmise, however, that the hyperactive bass drum was what attracted young people to disco. He made the instrument prominent in his new band's merengue and salsa tunes, and rearranged Bee Gees' hits as Latin dance jams and inserted them into their live set. By the early '80s, the troubles with Combo Show had been smoothed over and they were back in the studio and on the road. 1981's Lo Que Te Gusta wed merengue and Puerto Rican plena. In 1985 they issued Classic con Su Sabor Original, a collection of merengue medleys, and the charting holiday set Navidad Sin Ti. After 1986's chart-topping Capullo y Sorullo, Ventura returned to academic studies. He and the band re-recorded his early hits for 1987's Contiene 16 Exitos and in 1988 released El Caballo: Un Legend. Ventura continued to tour while he pursued a degree in international law from Universidad de la Tercera Edad, which was awarded him in 1991. In 1992, Ventura, a longtime member of the Dominican Revolutionary Party, disbanded Combo Show after the release of 35 Aniversario con Sus Invitad; the charting album (number three) featured him in duets with Daniela Romo, Celia Cruz, Willi Chirino, Grupo Niche, Andy Montañez, Wilfrido Vargas, Víctor Víctor, and Sergio Vargas. He followed with Johnny Siempre Johnny in 1993; it spent 11 weeks on the Tropical albums chart and peaked at number eight. Ventura served as vice-mayor of Santo Domingo from 1994 to 1998. When his longtime friend José Francisco Peña Gomez, died of cancer in the middle of a mayoral campaign, Ventura replaced him in the mayoral race at the suggestion of the party. He won and served as Santo Domingo's mayor from 1998 to 2002 during a particularly difficult time in its economic history. While he still performed on occasion, his only releases were compilations. He returned to recording with 2003's Sin Desperdicio. It took home the Latin Grammy for best merengue album. He followed with 103 Boulevard and ¡Oye Qué Rico Mami...Salsa! The albums placed at four and six respectively on the Tropical Albums chart and Ventura was awarded a lifetime achievement award from the Latin Grammy Foundation. In 2010 he issued the hit holiday set Volvio La Navidad and followed with 2013's sparkling merengue/salsa set El Viejo 'Ta en la Calle and Frente a Frente, the latter a collaborative album with Milly Quezada that peaked at 15. Ventura's final studio album was 2016's Tronco Viejo, which featured the great singer in duets with Romeo Santos, Silvio Rodriguez, Edesio Alejandro, and the Buena Vista Social Club's Omara Portuondo. It reached number 14 on the Tropical albums chart. In 2020, Ventura ran for mayor of Santo Domingo again but lost. He also contracted Covid-19 and was hospitalized but recovered. On July 28, 2021, Ventura suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 81.
© Thom Jurek /TiVo
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