Joe Bataan — “Gypsy Woman”: Brace for the Obscure (60s rock)! — February 1, 2022

339) Joe Bataan— “Gypsy Woman”

Joe Bataan (see #55). Boogaloo. Not down Broadway, we’re talking 106th and Lexington.

Richard Pierson in All Music Guide tells us that:

Born Peter Nitollano, of African-American/Filipino parents, Joe Bataan grew up in Spanish Harlem, where he ran with Puerto Rican gangs and absorbed R&B, Afro-Cuban, and Afro-Rican musical influences. . . . Self-taught on the piano, he organized his first band in 1965 and scored his first recording success in 1967 with “Gypsy Woman” on Fania Records. The tune was a hit with the New York Latin market despite its English lyrics . . . and exemplified the nascent Latin soul sound. In early anticipation of the disco formula, “Gypsy Woman” created dance energy by alternating what was fundamentally a pop-soul tune with a break featuring double-timed handclaps. 

Don Snowden, also in AMG, says Bataan “shot to popularity in Latin music circles by covering soul hits, starting with a radical revision of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions’ [see #118, 285] ‘Gypsy Woman’ that’s brassy and built around the chorus.” Mtume ya Salaame says the “only thing the Mayfield song and the Bataan song seem to share is the title and chorus. Joe’s song is louder, wilder and considerably more infectious, both musically and lyrically.” (“gypsy-woman”/).

Bataan himself describes “Gypsy Woman” in a must-hear interview:

“Gypsy Woman,” everyone knows was a Curtis Mayfield song. . . . I could pick songs. I knew songs that had the potential to be something, even though they were before. I knew songs that I could attempt to do differently so people might get a refreshing ear. That’s what I did with “Gypsy Woman.” I took the same song, put different music to the same lyrics and we had what we call a cha-cha with a backbeat. It was “Gypsy Woman.” This was one of the first that crossed over into the American charts. That was one of my first songs and it really put Joe Bataan on the map. I was really gearing for the Latin community, but it got a big black audience also. For a long time, you had people who loved Latin music, but they couldn’t understand it. If I said… [says something fast in Spanish], you wouldn’t know what I was talking about. What it did was allow the other masses that normally wouldn’t listen to Latin music, because it was done in Spanish, to listen to this. Some people called it boogaloo, I preferred Latin soul, and that’s probably why I survived those other boogaloo artists, because I had the mindset to change and say I was doing Latin soul and that’s what I’ve been known for 40 years.

What is boogaloo? Mtume ya Salaame, quoting an unnamed source, says:

Boogalu resonated particularly with African-American audiences. . . . Boogalu was inspired by the interaction between African-American dancers and Latin musicians in New York at nightclubs such as Palm Gardens Ballroom. They recount stories of how the structure and tone of Boogalu songs . . . were developed in an effort to appeal to African-American dancers who were not responding to their traditional mambos and cha cha chas.  

Oliver Wang goes deep on Bataan:

[A] cohort of mostly Puerto Rican Americans—Nuyoricans—were coming of age, seeking a stake for their generation’s sonic sensibilities. Into that moment strode Joe Bataan, knife in hand. . . . [A]s a kid, he ran deep with the Nuyorican crowd . . . . In his teens, he helped lead a local Puerto Rican street gang called The Dragons, but a few stints in the pen encouraged him to seek a different path. He turned to music. . . . [I]n 1966, a “new breed” of Latin music was bubbling up in New York that would enrapture Bataan and his band: boogaloo [which] began as a dance craze . . . . By 1966, the dance had made its way into New York ballrooms and it was here that Nuyorican house bands began to tinker with it, giving birth to a distinctive Latin boogaloo style. . . . [A] young record executive trying to get his new Latin label off the ground . . . Jerry Masucci of Fania Records.. . . . found [with Bataan] more than just a musician; here was a voice that could sell to black, white, and Latino audiences. . . . [T]he first single Bataan recorded for Fania nodded to an earlier soul classic: The Impressions’ 1961 hit, “Gypsy Woman.” However, Bataan’s “Gypsy Woman” wasn’t a cover version. Beyond an opening line that riffed on Curtis Mayfield’s songwriting, Bataan changed everything else: the lyrics, the arrangement, the instrumentation, etc. Whereas The Impressions’ mellow original had more in common, aurally, with a bachelor pad exotica record, Bataan’s song was ferociously uptempo and unmistakably Afro-Cuban, opening with a lively piano montuno and background singers yelling, “She smokes, hot hot, she smokes!” . . . Other boogaloo breakout hits in 1967 . . . boasted memorable hooks but the singing was middling at best. By comparison . . . Bataan demonstrated that he could be a quadruple threat: singer, songwriter, pianist, and bandleader.

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Here is a cool live version, from many years later:

Here is the Impressions’s original:

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