Ismael Rivera, also known as Maelo or the Sonero Mayor, was a Puerto Rican composer and salsa singer who was widely regarded as one of the best improvisers and interpreters of the genre. He was a pioneer of the Afro-Caribbean sound, blending elements of salsa, boogaloo, bomba, and plena. He was also a charismatic and humorous performer who drew large crowds of fans and admirers. However, his life was cut short by a heart attack in 1987.
The Rise of a Salsa Star
Ismael Rivera was born on October 5, 1931, in Santurce, Puerto Rico. He was the first of five children born to Luis and Margarita Rivera. His father was a carpenter and his mother a housewife. As a child, Rivera was always singing and banging on cans with sticks. He received his primary education at the Pedro G. Goyco Elementary School and then went on to learn carpentry at a vocational school. He also shined shoes to help his family financially and, when he was 16 years old, he worked as a carpenter.
Rivera’s musical career began in 1948, when he joined El Conjunto Monterrey, where he played the conga and sang. In 1952, he joined the U.S. Army but was quickly discharged, because he did not speak English. When he returned to Puerto Rico, he went to work as a lead singer with Orquesta Panamericana, where he recorded his first hits, such as “El charlatán”, “Ya yo sé”, and “La sazón de Abuela”.
In 1954, he joined his childhood friend Rafael Cortijo’s Combo, which became one of the most popular and influential groups in the history of salsa. With Cortijo’s Combo, Rivera recorded many classic songs, such as “El Bombón de Elena”, “El Negro Bembón”, “Juan José”, “Besitos de Coco”, and “Quítate de la Vía Perico”. He also performed at the famed Palladium Ballroom in New York City, where he earned the nickname of Sonero Mayor, meaning the greatest sonero or improviser.
The Fall of a Salsa Legend
Rivera’s success was not without challenges and controversies. He had a turbulent personal life, marked by several relationships, marriages, and children. He also had a criminal record, as he was arrested and imprisoned for drug possession and trafficking in 1962. He spent three years in jail, during which he continued to compose and record songs. He was released in 1965, and resumed his musical career with Cortijo’s Combo.
However, Rivera’s relationship with Cortijo deteriorated, and he decided to form his own band, called Ismael Rivera y sus Cachimbos, in 1968. With his new band, he recorded more hits, such as “Las Caras Lindas”, “El Nazareno”, and “Mi Negrita Me Espera”. He also collaborated with other salsa artists, such as Willie Colón, Héctor Lavoe, and Rubén Blades.
Rivera’s health also declined, as he suffered from diabetes, hypertension, and alcoholism. He had several heart attacks, which affected his voice and his performance. He died on May 13, 1987, in the arms of his mother Margarita, from a heart attack.
The Legacy of the Sonero Mayor
Rivera’s death was a huge loss for the salsa community, who remembered him as a talented and innovative musician. He was a master of the Afro-Caribbean rhythm, and a pioneer of the salsa movement. He was also a charismatic and humorous performer, who entertained the crowds with his witty and lively songs, jokes, and stories.
Rivera’s influence and legacy can be seen in many salsa artists, who have paid tribute to him and covered his songs. Some of them are Gilberto Santa Rosa, Andy Montañez, Cheo Feliciano, Ismael Miranda, and Marc Anthony. Rivera’s son, Ismael Rivera Jr., also followed his father’s footsteps and became a salsa singer, until his death in 2022.
Rivera’s music and life have also been the subject of documentaries, books, and plays. Some of them are “Maelo: El Sonero del Pueblo”, “Ismael Rivera: El Sonero Mayor”, and “Maelo: Una Historia”. Rivera’s fans and admirers have also created tribute pages and groups on social media, where they share their memories and appreciation.
Rivera’s name and image have also been honored and immortalized in various places and events. Some of them are the Ismael Rivera Park in Santurce, the Ismael Rivera Walk of Fame in Loíza, the Ismael Rivera Salsa Festival in San Juan, and the Ismael Rivera Award in the Latin Grammy Awards. Rivera’s songs and albums have also been included in various lists and rankings of the best and most influential salsa works of all time.