Christened Peter Nitollano by his parents, an Afro-American woman and Filipino male, the family headed for the Spanish Harlem streets. Coming up in the ‘50’s, Joe remembers the New York metropolis as a “music palace.” 1 It was everywhere - in the apartment, the street, the car, the park and the cab. Joe: “Oh yeah! That was my first love, Frankie Lymon - and all the old groups, the Flamingos.” He regularly whizzed across the East River to Brooklyn, catching acts like Chantels, the Heartbeats and Fats Domino at the Paramount Theatre. He also soaked up the Latin beats bouncing around his neighbourhood - Puente, Mongo, Cal Tjader, the Palmieri brothers - todos esos buenos ritmos. Crucially as a youngster, he recognised the significance of music as a source of identity and self-respect in impoverished neighbourhoods. “As teenagers, we had a music that was ours,” explains Joe. “Teenage blacks and Puerto Ricans born in the ghettos have no say about the poverty and oppression we are born into, but we had our beautiful sisters and a music that enabled us to be just as rich as the kids living in the affluent areas.”
But poverty also brought out a bad streak. He was a street fighter, acquiring a rep as the Afro- Filipino Sugar Ray. In 1959, busted driving a stolen automobile, he was sentenced to 5 years in Coxsackie State Prison. Here, Joe was taught the musical basics: “Music was my salvation. It taught me discipline.” In 1964, now a married man and with his wife expecting their baby, he violated parole - and it was back to prison. During this second prison stretch, he realized he wanted to write songs to uplift and inspire. Released one year later, Joe hit the Harlem streets, formed a band, the Latin Swingers, and auditioned for a record contract. Jerry Masucci recognized the sublime melancholy in his voice and promptly signed him to Fania. Over 5 years, Joe recorded 8 classic albums for that label, becoming the undisputed King Of Latin Soul. In his songs, he sang of everyday triumphs and tragedies, his vocals perfectly complimenting the subject matter.
New York indeed became Joe’s town because he sang about that crazy city and it’s inhabitants with such affection and sympathy. Gil Scott-Heron once lauded him as the “Mayor of the Neighbourhood” and even the fiercest critics of Latin soul and boogaloo still venerate his body of work. Joe’s amassed such respect because he expressed timeless, tender emotions that affect everyone. And if there’s a sadness in Joe’s voice and music, it’s always balanced by a warmth and sweetness.