Marvin Santiago

Marvin Santiago

Marvin Santiago (December 26, 1947 - October 6, 2004) was a Puerto Rican salsa singer who became famous all across Latin America during the 1970s. He was also a part-time comedian on Puerto Rican television. His brother, Billiván Santiago, had some success in Puerto Rico as a plena singer.


Early life

Santiago was born in San Juan. After residing in various neighborhoods in the Santurce subsection of the city he moved to the Nemesio Canales public housing project in his youth; he was eventually nicknamed "El Grifo de Canales" ("The kinky-haired, fair-skinned-one of Nemesio Canales") by close friends and fans. He was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at a young age.

During his youth, Santiago would participate in jam sessions in his neighborhood, as well as in school talent shows, as both a singer and a comedian. Later he became a member of an orchestra led by Roberto Valdés.

Recording career

With Rafael Cortijo

Santiago was originally groomed as a bolero singer (a genre he didn't feel comfortable with) and was a struggling salsa singer with Valdes. He was hired on short notice by Rafael Cortijo, during the "Cortijo y Su Bonche" days, to cover for Camilo Azuquita, who had left his band. He toured the Dominican Republic, New York City and Chicago with Cortijo's band. On an impulse, he decided to base himself in Chicago and play alternate occasional dates in San Juan.

One of the songs Santiago was forced to learn in a hurry was "Sorongo", written by Tite Curet Alonso and arranged by Cortijo's pianist and arranger at the time, Jorge Millet. It followed a syncopated rhythm called mozambique, which Millet later used in various other songs.

Santiago remained with Cortijo until 1971, when he joined the orchestra led by Bobby Valentín, another type 1 diabetic.

With Bobby Valentín

Their first LP, "Rompecabezas", ("Puzzle") sold well, and their second LP, "Soy Boricua" ("I'm a Boricua") is considered by many to be a salsa classic and an informal patriotic anthem for Puerto Ricans. That album's title song and the Tite Curet Alonso-written "Pirata de la Mar" ("Pirate of the Seas"), both sung by Santiago, became major international hits.

Valentin was one of the original members of the Fania All-Stars, an exclusive salsa conglomerate of Fania Records musicians that showcased other performers such as Celia Cruz, Rubén Blades, Hector Lavoe, Roberto Roena and many others. Santiago would become an impromptu member of the group, and later a member in his own right.

Another strong hit by Valentín's band was "El jíbaro y la naturaleza", a nostalgia / protest song with environmental overtones, which featured Fania All-Stars member Barry Rogers in a trombone solo.

Santiago and Valentín continued making hits together during \the 1970s until Valentín was forced to drop Santiago off his band due to Santiago's strong cocaine addiction at the time.

Solo career

Santiago went solo in 1977. In that year he had done some small work for another salsa conglomerate that featured Puerto Rican musicians exclusively, called the Puerto Rico All Stars (PRAS). PRAS was a rival to the Fania All-Stars. Santiago provided background vocals for the original PRAS lineup.

Jorge Millet

After a hiatus to recover from his addiction, Santiago had a very successful pairing with Jorge Millet, who had become a record producer; they would record two albums together. In his solo records Santiago improvised "soneos" (rhyming verses common to salsa) with a strong sense of alliteration, consonance and rhythm that was described once by Rubén Blades this way: "(Rhythm-wise) Marvin is capable of fitting a Mack truck into a parking space where a Volkswagen Beetle won't fit." He also used strong Puerto Rican figures of speech and slang that eventually granted him the moniker of "El Sonero del Pueblo" (The People's Sonero).

He attained a major hit in Puerto Rico and Venezuela with Cortijo's song "Fuego a la jicotea" ("(Light a) Fire to the Tortoise [1], a thinly-veiled ode to marijuana. Other hits were newer versions of two Cortijo songs: "Al Son de la Lata (baila el chorizo)" and "Vasos de Colores". Santiago also had other original hits of his own, particularly "El Mangoneo" (a mozambique very much in the style of Cortijo's "Sorongo") and "La Picúa", a veiled homage to the female anatomy.

Drug arrest and sentence

At the height of his popularity, however, Santiago was arrested and imprisoned for cocaine possession. This was his second conviction, and the amount confiscated implied that he intended to distribute the drug. He served five out of nine years of a prison sentence. He became a born-again Christian in prison, and recorded an album, "Desde Adentro", behind bars. A minor hit spawned from the album was "Auditorio Azul" ("Blue Auditorium", based on the fact that Puerto Rico prison uniforms are usually blue in color). Blades visited him in prison, something for which Santiago would be eternally grateful to him.

Post-release and decline

After his drug conviction, Santiago's fame waned. By the time he finished his prison sentence, Jorge Millet, the musical architect of Santiago's sound, had died from a heart attack. Due to his spiritual reawakening, Santiago cleaned up the subject matter of his lyrics considerably, something that his hardcore fans did not approve of. Other notable facts that further pushed his fame's decline included the surge of merengue groups such as the Puerto Rico-based Conjunto Quisqueya and Freddie Kenton orchestras, as well as new local talent such as Eddie Santiago, Gilberto Santa Rosa, and Frankie Ruiz who popularized the so-called "romantic salsa", which eventually displaced more urban-based subject matter in salsa songs. Santiago, however, kept a busy schedule through the 1980s, making several Latin American and inter-Puerto Rico tours and appearing on Puerto Rican television shows several times, often as a comedian in Luisito Vigoreaux's television programs. Poor vocal coaching eventually affected Santiago's vocal cords, turning it raspier with time.

Santiago's health began to decline during the 1990s, but he still went on with his music, releasing "Donde lo Dejamos" ("Where we Left It") in 1992 alongside Valentin. Later on, a "greatest hits" album of his solo songs was released.

Santiago, who adopted Marvin Hagler's "Marvelous" nickname (both because of their common first name and the fact that, at one time, his head was shaved bald like Hagler's), had begun conversations to join a Fania All-Stars comeback as a tribute to Celia Cruz by the summer of 2004, but then, he became severely ill.

Death and Legacy

Already having lost a leg to diabetes through amputation, Santiago lost vision from one eye and suffered severe kidney, heart and liver damage on the weeks prior to his death. At about noon (AST) on October 6, 2004, he died at a Bayamón hospital. His funeral was well attended, with his brother Billyván paying a plena tribute to Marvin.

Santiago left a legacy of songs still heard and popular phrases still in current use in Puerto Rico. One phrase was an affirmation: "¡O-fi-cial!". Another was a stream of references to Puerto Rican towns: "¡Baya-móntate, Barran-quítate, Vega Bájate, Ad-júntate!", roughly translated to "get on, get out of the way, get down, get together!", mentioned along the names of Bayamón, Barranquitas, Vega Baja and Adjuntas, Puerto Rico. A third one was: "¡Linda melodía!", (Beautiful melody!), which he uttered when a musical arrangement was particularly complex or remarkable.

He also used code phrases to refer to drugs: Guayacol, con uña rallá!" was his code phrase for cocaine, and Acetileno!" his reference for heroin. After his religious conversion, however, Marvin affirmed that the only substance in his life from that moment on, besides the insulin he needed daily for his diabetes, was "Cristomicina", a portmanteau of the name of Christ and erythromycin.

Urban band Calle 13 has recorded a version of "Sorongo" for an upcoming tribute to Tite Curet, to be released in December 2011.

See also

  • List of famous Puerto Ricans


  1. ^ The Tortoise o Jicotea (Trachemys Stejnegeri Stejnegeri) is the unique species of native turtle that lives in pools, lagoons, dams, rivers and brooks of Puerto Rico (also he is present in Cuba). On natural history and customs of this species it is known very little.)

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