Izzy Sanabria: Latin Music's Renaissance Man

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I recently dropped some dough on a vintage mono LP (used) by the Alegre All-Stars called Way Out (Vol. 4). They spawned the immortal mambo DNA of groups like Tico All-Stars, Cesta All-Stars, and the final incarnation, the Fania All-Stars. The band changed its name every time the core group recorded for new labels (i.e. Tico, Alegre, Cesta, Fania). The LP I just bought was released in 1966, in the midst of the Cold War and the continuing space race between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

Izzy Sanabria (b. 1939) did wonderful cover art for the iconic Fania Records. His name is probably unknown to anyone who doesn’t follow Latin music, which is unfortunate because he’s right up there with Blue Note’s Reid Miles, CTI Records’ Pete Turner, and other legendary album cover artists. But more than just a graphic designer, Sanabria actually drew many of the iconic Fania covers. Izzy’s artistic muse was Salvador Dalí, and there was always a streak of the latter’s wonderful painterly quality mixed with a touch of surrealism: artists atop buildings or flying through space. Izzy was a superb draftsman and a top-knotch artist…and, as I discovered, a whole lot more.

I started reading about Izzy and found myself getting overwhelmed. Apparently, he’s also now a television and film actor, magazine editor and publisher, comedian, celebrity master of ceremonies, and the list goes on. Here in California, he’s not as well-known as he is on the East Coast, probably because we don’t have a big Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican population, nor do we have a Spanish Harlem, where much of New York’s tropical music was incubated.

In 1973, Izzy revived the Latin NY music magazine, increasing its circulation ten-fold in light of the growing popularity of salsa and the whole New York scene. Before it shut its doors in 1985, the magazine captured the glory days of salsa in the City: the dancing, the clothing, the lifestyle, and the stars.

Izzy Sanabria was born in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, in 1939, but grew up in the Bronx after his family relocated. He attended art school and eventually found work as a commercial artist. He frequented the happening Bronx clubs of the day, where he befriended Johnny Pacheco, co-creator of the Fania All-Stars. It was through him that Izzy met Al Santiago, president of Alegre Records. The story goes that Izzy showed Santiago a drawing he’d done for a forthcoming Pacheco album and was hired on the spot, despite the fact that another artist had already been assigned the job. It was his first big job with a label, and he demonstrated exceptional talent as a draftsman. But it was when he joined Fania, that Izzy’s career took off like a rocket ship.

Fania Records that his career took off like a rocket, immortalizing him on the New York scene. Sanabria also created memorable posters for huge events as the Fania All-Stars at Madison Square Garden (1977) and their Live at Yankee Stadium concert (1973). In the world of Latin music cover art, Izzy is El Padrino: it all starts and stops with him. Equal parts artistic genius and both comic and crazy, he revolutionized Latin music with his cover art and clever marketing concepts. As a result of Izzy’s efforts along with those of Jerry Masucci, Johny Pacheco, Larry Harlow and others at Fania Records, as well as promoters like the late Ralph Mercado and radio personalities like Polito Vega, the New York City salsa scene exploded in the 1970s, retaining not only traditional Latin music fans, but capturing a whole new generation of fans to the genre as salsa came to encompass all the extant styles: cha-cha, merengue, pachanga, mambo, guaguanco, guaracha, son and boogaloo.

The founding fathers of the legendary Fania label were flutist Johnny Pacheco, who attended Juilliard as a percussion major, and American-Italian lawyer Jerry Masucci. However, it took the renaissance talent of Izzy Sanabria to coin the term “Salsa” and to help bring Fania to the top of the tropical Latin music industry, together with the likes of the Fania All-Stars, Rubén Blades, Ray Barretto, Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Celia Cruz, Willie Colón and other luminaries.

For those of you interested in Fania Records’ cover art, there’s a fantastic catalogue by Pablo “DJ Bongohead” Yglesias, titled, ¡Cocinando! 50 Years of Latin Album Cover Art, to accompany his recent show, “Visual Clave” (video below), that he curated, featuring the work of album cover artists like Izzy Sanabria. It’s a must for any Latin music lovers!

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(note the Dali influence on the Ray Barretto cover art, above).

Watch Izzy Sanabria tell the story of how Latin salsa, the sound of Latin soul, came about.

“Visual Clave,” a recent NYC show celebrating Izzy Salabria’s work, curated by Pablo “DJ Bongohead” Iglesias.

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