Subway Joe: Ordinary Guy's Boogaloo Renaissance

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If you’re deejaying a crowded room of dancers who don’t know how to dance to latin music, there is a solution: play boogaloo. This catchy, soulful music will definitely move some hips.

Boogaloo purveyors such as Pete Rodriguez (“I Like it Like That”) and Joe Cuba (“Bang Bang”) were big in 1970’s New York as well as other big cities, but the genre was eclipsed by the big salsa stars in the Fania Records stable: Willie Colon, Rubén Blades, the Fania All Stars, and other bands. Disco and rap also cemented its demise.

Now, however, boogaloo is back in motion due to a new documentary, “We Like it Like That“, and one of the big stars to resurface is none other than the great Joe Bataan. Born of an African-American mother and a Filipino father, he celebrated his non-Latino roots in his famous song, “Ordinary Guy“. He also had a huge hit with his song, “Subway Joe“.

Bataan was good at almost anything he did; born Bataan Nitoliano in 1942 and raised in Spanish Harlem, he ran track in middle school and hoped to make it to Howard University, but he joined a street gang, The Dragons, stole a car, and wound up serving five years in prison.

After getting out of prison, he got interested in music after hearing some friends in a doo-wop band, then began studying music on his own and forming a band, Joe Bataan and the Latin Swingers. The group played Bronx clubs and the subway too, hence the name of his famous song. They recorded a version of the Impressions’ “Gypsy Woman,” then pelted radio stations with requests to play it. New York’s WWRL broke it, and their version became a hit.

Later, however, new personal problems emerged, in the name of a gambling habit. Bataan sold his car and got evicted. He took a new job as a youth counselor at Bridges Juvenile Center in the Bronx and was good at it: he knew this turf well. He rose to supervisor and was active in union affairs as well, eventually becoming vice president.

But it was at a 1994 Bronx concert that he found himself backstage with mambo king Tito Puente, who expressed his love and appreciation for Bataan’s boogaloo. Joe was never forgotten, Puente told him.

Here is the trailer for the boogaloo film documentary “We Like it Like That”:

…and Joe Bataan telling the story of “Subway Joe”, followed by some choice doo-wop, a style that launched his career:

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