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Larry Harlow, Iconic Salsa Musician And Producer, Has Died At 82

Larry Harlow at the 2008 Latin Grammy awards in Houston, Texas.
Michael Buckner
Getty Images
Larry Harlow at the 2008 Latin Grammy awards in Houston, Texas.

Larry Harlow, a pianist, arranger, producer and activist who helped to popularize salsa in the U.S., died early Friday morning of heart failure. His death was confirmed by family members, who said that he had been hospitalized for kidney issues. He was 82.

Known affectionately to his fans and fellow musicians as El judío maravilloso ("The Marvelous Jew"), Harlow was the only non-Latino among the fabled stable of bandleaders on the Fania Records label. He was raised Lawrence Ira Kahn to a Brooklyn Jewish musical family, but earned his superlative by studying Afro-Cuban music in Havana in the late 1950s, leaving just as the Cuban Revolution took over the country in 1959.

In interviews Harlow has said he was the first artist signed to Fania, a fledgling record company that would become a musical and cultural juggernaut of Afro-Caribbean dance music for almost two decades. Harlow was a multi-instrumentalist, having studied at the famedNew York High School of Music and Arts, and his vast musical knowledge was called upon as he produced of over 250 albums for other artists, as well as 50 for his own Orquesta Harlow.

Among his many firsts was his 1972 salsa opera, Hommy, patterned after the Who's popular rock opera, Tommy. It told the story of a deaf and blind young man who had a particular skill for Afro-Cuban percussion. The album is credited with reviving the career of Celia Cruz, whose performance on the track "Gracia Divina" catapulted her to worldwide stardom and icon status. Harlow staged two sold-out performances of Hommy at Carnegie Hall a year later, featuring many of the stars on the album. Lincoln Center mounted a revival of the work in 2014.

In a 2009 interview with the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, Harlow explained how his becoming a santero in the Afro Cuban spiritual tradition known as Santería in 1975 laid to rest any consideration of his non-Latino status among his peers and fans. In fact he fully embraced his bicultural existence when he named his 1975 album after the affectionate nickname he had already earned: El Judio Maravilloso.

Among the hundreds of musicians Harlow produced or recorded with were his brother, multi-instrumentalist Andy Harlow, and the Fania All Stars, a superstar collection of the label's top bandleaders.

Harlow was known for his prodigious jazz piano talent, and mixing that prowess with Afro-Caribbean tradition became his musical calling card. He was no stranger to experimentation, incorporating R&B and funk into his music, and using electronic keyboard sounds on his later recordings. In 2005 Harlow reached an entirely new audience when he collaborated with alternative-rock band The Mars Volta on its second LP, Frances the Mute, and appeared live with the group on select occasions after its release.

Beyond his work as an artist and producer, Harlow was a tireless advocate for Latin musicians. He championed their fair representation at the Grammy Awards, and was himself presented with the Trustees Award during the 2008 Latin Grammy award ceremony.

Up until shortly before he fell ill, Harlow continued to perform with a group of Fania legacy artists, as well as his own bands, all of which featured younger talents he personally had selected to mentor.

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Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.