Led by pianist and musical director Rafael Ithier (born: Rafael Ithier Eddie Perez), El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico is one of Puerto Rico’s greatest dance bands. Four decades after their inception, the 13-piece salsa group continues to inspire dancers with its horn-punctuated Latin rhythms and lush vocal harmonies. Officially named “Ambassadors of Our Music” by the Puerto Rican Senate, El Gran Combo’s many hits include such classics as “El Menu” and “Timablero.” Their 1978 album, En Las Vegas sold more than one million copies, while its follow-up, In Alaska: Breaking the Ice was nominated for a Grammy. A longtime member of popular Latin band, Cortijo y Su Combo, Ithier formed El Gran Combo in 1962, with eight of his bandmates including percussionist, dancer, chorus singer, and salsa bandleader, Roberto Roena.
The Puerto Rican release of the group’s debut album, Acángana, recorded two days before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, was delayed until it had already been released in Mexico, Panama, Venezuela, and the United States. El Gran Combo continued to expand its following in the early ’60s, performing to enthusiastic crowds in New York, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Colombia, and Venezuela. In Puerto Rico, they appeared regularly on the popular television show, El Show de Las 12. El Gran Combo has gone through numerous personnel changes with only Ithier and alto saxophonist Eddie Perez remaining from the original group. Roena left in 1969 to form a new band, Roberta y Su Apollo Sound Roena, and vocalist Andy Montañez left to join Dimensión Latina, in 1977. Trumpet player Taty Maldonado passed away in 1991. Despite the loss of talented musicians and singers, El Gran Combo has continued to evolve. They added a trombone player and third vocalist in 1991 and continue to feature top-notch vocalists including Charlie Aponte, who joined in 1972, and Jerry Rivas, who replaced Montañez. As of July 2002, El Gran Combo features vocalists Charlie Aponte, Jerry Rivas, and Papo Rosario, trombone players Victor Rodriguez and Moises Nogueras, saxophonist Freddy Miranda, bassist Fred Rivera, and the rhythm section of Miguel Torres on congas, Domingo Santos on timbales, and Mitchell Laboy on bongos.