Benjy Melendez, 1972
“If the Ghetto Brothers’ dream comes true, the world will learn that the ‘little people’ wish to be acknowledged, wish to be properly educated in order for them to pass on their knowledge to their children, and proudly inform them about their heritage and culture, and be a functioning part of the dream of America. If the Ghetto Brothers’ dream comes true, the ‘little people’ will be ‘little people’ no more, and make their own mark in this world. Listen to the Ghetto Brothers… and take heed.”—from the back cover of the original 1972 release of Power-Fuerza
I’m not one to go in much for year end lists (I like reading other people’s, but not compiling my own, besides it’s the new year already, isn’t it?) but if I was, then the Ghetto Brothers jaw-droppingly amazing Power-Fuerza deluxe re-release from Truth & Soul would have been hovering very near the top of mine. You know how every once in a while something or someone long-forgotten (or that never was) gets rediscovered and it’s just so fucking good that music fans take it to their bosoms and become all-out evangelists for said album or performer? (Death, The Langley Schools Music Project, Zambian psychrockers WITCH, Jobriath, Father’s Children and Shuggie Otis come immediately to mind.) Well, this is one of those albums, and one of those bands and the back-story of brothers Benjy, Robert and Victor Melendez, doesn’t disappoint either.
Power-Fuerza was recorded on a single sunny day in New York City in 1972 by a Beatles-influenced garage rock group comprised of a bunch of well-intended, socially conscious teenage Nuyorican gang members led by three brothers who wanted to broker peace between South Bronx street gangs and have a good time.
Do I have your attention? This isn’t just a truly great “lost” record, it’s uncovering an entirely hidden history—and a very important history at that—of New York City in the early 1970s.
The music on Power-Fuerza reminds me of a lot of things, including, but not limited to, a less-technically proficient early Santana (I mean that in a good way), doo-wop, Motown and even the first Strokes album for its confident, youthful, boyish bravado. I can’t really say that it doesn’t sound like anything else I’ve ever heard before, because it definitely sounds like a whole bunch of stuff I’ve heard before put into a blender, but don’t get me wrong, the exuberantly sweet-sounding inner city blues of the Ghetto Brothers is still unique as fuck when judged on its own merits.
There is an emotional purity to this album that cannot be described in words. It is unabashedly joyous and stunningly beautiful. Its low-fi imperfections are what make it so perfectly perfect. Power-Fuerza hit my pleasure centers damned good and hard on the first spin. I came close to crying tears of joy, it’s that good. The second and third times I played it, I loved it even more. And then I played it again, and again, and again (it’s a super short album and that’s the only downside of Power Fuerza, you’ll be left wanting to hear more and there is no more).
Think I’m over-reaching? Check out the title of The Atlantic’s review: One of the Greatest ‘Lost’ Albums of All Time Has Been Found.
Hip-hop historian Jeff Mao writes in the CD’s extensive liner notes:
“By mid-1971, Benjy’s social conscience and interest in Puerto Rican nationalism dovetailed with the rise of young urban activist groups like the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, and the Puerto Rican Socialist Party. Catching the revolutionary spirit in the air, the Ghetto Brothers eradicated junkies and pushers from their neighborhood, cleaned parks and garbage-strewn empty lots, and participated in clothing drives and breakfast programs.”
The Ghetto Brothers story is one perfect for NPR, if not for Hollywood. From the press release:
As the Ghetto Brothers gathered daily in their clubhouse on East 162nd Street in the early ‘70s, they brought another aspect to their legacy: musicianship. Influenced as much by the Beatles – Benjy, Robert and Victor were in a neighborhood tribute group in the mid-‘60s called Los Junior Beatles – and doo-wop harmonies as by Santana and Tito Puente, they quickly cooked up a potent, NYC-flavored musical stew. It was a melting pot of styles gobbled up by a growing fanbase, who heard them on the street or, on occasion, traveled across gang lines to check the scene.
After jamming and building up enough tunes, the GBs garnered the attention of local record store and record label owner Ismael Maisonave (Mary Lou Records / Salsa Records). After agreeing to his invitation to put their music on tape, the group rehearsed furiously and gathered material. In the summer of 1972, they were ready.
The album’s eight tracks were recorded in one day at Manhattan’s Fine Tone Studios on 42nd Street, produced and engineered by Latin studio maven Bobby Marin. Seven of the eight are originals written by Benjy and/or Victor Melendez. Arrangements were written on the spot. The result: a beautiful, absolutely innocent audio snapshot by three brothers, their friends and a powerful gang of musical energy.
Power-Fuerza was a minor hit around New York, but that was about it. Until this new reissue from Truth & Soul (cased like a hardback book with 80 pages of fascinating liner notes and photographs), the 1972 LP was changing hands in collector’s circles for a thousand bucks. Not even all of the band members owned a copy. Forty years after its initial release, people (like me) are just going nuts for this album. It must be incredibly gratifying for everyone involved in creating and then bringing this hidden gem to the public some forty years after the fact and seeing it embraced the way it has been. Seriously, kudos to Truth & Soul for putting together a fantastic product that, frankly, is practically piracy proof. People are gonna want to buy it because the liner notes are SO ESSENTIAL. When you hear the music, you will want to know the story behind it.
The original group split up, but the Ghetto Brothers are still very much together as a musical family affair: Benjy and Robert Melendez and their sons Joshua and Hiram, playing bass and drums respectively, meet at their studio every Friday to play music (Their brother Victor Melendez died in 1995).
“There’s Something in My Heart”
“Got This Happy Feeling”
WNYC’s Soundcheck awesome show on the Ghetto Brothers with Benjy Melendez and author Jeff “Chairman” Mao:
“8 Million Stories: Yellow Benjy” by Andreas Vingaard