William Anthony Colón Román (born April 28, 1950) is an American salsa musician and social activist. He began his career as a trombonist, and also sings, writes, produces, and acts. He is also involved in the politics of New York City.
Willie Colón born in the South Bronx, New York, to American-born parents of Puerto Rican descent. He picked up the trumpet from a young age, and later switched to trombone, inspired by the all-trombone sound of Mon Rivera and Barry Rogers. He spent some summers at his maternal grandmother’s sister’s (La finca de Celín y Ramón) farm in the outskirts of Manatí, Puerto Rico on the road to neighboring Ciales, Puerto Rico.
At the age of 15 he was signed to Fania Records and at 17 he recorded his first album, which ultimately sold more than 300,000 copies. Due to fortuitous events, the main record producer at Fania at the time, Johnny Pacheco, recommended Héctor Lavoe to him.
He has also acted in films, including roles in Vigilante (1983), The Last Fight (1983) and It Could Happen to You (1994).
Colón has been a civil rights, community, and political activist since the age of 16. He has served as a member of the Latino Commission on AIDS and President of the Arthur Schomburg Coalition for a Better New York, member of the Board of Directors of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute.
In 1995, Mr. Colón became the first person of color to serve on the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) national board replacing Stephen Sondheim, and was also a member of the ASCAP Foundation.
Beyond the trombone, he has also worked as a composer, arranger, and singer, and eventually as a producer and director. Combining elements of jazz, rock, and salsa, his work incorporates the rhythms of traditional music from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Brazil, and the other ancestral homeland, Africa, representing the mostly a one-way flow from Puerto Rico to the New York-based diaspora. “His life and music commute back and forth between his home turf in the Bronx and his ancestral Puerto Rico, with more than casual stop-offs in other musical zones of the Caribbean.” Colón “makes the relation between diaspora and Caribbean homeland the central theme of his work,” particularly in his 1971 Christmas album, Asalto Navideño. The lyrics and music of the songs on this album “enact the diaspora addressing the island culture in a complex, loving but at the same time mildly challenging way.”
He went on to have many successful collaborations with salsa musicians and singers such as Ismael Miranda, Celia Cruz, and Soledad Bravo, and singer-songwriter Rubén Blades. On his website, Colón claims to hold the “all time record for sales in the Salsa genre, [having] created 40 productions that have sold more than thirty million records worldwide.”
One significant overarching theme in Colón’s music, which draws from many cultures and several different styles, is an exploration of the competing associations that Puerto Ricans have with their home and with the United States. He uses his songs to depict and investigate the problems of living in the United States as a Puerto Rican, and also to imply the cultural contributions that Puerto Ricans have to offer.
In May 2007 Willie Colon sued Ruben Blades for breach of contract. This led to a series of suits and countersuits that lasted over five years. A book titled “Decisiones” detailing the inside story of this legal battle was written by Blades’ former agent, Robert J. Morgalo and published in 2016 in English and Spanish website.The court documents can be read here and full transcripts of depositions and court rulings can be seen here
Colón released two singles,”Amor de Internet” and “Corazón Partido” to promote for his album El Malo Vol II: Prisioneros del Mambo. In 2016 Colón began his 50th Anniversary Tour. In 2017 Colón announced his upcoming book titled Barrio de Guapos (The Secret Life of Willie Colón) and the launching of his record label Willie Colon Presents. For 2018 Colón kicked off his “Rumba Del Siglo” (Jam of the Century) World Tour performing in U.S., Latin America and Europe to mostly sold-out venues. Because of the great success of his last tour, Colón will continue “Rumba Del Siglo 2019” (Jam of the Century 2019).
AWARDS AND HONOURS
In addition to serving as a visiting professor and receiving honorary degrees for music and humane letters at various universities, in 1991, Colón received Yale University’s Chubb Fellowship.
In 1999, Colón was a member of the Jubilee 2000 delegation to the Vatican along with Randolph Robinson of Trans Africa, Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs, Bono from U2 and Quincy Jones. This initiative received Pope John Paul II’s endorsement and later prompted President Clinton to forgive the US portion of the debt owed by some third-world countries. Jubilee 2000 resulted in the forgiveness of a total $100 Billion Dollars to debt ridden countries.
In September 2004, Colón received the Lifetime Achievement Award from The Latin Recording Academy. Over the course of his career, he has collaborated with notable musicians such as the Fania All-Stars, Héctor Lavoe, Rubén Blades, David Byrne, and Celia Cruz. Siembra, his record with Rubén Blades, was the best selling album for its genre. Colón has been inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2019.
In 2006, Willie Colón is portrayed by actor John Ortiz to Marc Anthony’s Héctor Lavoe in the movie El Cantante, starring Jennifer Lopez. The movie is about the life of Héctor Lavoe and it covered their early career as the top salsa duo from the 1960s through the mid-1970s.
In 2010, The “International Trombone Association” bestowed their Lifetime Achievement Award upon Willie Colón. In their journal they went on to say, “Willie Colón has probably done more than anyone since Tommy Dorsey to keep the trombone before the public. Stylistically they are poles apart, Dorsey representing an ultra-smooth approach, Colón a Hard-edged roughness reportedly inspired by Barry Rogers. Unfortunately, Colón’s public is largely Latino, so his music and contribution have gone unnoticed or ignored by the general press”- Gerald Sloan, professor of music University of Arkansas.
On October 7, 2011, Westchester Hispanic Law Enforcement Association recognized Colón for his social and community activism and support.
In 2015 Billboard magazine named Willie Colón one of the 30 most influential Latin Artists of All Time.
On May 12, 2018, The Ellis Island Honor Society awarded Willie Colón the Ellis Island Medal of Honor which are presented annually to a select group of individuals whose accomplishments in their field and inspired service to the nation are cause for celebration. The Medal has been officially recognized by both Houses of Congress as one of our nation’s most prestigious awards and is annually memorialized in the Congressional Record.
On October 31, 2018, Willie Colón was awarded the “Lunas Del Auditorio Award” by El Auditorio Nacional.A recognition granted by the National Auditorium to the best live shows in Mexico , the award is a replica of the sculpture of La Luna by sculptor Juan Soriano that is outside that enclosure. This award is transmitted by Televisa, TV Azteca, Channel 22 of the Ministry of Culture and Channel Eleven of the National Polytechnic Institute.
Colón has served as the chair of the Association of Hispanic Arts.