Bongo Beat! Chicho Valle & The Rise Of Latin Music In Canada
Looking back over Canada’s eclectic musical resume of the 20th century, nothing intrigues me more than the birth and cultivation of Latin music up here in the great white north. Leading the charge was Chicho Valle! When he touched down in “T.O. Town” back in 1946 he had his work cut out for him. He was one of, if not the only Cuban musician in Toronto until the 1960’s. He was the only musician pursuing Latin music until 1956 with the arrival of a Mexican trio called Los Tres Compadres. To say he was a pioneer of Latin music in Canada would be an understatement.
Chicho (Amador) Valle was born in Cienfuegos, Cuba on July 2nd, 1922. Chicho began singing in Cuba at nine with the dance orchestra of his brother, Hector Valle. Chicho would begin to play guitar in his early teens with the encouragement of his family, and would eventually emulate his brother; becoming a leader of his own band.
Little info of his early life is known. What has been confirmed is that he came to the U.S. at 18 years old, settling in southern New Orleans. While there, he attended Loyola University, studying law. He grew restless of his studies around early 1942 and would begin playing guitar again. That year, he’d start a trio, assisted by two female instrumentalists. They’d play private parties and would hold down residencies at some of the hottest clubs. He led the trio from 1942-1946.
In early 1946 he was invited by the CBC to come to Toronto to perform on their radio show “Latin Music Serenade.” He made his first appearance on the program on May 19th of that year. He was well received, prompting him to stay after his contracted period with the program.
His own group would debut live sometime in 1947, going by the name “Chicho Valle y los Cubanos.” He’d also start his own show for the CBC sometime that year, which he’d run for nearly twenty years; titled “The Latin Sound of Chicho Valle y los Cubanos.” The gigs were few and far between at first, but as the 1950’s began and Latin music’s influence began to spread across North America, his band would begin to find more gigs throughout Ontario; playing at night clubs and hotels, carving out a niche entirely their own. He’d appear frequently at “The Cork Room” in Toronto as well as “The Bigwig Inn” in Muskoka from 1950 to 1963. Toronto was his main haunt however and in addition to The Cork Room, he’d hold down residencies at The Barclay, The Prince George and The Park Plaza.
Throughout the 1950’s and early 1960’s, his group was featured on coast to coast radio programs, allowing their star to grow. This would prompt numerous TV credits, including guest appearances on the Jackie Ray Show, The Barris Beat, Showtime, Cross Canada Hit Parade and with Billy O’Conner and Joan Fairfax.
By 1956, his little trio had grown to a tentet featuring flautist Gordon Day, bassist Johnny Niosi, pianist Rudy Toth, trombonist Ray Sikora and guitarist Stan Wilson among others. The performances would continue, eventually seeing him get gigs in Montreal. The 1960’s however saw the beginning of his Canadian recording career.
In 1962, Chicho Valle would sign with Topper Records Toronto; a short-lived label dedicated to dance records. He’d record a number of songs for the label under the name “Chicho Valle & His Orchestra.” These recordings would briefly see him using a 20-piece concert orchestra featuring reed, woodwind, brass, and rhythm instruments.
The first of these releases is an obscure and oddball compilation for “The Continental Life Insurance Company” released in 1962. This release featured songs by his and other orchestras/dance bands signed to the Topper label. These included, The Benny Louis Orchestra, Roy Smith’s Orchestra, Johnny Lindon’s Orchestra, and Wally Wicken’s Orchestra.
Not long afterwards, in late 1962 or early 1963, he’d release a standalone single for the label. “Cha Cha Cha/Samba” represented a fantastic Latin-jazz sound that caught the attention of Lyman Potts’ Canadian Talent Library label. Featuring a total of 22 musicians, he’d head into the studio that May to record. This album was distributed to radio stations across the country and although not commercially released, this would help further build Chicho’s exposure. Featuring an assortment of both popular English and Cuban/Mexican covers, the album was a great chance to show the repertoire he had been building in Canadian clubs over the past decade and a half.
The following few years consisted of constant touring, playing in clubs and hotels across the country, as well as numerous more radio and T.V appearances. The CBC saw promise and commissioned him to record an album in 1968. His music up to this time had been a veritable mix of traditional jazz and a melange of Latin musical styles.
This album saw him recruiting a number of Toronto’s top session players from the CBC’s roster; including “Father of Toronto Guitar” Tony Braden, arranger and saxophonist Pat Riccio, Ellis McLintock (ex- first chair trumpet of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra), trombonist Laurie Bower (who by this time had started his own singing group) and Teddy Roderman, percussionist Dick Smith and the list goes on. This album was also commercially released through Capitol Records of Canada via a master-play by Paul White who was A&R man for them (Created The "6000" Series and is credited with "Breaking" The Beatles in Canada six months before the Capitol USA). The album unfortunately didn’t perform well but Chicho was undeterred, continuing to perform.
1970 saw a number of developments for Chicho. He had become at this time music director for the Four Seasons hotel chain in Canada; a position he held until 1976. He’d also record his third and final album (second for the CBC) in 1970. This album went back to the “radio station only” transcription model that his CTL album had seen in 1963, which doomed any chance of commercial success. Around this time, he’d decide to retire from performance more or less and due to his job with the Four Seasons, would establish his own booking agency. Through this he’d help give work to a number of recently emigrated Latin music groups; Mexican group Tequila, Los Amigos, and Hope Pepper (led by the Peruvian pianist Freddiy Young).
Unfortunately, a big part of the lack of interest in or success of Chicho and these various groups over the decades was low numbers of immigrants from Cuba, Spain and other Latin countries. The music just wasn’t something that Canadians got behind in any sort of a meaningful way, which is a shame.
While never garnering conventional popularity among Canadian Jazz music fans at the time, some of these artists have garnered a cult following of sorts in the intervening years; including Hugo Biucchi, Les Frères Revi, Tito Leonti, Ruben Rivas and a few others. Leading the charge of course was Chicho Valle! These artists laid the groundwork for the generations of Latin musicians to follow.
WRITTEN & RESEARCHED BY: AARON LUSCH