Johnny Santana's first drumsticks were kitchen utensils. A young boy in his Brooklyn, New York apartment, he mimicked the beats of 1960s pop-rock icons on the table while his mother cooked. He was hypnotized by the drums watching the Beatles, The Dave Clark Five, and The Rolling Stones with disciplined concentration as he sat two feet away from his TV screen. The Santana's hailed from Arroyo, Puerto Rico and moved to New York when Johnny was age five. At the age of twelve his father got him his first Gretsch snare drum. His roots and his intrinsic fascination with drumming inspire his life's work as a Latin percussionist.

In late high school Johnny's cousin Joe Gutierrez suggested he try Latin percussion, and to Johnny's great surprise, his dad bought him his first set of timbales. A few years later, a neighborhood musician Ray Lenares spotted Johnny jamming in front of the Junior High School 111. They eventually became friends and started practicing timbales together, and Lenares gave him his first album Tito Puente in Percussion. With that album, Johnny sat Tito Puente next to all great legends. He dreamed of one day playing with Tito and his colleagues: Mongo Santamaria, Tito Rodriguez or Machito.

Johnny, Ray and Victor Guadalupe--another neighborhood musician Johnny befriended debuted in local trios, playing in weddings and at local bars. His first bands were called Orchestra COBRA a non Latin cover band Orchestra JRT, and Ray Jay and the Eastsiders who already had his first recording on the Cotique label.

After two years of practicing and playing, Joe Gutierrez asked Johnny to cover him and play for RENE GRAND Y SU COMBO NEW YORK at Club Caborrojeno up on 145th Street. When Johnny arrived, no one in the band knew to expect him. They were all in their 40s and 50s and Johnny was 19. "Well we've gotta go with what we've got," Grand said. After the show, the band called Johnny into their back-room meeting. They enthusiastically voted him in, and he played with Rene Grand from 1969 to 1972. Johnny was also fortunate to sit in with the Tito Puente Orchestra occasionally during his time with Rene Grand at the New York Casino night club on 96th Street. One summer, Johnny got to work with RAMON ARGUESO and his Orchestra at the famous Roseland Ball Room on 52nd Street NY, which the drummer happened to be Mr. Frankie Colon a member of the Tito Puente Conjunto during the early Tico recording years.

During his time with Rene Grand, Johnny was asked to play with Mike Martinez and the LATIN DIMENSIONS whose singer was Roberto Torres and did his first recording for their self-titled album for Mericana Records 1972.

In 1972 Johnny met Benny Bonilla at one of the New York Community College dances, which were known to feature top-notch orchestras. Benny was playing with Johnny's favorite band, Tony Pabon y la Protesta. A few (months) later in August, Benny got Johnny a tryout. Held at the Caborrojeno, he auditioned by jumping in mid-set. He knew every song with perfect accuracy. While they were playing Tony lowered his trumpet and turned around: "Sounds like you've been with us five years." He objected as Johnny went to get off the stage after the song, and a week later, Tony called Johnny to welcome him to the band. During his time with La Protesta Tony Pabon asked Johnny to take part of the Rico All Stars Band to accompany the Puerto Rican singer Jose Miguel Class backed up by an orchestra for the first time. The album was titled CANCIONES INOLVIDABLES and the arrangements were done by Jose Madera which included musician legends such as Israel (Cachao) Lopez on bass and Carlos (Patato) Valdez on congas. In late1975 Johnny left the band. Johnny Zamot, a long time pursuant of Johnny's, got a whiff of what happened and recruited him to play in his band, Johnny Zamot and his Orchestra. It was the beginning of a 15-year, on-again, off-again, musical relationship. Johnny played in three bands with Johnny Zamot, also including SOCIEDAD 76 and JOHNNY RAY SALSA CON ClASE. Together they release the albums, "Sociedad 76," and "Sociedad 76, From the Big Apple with Love on Borinquen records, El Hulk de la salsa for Fania Records. During his years with Zamot, Johnny also played with Orchestra CIMARRON, JOE CUBA SEXTET, RAY ROIG Y LA SENSACION and JOE QUIJANO.

At this time Johnny also gave lessons to budding neighborhood musicians. One younger mentee, Joe Morales, was playing with Mongo Santamaria’s son, Monguito Santamaria, and was recruited to play with Santamaria in 1979. Morales couldn't do it because he already had a great job lined up, but he referred Santamaria to Johnny.

Ten musicians joined Johnny at the audition, which was held in a rehearsal studio on 29th street and 8th Avenue in New York. Timbales players and drum players were paired. Regarding Santamaria as one of the best Latin percussionists in history since age 14, Johnny knew his repertoire. Before they started Santamaria asked Johnny if he knew how to play a specific song (Olga y Cuco). 

Of course," Johnny answered. "Just count off." After the auditions the anxious musicians sat on a long bench. Doug Harris, Santamaria’s sax player, walked over to them. Without words and with both his arms extended, Harris pointed to Johnny and his partner Dorian MGee. They were in.

Johnny toured with MONGO SANTAMARIA from February to June on 1979. He visited Paris for two weeks and toured all over the United States. He entertained at clubs he recognized from Santamaria’s prime, which he learned about from his record collection. They included Concerts by the Sea in California, and The Village Gate and The Bottom Line in New York.

While playing with Mongo in 1979 at the Village Gate, Johnny met BORIS MIDNEY. He was a big well-known producer and owner of Eras Recording Sound studios in New York City. Boris recruited Johnny to play percussion in various recording projects, to name a few Disco Evita, Empire Strikes Back for RSO records, Double Discovery on Polydor Records and many others. In 1980, the band left for Europe again, and were greeted with whistles and screams. "When you went to Europe as a musician you were treated like a King," said Johnny. "Here, people love you and they applause, but in Europe it's even more special. It was a surprise to me." Johnny played at the Montmartre in Copenhagen, and for an audience of 5,000 at the New Morning Festival in Geneva.

Tired from touring, Johnny left Santamaria later that year and went back to play with Zamot in Johnny Ray Salsa con Clase. He stayed with Zamot until 1990, when he moved to Florida with his family. He had no connections there except for his friend Sammy Pagan, who he had given lessons when he Pagan was 13 or 14 because he was an incredibly talented neighborhood kid. Pagan lived in Florida and was a well known musician when he hooked Johnny up with a young Miami band, Orchestra Exito, featuring Cuban singer Pedro Leon, a brief stint with the Willie Chrino band and toured El Salvador Central America and working with Exito at Pleasure Island. In 1994 Johnny moved back to New York City and continued working again with Johnny (Ray) Zamot Salsa con Clase.


Johnny didn't start his musical education until later in life. From 1976 to 1978, Johnny studied with renowned 1930's and 40's timbales player Uba Nieto. In 1979, during his time with Santamaria, he studied with Ron Davis, a drummer who played with the famous 1960s band Joey Dee and the Starliters and former member with Chuck Mangione. Then in 1988 and 1989 Johnny studied with Michael Lauren at the Drummer's Collective in New York City.

Johnny would like to thank:

Rene Grand

Tony Pabon

Boris Midney

By: Maggy Baccinelli

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