Born Bataan Nitollano to an African American mother and Filipino father, Joe Bataan grew up in Manhattan’s East Harlem in the 1950’s and 60’s – otherwise known as “Spanish Harlem,” or “El Barrio.”
During that time, “El Barrio,” was a mainly Puerto Rican neighborhood where many Latin sounds started to boom. Bataan, who ultimately became a leading figure in Latin soul music, as a self-taught pianist and vocalist, was specifically influenced by Latin boogaloo and African American doo-wop. Fania Records spotted his talent, and signed him in 1966 – through which Bataan released his famous “Gypsy Woman” in 1967. He was also a main subject of the 2014 documentary on Latin boogaloo in New York City, “We Like It Like That.”
“My first ambition was to become an athlete,” recalls Bataan, now 73. “I wanted to follow in the steps of Jackie Robinson. That didn’t realize, so at around 9, I decided I wanted to become a singer. I used to buy hit parade books and imitate the artists every Saturday morning – from Frank Sinatra to Tito Rodriguez.”
Watching movies, he says, were also an inspiration to him.
“It was like a romantic period – what you couldn’t see, you could sing about,” says Bataan. “Music gave you a good feeling and gave you a different outlook on the world. It was like an injection of happiness. It was motivating. That’s when my dream started.”
However, his dream took a little detour. At 15, Bataan found himself as the leader of a gang called the Dragons and with a pregnant 13-year-old girlfriend. He was also sent to a correctional facility for stealing a car. It wasn’t until he was freed five years later, that he was able to resume his dream of becoming a musician.
“I started a band and learned the piano,” says Bataan. “It took me like six months to put that band together [Joe Bataan and the Latin Swingers]…I found a group of young kids, around eight musicians that stuck with me – ages 11, 12 and 13 – I was 19. I taught myself the piano, and then I helped teach them. It was all trial and error.”
He says it took a lot of hustling to become successful.
“You just don’t pick up and say, ‘I’m a star,’ says Bataan. “You had to find out what was available, seek out executives to listen to you, and get a following from the public. I started out with a dream, and then I was able to fulfill it little by little. No one ever gave us anything. We had to go out and get it.”
After a breakup with Fania, Bataan founded Salsoul Records in 1973. “Salsoul” was the term he gave the sound which blended salsa and soul. In the late 70’s, he ended up recording a rap hit under that label called, “Rap-O Clap-O.”
In the 1980’s, Bataan’s music career plummeted due to a gambling habit, and he took another detour back to Bridges Juvenile Center in the Bronx. However, this time it was for 25 years, but not behind bars.
“At 40, I found a job as a youth counselor exactly where I had been locked up [years ago],” says Bataan, who by then was raising a family. “I needed a job to pay my rent, but it turned my life around. I got to mentor troubled kids, just as I had wished someone had done for me. It makes me feel good that I had a meaningful part of my life besides music.”
He says he used techniques inspired by karate to create the discipline the 10- to 17-year-olds so craved and needed.
“Their role models were silly,” says Bataan. “They believed in somebody who had gold chains. A lot of them didn’t have parents, and they’d been on their own from a very young age. They needed motivation to change their life. If they don’t hear this from somebody, they’re lost.”
Now that he’s retired from the juvenile center, he says that he is currently writing a book called, “Streetology.” It gives youth tips on how to survive in life, including how to speak on a job interview, and how to be respected.
“Playing music for people is my pastime, but I also like to think I’m bringing a message,” says Bataan. “God has come into my life…He’s what allowed me to be here today. My faith in God has protected me all of my life.”
Bataan explains that he grew up in Catholic school, but he wasn’t ready for God as a young boy. It wasn’t until he was in his late 50’s that he had his encounter with who he calls “The Big Boss.”
“I went to see ‘Star Wars’ one day after work,” he recalls clearly. “I was borderline diabetic, eating all this popcorn at the movie. I came out, and I started to bleed out of my mouth. I started to lose consciousness, and I went into a coma. When I was in a coma, I felt God say, ‘Joe, why do you keep running away from me? I’m going to give you one more chance.’ I know he brought me back to life. The doctor had told my wife I wasn’t going to make it.”
Coincidentally, he always sang his song, “The Prayer,” to himself for many years before that incident, but it took him 30 years to finally sing it in public.
“I wasn’t ashamed anymore,” says Bataan about now one of his most popular songs. “I’m not just chasing women anymore – or a new house, or a new car. Joe Bataan is never going to be rich. God has me on a mission now. Everyday I wake up, and I thank God for another day.”
And each day is busy. He enjoys taking care of his grandchildren daily, and he’s also back in the music business and very active touring.
“Every month I’m performing somewhere around the world,” says Bataan who will be in Philadelphia on March 25 and on April 9 at Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts in New York.
He leaves us with this advice for life he wishes he had when he was younger:
“Don’t get involved in something unless you have a passion for it. Never give up, and never accept the word ‘no.’ If you’re weak with your drive, you should pick another profession. You might not become wealthy, but that’s not the only thing that matters in life – it’s living, teaching and sharing…You also have to believe in something – a higher being to guide you in life. You must take care of your body to enable to do what you need to do in life, and knowledge – it’s criminal to let a day go by without learning something new. Spirit, health and knowledge.”