I'm not a connoisseur of Latin jazz, but I am a happy casual listener. So I had never heard of conga legend Mongo Santamaria before his song “Fatback” became a persistent (if not pleasant) earworm for me. I blame this week's recurrence on cooking up hoppin' john (a Southern peas and rice dish) for the New Year. Fatback (the skin and fat from a pig’s back) is one of the best ways to add flavor to your black-eyed peas, after all.
[jump] “Fatback” is apparently best known as a peppy instrumental, as on Mongo Santamaria's Greatest Hits.
But that's not the version I fell for. I first heard it as included on the 2005 compilation Flavors of Latin Jazz: Soul Cookin'.
I received Flavors of Latin Jazz: Soul Cookin' as a free review CD back in the days when I would get stacks and stacks of discs in the mail every month. It was a compilation of food-themed Latin jazz classics culled from the archives of Milestone Records. I had no way of knowing at the time that the version of “Fatback” they chose to include was a rarity. The physical disc itself has since gone missing, which means I can no longer look at the liner notes for clues as to where this version came from, or who the vocalist is, nor whom any of the other musicians might be (it could be Chick Correa playing piano or Nat Adderly playing trumpet, for they were working closely with Santamaria in the early ‘60s). Santamaria himself is best known for his Latinized rendition of Herbie Hancock's “Watermelon Man,” which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
“Fatback” is credited to “B. Capers/V. Capers.” Bobby Capers played saxophone and flute in Mongo Santamaria's band. He convinced his sister Valerie Capers, a Julliard-trained classical pianist, to start working with Santamaria and to explore jazz as an expression of her family's black musical roots. Valerie had gone blind at the age of 6 and found it hard to find work as a teacher and musician. Bobby died in 1974, but Valerie went on to create an influential jazz music curriculum, as well as record, and composed her own material well into the ‘90s, touring under the name the Valerie Capers Trio. Now 80-years-old, she's the former music department chair and current professor emeritus at the Bronx Community College of the City University of New York.
I particularly love “Fatback” because it is easily repurposed as a song of love and admiration for big female bodies like mine, a subgenre previously dominated by Queen's “Fat Bottomed Girls.” I mean, we're so desperate as a group for affirming tunes that we sing “Baby Got Back” to each other and just plug our ears when Sir Mix-a-Lot sings that his ideal gal is “little in the middle.” If you go digging, you'll find a handful of old blues, an AC/DC song or two, some Missy Elliott, some Outkast and a lot of Candye Kane, but still, the pickings are slim (so to speak).
A song that extols good loving, good food, and big bodies is always going to get a lot of play in or out of my head. This is another reason I prefer my obscure from-the-vaults version: I want to hear the girls singing “ooh la la” and that big voice boom, “You know I like it hot. Give me my fatback, baby.”