How the record man Harvey Averne helped take Latin music worldwide
By Jessica Lipsky
Harvey Averne begins most days with a bialy and whitefish salad. He watches “Morning Joe,” plays with his cat, Coco Baby, and fields calls from Latin music legends such as Joe Bataan at his eclectic but tidy Woodhaven, Queens apartment.
On a particularly humid day in mid-March, they were advising each other on prescription medication. But a peek at Averne’s foyer — which is adorned with awards, concert posters, framed newspaper clippings and photos, including a prominently displayed shot with Celia Cruz — tells a story that belies his typical 86-year-old day-to-day travails. Averne is one of the last of the Latin music giants: a Jewish kid from East New York who had a hand in the development of Latin music, from the borscht belt to boogaloo and salsa.
“I like rhythm, I like the beat,” Averne explained. “I didn’t understand a word they’re saying, but that’s OK — you don’t understand a word in the opera.”
As a producer, manager and musician, Averne has a storied history behind the scenes at some of New York’s biggest Latin music labels. He was the de facto COO of the crucial Fania Records, where he produced or supervised records by Willie Colón, Larry Harlow, Ralfi Pagan and Ray Barretto. At his own Coco Records, which released Latin jazz and salsa, Averne’s work with pianist Eddie Palmieri earned the first two Grammy Awards for Latin music.
“He was the type of guy that always had new ideas,” said Bataan, a longtime friend and Fania artist. “He’s always been a hustler; he’s always been that guy — the Phil Spector of Latin music.”
Born in 1936, the first generation child of Polish parents, Averne was a class clown and troublemaker whose teachers would send him out to Linden Boulevard to watch plants grow in lieu of disrupting class. Music was the only thing that held his attention.
Averne said he loved R&B but realized that “every hotel and every club had a Latin band.” He didn’t want to work at a factory like his father, and in music, “there were a lot of girls.”
At 14, Averne was leading a Catskills hotel band when he noticed another employee strumming a guitar and singing in Spanish. He was “hypnotized,” he recalled, and asked to learn the song. Inspired, he changed the name of his Harvito Trio to Arvito and His Latin Rhythms and made the leap from Catskills stages to the Palladium, where the teen group opened for stars including Tito Puente, Machito and Tito Rodriguez.
Before he entered the record business, Averne “ran errands for the local mafia guys,” he said, worked in diaper service and family photo sales, and had his own successful home improvement business. The shrewd business sense he accumulated over the years — even as a teen bandleader — kept him on the cutting edge of the growing and ever-diversifying Latin music scene.
Averne came to Fania in 1966, when a fellow Jewish salsero, Larry Harlow, introduced him to Jerry Masucci — a lawyer who had recently founded the label — and the two hit it off instantly. Averne recalled arriving at their first meeting in his chauffeured Cadillac Seville, dressed to the nines. Masucci immediately asked Averne to run his fledgling company.
Fania’s impact on Latin music in the mid-60s was undeniable: “We blew everything up,” Averne said. The label pioneered Latin soul and boogaloo, a fusion of traditional Latin music styles with contemporary R&B and soul music. One of Averne’s favorite productions during that period was Barretto’s 1968 boogaloo LP, “Acid.”
“Ray was the one who really saw my potential,” Averne said of the percussionist. “I produced ‘Acid,’ but Ray Barretto produced Harvey Averne. He was the most prepared artist I’ve ever worked with.”
While Averne had no previous label experience, he aggressively (and successfully) marketed acts using the sales tactics he honed in his teens and 20s, broadening the appeal of Fania artists and Latin music beyond the tristate area. He was “a great spokesman for whoever he chose to work with,” said Bobby Marin, a songwriter, producer and performer who worked with Fania.
In 1972, Arverne founded Coco Records, and his first signee was Palmieri, a pioneer of Latin jazz who continues to perform globally. Their two biggest recordings — “The Sun of Latin Music” and “Unfinished Masterpiece” — were a monumental step away from Latin dance music and further expanded what popular Latin music could sound like.
While their pairing was professionally and critically successful, the two clashed over sound, contracts and payments, Averne said. “‘Unfinished Masterpiece’ was a war between Eddie and I,” Averne said. Palmieri, now 86, declined to comment.
In 1976, the two parted ways, and Averne turned his focus to albums from Eydie Gormé and Machito, as well as records with Cortijo y Su Combo Original. By the end of the decade, though, Coco was over, done in by financial issues, Averne said.
His final foray in the record business was as a partner in the disco-focused Prism Records (a forerunner to hip-hop label Cold Chillin’ Records), during which time he met a young Madonna. (He said he still has some of her earliest demos.)
In the early ’80s, his career at labels over, Averne fell into a dark period.
“Everything crumbled,” he said. “I wasn’t even answering the phone for a couple years.”
When Carlos Vera, a DJ and boogaloo enthusiast who has worked closely with Averne in recent years, first met Averne in the 2010s, “He wasn’t taking care of himself,” he said, and the younger man traveled from his home on the Upper West Side to Averne’s apartment in Queens several days a week. He helped Averne renovate his apartment, organized his ephemera and got him online. “I pushed him to eat well and take better care of himself. It took me a long time to convince him.”
Today, Averne is in better spirits. “I’m still making money from music,” he said. “I still own my own publishing and I’ve written more than 50 songs.” Mostly, he’s retired. “I had the feeling of ‘Harvey, you did it. You proved yourself to yourself.’”
And while most of his friends are gone — including Larry Harlow in 2021 and salsa radio host Polito Vega this March — Averne said, “I’ve never been lonely. When I had a lot of people around, it wasn’t because I needed them. It’s because I wanted them.”
“I’m relaxed. I’m chilling,” he added. But “if the right musical project came along that was interesting to me, I would do it in a heartbeat.”