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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Polito Vega, salsa ‘king’ of New York radio, dies at 84

Disc jockey Polito Vega in the WSKQ studio in New York, on Aug 23, 2009. Polito Vega, an exuberant announcer with a booming bass voice and a finely attuned ear whose Spanish-language shows popularized salsa music in New York in the mid-1960s, died on March 9 in North Bergen, N.J. He was 84.

By Sam Roberts

Polito Vega, an exuberant announcer with a booming bass voice and a finely attuned ear whose Spanish-language shows popularized salsa music in New York in the mid-1960s, died March 9 in North Bergen, New Jersey. He was 84.

His death was announced by his family. No cause was given.

After abandoning his dreams of becoming a singer, Vega began his broadcasting career in 1960, shortly after transplanting himself from Puerto Rico to New York. He quickly distinguished himself on air with his signature voice, his perky epigrams like “Andando, andando, andando” (“Keep going”) and his adventurous playlists. He also distinguished himself in person, at concerts and dances, with his ubiquitous New York Yankees cap, starched white guayabera shirt, white goatee and fuzzy sideburns.

DJ and recording artist Alex Sensation described Vega on Instagram as “the architect of Hispanic radio at a global level.”

In an obituary in Billboard magazine, Leila Cobo, the author of “Decoding ‘Despacito’: An Oral History of Latin Music” (2020), wrote: “Vega’s importance to Latin music cannot be overstated. He was the most influential tastemaker in the country’s top market, dating back to when tropical music first became popular in the city in the 1960s and 1970s and stretching all the way to the 21st century.”

He was heard on two New York AM stations, first WEVD and then WBNX, and finally on WSKQ (Mega 97.9 FM) — which began broadcasting as a full-time Spanish-language format in 1989 and has often been rated No. 1 in that market. He also became the station’s program director.

When Vega began broadcasting, he recalled, he was struck by the disconnect between the comparatively temperate bolero music that dominated Latin broadcasting and the feverish salsa he was encountering in nightclubs. He was among the first radio personalities to recognize the market for salsa, identifying promising talent and mentoring gifted musicians.

“It was two different worlds in those early days,” Vega said told The New York Times in 2009. “At the dance halls and up in the Catskills you would hear the Tito Puente and Machito orchestras tearing things up, but on the radio the kind of thing you heard was romantic trios, unless you were tuning in to Symphony Sid” — the prominent jazz DJ who began playing Afro-Cuban music in the 1960s — “late at night.”

Trombonist Willie Colón, who became one of salsa’s biggest stars, recalled that the first time he heard Yomo Toro, the maestro of the 10-string guitar known as the cuatro, with whom he would later collaborate on several recordings, “was on Polito’s show, playing along with listeners who would call in and sing over the telephone.”

In the late 1960s, Colón got a break when he was invited to appear on “Club de la Juventud,” an “American Bandstand”-inspired TV show that Vega hosted on the Telemundo network from 1967 to 1970.

Among the other musicians whose careers Vega helped promote were Celia Cruz, Puente and Ismael Miranda.

Hipólito Vega Torres was born Aug. 3, 1938, in Ponce, on the southern coast of Puerto Rico. His father was a bus driver, and the young Vega sold newspapers on the beach to supplement his family’s income.

He began calling himself Polito as a teenager after winning an amateur singing competition, only to be told by the contest’s master of ceremonies that he would never become a celebrity with a name like Hipólito.

In 1957, he moved to New York City, where he lived with an uncle near Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx and worked as a shipping clerk while trying to get a break in the music business.

“I came to New York as a skinny little kid with a wisp of a mustache, hoping to make it as a singer,” he said in 2009.

Johnny Pacheco, a Dominican-born flutist, bandleader, songwriter and producer, knew Vega in those days. “Even before Polito got a job, he was already an announcer,” Pacheco, who died in 2021, told the Times. “He used to go to a barbershop owned by a compadre of mine, and I remember how he was always joking and kidding around there, imitating announcers and singers and talking as if he were already on the air.”

One night in 1960, he was helping a friend who was hosting “Fiesta Time,” a half-hour show on WEVD; as his friend’s sidekick, he read listeners’ names and record requests on the air. The station’s owner heard his voice and hired him as an announcer.

“Radio fever got into my head,” Vega recalled.

When WEVD expanded to 24-hour programming not long after that, he was offered the midnight-to-6 a.m. slot.

“The show,” he later said, “was so successful and I felt that liberty to express myself that I’ve maintained to this day.”

Pacheco, who co-founded Fania Records in 1964 as New York was supplanting Cuba as a center for emerging Latin music, described Vega in 2009 as “part of the whole salsa movement, one of its pillars.”

“As we were building the company,” he added, “he was there with us. I’d bring him the LPs, he’d listen and say, ‘I like this song, I’m going to push it,’ and he’d play the hell out of it.”

Vega later moved to WBNX, where he became known as “El Rey de la Radio” — the King of Radio — and where he met Raúl Alarcón, the senior program director. Alarcón went on to become head of the Spanish Broadcasting System, where Vega was for many years executive vice president in charge of programming.

In 2009, Vega was honored at two all-star 50th-anniversary concerts at Madison Square Garden. Three years later he was celebrated at Citi Field in Queens by a lineup that included Gloria Estefan and Daddy Yankee.

Vega’s wife, Judith, died last year. His survivors include two sons and a daughter. Two other sons died before him.

In a statement, his family asked that his fans not mourn but “celebrate his legacy,” adding: “Polito continues to live in the music that he loved and shared, as well as the impact he left in the Latin community. Polito lived happiness, smiles and love. We would like for all his fans to live life to the fullest, as he did.”

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