Johnny Ventura, the singer, conductor, composer and arranger who shaped the sound of modern merengue in the 1960s, keeping his tropical beats while picking up tempos and borrowing from rock n roll, died on July 28 in Santiago, Dominican Republic. He was 81 years old.
The cause was heart failure, Santiago’s Medical Union Clinic said in a statement. Mr. Ventura was having lunch when he suffered from chest pain, collapsed and did not respond to CPR, the clinic said.
Often referred to as the Elvis of Merengue and the Black Horse, Mr. Ventura has released over 100 albums over six decades, recording exuberant hit songs like Patacn wrote, Pitaste, and Merenguero Hasta la Tambora. He has won six Latin Grammys, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.
But music was not his only activity. Later in his life he became a businessman, graduated in law and entered politics, as mayor of his country’s capital, Santo Domingo.
He was born Juan de Dios Ventura Soriano in Santo Domingo on March 8, 1940. A young man from a modest family, he studied to become a secretary, hoping that a clerical job would help finance a university education to become an architect. But after winning a radio talent competition for singing in 1956, he focused on music, broadcasting school graduate Hector J. Diaz.
In his youth, the Dominican Republic was ruled by dictator Rafael Trujillo, who promoted merengue, a rural genre, as a symbol of Dominican identity. But there came a time when it became stagnant, Mr. Ventura said in a 2016 interview with El Tiempo newspaper, as artists and bands wanted to dedicate most of their work to the boss.
After Trujillo’s assassination in 1961, the merengue began to express a new sense of freedom, embracing unfettered tempos and uncensored lyrics.
When Trujillo died, political euphoria swept through the Dominican Republic, Mr. Ventura told Paul Austerlitz for the book Merengue: Dominican Music and Dominican Identity (2021), and as 21-year-olds we naturally participated to that.
Mr. Ventura began to play the saxophone, but soon discovered that his natural talent was that of a baritone singer. Tall and handsome, he was a charismatic leader. He sang the lead song on the biggest Dominican hit of 1962, Luis Perzs The handle, a rhythmic song full of double meanings.
In 1964, he had founded his own group, Johnny Ventura and the Combo Show. As young Dominicans increasingly listened to rock n roll and salsa, he updated the merengue sound, incorporating these influences.
The traditional merengue was completely identified with tyranny and had been usurped by the enormous popularity that rock n roll had awakened in Dominican youth, Mr. Ventura. written in a 1978 essay.
He turned the Combo Show performances into visual shows, dancing with such abandon that he was compared to Elvis Presley, a comparison he encouraged by dressing like the American singer and even adopting his characteristic smirk. . Mr. Ventura has appeared regularly on daytime variety shows and even hosted his own game show.
He began performing in New York in 1967, finding success with American audiences and also recording duets with the salsa stars of the day. He became especially close to Celia Cruz, he said, singing with her and looking at her like she was an older sister.
As disco became the international sound of the dance floor in the 1970s, Mr. Ventura had to reckon with its popularity. We’ve incorporated almost all of the Bee Gees songs into my band’s repertoire, and the audience applauded a lot when we sang those songs in English, he told Austerlitz.
But faking disco hits made it ridiculous, he says, because I used to create, always create songs and modify the merengue.
So I discovered that the basis of disco was in the rhythm of the bass drum, he says. This is where the attraction was for young people. So I started to use the bass drum in merengue, and the young people started dancing the merengue again. The bass drum has become a staple of the merengue sound.
Mr. Ventura resumed his studies while recording and touring, obtaining a law degree from the University of the Third Age of Santo Domingo, graduating summa cum laude. He dissolved his group in 1992 in order to devote more time to his career as an Amway health and beauty distributor.
He was vice-mayor of Santo Domingo from 1994 to 1998, a post he described to the New York Times in 1999 as almost decorative. But when Jos Francisco Pea Gomez, his friend and colleague from the Dominican Revolutionary Party, died of cancer in the midst of the mayoral campaign, Mr. Ventura took his place in the election and won. He was mayor from 1998 to 2002, shoehorn in a live performance from time to time.
As mayor, he battled a housing shortage, woefully inadequate garbage collection and the various other needs of the city’s three million residents. People don’t think their problem will be solved if they don’t see the mayor, he told The Times.
After his tenure as mayor, he said, he just wanted to play with his grandchildren, but he remained involved in politics even while running for mayor again in 2020, unsuccessfully this time, with the Peoples Force party. What does an artist have that does not allow him to be part of the solutions to the problems of his country? he asked in a television interview.
Mr. Ventura has been married for over 50 years to Nelly Josefina Flores. He is survived by her, as well as seven children, Jandy Ventura, Ana Yahaira Ventura Flores, Juan Jos Ventura Flores, Daysi Ventura, Erudi Andreina Ventura, Hilda Ventura and Virginia del Carmen Ventura; 17 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
He was hospitalized in March 2020 after testing positive for Covid-19, but recovered and had announced plans for live concerts in the coming months. Just hours before his death, he posted a video on Instagram of himself dancing with a fan. In the legend, he writes, I miss the human warmth of my audience.
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