Johnny Pacheco—the bandleader, songwriter, producer, arranger, and co-founder of the label Fania Records who helped popularize salsa on an international scale—has died, NPR reports. He was recently hospitalized, according to Fania co-founder Jerry Masucci’s brother Alex Masucci. No cause of death has been disclosed. Pacheco was 85.
Pacheco was born in the Dominican Republic and moved with his family to New York in the 1940s to escape the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. He taught himself multiple instruments before studying percussion at Julliard. He became a working studio musician, and in the early 1960s, his band Pacheco Y Su Charanga popularized pachanga music.
In 1963, Pacheco founded Fania Records with Jerry Masucci. The label would soon become synonymous with salsa, and Pacheco was the label’s house producer. Pacheco and Fania helped kickstart the careers of Celia Cruz, Willie Colón, Ruben Blades, Héctor Lavoe, and so many others. He wrote dozens of iconic songs, including “Mi Gente” (popularized by Lavoe). He was also a prolific member of the label’s roster from the ’60s to the ’80s, releasing multiple albums as bandleader as well as collaborations with artists like Cruz.
He often performed and recorded with a supergroup of artists from the label called the Fania All-Stars. One of the group’s most high profile performances was the 1974 music festival in Zaire that coincided with the Muhammad Ali and George Foreman fight. In 2005, Pacheco was awarded the Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.