ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — With his signature fedora, 80 year old Johnny Vega has graced the stage of countless festivals in Rochester as well as concerts, music halls and social clubs here, across North America and throughout Latin America.
The basement of Vega’s quaint northeast Rochester home is neatly arranged with plagues, photos, records and instruments that help tell the story of a Puerto Rican born to sing. “I mean it was so poor that anytime before I went to school I had to go to the public faucet on the main street to fill up a can of water to take it home to use for cooking, bathing and to wash dishes.” said the musician. He doesn’t have pictures. Be he has vivid memories of the mud slum he lived in outside of Puerto Rico in the 1940s. “I was born in the poorest part of Puerto Rico.” recalls Vega.
At an early age Vega fell in love with music. He memorized countless ballads as a little kid. Once he says when he was 8, he walked an hour and a half to San Juan to participate in a singing contest at a radio station. It was Mother’s day. “I didn’t have anything to give her.” Vega shares. Although, he got there after the contestants finished their competition he says he convinced the organizers to give him a chance. Vega performed “Vanidad”, he explains he learned the romantic song from his uncle. Impressed, the judge and the initial winner agreed to split the prize with Vega. When he returned home, he surprised his mother with a basket of perfumed soaps and toiletries. Vega says they both cried tears of joy.
Listening to Vega recount his childhood you clearly see the emotion and passion fueling his performances and the songs he writes. Like many without access to instruments, he created his own. ” They used to have in Puerto Rico sardines in cans that were oval. They had ridges on one side,” he demonstrates, “I took one of those things empty and I put a stick to it and I make believed it was a guitar and so I took a soda pop can and I used it like a guitar.”
Those are the humble beginnings of a man known to many in the Latin community as a musical maestro and generous mentor. As a teen, Johnny moved with his family to New York City. To earn money he and his uncle would sing at birthday parties and small gatherings. Soon they would create a trio and start gigging at social clubs in the Bronx and later some of the biggest venues in Manhattan and during the 1960’s. “The Freeman Theatre, Prospect Theatre, Teatro Puerto Rico”, his eyes sparkle with excitement recalling how he would join other bands and create orchestras of his own. “Marvin Santiago, one of the greatest singers, may he rest in peace,” Vega pauses to pay his respects to the famous salsa singer who died in 2004. Vega recalls his conversation with Santiago, “he said who’s band is this? and I know who he was so I said its your band,” Vega adds with a smile.
By the time he was 20 Vega had married his wife Edna. He says he was making a pretty good living for his family touring throughout the country and Latin America. His voice lowers almost to a whisper as he recounts the last time he would leave New York City to perform in another country. “I started crying and I said oh I’m so sorry”, Vega explains while on tour in Panama his wife Edna gave birth to their third child earlier than expected. When he returned home he rushed to the hospital to learn that his first son was born. “That’s when I really started crying. I said to her this is never going to happen again. I’m not travelling every. I’m done with music.”
To underscore that declaration Vega moved his family upstate to Rochester where his sister lived. He figured he was getting as far away from the Latin music scene as possible. Not even a week after he arrived, musicians who knew about the Johnny Vega from New York City implored him to join them. Vega is credited with changing Rochester’s Salsa Band adding more percussion and horns and creating full orchestras. “When they heard the Congo playing they loved it and it became La Muralla, the band, ” Vega shares how he helped musician Mike Rosario form the salsa band. Rosario died in 2014. Vega says although he stopped performing with the group for several years the band has been together for more than 50 years.
Johnny Vega’s career spans 8 decades and includes some of Salsa’s Greatest Hits as well as songs he’s written for other artists. He admits that performing, or writing songs did not make him a rich man. He knows he was probably owed money he never received over the years. However, he’s still writing songs, he’s still performing and scores of musicians still consider him a mentor. In April during a trip to Columbia with La Muralla Vega says he performed for thousands and was treated like a superstar. “I felt like Elvis Presley signing autographs. I must of singed 200 shirts,” he said.
Vega says he doesn’t count his blessings in dollars and cents. He says the love he has for his family, Latin music and Rochester is the biggest investment a man could have. Johnny and his wife Edna have 5 children, 4 grandchildren and 3 great children. But he says he as a host of other kids he and his wife have helped over the years. He calls it the most beautiful thing to witness. “I saw them grow up they call me dad or pop cause to me they were like my children all of them.”