Larry Harlow, the legendary pianist and bandleader who helped shape the sound of salsa in the 1960s and 1970s in New York, died Friday (Aug. 20) of complications from kidney disease, according to his son Myles Harlow Kahn. The artist, who was one of the first signed to Fania Records, was 82 years old.
“It is with deep sadness that we regret sharing the passing of Larry Harlow, producer, arranger, pianist extraordinaire, and Fania All Star member,” Fania Records shared in a Facebook post. “Harlow, also known as El Judio Maravilloso, made a name for himself with his dexterity on the piano, organ, flute, and bass. He went off to record more than 106 albums by various artists, and 50 of his own under the Fania label and other subsidiary labels.”
Affectionately known as “El Judío Maravilloso” (The Marvelous Jew), Harlow had no Latin ancestry, but he was madly passionate about Latin music, studying in Cuba, living in Mexico, and becoming a near-fluent Spanish speaker, albeit with an accent.
His affinity for Latin music came from the streets of New York — where he was born — and from his parents. Rose Sherman was an opera singer, and his father, Buddy Kahn, led the house band at Lou Walter’s famous Latin Quarter club.
Harlow not only played salsa and other genres of Latin music, but made it his life purpose. In the early 1970s, he became the first Academy governor from the Latin music world and spearheaded the campaign that would result in the first-ever Latin category at the Grammys.
One of the earliest signings to Johnny Pacheco and Jerry Masucci’s legendary Fania Records in the 1960s, Harlow would go on to produce or record more than 200 albums during his career — including four by brother and flutist Andy Harlow– and wrote around 100 songs, according to Herman Rodríguez-Bajandas, who administers his publishing catalog. He was also a producer on the 1972 documentary “Our Latin Thing,” which documented the fabled Fania All Stars concert at New York’s Cheetah nightclub.
Known for his “electrifying sounds” because he also played the clarinet and Rhodes, Harlow earned the nickname “El Judío Maravillo” after he produced Tributo a Arsenio Rodríguez, the tribute album for the fabled Cuban musician who was known as “El Ciego Maravilloso” (The Wonderful Blind Man).
“Dad was larger than life in so many ways,” wrote son Myles on social media, recalling a man known for his love of good food and good art. “I cannot even begin to summarize the effect he has had on me being both Dad and El Judió Maravilloso, both publicly and privately. One thing he passed on to me was passion. Be passionate about whatever you do, or don’t bother doing it.”
Harlow was awarded a Latin Grammy for Lifetime Achievement in 2008 and continued to record and perform long after he stopped recording for Fania, almost up until the pandemic hit. Recent shows included concerts alongside his mentee, Marlow Rosado, with whom he recorded the album Harlow Marlow in 2016.
He is survived by son Myles, his granddaughter Haiby, and his wife, María del Carmen Harlow Kahn.