Joe Bataan’s life story reads like a biopic waiting to be filmed. Born in Spanish Harlem in 1942 to an African-American mother and a Filipino father, he learned to sing in the street corner doo-wop style then popularized by Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers and a bunch of other groups united by their supernatural harmonies and affection for proper nouns. Falling into a life of petty crime, he drew a five-year sentence in an upstate New York prison for riding around in a stolen car (it remains unknown whether he was the driver).
Drawn to music while incarcerated, he taught himself to play the piano and formed a band within six months of his release. Amalgamating American R&B with the traditional Latin rhythms percolating through his heavily Puerto Rican neighborhood, Bataan emerged as one of the progenitors of Latin soul, setting exotic melodies to English lyrics about gypsy women and the everyday struggles of ghetto life.
First building on the boogaloo style then in vogue, Bataan later infused salsa into his repertoire, helping to coin the term “salsoul” on his 1973 album of the same name. Seamlessly adapting to disco as it swept the New York club scene, Bataan flashed his versatile and visionary nature, even incorporating the nascent hip-hop sound on “Rap-O Clap-O,” one of the first rap sounds ever laid to wax. Following his 1981 album, “Bataan II,” Bataan retired from music, spending most of the next two decades as a counselor for troubled youth.