Ismael Rivera was born October 5, 1931 in the town of Loiza Aldea in Puerto Rico. At an early age he showed signs of great musical ability. On weekends he would go to the beach with a childhood friend, Rafael Cortijo, to hear the musicians ‘jam’. Rafael and Ismael would later go on to form a conjunto that would be recognized internationally.
He was one among many yet his talent for improvising lyrics and rhythms on the spot would earn him the title “El Sonero Mayor”, the premiere improviser. Known as ‘Maelo’, Rivera learned the bomba and the plena, the sounds of Puerto Rico at an early age. Rivera’s music is a mix of these traditional son vocal singing style. He is looked upon as a legend from another era and has helped many young musicians get their start in the New York salsa scene. In 1954 he recorded his first hit with his long time friend, Rafael Cortijo. He was very popular in the 1950s in the Carribean. In 1960 the two traveled to New York and took Manhattan by storm.
Although trained as a mason, Ismael was very adept at singing and improvising. Rafael Cortijo told him that he was a good singer as long as he stayed within his limits as a singer. Cortijo saw the raw talent and tried to coach his friend as best he could. Ismael started singing with a small local band called Conjunto Agueybana. He then went on to sing with Lito Peña y la Panaméricana. Maelo had success with the group; recording “Charlatan”, one of his early hits and other great and well known songs such as El Bombón de Elena. He left Lito Peña and started singing for Machito. While Ismael was gaining experience singing with the different groups, Cortijo was honing his own percussion skills. He started a group and Ismael became the lead singer. That is the birth of Cortijo y su Combo - canta Ismael Rivera.
With the other groups Ismael was singing guarachas, guajiras, son, mambo, guaguanco and boleros, such as Sale el Sol. Cortijo decided to experiment with bomba y plena. It was the perfect musical vehicle for their combo.
Cortijo y su Combo enjoyed fame wherever they went. They traveled to Europe, Central and South America. Everyone identified with the music they played. The musicians were excellent: Rafael Ithier - piano, Roberto Roena - bongo, Martin Quiñones - congas, Kito Velez - trumpet, etc.
During a trip to Panama, Maelo was allegedly involved in an illegal drug deal. The authorities in Puerto Rico were alerted and they detained the group upon their arrival at Puerto Rico. Ismael was convicted and served time in jail. This led to the break-up of the band. Cortijo continued to play locally with folkloric groups, and Rafael Ithier convinced some of the other musicians to stay with him and form a new band. That was the birth of El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico.
Upon release from jail, Maelo started his own band, Ismael Rivera y sus Cachimbos with a very young but talented group of musicians. With los Cachimbos, Ismael continued to play bomba y plena but with very modern arrangements. After being with his group for about eight years Ismael sought out Rafael Cortijo and they record an album titled “Juntos Otra Vez”. The reunited Cortijo and Maelo recorded some of their classic tunes like “Negro Bembon”, “Severa"and “Quitate de la via Perico”.
Ismael sang better than ever. The fans constantly asked for some of the classic tunes he sang with Cortijo. It is possible to hear four or five versions of the same song because of this. Ismael sang songs composed by Bobby Capo, Pedro Flores, Tite Curet Alonso, and his mother, Margarita Rivera who was very influential in his musical career.
But Maelo’s solo career also did well with albums such as El Sonero Mayor, which included songs such as “Volare”, a classic pop tune done up in salsa style.
His death on 13 May 1987 was felt all over the Latin music world. His music still lives in the hearts of all those who remember him at the mike, snapping his fingers, delighting audiences.