Puerto Rican saxophone virtuoso Eddie “Bullet” Pérez, of El Gran Combo and Combo Rafael Cortijo fame, has passed away. The last few years found Pérez struggling with a series of health complications and legal woes, but the musical prowess and on-stage bravado that he displayed throughout his career maintain his legacy as a truly masterful musician and a superb showman.
As a founding member of Cortijo y Su Combo, Pérez played an integral role in the evolution of the Puerto Rico’s bomba music. By integrating the modern sound of trumpets and saxophones, Cortijo y Su Combo paved the way for bomba and plena to migrate from Puerto Rico abroad. But his distinctive musical style was not the only feather Pérez stuck in the ensemble’s hat. The shake of the saxophonist’s shoulders and the falsetto he lent to the band’s chorus were vital tools in the arsenal that the combo brought to bear in their competition with the likes of Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez.
It’s likely that those skills and a healthy dash of luck allowed “Bullet” to make it through the years. Pérez made it out of the Panamanian drug bust that claimed several years of vocalist Ismael Rivera’s life and ushered in the reformatting that ended Cortijo y Su Combo and birthed El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico. Throughout the 50 plus years of their career, El Gran Combo built their reputation as the most successful Puerto Rican salsa band with a revolving door of talented players flowing in and out. Eddie Pérez was one of the very few musicians who remained in the group not only through their first five years, but for 50. However his relationship with the band suffered along with his health- the saxophonist brought a suit against several members of the band for unfair dismissal after diabetes related complications led to the amputation of his right leg. While only the parties directly related to the controversy can know exactly what happened between the longtime band members, what is clear is Pérez’s legacy as the touch of brassy modernity that helped meld bomba and plena into the larger movement that would become salsa.