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Polito Vega, Salsa ‘King’ of Latest York Radio, Dies at 84


Polito Vega, an exuberant announcer with a booming bass voice and a finely attuned ear whose Spanish-language shows popularized salsa music in Latest York within the mid-Nineteen Sixties, died on March 9 in North Bergen, N.J. He was 84.

His death was announced by his family. No cause was given.

After abandoning his dreams of becoming a singer, Mr. Vega began his broadcasting profession in 1960, shortly after transplanting himself from Puerto Rico to Latest York. He quickly distinguished himself on air along with his signature voice, his perky epigrams like “Andando, andando, andando” (“Keep going”) and his adventurous playlists. He also distinguished himself in person, at live shows and dances, along with his ubiquitous Yankees cap, starched white guayabera shirt, white goatee and fuzzy sideburns.

The disc jockey and recording artist Alex Sensation described Mr. Vega on Instagram as “the architect of Hispanic radio at a world level.”

In an obituary in Billboard magazine, Leila Cobo, the writer of “Decoding ‘Despacito’: An Oral History of Latin Music” (2020), wrote: “Vega’s importance to Latin music can’t be overstated. He was essentially the most influential tastemaker within the country’s top market, dating back to when tropical music first became popular in town within the Nineteen Sixties and Seventies and stretching all of the solution to the twenty first century.”

He was heard on two Latest York AM stations, first WEVD after which WBNX, and eventually on WSKQ (Mega 97.9 FM) — which began broadcasting as a full-time Spanish-language format in 1989 and has often been rated No. 1 in that market. He also became the station’s program director.

When Mr. Vega began broadcasting, he recalled, he was struck by the disconnect between the comparatively temperate bolero music that dominated Latin broadcasting and the feverish salsa he was encountering in nightclubs. He was among the many first radio personalities to acknowledge the marketplace for salsa, identifying promising talent and mentoring gifted musicians.

“It was two different worlds in those early days,” Mr. Vega said told The Latest York Times in 2009. “On the dance halls and up within the Catskills you’d hear the Tito Puente and Machito orchestras tearing things up, but on the radio the form of thing you heard was romantic trios, unless you were tuning in to Symphony Sid” — the outstanding jazz D.J. who began playing Afro-Cuban music within the Nineteen Sixties — “late at night.”

The trombonist Willie Colón, who became one among salsa’s biggest stars, recalled that the primary time he heard Yomo Toro, the maestro of the 10-string guitar often known as the cuatro, with whom he would later collaborate on several recordings, “was on Polito’s show, playing together with listeners who would call in and sing over the phone.”

Within the late Nineteen Sixties, Mr. Colón got a break when he was invited to look on “Club de la Juventud,” an “American Bandstand”-inspired TV show that Mr. Vega hosted on the Telemundo network from 1967 to 1970.

Among the many other musicians whose careers Mr. Vega helped promote were Celia Cruz, Tito Puente and Ismael Miranda.

Hipólito Vega Torres was born on Aug. 3, 1938, in Ponce, on the southern coast of Puerto Rico. His father was a bus driver, and the young Hipólito sold newspapers on the beach to complement his family’s income.

He began calling himself Polito as a teen after winning an amateur singing competition, only to be told by the competition’s master of ceremonies that he would never turn out to be a celeb with a reputation like Hipólito.

In 1957 he moved to Latest York City, where he lived with an uncle near Van Cortlandt Park within the Bronx and worked as a shipping clerk while attempting to get a break within the music business.

“I got here to Latest York as a thin little kid with a wisp of a mustache, hoping to make it as a singer,” he said in 2009.

Johnny Pacheco, the Dominican-born flutist, bandleader, songwriter and producer, knew Mr. Vega in those days. “Even before Polito got a job, he was already an announcer,” Mr. Pacheco, who died in 2021, told The Times. “He used to go to a barbershop owned by a compadre of mine, and I remember how he was at all times joking and kidding around there, imitating announcers and singers and talking as if he were already on the air.”

One night in 1960 he was helping a friend who was hosting “Fiesta Time,” a half-hour show on WEVD; as his friend’s sidekick, he read listeners’ names and record requests on the air. The station’s owner heard his voice and hired him as an announcer.

“Radio fever got into my head,” Mr. Vega recalled.

When WEVD expanded to 24-hour programming not long after that, he was offered the midnight-to-6 a.m. slot.

“The show,” he later said, “was so successful and I felt that liberty to specific myself that I’ve maintained to at the present time.”

Mr. Pacheco, who co-founded Fania Records in 1964 as Latest York was supplanting Cuba as a middle for emerging Latin music, described Mr. Vega in 2009 as “a part of the entire salsa movement, one among its pillars.”

“As we were constructing the corporate,” he added, “he was there with us. I’d bring him the LPs, he’d listen and say, ‘I like this song, I’m going to push it,’ and he’d play the hell out of it.”

Mr. Vega later moved to WBNX, where he became often known as “El Rey de la Radio” — the King of Radio — and where he met Raúl Alarcón, the senior program director. Mr. Alarcón went on to turn out to be head of the Spanish Broadcasting System, where Mr. Vega was for a few years executive vp in control of programming.

In 2009, Mr. Vega was honored at two all-star Fiftieth-anniversary live shows at Madison Square Garden. Three years later he was celebrated at Citi Field in Queens by a lineup that included Gloria Estefan and Daddy Yankee.

Mr. Vega’s wife, Judith, died last yr. His survivors include two sons and a daughter. Two other sons died before him.

In a press release, his family asked that his fans not mourn but “have fun his legacy,” adding: “Polito continues to live within the music that he loved and shared, in addition to the impact he left within the Latin community. Polito lived happiness, smiles and love. We would really like for all his fans to live life to the fullest, as he did.”

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