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Ruben Gonzalez Dies

Buena Vista pianist was eighty-four

December 9, 2003 12:00 AM ET

Ruben Gonzalez, whose unique way with the piano fused an angular jazzy approach with an open invite to the dance floor, died yesterday in Havana; he was eighty-four.

That duality -- making music both sophisticated and sexual -- prompted Ry Cooder to claim that Gonzalez was a "cross between Thelonious Monk and Felix the Cat." There was also an element of Jimmy Hoffa, as Gonzalez seemed to drop off the face of the earth for years and thought dead before he was re-discovered and ushered towards unlikely fame as part of the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon.

Gonzalez was born in April 1919 in Santa Clara, Cuba. His mother pushed him towards piano lessons, but music became a hobby as pursued a career in medicine. In 1941 he ditched his studies to devote himself to music full time. Gonzalez played with numerous Cuban luminaries including Arsenio Rodriguez's ensemble, where he served until 1946.

Starting in the early Sixties, he joined King of the Cha Cha Cha, Enrique Jorrin, with whom he played for more than two decades until Jorrin's death in 1987. Shortly thereafter, Gonzalez retired.

In 1996, an arthritic Gonzalez stumbled onto one of Cooder's recording sessions in Havana. He quickly loosened up his joints and recaptured his old magic, becoming an integral part of the 1996 Buena Vista Social Club album, which garnered him an unexpected degree of international stardom.

In addition to the BVSC record, Gonzalez toured the world with the crew of silver-haired lost legends, appeared on their respective solo albums, and released a pair of his own on Nonesuch, 1997's Introducing . . . Ruben Gonzalez and 2000's Chanchullo.

"There's tremendous talent in Cuba, like [Compay] Segundo, like [Ibrahim] Ferrer, like [Manuel] Galban and like Gonzalez," Cooder told Rolling Stone earlier this year, "and I think there always has been. Whether we'll see the likes of anything like this again, I doubt it. The world is a different place now. This kind of expression, emotional expression, they just don't grow people like this anymore."

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