Visit Casa Amadeo for a Wealth of Latin Music History in the Bronx

Words by Jasmine Gomez, Photos by Maridelis Morales Rosado

Near the intersection of Longwood and Prospect Avenues in the Bronx lies a treasured remnant of the borough’s history. While a long list of area businesses have come and gone, Casa Amadeo, owned by Puerto Rican musician Miguel Angel “Mike” Amadeo, is the oldest continuously run music store in New York City. The shop—originally owned by Puerto Rican songwriter Rafael Hernandez and his sister, music entrepreneur Victoria Hernandez—was founded in 1941 (they opened an earlier version in East Harlem in the late 1920s). Amadeo bought it in 1969, renamed it and has run it ever since.

The store was integral to the Latin music scene in the Bronx, coinciding with the migration of Puerto Ricans to the South Bronx in the 1950s; by 1975, the borough was more than 50 percent Black and Puerto Rican; today, the Latino population on its own represents a majority in the Bronx. Casa Amadeo served as a go-to for nostalgic Boricuas looking to connect with the music from back home as well as for networking musicians in search of work. When you walked in you might find a musician shopping for an instrument or a record-company employee checking up on how an artist was selling.

These days the store feels almost like a museum. You can still find vinyl and early CDs of artists like Juan Luis Guerra, La Lupe and salsero Tito Nieves, or get a Latin music history lesson from Amadeo himself, who enjoys flipping through books that chronicle Latin music history in the US, which he keeps behind a glass case.

But running a historic music store is just one piece of Amadeo’s extensive résumé. The son of famed musician Titi Amadeo, who at one point played with bandleader and I Love Lucy star Desi Arnaz, the former Amadeo is also a decorated composer who has written songs performed by artists like Celia Cruz, Virginia Lopez and El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico. El Gran Combo can credit one of their greatest songs, “Que Me Lo Den en Vida (Give It to Me in Life),” to Amadeo’s skillful pen.

At 88 years old, Amadeo continues to work in his Bronx shop. Head there on a Friday afternoon and you might just catch him singing, playing instruments and drinking with his friends. We visited Amadeo at his music store to chat about his career and his lifelong love of New York City.

This interview was originally conducted in Spanish. It has been translated and edited for length and clarity.

You were born in Puerto Rico. How did you end up in New York City?

Mike Amadeo: I was born in 1934. When I was just five months old, my father got on a boat and left Puerto Rico to continue recording music in New York. During that time, my mother had to work very hard to maintain us. As a kid back home in Puerto Rico, I began to show interest in music, not ever having met my dad. I only knew of his work from photographs.

Whenever I would see a group of musicians, like guitarists, just playing in their backyard or on a balcony in Puerto Rico—this was during the ’40s—I’d always go and try to listen or jam with the group. When I turned 13, I left Puerto Rico in a boat with my mom to come to New York, finally meet my dad and begin a life over here.

Photo: David 'Dee' Delgado

Where in New York did you end up?

MA: I came to El Barrio [East Harlem], East 110th between Second and Third Avenues. We lived like sardines in a can with like 13 people in a small two-bedroom apartment, until my mom was able to afford an apartment of her own. While living in El Barrio, I started visiting places with live music and would sometimes sing in them. I had learned how to play the guitar on my own after my cousin gifted me one. Whenever I would sing in these places, people would often ask, “Hold up. Are you Titi Amadeo’s son?” Because of this, doors started opening up for me. People were more open to letting me sing in their spaces.

Advertisement

You eventually landed in the Bronx. What was it like back then?

MA: In 1960 or ’61, I moved to the Bronx by 149th and Timpson Place. This is where my music career really started to take off. The Bronx was a music mecca. There were literally cabarets on every block where you could go grab a drink and listen to live music. The trios were big back then.

Whenever I would see a group of musicians, like guitarists, just playing in their backyard or on a balcony in Puerto Rico—this was during the ’40s—I’d always go and try to listen or jam with the group. When I turned 13, I left Puerto Rico in a boat with my mom to come to New York, finally meet my dad and begin a life over here.

Where did your career take you?

MA: I became a manager at Discos Alegre, a music company where I played a hand in launching and advancing the careers of great musicians like Johnny Pacheco, Willie Colón, Hector Lavoe and so many more. I had a good run until I realized the label just wasn’t sustainable for me anymore. I was married, I had my first child and I needed something that would allow me to care for my family. I found that when I decided to buy the music store. I’ve now had it for almost 60 years. It even survived the “Bronx is burning” era [in the 1970s], when landlords would purposefully set fire to their buildings to collect the insurance money. I dedicated my time to running this store, even when it didn’t have running water or a functioning toilet. But the community has always supported me, purchasing my inventory or just stopping by to say hi.

When people think about this music store, what do you want them to know or remember?

MA: If I’m being frank, I already did what I set out to do. There’s not much more that I can do with this music store. The store isn’t selling like it used to, but this is more than a music store. People come here to get educated on music because I have knowledge of it. I still write. I just wrote this song that I think could be a huge hit. It’s written from the perspective of a parent offering advice to their child.

There’s young people doing music that come here and call me “Pai” [Spanish term of endearment for “dad”]. I’m everyone’s dad. I talk to everyone here. I don’t discriminate. This is my second home. On Fridays, I pick up the guitar and play, but bring a Johnny Walker, because I don’t play for free [laughs].


Advertisement