Soul music had Berry Gordy. R&B had Ahmet Ertegun. Rock 'n' roll had Phil Spector. And for Latin music, particularly salsa and merengue, there was Tony Moreno. A prominent music producer whose label, Musical Productions, became one of the largest independent Latin music companies in the United States, Moreno died on November 14 at 66 from complications of liver cancer.
In the often-cutthroat music industry, Moreno earned a reputation for being something of a gentle giant. "His sheer size was dominating," says Giora Breil, former head of the legendary Latin label Fania Records. "He could have been intimidating, but his nature was more like a big, friendly bear." That kindness even carried over to competing labels. "Even when we were competitors, we always had a good relationship," says Juan Hidalgo, head of Miami-based J&N Records. "I would call him, and he was always there for me, always willing to share his experience in the music business."
Born in Cuba in 1944, Moreno immigrated with his family to Miami in the late 1950s amid increasing political tension, which culminated in a 13-year-old Moreno witnessing the execution-style murder of his pro-revolution uncle. His start in the music industry came at 22, when he got a job opening packages for a Miami record label. An ear for emerging talent helped him work his way up the ranks, until he landed the top spots at major independent Latin labels TH Records and Sonotone Records. In 1989, Moreno launched Musical Productions, usually referred to as MP.
"As large as he was physically, he was also very intelligent and very much a visionary," says Oscar Llord, former head of Sony Discos, whose first job in the music industry was working under Moreno. "He saw the growth potential in the Hispanic community in the U.S. and focused in on it. He was one of the early pioneers in getting Latin music exposed and distributed in the U.S."
"He couldn't compete with the big guys in terms of money, but he could compete with quality of music," says Hidalgo. "He would look for the next new type of music. When reggaeton was starting to happen, nobody wanted to touch it. The same thing happened with bachata and salsa. At the beginning, nobody wanted to know about it. So he went after it." Among the artists whose careers he helped launch were Puerto Rican salsa singer Tito Rojas and Dominican merengue singer Eddy Herrera.
Moreno sold MP in 2007 to J&N Records, but he stayed on as a vice president. Even when he was sick, Hidalgo says, Moreno would still call or send texts until 10 or 11 at night. "He was a great man, with a great heart," says Hidalgo. "He will be remembered for a long time in the record business."