Goyco elementary school and then went on to learn carpentry at a vocational school. He shined shoes to help his family financially and when he was 16 years old, he worked as a carpenter. During his free time he would hang around the corner with his best friend Rafael Cortijo and sing songs. In 1948, Rivera and Cortijo joined El Conjunto Monterrey, where Rivera played the conga and Cortijo the bongos. Rivera was unable to work full-time as a musician, due to the fact that he worked as a carpenter. In 1952, Rivera joined the U.S.
Army but, was quickly discharged as he didn't speak English. When he returned to Puerto Rico he went to work with the Panamerican Orchestra, thanks to the recommendation of his friend Cortijo. Rivera recorded and scored his first "hits" with the songs "El Charlatan", "La Vieja en Camisa" (The Old Lady in a Shirt) and "La Sazon de Abuela". However, an incident between Rivera and another band member over a girl, led to his departure from the band. Cortijo's Combo continued to gain fame and so did Rivera's reputation as a lead singer.
Benny More visited the island and was impressd with Rivera's voice, he baptized Rivera "El Sonero Mayor" (The Premiere Improviser). The band went to New York City and played in the famed Palladium Ballroom, where the orchestras of Tito Rodriguez, Tito Puente and Charlie Palmieri also played. In 1959, Rivera, together with Cortijo and his Combo, participated in the European produced movie titled "Calipso", starring Harry Belafonte. He traveled with Cortijo's Combo, which also included Rafael Ithier and Roberto Roena, to Europe, Central and South America. Rivera was suspected of being involved with an illegal drug transaction during a trip to Panama.
He was arrested upon his arrival to Puerto Rico, convicted and sentenced to jail. This event led to the break-up of Cortijo's Combo. Shortly after, Rafael Ithier, regrouped some of the former members and formed El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico. Upon his release from jail, Rivera formed his own band called Ismael Rivera and his Cachimbos. The successful band lasted for eight years.
Rivera reunited with Cortijo and recorded "Juntos Otra Vez" (Together Again). Later, Rivera went solo and did well with the recordings of "El Sonero Mayor" and "Volare (salsa style)". He was to score his greatest "hit" with "Las Cara Lindas (De Mi Gente Negra)" (The Pretty Faces (Of My Black People) written by Tite Curet Alonso. One of his last public performances was in Paris, as an opener for Bob Marley in 1979. The death of his childhood friend, Rafael Cortijo in 1982, affected him emotionally to the point that he couldn't sing in the tribute to Cortijo celebrated at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum.
Rivera was actively involved in the creation of a historical museum which depicts the contributions made to the cultural life of Puerto Rico by the black Puerto Ricans. Rivera was a faithful pilgrim of the Black Christ procession in Portobelo, Panama, from 1975 to 1985, and even wrote a song about the Black Christ, known affectionately as "El Nazareno". Ismael Rivera died on May 13, 1987 in the arms of his mother Margarita, from a heart attack. Celia Cruz recorded a tribute to Ismael Rivera and so did Dario y su ComboRican. On September 27, 2001, the Puerto Rican Senate approved the law #134 declaring October 5 as "Ismael Rivera Day". In Villa Palmeras, Santurce, Puerto Rico, there is a plaza named "Plaza de los Salseros" which has a statue and plaque dedicated to Ismael.
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