During the 1970s and 1980s, bachata was much maligned in Dominican society for its association with poverty, rural backwardness, and delinquency. Artists like Leonardo Paniagua and Luis Segura sought to avoid these negative perceptions by recording covers of foreign baladas and other more acceptable music. Others instead embraced the stereotype and openly indulged in the freewheeling bachatero lifestyle. The singer who is the best known and most emblematic of this latter group is Marino Perez. With candid feeling and dark humor, Perez sang the story of bars and barrios where jealous lovers quarrel, men and women betray one another, insults are traded, and the ubiquitous bottle of rum is always present. This was not fiction for Perez, but the life he actually lived, and it was a world and a way of life which would eventually kill him.
Marino Perez was born in Guayabo Dulce, a campo near the eastern city of San Pedro de Macoris. Even those closest to him hesitate to guess Marino’s age; while he was still uncommonly young-looking into his middle-age, by the time he died in the mid-1990s alcoholism had transformed his features into those of a man old before his time. As with many bachateros, Marino’s professional career began in 1969 when he emigrated to the capital, Santo Domingo. At the suggestion of Manuel Menegildo of Marisol Records, he sought out the guitarist Edilio Paredes to record a single. Edilio was at the time flirting with becoming an evangelical Christian, and wanted no part in the project. Marino instead recorded his first tracks accompanied on the guitar by Augusto Santos, and the single, “El trago de olvidar”, became an instant classic, remaining today one of Perez’ most popular songs.
Marino went on to produce a string of hit singles glorifying the life of the cabaretero. He was accompanied always in his songs and on his adventures by his segunda guitara, fellow hedonist and San Pedro native Chijo Osoria; their dialogues at the beginnings of Marino’s songs became a trademark of cabaret bachata. Woman: “Perdoname, papi, por piedad…” (“Forgive me, baby, for pity’s sake...”) Chijo: “Marino, pero perdona esa pobre mujer.” (“Marino, forgive the poor woman!”) Marino: “Ah, pero es que tu no sabes, lo que me hizo esa sinvergüenza…no, no y no, por mi que se muera.” (“Ah, but you don’t know what that shameless woman did to me...no, no and no...she can die as far as I’m concerned.”)
Despite being one of the most successful artists of bachata’s formative years, very little survives of Marino other than his songs and the stories fellow musicians tell of him. These tales offer a glimpse of an extraordinary personality who lived true to the character of debauchery and abandon so present in his lyrics.
Julio Angel, the author of the hit “El Pajón”, recalls visiting Marino in San Pedro. After a night of merrymaking the two friends passed out in a cabaret. When Julio awoke he saw no sign of Marino, or of his own guitar, which they had been playing while they sang and drank. Julio first went to Marino’s house, where they hadn’t seen him since the night before; he then made the rounds of the bars and brothels that Marino was known to frequent. Everywhere Julio went, they had just seen Marino - with Julio's guitar. Finally, Julio arrived at a cabaret and found his guitar on the shelf behind the bar - and Marino nowhere in sight. The barman informed Julio that the guitar had been used as collateral against Marino's unpaid tab. It took Perez nearly three months to recover the guitar and return it to Julio. Others recall Perez being paid by Massimino Sanchez, a promoter, in copies of records. Perez’ songs, always hits, were much sought after, and Marino would exchange them with the owners of colmados (general stores) at the rate of two 45s for a bottle of rum.
Marino Perez's songs have all the characteristics that made bachata so popular and at the same time so maligned. With emotions ranging from wrenching despair to soft seduction, his raw passion and distinct timbre won him a fervent following. But Marino was untrained and careless, singing out of tune even on some of his most famous recordings. This gave easy fodder to his critics, to whom Marino was the archetype of all that was wrong with bachata. While lead guitarists and arrangers like Edilio Paredes and Augusto Santos did some of their best work with Perez, it is also true that many of the critiques which were leveled at bachata during the 1970s and 1980s - regarding the poor quality of the sound, singing and musicianship - are evident in much of Perez’ work. Perez was prolific, sometimes recording as many as thirty songs in a single afternoon. This rate of production sometimes resulted in repetitious compositions and poor recording quality. Yet Marino's unvarnished soulfulness struck a chord with bachata’s public, and his songs continue to be among the most loved and remembered of the classic bachata repertoire. Perez was likely the best-selling bachatero of his era; almost every single he put out became a hit. Unlike many bachateros who sang covers, most of Marino’s songs were his own, as were their stories of the pain, frustration, pride and humor of a life of unabated dissipation.
Perez continued to record and sell prodigious numbers of records during the 1980s, and his most popular songs were even re-recorded as orchestral merengues by artists like Wilfrido Vargas. But by the time Marino died in the middle of the 1990s, time had passed him by and bachata had begun moving in a new direction, with gentler lyrics and electric instruments. While many of Bachata’s younger fans don't recognize Perez by name, many of his most popular songs are still widely known and have taken a permanent place in the Dominican musical heritage. The style in which Marino sang is no longer in vogue, but he remains an icon of bachata's early years; he lived the story of his music, both as author and as actor, and died in much the same way, vomiting up his liver. Marino’s songs survive him. With loneliness, anguish, and unvarnished exuberance, they continue to endear him to bachata’s faithful.