Johnny Ventura, the famed merengue pioneer and former mayor of Santo Domingo, died Wednesday at the age of 81 in the Dominican Republic. His son, Jandy Ventura, confirmed to CNN that he passed away after suffering a heart attack.

Ventura, whose real name was Juan de Dios Ventura Soriano, was known for his showmanship and for pioneering styles of merengue and salsa. He was born in Santo Domingo and began singing as a teenager. When he was 16, he entered a local talent show contest on television called La Voz de la Alegria and came in first place. Later, he competed on the TV show La TV Busca Una Estrella and also won first place, securing a scholarship to study music and singing through the state-owned TV and radio network La Voz Dominicana (now Corporación Estatal de Radio y Televisión).

Starting in the early Sixties, a young Ventura sang in different bands and gained recognition throughout Santo Domingo. He joined an orchestra led by Rondón Votau, the band of Dominican percussionist Donald Wild, and the outfit Combo Caribe De Luis Pérez, the latter with whom he recorded his first LP.  He also became popular singing with Papa Molina’s La Super Orquesta San José.

Eventually, a music promoter named Angel Guinea encouraged him to strike out on his own and create the Johnny Ventura y su Combo Show, which put his star quality on full display and earned him a reputation as a trailblazer for adding rock & roll elements to merengue. He was affectionately known as “El Caballo Mayor” and released a string of songs that became classics, such as “Patacon Pisao,” “Pitaste,” “El Elevador,” and “Merenguero Hasta la Tambora.”

In the late Sixties, he traveled to New York and played with some of the salsa greats of the era, including Celia Cruz, El Grupo Niche, and Wilfrido Vargas. He became particularly close with Cruz, recalling after her death in 2014 that she was like an older sister figure to him.

From 1998 to 2002, he served as mayor of Santo Domingo. First Lady of the Dominican Republic Raquel Arbaje, as well as artists such as Don Omar and Olga Tañon, honored the bandleader on social media. “Today is a very sad day for merengue and for the Dominican Republic,” Arbaje wrote on Twitter. “Johnny Ventura, El Caballo Mayor, has left us physically, but his legacy and joy will always be with us. My hug in solidarity for his loved ones.”


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