Best known for popularizing and revitalizing merengue on the guitar, Eladio Romero Santos was one of the bachateros who most strongly influenced the modern form of the genre. Musicians like Luis Vargas and Antony Santos owe a deep debt to Romero Santos’ music, and local cover groups both in the United States and the Dominican Republic still perform today merengues which Romero Santos recorded as long ago as 1970.
A native of the campo of Zenobí, outside of San Francisco de Macoris, Romero Santos began recording at the same time as bachata pioneers like José Manuel Calderon and Cuco Valoy. His first hit was the bolero-bachata “Por ti”, which was released in 1964, before the American invasion of the following year. The record sold well, which helped Romero Santos to get steady gigs in the area around San Francisco throughout the next six years, in spite of the fact that his subsequent recordings were not particularly successful. His fortunes changed, however, after Edilio Paredes released a number of merengues de guitarra, including “El batidor pelao”, which did so well that they inspired Romero Santos to record a guitar merengue of his own, “La muñeca”.
Romero Santos had always played merengue in his live performances, and unlike many bachateros he hardly ever played in Santo Domingo, the capital, but toured constantly throughout the northern region of El Cibao. His audiences weren’t brothel audiences who came out to drink, but rather country audiences who contracted groups for dances, and they would typically request merengue, guaracha, and all of the other dance music which was popular at the time. Because of this, Romero Santos’ group had always included tambora and güira, but before the success of Paredes’ songs he hadn’t considered merengue de guitarra to be commercially viable. When the New York based record label Casa Almendra approached him to record a ten-song LP, however, Edilio’s “El batidor pelao” was playing on every jukebox in the country. As a result, most of the numbers Eladio recorded on his new LP, “La muñeca”, were merengues, and every one of them became a smash hit, particularly the title song.
Romero Santos followed up his success with six more LPs, and in the process made merengue de guitarra his particular province. His style was simpler and more straightforward than that of Paredes, who imitated the complicated figures of the merengue típico accordion on the guitar. Romero Santos’ playing was rhythmic and danceable, and his tenor voice, though limited in range, had a rawness which appealed to his mostly campesino audience. In 1976, Casa Almendra asked Romero Santos to tour New York, and his group became one of the first bachata groups to travel to the United States.
Eladio Romero Santos was unique as a bachata musician, in that he was able to operate in a different world from that of other bachateros. For one, he played with his own group, and throughout his entire career employed the same musicians, all from the campos of his native San Francisco - although he would sometimes use others to record (notably Augusto Santos and Niño Abreu). For another, Romero Santos performed in country social clubs, patron saints’ festivals, and other venues and so didn’t carry the stigma of the brothels where other bachateros were forced to play. And, although Romero continued to record bachata until the end of his career, he made his name playing danceable, upbeat merengue, rather than the anguished boleros of his contemporaries. For these reasons, Romero was able to avoid the marginalization suffered by most bachateros, He became the most sought after Dominican guitar musician of the 1970s and 1980s, and by far the best paid.
After the success of Blas Durán’s “Consejo a las mujeres” in 1987, merengue de guitarra became a staple of the bachata repertoire, and Romero Santos’ influence began to be felt. Both Luis Vargas and later Antony Santos played the guitar downward, with a thumbpick, like Romero Santos, rather than upward with their fingers in the style of Edilio Paredes and Augusto Santos. The result was a simpler and more rhythmic style of merengue which lent itself well to the new aesthetic. As it was these two, particularly Antony Santos, who defined the style of the new generation, Romero Santos’ importance cannot be overstated.
In 1995, Romero Santos contracted arthritis and was no longer able to play the guitar. He continued to travel with his group as the lead singer, while noted lead guitarist Martin Santos took his place as the requinto. By 1998 Romero Santos had retired. In contrast to other bachateros he had been enormously enriched by his thirty year career. His group continued to cover contracts with stand in singers, and when they decided to retire as well Romero Santos actually paid them a pension, something absolutely unheard of in probably the entire history of Dominican music. Eladio Romero Santos passed away in 2001 as the result of lung cancer, and his funeral was attended by hundreds of mourners including many of his best known colleagues.