During the 1970s and the early 1980s, when bachata had become an outcast music associated with drinking, poverty and prostitution and characterized by rough language and informal musicianship, Leonardo Paniagua forged a distinct style which made him the best selling and best known artist of the period. While fellow bachateros like Marino Perez and Blas Duran reveled in and exploited the genre’s association with delinquency, Paniagua distanced himself from the rougher side bachata. Eschewing lyrics which dealt with the life in the barrios, Paniagua instead recorded ballad style bachatas, and produced hit after hit for Discos Guarachita and Rhadames Aracena. His stellar career culminated in 1979’s “Chiquitita”, one of the three or four most popular bachatas ever recorded (and a cover of a song by the pop-rock group ABBA).
Paniagua’s first single was recorded almost by accident. His friend, singer Danilo Rodriguez, was recording in the Discos Guarachita studios, and he invited Paniagua to come along. Up to that time, Paniagua, a native of the town of La Vega, had never sung in public, but one of the accompanying musicians told Aracena, the producer, that Paniagua had an excellent voice and that they ought to try recording him. Paniagua began to sing “Amada, amante”, with the musicians improvising an arrangement behind him, and it wasn’t until the group had finished what they thought was a first run-through that Aracena announced that he had been running the tape. In spite of their protests that they needed to correct the errors they had made, Aracena insisted that he had the finished version, and he had them go on to record the B-side of the single, a cover of “Insaciable”, the classic bolero by Puerto Rican singer Felipe Rodriguez. The very next day the songs were on the air on Aracena’s station, Radio Guarachita, and the single was an overnight success. From then on, Paniagua became Aracena’s best-selling artist.
Paniagua’s career is closely linked to Radio Guarachita , which was the only nationwide radio station, and the only station at all in the capital of Santo Domingo which was willing to play bachata. Paniagua is a staunch defender of Aracena and his station, maintaining that they kept bachata going when the merengue industry and the mainstream media were doing everything they could to destroy it. Aracena became quite wealthy from bachata—most of the records he played on his station he recorded himself, in his studio, and sold on his label, and the only records available in his famous record store were those he played on Radio Guarachita. Many musicians look upon him as having exploited them to make himself rich; and the LPs he made with Paniagua, to whom he paid ten Dominican pesos per song, he was selling to Kubaney Records in New York for $5000 each.
It is true, though, that Radio Guarachita made Paniagua famous, and he in turn was, along with Luis Segura, Guarachita’s most successful singer. From the time he recorded “Amada amante” until he himself signed with Kubaney in 1986, Paniagua helped broaden the reach of bachata with his prolifically popular output. Songs like “Un beso y una flor”, “Chiquitita”, “Mi secreto”, “El necio”, “Ella se llamaba Marta”, and dozens more sung by Paniagua are classics of bachata, instantly recognizable to a Dominican listener. In the 1990s bachata underwent a fundamental change with the introduction of the electric guitar and a movement towards more of a dancehall style. While Paniagua has preferred to keep to the older acoustic tradition of bachata, the soft expressive singing style which he pioneered and his romantic ballad-like lyrics have now become staple to modern bachata, a credit to Paniagua’s profound and continuing influence.
In 1998, Paniagua was the first bachatero to be awarded a Cassandra (the Dominican version of a Grammy) for the song "Fue de los dos", a duo he recorded with Esteban Mariano, accompanied on the guitar by Nelson Paredes - brother of Edilio Paredes.
-- David Wayne