Percussionist Tony ‘Conga’ Cruz

By Jeff McCord

Austin musician Tony Cruz, best known for his conga work that helped drive the perpetual rhythms of the city’s Afro-Beat unit Hard Proof, died on January 4th. Battling cancer, he succumbed to heart-related illness. 

A Puerto Rican born in the mid-fifties mean streets of New York’s Lower East Side, editor Greg Ackerman, in his post on the Comic Clash, describes how his Aunt’s salsa parties helped shift Tony into music’s gravitational pull. 

Hard Proof founder and drummer Stephen Bidwell started the band with Tony on board. Cruz was there for the band’s first rehearsal in 2008. Bidwell recalls Cruz’s big personality and tales of his formative years. “His first gig was backing up a James Brown impersonator on the drums, but Tony sold his drumset after his cousin took him to see Santana at Madison Square Garden. He learned congas and timbales around his neighborhood, playing in rumbas in parks and such.” 

When not gigging, Cruz did extensive work as a stagehand. “At some point,’ says Bidwell, “he was a roadie for a few bands on the Fania label. His sound definitely came from Nuyorican salsa traditions.” (According to Ackerman, his first work in this area was for a little-known film director named Francis Coppola, on a film called ‘The Godfather’.) 

Cruz would regale his friends with stories of his run-ins with superstars while working concerts. “He claimed he was behind Jimmy Page’s amp during the laser scene in ‘The Song Remains the Same’”, recalls Bidwell. “He left NYC for San Diego at some point, fleeing a girl who tossed his record collection out of a window.”

Bidwell remembers Cruz’s tales of times spent in California and Florida, and when he first arrived in Austin around 1996. “His first Austin gig was at Tower Records in the drag, backing up Roy Hargrove on an in-store. It was a one-off, unfortunately. He played in a ton of other Austin bands. In the Empanada Parlor days (the same scene that birthed Austin’s Grupo Fantasma), he played timbales in a band called Cubanasa. Other names I know are Tumbateo, Collect all Five, and Big Orange.” 

None will miss Cruz’s contributions more than Hard Proof, where he played such a key role in their relentless rhythm section. Having lost a friend and bandmate, Bidwell describes the group as “rattled”.  

Ironically, Cruz’s death marked the one year anniversary of Hard Proof’s last pre-pandemic gig, on 1/4/20 at the Continental Club.

Ackerman suggests donations to SIMS and HAAM in Tony’s memory. Both organizations offered Cruz invaluable aid during his illness.

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