Rocking the Streets With a Band and a Gang

The Ghetto Brothers, a band from the Bronx, appeared on television in 1984 with Regis Philbin. From left to right, David Silva, Benjy Melendez, Victor Melendez, Mr. Philbin, Robert Melendez and Manny Cortez. The Ghetto Brothers, a band from the Bronx, appeared on television in 1984 with Regis Philbin. From left to right, David Silva, Benjy Melendez, Victor Melendez, Mr. Philbin, Robert Melendez and Manny Cortez.

Benjy Melendez said his band is hoping to be able to perform again. Earl Wilson/The New York Times Benjy Melendez said his band is hoping to be able to perform again.

Between sips of coffee and occasional tears, Benjy Melendez recalled a band from the 1960s with British accents that had young girls from his South Bronx neighborhood swooning over songs like “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and “A Hard Day’s Night.”

The band was called the Ghetto Brothers.

“I started the band with my brothers Robert and Victor when we were kids,” said Mr. Melendez, now 60. “We first learned to harmonize by listening to Alvin and the Chipmunks, then we studied the Beach Boys and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and then the Beatles arrived and we were hooked. We worked the Beatles sound to such perfection that we were also known as Los Junior Beatles. The girls, oh man, they used to chase us all around the block.”

So did the police, as the Ghetto Brothers soon became the name of a street gang started by Mr. Melendez, who was known in those days as “Yellow Benjy.”

“I had about 2,000 members, not only in the South Bronx but in Philadelphia, Chicago and Puerto Rico. We were known everywhere,” said Mr. Melendez one recent evening at a Manhattan diner. “We were a band of brothers who were tough when we needed to be, but we were mostly about peace, diplomacy and singing.”

Mr. Melendez said he never used his switchblade on a rival gang member, though fistfights were common. (In fact, several stories published by The New York Times during the Ghetto Brothers’ heyday suggest that the gang was largely a peaceful organization.)

The only thing the Ghetto Brothers ever cut, Mr. Melendez said, was an album in 1972 called “Power-Fuerza,” a collection of eight songs that the Melendez brothers and five other musicians-turned-gang members put together in one all-day session, the culmination of a street career that began with impromptu performances on stoops and beneath lamp posts at summer block parties. Along the way, the young brothers once served as an opening act for the salsa great Tito Puente.

“The record label that discovered us at our street jams paid us only $75 each,” Mr. Melendez said. “But being little kids, we were just thrilled to be recording our own music, so the money really didn’t matter.”

Their album, which was distributed only locally in the Bronx, went nowhere and eventually faded into urban lore, where it lingered for more than 40 years until it was rereleased worldwide in December by Truth & Soul Records, a Brooklyn-based label.

“Power-Fuerza is an amazing album filled with beautiful two-part harmonies,” said Dan Akalepse, an owner of Truth & Soul Records. “We always knew about the album, which is something of a minor legend in New York. The music has a lot of cultural significance in that it represents an era in New York that young people today are not really aware of. It’s a real melting pot of sound, with a lot of soul and Latin influence and a tremendous amount of rock and roll.”

Jorge Pabon, a graffiti artist, street dancer and disc jockey from East Harlem better known as Popmaster Fabel, said that the Ghetto Brothers, along with Bronx disc jockeys like Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc, are all part of the early evolution of New York’s hip-hop history.

“The Ghetto Brothers were an incredibly talented fusion band,” said Mr. Pabon, who is also an adjunct professor of hip-hop dance at New York University. “They were Santana meets Sly and the Family Stone meets The Stylistics meets the Beatles. When I play a Ghetto Brothers song at parties today, younger members of the hip-hop generation freak out and start dancing like crazy, and they’re like ‘who are these guys?’ ”

Mr. Melendez ordered another cup of coffee before answering that question.

“We were a gang that chose peace over violence, that decided we were going to stop blaming the white man for breaking our windows and dumping garbage in our neighborhood,” he said. “We were the first street gang to begin taking responsibility for our actions.”

The turning point, according to Mr. Melendez, came in 1971 when he sent his best friend, a fellow gang member named Robert Benjamin Cornell, who was also known as Black Benjy, to broker a peace treaty between two rival Bronx gangs. During that meeting, Mr. Cornell was killed.

“I was devastated because I was the one who sent Black Benjy out to make the peace,” said Mr. Melendez, as tears began rolling down his cheeks. “All the other gangs thought for sure that we would seek revenge but I said no, enough is enough. Violence is not going to bring Black Benjy back to life. I looked at it as an opportunity to bring us all together and to let everyone know that I preferred peace, and that I forgave for what was done to one of my brothers.”

So Mr. Melendez arranged for a historic meeting that took place at the Madison Square Boys Club on Hoe Avenue in the Bronx.

“There were over 300 leaders in attendance representing gangs like the Black Spades, the Savage Skulls and the Spanish Kings, and there would have been thousands more there had we invited their members,” Mr. Melendez said. “We agreed to make the peace, and I invited all the gangs on Friday nights to our turf at 163rd Street and Prospect Avenue, where we performed for them in the street.”

“Before long,” he added, “I began using all that manpower to do some good in the community, to help rid the neighborhood of drugs, prostitution and violence.”

In the ensuing years, Mr. Melendez’s gang — and many others — began to disappear, but he and his friends continued to perform, singing Beatles songs and other tunes, including original material written by the band.

In 1981, the Ghetto Brothers began performing under the name “Street the Beat” and achieved a measure of success. Dressed in their signature gang jackets, they played nightclubs and private parties all across New York. They became local celebrities in the city, appearing on television shows hosted by Regis Philbin and David Susskind.

By the late 1980s, however, the band began to slow down. Mr. Melendez took a job as a social worker in the Bronx and held it until last year, when he was diagnosed with diabetes and began undergoing dialysis treatments three times a week. The four-man band, which now consists of Mr. Melendez and his son Joshua, as well as Robert Melendez and his son, Hiram — Victor Melendez died 13 years ago — is once again called the Ghetto Brothers.

On Friday nights, they rehearse in a studio in the Bronx, while waiting for a turn on another stage.

“We received such great publicity when our old album was rereleased, but what we need now is a manager to help get us some good gigs around town,” Mr. Melendez said. “After all these years, the Ghetto Brothers can still bring people together through the power of good music.”

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Ex-Inmate Sneaked Into Jail by Impersonating Official, Authorities Say

Matthew Matagrano should be well known to the authorities. In addition to being a registered sex offender, he was once jailed for disguising himself as an Education Department official and sneaking into a Queens school.

But last week, officials say, Mr. Matagrano was somehow able to disguise himself as a government worker again, this time as a Correction Department investigator, and enter at least one detention center. While there he stole a walkie-talkie and spent over seven hours conversing and smoking with inmates.

Mr. Matagrano, 36, was arraigned on Saturday and charged with burglary, grand larceny and forgery, according to court documents.

Officials offered few details about the case. In a criminal complaint, investigators said that Mr. Matagrano admitted to unlawfully entering the Manhattan Detention Center on Thursday. Other media outlets reported that he might have similarly entered other facilities over the course of a week.

According to the criminal complaint, Mr. Matagrano was allowed to park his car in front of the Manhattan Detention Center after displaying a Correction Department parking permit that was later found to be a forgery. He then gained entry by showing a gold shield and purporting to be an investigator with the Intelligence Unit. It was not clear whether the shield was fake.

While inside, he stole a walkie-talkie valued at about $2,500, the complaint said. He also handed out cigarettes to inmates and spent time smoking with them. He was in the facility from about 3:30 to 11 p.m., the complaint said.

Investigators gave no indication of Mr. Matagrano’s motives, and his lawyer could not immediately be reached for comment. The circumstances of his arrest were also unclear.

His bail was set at $50,000, and he is scheduled to appear in court again on Wednesday.

According to New York State’s sex offender registry, Mr. Matagrano was convicted in 1996 of raping a 17-year-old boy. He served over a year in prison.

Then in 2004, he was able to gain entry to a charter school in Jackson Heights, Queens, after presenting to school staff members what they thought was an Education Department badge. Investigators said that he spent about an hour in the school and was able to look through the files of at least two students.

In that case, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two to four years in prison.

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