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Rafael Ithier, is a former member of Rafael Cortijo's "Cortijo y su Combo" orchestra. After singer Ismael Rivera faced legal problems in Panama, some of the group's musicians departed, with Ithier relocating temporarily to the eastern United States before returning to Puerto Rico. Rafael Alvarez Guedes, the Cuban-born owner of the Gema recording label (and brother of comedic actor Guillermo), needed a backing band to record an album for legendary Dominican merengue singer Joseito Mateo. He asked Ithier for assistance, and Ithier responded by bringing in many of his former colleagues to the studio. For their first recording sessions, the orchestra included some musicians from Cortijo's original lineup, including saxophonist Hector Santos, trumpet player Rogelio "Kito" Velez, Eddie "La Bala" Perez and percussionists Martin Quinones, Miguel Cruz and Roberto Roena. Alvarez Guedes was told by Ithier that the name of the group was El Gran Combo, as to refer to the musicians' former affiliation, but addressing their regrouping as a "new and improved" version of Cortijo's orchestra. The album they recorded was titled Meneame Los Mangos, El Gran Combo con Joseito Mateo (the phrase translates as Shake My Handles or Shake My Mangoes, a play on words).

The group met again to define the foundations of a proper orchestra and chose singers Daniel Vazquez, Pellin Rodriguez and Chiquitin Garcia (who later composed, among other major EGC hits, "No Hago Mas Na", or "I Don't Do A Thing").

On May 21, 1962, El Gran Combo was heard for the first time on Puerto Rican radio. Later on, they became the in-studio musicians of the live television show, "La Taberna India", sponsored by India Beer.

After their live debut at Hotel La Concha in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Chiquitin Garcia left the orchestra. Vocalist Sammy Ayala, who had also played with Ithier in the Cortijo orchestra, recommended the hiring of Andy Montanez. Felipe Rodriguez, a legendary singer of romantic music, also followed the group's career closely, sometimes even making suggestions to Ithier.

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