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A radio icon who helped usher Latin music's rise is remembered

Polito Vega was one of New York City's best-known radio personalities, credited with putting salsa and Latin music on the global stage through his radio show and giant concerts.
Polito Vega in Miami
Polito Vega in Miami on Nov. 21, 2014.Alexander Tamargo / Getty Images file

Artists and fans are remembering the legacy of radio giant and music promoter Polito Vega, who was known to generations of listeners and considered instrumental to the rise of salsa and Latin music.

Vega, who was born in Puerto Rico, died Thursday at age 84. A funeral Mass was held Monday in the iconic St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, the city that became Vega's home in 1959 and where he went on to become a trailblazer in the Latin music scene. Vega was known as “el rey de la radio,” or the king of radio.

“When you talk about radio history, and the birth of salsa and being a DJ and promoter at same time, that was Polito Vega,” entertainment reporter Jack Rico told NBC News.

His death was announced by La Mega 97.9, the Spanish-language radio station that Vega, one of New York City’s best-known radio personalities, helped catapult to success as program director and host for over five decades.

"Vega’s importance to Latin music cannot be overstated," wrote Billboard's Leila Cobo, author of "Decoding 'Despacito': An Oral History of Latin Music."

"He was the most influential tastemaker in the country’s top market dating back to when tropical music first became popular in the city in the 1960s and 1970s and stretching all the way to the 21st century," Cobo wrote.

Rico noted that Vega was especially instrumental in promoting salsa music in the 1970s. Vega gave a big platform to legendary musician Johnny Pacheco, whose Fania All-Stars became synonymous with salsa music and who recorded with icons such as the late Celia Cruz and Hector Lavoe through his label Fania Records.

Online, artists and fans marked his legacy. Latin Grammy-winning band Grupo Niche tweeted in Spanish that Vega put the Latin music sound in the world's capital, referring to New York.

Vega was also a trailblazer in the way that he blended DJ and live events, Rico said, such as his salsa concerts at Madison Square Garden.

"You can call him the godfather of young Latin musicians — that was a template that a lot of young people started emulating," Rico said.

But Vega's reach extended to Latin pop and other genres. As Cobo noted for Billboard, a 2012 concert at Citi Field in New York City to mark Vega's 53 years on the air included superstars like Gloria Estefan, Daddy Yankee and Juanes.