Pacheco, one of five children of Rafael and Octavia Pacheco, was bom in 1935 in Santiago de los Caballeros in the Dominican Republic. His father was a professional musician who played the clarinet and worked as a music conductor with the Orquesta de Santa Cecilia. Some sources credit his mother's love for radio as a central force in exposing him to many Cuban music styles as he was growing up. He showed his love for music early on and as a child mastered the harmonica and the bass drum.
In 1946, when he was 11 years old, Pacheco's family moved to New York City during the first wave of Dominican migration. He attended a vocational school in the Bronx but continued to play music on the side and learned to play many different instruments. However, it was his talent for percussion, saxophone, flute, and clarinet that were to make him famous. After graduating from high school, he went on to pursue formal music training at the Julliard School of Music.
The professional music career of Johnny Pacheco started in the 1950s and was boosted by the popularity of Latino music at the time. His early successes are associated with the emergence of the musical styles of mambo, pachanga, charanga, and the cha-cha-chá. He played in many local bands and also formed his own music group, known as Los Chuculecos Boys. While his biographers tend to underscore the importance of his early work with musicians such as Tito Puente, Dámaso Pérez Prado, and Xavier Cugat, his first significant and lasting professional experience was through his association with pianist Eddie Palmieri and joining the band Charanga Duboney in 1959. His first major recording, "Let's Dance the Charanga," was released in 1960 with this group.
After having disagreements with Palmieri, Pacheco abandoned the group and moved on to create his own ensemble known as Pacheco y su Charanga in 1960. The recording Johnny Pacheco y su Charanga, released under the label Alegre, became a great mega hit and sold more than 100,000 copies. It was the top selling Latin record in the United States at the time. One of his most popular hits was the song "El Güiro de Macorina." This recording opened multiple opportunities for Pacheco. He suddenly became a famous stai and toured the world. He was one of the first Latino performers to appear at the Apollo Theater in 1961 and on mainstream television programs such as the Tonight Show. In 1963, he broke his association with Alegre Records, in part because he resented their profiting from his hit recording but also because they signed Charlie Palmieri as their lead artist. His rupture with Alegre Records was a turning point in Pacheco's life. Two events were to change his career forever: the creation of a new recording label and the transition to a new music style.
When Pacheco met with Jerry Massuci, his divorce attorney, Massuci was impressed with his musical talents and proposed the formation of a partnership to launch their own music label. They created Fania Records in 1964 with the meager investment of $5,000.
Simultaneously with the development of Fania, Pacheco started to create an entirely new style of music influenced by the music being imported to New York by musicians who were leaving Cuba after Castro's revolution. Ernesto Lechner has best explained the origins of this new style:
The key to the Fania aesthetic was mixing venerable Cuban dances such as the guaracha, the guaguanco or the son montuno with the textures of American jazz and even some R&B. This was Afro-Cuban music as experienced mostly by Puerto Rican immigrants in the heart of New York. It was a sassy, street-smart sound, daring as it was seductive, representing the essence of salsa, which ironically, would return to Cuba and end up influencing a generation of local musicians.
Around this same time, Pacheco formed a new and smaller group named Pacheco y su Nuevo Tumbao. Along with Eddie Palmieri, Charlie's brother, he produced a rhythm that caught the attention of Latino audiences in New York. In 1964 they released the recording, "Cañonazo," his first recording under Fania. Although the music was heavily Afro-Cuban in nature, Pacheco began to market it under the rubric of salsa music. There was a growing interest among Latino youth in New York for a music style that would capture the realities of their lives as immigrants to the big city. Through his introduction of salsa music, he was able to cater to these needs and develop a new genre.
Initially, Fania was a small operation where Pacheco and Massuci handled both the talent and the business side of the industry. However, Pacheco was able to recruit some famous Latino entertainers to record and perform concerts with him, thereby increasing Fania's penetration of the Latino music market. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Pacheco and Massuci attracted many well-known and famous Latino performers to the Fania label. Fania eventually became Fania AH Stars label. They were also able to organize the some of the most successful music concerts of the time. By 1971, Pacheco and the Fania All Stars were able to bring together artists of the stature of Larry Harlow, Willie Colón, Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Papo Luca, Joe Batán, Mongo Santamaría, Hector Lavoe, Ray Barreto, and Ruben Blades. They produced concerts that changed the music history of Latino performers in New York. They also established partnerships with some mainstream American music labels such as Columbia Records and Atlantic Music and secured the distribution for their recordings. Salsa music quickly became the established music genre of Latino audiences in the United States and Latin America.
During the 1980s, Fania ran into financial difficulties as the boom of salsa music started to lose popularity. The company was sold to an Argentinean music conglomerate. Despite the ups and downs of this label and the music business, Pacheco has been able to stay in the forefront of the Latino musical scene consistently through the years. Pacheco is credited with the composition of more than 150 songs and the release of more than 40 records. He writes for himself as well as for other performers. Some of his best-known songs are. Mi Gente, "Quitate Tu Pa' Ponerme Yo," "La Dicha Mia"(My Luck), Quimbara, and "Coro Miraye." He has been nominated for nine Grammys.