Tito Puente - Biography

Tito Puente is an internationally recognized musical icon and must be credited for his role in defining two major Latin genres of music, Latin jazz and salsa. A charismatic performer known for his boundless energy, he introduced the timbales (a modified drum set including dual snare drums and cymbals played standing up with sticks) to the public at large, reveling in his maestro role as he took extended solos. From the moment he took the stage at New York City’s fabled Palladium ballroom as the director of his own orchestra in the 1950s until his death in 2000, he remained in the spotlight. His sixty plus years as a professional musician yielded over 120 albums, 400 compositions, 2,000 arrangements, 10,000 performances, and one monster tune, “Oyé Como Va,” made immortal by legendary rock guitarist Carlos Santana.


Born Ernesto Antonio Puente, Jr. in New York City’s Spanish Harlem in 1923 (or 1920, depending on whom one believes), he epitomizes what is known as Nuyorican culture--Puerto Ricans from New York City. As a child, Puente and his sister Anna were part of “Stars of the Future” and he was honored several times for his dancing skill. He began his musical studies on piano; then, inspired by Gene Krupa, he switched to drums and, later, picked up the alto saxophone and the vibraphone. He began to play professionally as a percussionist with Cuban bandleader and pianist Jose Curbelo in December of 1939. Puente later joined Anselmo Sacassas, the pianist who sparked his interest in piano, then worked with Noro Morales and Machito before being drafted into the Navy. As much as he was influenced by his parents’ Afro-Caribbean culture, he was also influenced by the energy and modernity of America’s most cosmopolitan city.        


During World War II, when not engaged in battle, he played drums and saxophone in a Navy swing band led by Charlie Barnet and acquired some arranging skills from a sax-playing pilot. After the war he used the G.I. Bill to pay for studies at the prestigious Julliard School of Music, where he honed his skills while working in various bands. Developing a reputation as an ace arranger, he formed his own band, the Picadilly Boys, and began his recording career. By 1951 he was recording and leading the Tito Puente Orchestra as the mambo dance craze was sweeping the scene. His energetic showmanship, coupled with a large, swinging, brass-blaring band catapulted him to the top of the Latin dance craze. As the cha cha chá and Afro-Cuban jazz enjoyed a popularity that defied generational and ethnic barriers, Puente was the crowned prince of Latin music in the 1950s.


Puente recorded scores of songs that were released by the Tico label as 78 r.p.m. singles but it was the popularity of his live performance that propelled him to stardom. Part of his genius was surrounding himself with superior talent, and in particular, his rhythm section, which variously included drummers Willie Bobo, Mongo Santamaria, and Carlos “Patato” Valdés, was unrivaled. All of them can be heard on his first widely popular LP release for RCA Victor, the mambo classic Cuban Carnival (1956). These four drummers recorded Puente’s Puente in Percussion (1956 Tico) and an even larger crew of percussionists was employed on Top Percussion (1957 RCA/Victor), which included in reissue the seven minute Afro-Cuban jazz suite “Night Ritual,” featuring the young Doc Severinson on lead trumpet. The two albums became universally recognized masterpieces of percussion and standard textbooks for all students of Afro-Cuban rhythm and Latin music.


With his popularity surging and creativity pulsing, Puente released Dance Mania (1958 RCA/Victor) and its hit singles, “El Cayuco,” “Complícacion,” and “Cuando te Vea.”  Great arrangements and superior stereo production helped make it a catalog classic and his biggest selling record ever. The New York Times listed it as one of the 23 most influential records of the 20th century. In a nod to the exotica trend, Puente released Tambó (1960 RCA/BMG) featuring Ray Barretto and “Patato” on congas and tunes such as “Dance of the Headhunters” and “Witch Doctor’s Nightmare” (song titles seemingly drawn from a Martin Denny LP). Dance Mania, Volume 2 (1961 RCA/BMG) was another solid collection of big band, percussive mambos, but the big band days were passing, rock and soul were arriving and salsa was about steal the scene.


\Latin New York was abuzz with the pachanga in the early ‘60s, a variation of the Cuban charanga that utilized its signature sweet strains of violin and flute. Not ashamed to embrace praise, Puente’s El Rey Bravo (1962 Tico) touts his moniker “the king” (of timbales/percussion) and delivers the goods. The tight ensemble jams on tunes such as “Oyé Como Va.” The next fad to hit was the soul-inspired boogaloo in the mid-sixties and much of Puente’s trend-riding material from that time is best left forgotten. But, during this time he began performing with Cuban exile singer La Lupe, known for her sexually charged, half-crazed performance and soul-like vocal flourishes. Tito Puente Swings/The Exciting Lupe Sings (1965 Tico) and El Rey y Yo (1967 Tico), which includes an almost frightening bi-lingual version of The Beatles “Yesterday,” capture that time. Following an acrimonious creative split between the two, Puente hired a man in drag to sing with him. Carnaval en Harlem (1966 Tico) with singer Santos Colon survives the test of time based on its strength of composition and musicianship.


The King (1968 Tico) announced itself with classic psychedelic graphic design and when Puente teamed up with the one and only Celia Cruz on Quimbo Quimbumbia (1969 Tico) they couldn’t resist doing a medley of “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.” By then Puente had long been popular and respected internationally, but as a proud New Yorker it must have been a special moment when he received the Key to the City award from the mayor in 1969. His career was given a surprise jolt when Carlos Santana’s Abraxas (1970 Columbia) came out and the cover of Puente’s “Oyé Como Va” quickly became a hit on the left coast and with the jet set. Santana’s version of “Para Los Rumberos” the following year on Santana III (1971 Columbia) gave further credence to the metaphorical crown placed on Puente’s head. Perhaps inspired, or challenged, by Santana’s success with his song from 1956, Puente released Para Los Rumberos (1972 Tico), which reworks the title track. Among Puente’s best salsa recordings, Charlie Palmieri contributes on organ, including a notable solo on the heady “Salsa y Sabor.”


Puente closed out the ‘70s by taking a page from the heart of the classic Cuban songbook with Homenaje a Beny More (1978 Fania) and Homenaje a Beny More, Volume 2 (1979 Fania). With assistance from a host of top-notch arrangers and musicians employing a big band format and the participation of Latin New York’s top singers including Celia Cruz and Cheo Feliciano, Puente earned his first Grammy award in 1979 for the former recording. In the ‘80s, Puente began a long and prodigious association with the Concord record label and was at the forefront of establishing a new (albeit old in origin) genre-- Latin jazz. On Broadway (1982 Concord/Picante), Mambo Diablo (1985 Concord/Picante), and Goza Mi Timbal (1989 Concord/Picante) all received Grammy awards.


Recording and touring relentlessly, both domestically and abroad, Puente’s fame and reputation spread in the ‘80s, no doubt helped by appearances on America’s number one sitcom, The Cosby Show. In 1990 he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and he appeared as a bandleader, as he was, in the fifties-era film The Mambo Kings (1992 Warner Brothers). His Golden Latin Jazz All-Stars Live at the Village Gate (1992 RMM/Sony) perfectly captures Puente at his best, surrounded by the greatest Latin musicians, jamming and soloing on extended versions of jazz and Latin classics. In 1995 he played himself, most appropriately, as a cartoon character in a popular two-part episode of the Simpsons.


In 1997, he was awarded the prestigious National Medal of Arts by America’s sax playing President Clinton. Dancemania ’98: Live at Birdland (1998 RMM) surrounded the legend with a huge supporting cast and showed he still had his chops. With over 100 recordings already under his belt, Puente unleashed a live tour-de-force set backed by a twenty-piece orchestra, the aptly titled Mambo Birdland (1999 RMM). It won the Grammy for the Best Tropical Latin Performance at the inaugural Latin Grammy Awards in 2000. The award was sadly given posthumously, as Puente passed away on May 31, 2000, following a heart attack suffered shortly after a show in Puerto Rico.


After years of discussing it, Puente and fellow Nuyorican legend, pianist Eddie Palmieri, finally teamed up to make their Masterpiece/Obra Maestra (2000 RMM). Both performers, though long past standard retirement age, showed they were in full possession of their prodigious musical prowess on this masterful recording. Unfortunately, it didn’t see the light of day until several weeks after Puente’s passing and appeared almost as a reminder of his most certain musical immortality. Puente will always be remembered as a snowcapped figure, goofing and grinning as he flails away at the timbales, captured on numerous archival recordings and television performances. One shouldn’t, however, overlook his historical significance as a first rate arranger and composer, nor his crucial role in introducing Latin music to the world at large. “Oyé como va…bueno pa’ gozar” echoes through eternity, reminding us to “listen to how it goes…it’s great for enjoyment.”





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