Tito Puente (Ernesto Antonio Puente, Jr.)
He was born on April 20, 1923, in the section known as Spanish Harlem in New York City. Shortly after his birth, Puente’s parents had left their native Puerto Rico to settle in the east side of Harlem known as “El Barrio” for its large Hispanic population. While his father, Ernesto Antonio Puente Sr. worked as a supervisor at a shaving machine company, his mother, Ercilia Duente, was the first to notice her eldest son’s musical talent, signing him up for piano lessons for 25 cents when Tito was seven years old.
Tito also attended dance school and played baseball before severely injuring his ankle in a bicycle accident. Although Tito received his formal music training on the piano, he always took an interest in percussion. Wanting to emulate his idol, drummer Gene Krupa, Puente began studying drums and percussion at the age of ten.
I was always playing on snares and in the window of his house,” he once admitted in an interview with Edmond Newton of the New York Post. He was also a member of a quartet in school and grew up listening to a variety of music, including Latin artists such as Miguelito Valdez and jazz musicians such as Stan Kenton and Duke EIlington.
Early in his teens, Tito began playing on weekends near his home. “My dad would take me to the dances,” he said in an interview with Larry Birnbaum of Down Beat. I was asleep by midnight. At the age of 15, Tito dropped out of school to take a job in the winter with an orchestra in Miami Beach, where he played the Miami Beach, where he played Americanized Rumbas and a variety of Latin American rhythms, including Tango, Waltz, and paso doble.
When he returned to Manhattan, Tito got the opportunity to work playing drums with the orchestra of Moro Morales and Jose Curbelo, who later became Manhattan’s first Mambo King.
His career as a professional began in the Noro Morales Orchestra. His first big break came when the United States entered World War II; he became the regular drummer in Machito’s famous Afro-Cuban band and was then drafted into military service where he got the opportunity to showcase his talents. Tito showed early signs of his notorious sense of showmanship while playing in the band led by swing celebrity Charlie Barnet, revitalizing the band by playing drums standing up, instead of sitting down as usual.
Tito’s touring with the band came to a temporary halt when he received his call-up to the armed forces; for the next three years. Tito served on a U.S. Navy carrier in the South Pacific. In 1945 Tito was discharged from the Naval Forces and received a commendation in recognition of being in nine battles.
His military stint, however, provided several positive experiences. Not only did he get the opportunity to learn the saxophone – which he learned on his own while on the ship – but he got the chance to further his education through the G.I. Bill.
In what was cited as one of the best decisions of his life, Puente enrolled at the Julliard School of Music, where he studied composition, orchestration, and conducting while working with a variety of Latin bands in New York.
He played and absorbed the influence of Machito, who was successfully combining Latin rhythms with progressive jazz. “My time with Machito was a very important time for my career, because they were one of the best groups at the time,” said Tito in an interview with New York’s Martinez de Pison. “I started with them in the early 40s, and I stayed with them until the late 50s, here in New York.
It was an orchestra where I got a lot of experience playing primarily the most popular Afro-Cuban rhythms of the time like the Mambo, the Cha-Cha-Cha, the Guajiras, as well as what they call today Latin Jazz. It was a great experience because it was a band that created many musical arrangements, and I learned a lot from recordings.
Puente quickly became known as a fabulous arranger. He was hired by promoter Federico Pagani after seeing him playing with a group of musicians from Pupi Campos’ band, and called them the Piccadilly Boys.
Forming the nine-piece Picadilly Boys arrangement in 1947 and then expanding it to a full orchestra two years later, Puente recorded for Secco, Tico and eventually RCA Victor, helping to grow the Mambo craze and give him the unofficial name that lasted his entire life, “El Rey del Mambo” or just “The King”. With his early hits on Tico Records such as Ran Kan Kan, Abaniquito, El Yoyo, and Picadillo, Puente “electrified dancers across America and catapulted him to the forefront of Latin bandleaders” according to Birnbaum.
By the mid-1950s, Puente had been successful in winning a large Hispanic and Anglo fan base. In 1956, in a poll conducted by the New York newspaper El Diario La Prensa, Puente was selected as “El Rey De La Música Latina” (The King of Latin Music), beating out his competitors Prado and Rodriguez. Two years later, RCA released Dance Mania, which became a perennial international best seller. “It was the dance explosion,” Puente said. “Remember, the Palladium was a great place to dance.
I’ve always said that without a dance the music couldn’t be popular people started to know about this new dance – El Mambo – that it was fashionable to learn to dance Mambo no matter what part of society you came from. And then here we would have a place the Palladium, where many people could come to dance or learn to dance the Mambo.
Dance studios would send their students to the Palladium, where they could learn and see great ballet star dancers, Broadway stars, expert Mambo dancers – all in one place – and I would direct my music to these people.”
Puente also helped popularize the cha-cha-cha during the 1950s, and he was the only non-Cuban to be invited to a government-sponsored “50 Years of Cuban Music” celebration in Cuba in 1952. Among the high caliber conteros who played in Puente’s band in the 50’s were Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo, Johnny Pacheco and Ray Barreto which resulted in some explosive percussion performances. Tito hosted his own show, “El Mundo de Tito Puente” on Spanish-language television in 1968 and he also served as the Grand Marshal of the Puerto Rican Parade.
Puente unexpectedly entered another genre of music in 1970, when California rocker Carlos Santana turned one of Puente’s old songs, “Oye Como Va” into a top 40 hit. “Oye Como Va is a composition of mine that Santana recorded 12 years after me,” Puente said in an interview with New York’s Javier Martínez de Pisón, “But he did it with the rhythms of the time, which were rock with organ, drums, and guitar, and it was a sensational piece that made it very popular worldwide.
“Seven years later the two came together for a memorable concert in Manhattan. As Pablo Guzman described it in the Village Voice, “Puente led his orchestra ole fifteen pieces, while playing timbales, with rapid head gestures and arm signals; at one point, when he signaled with his characteristic gesture of putting the stick above his head, the entire brass section, spread out in a line to his left, and went up to the beat and played in opposition to each other. The audience was in an uproar.”
Among the best musical periods of all time was his collaborative work with Celia Cruz, whom he considered to be the most important figure in Latin music in the world. Equally well known was his work with La Lupe, a singer who had a gypsy-like passion. With La Lupe, he recorded songs such as Puente Swings, My Fair Lady Goes Latin, Tu y Yo (Tito Puente and La Lupe) or a tribute to Rafael Hernandez, a famous Puerto Rican composer.
Credited with introducing the timbal and vibraphone to Afro-Cuban music, Puente also played drums, congas, claves, piano, and occasionally, saxophone and clarinet. While Puente was perhaps best known for his best-selling 1958 album Dance Mania, his eclectic sound has continued to transcend cultural and generational boundaries.
In 1979 Puente won his first Grammy Award with a Beny Moré tribute, Homenaje a Beny. That same year, he established a scholarship fund organization at Juilliard to recognize Latin percussionists in the United States.
The Tito Puente Scholarship Found Foundation “gives young Latin percussionists a chance to get an incentive or learn how to read the music, so when you go into a recording studio, you know what you’re doing,” as Puente explained to Birnbaum. “Puente continued to strengthen his commitment to the future of Latin Music by performing regularly at colleges and universities across the country.
The new generation of students from Central and South America want representation,” Puente told Fred Bouchard of Down Beat.
As he continued to produce solid albums, including the unparalleled 100th album in 1992, Puente became more visible or a more mainstream audience. In addition to performing at the White House since the administration of President Jimmy Carter, who introduced him as “The Ambassador of Latin American Music”, Puente became the first Latin artist to perform on the popular television program “The Bill Cosby Show”, made several appearances on “The David Letterman Show” and appeared in such films as Woody Allen’s “Radio Days” and “Armed and Dangerous” with the late John Candy, and played his own musician in the film The Mambo Kings, an adaptation of Oscar Hijuelos’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and was honored with a star in the Hollywood Hall of Fame.
In the 1980s, he received his first honorary doctorate from the College at Old Westbury.
In 1992, he received his second honorary doctorate from Hunter College in New York and was inducted into the National Congressional Record. He received an honorary degree from Columbia University in 1999, and the Latin Grammy Award for Best Tropical Traditional Performance for “Mambo Birdland” in 2000.
Despite being in his 70s in the early 1990s, Puente – who with his wife, Margie Asención, had three children – maintained a busy touring schedule that took him to Russia, Japan, and Puerto Rico. But in January 1994, he told Vionette Negretti of the San Juan Star newspaper that he planned to slow down: “There are a lot of young people who need to develop their talents and old people like me need to give them their space.
Tito Puente was internationally recognized for his contributions to Latin music as an arranger, bandleader, composer and percussionist. Tito Puente did more than just earn the top spot among Latin jazz musicians, working continuously from 1937 to 2000. Known as the Mambo King, he recorded more than 100 albums, released more than 400 compositions, and earned five Grammy Awards.
Tito Puente’s good will, talent and spirit led him to close racial, cultural and generational gaps.
Puente passed away after undergoing heart surgery on May 31, 2000, in New York. He was 77 years old.