Artist Profiles: Tito Puente

Tito Puente

Tito Puente was born Ernest Anthony Puente, Jr. on April 20, 1923 in New York City. His parents had just arrived from their native Puerto Rico and young Tito was nurtured in East Harlem’s “El Barrio” neighborhood that served as a cultural crossroads for Hispanic youth.

Surrounded by the urban sophistication of one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, Puente and his friends were none-the-less strongly influenced by an island culture that maintained its love of tropical music and the mother tongue.

Puente’s father, Ernest Sr., was a foreman in a razor blade factory. His mother called her son “Ernestito”, Little Ernest, then shortened the name to Tito. “Ernestito” grew up with one ear tuned to boleros and rumbas while the other one strained to hear the great swing bands of the day and an emerging jazz tradition.

Puente’s mother noticed his musical talent and enrolled him in a piano class at 7. He studied drums for years before switching to timbales. His musical education began with twenty five cent piano lessons, followed by a study of the drum set.

Singing with a local barbershop quartet followed, as did dancing lessons. With his younger sister Anna, Puente performed in a child song and dance team in the early 1930’s. “I pride myself on being one of the few band leaders who really knows how to dance,” he said. The background in dance cemented his sense of rhythm. It also encouraged the development of the extroverted personality and flamboyant stage presence, for which he would soon be known, traits that helped lift him from the ranks of sidemen to star status by the late 1940s.

It was clear from an early age that percussion would become Puente’s dominant form of musical communication. He learned the basics from the Afro-Cuban drummer of a band called Los Happy Boys. His first big break came when the United States of America entered World War II and the regular drummer of Machito’s famous big band was drafted into military service, allowing Puente to take his place.

Tito’s skill and technical competency paid off right away. For perhaps the first time in Latin music history, the timbales were brought to the front of the bandstand, and Puente played the drums standing, not seated, as it had been the custom. That simple change of routine liberated the rhythm section and opened the door for the flashy style of performance that in time would become the norm.

Puente spent three years in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He returned to Manhattan (New York City) and studied conducting, orchestration and theory at the famous Julliard School of Music from 1945 to 1947 thanks to the G.I. Bill (a bill that provided college or vocational education for returning World War II veterans, who were referred to as GIs).

Prolific as he was famous, Tito Puente’s hit records and compositions became classic gems to Latin music aficionados. ‘Oye Como Va’ and ‘Para Los Rumberos’ have been recorded by the rock music legend, Carlos Santana. His albums Top Percussion, Dance Mania, Puente in Percussion, Cuban Carnival, El Rey and El Número Cien are essentials on any collectors list.

Throughout his illustrious career Tito Puente was awarded 5 Grammies as well as 8 nominations. In addition, Puente received a Presidential Commendation for his tour of duty in World War II, the Eubie Blake Award from the National Academy of Arts and Sciences, the ASCAP Founders Award and the Washington D.C.’s Hispanic Heritage Committee Award for the Arts.

Puente had the honor of performing for 4 Presidents of the United States and countless foreign heads of state. In July 1996, Tito performed before the largest gathering in history of the International Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia.

Puente has a “Star” on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and four honorary doctorate degrees, one from each of the following: State University of New York at Old Westbury, Long Island University, Bloomfield College in New Jersey and Hunter College in New York City. The Caribbean division of the United States Postal Service put out a cancellation stamp in honor of Puente in response to requests made by the Unión De Músicos De Puerto Rico.

The Smithsonian National Museum presented Tito Puente with the Medal of Honor and their Lifetime Achievement Award in a ceremony entitled “Oye Como Va” on October 9, 1996. During this ceremony, Tito donated the timbal he used at the 1996 Olympic Summer Games in Atlanta to the museum. His instrument is displayed with their collection of Cultural History.

On September 29, 1997, Puente was awarded the Medal of the Arts by the National Endowment For The Arts of the United States of America. This ceremony took place at the White House where President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton presented this prestigious award to the “King of Latin Music.” Jane Alexander, Chairperson of the National Endowment For The Arts, said: “The individuals we honor today, have enlightened us with their vision. They have uplifted us with their art, music, dance, and theater, and strengthened America with their extraordinary contributions to our culture.”

On November 20, 1997 Tito Puente was inducted into the International Jazz Hall of Fame. Among the elite inducted during the ceremony were: Nat King Cole, Miles Davis, Ray Charles, and Anita O’Day.

To the general public, Tito Puente was well known for his various television and motion picture appearances. He was featured on television programs like: The Bill Cosby Show, The Simpsons, The Late Show with David Letterman, New York Undercover and Sesame Street. He also appeared in the feature film based on the award winning novel by Oscar Hijuelos, “The Mambo Kings” and in Woody Allen’s “Radio Days.”

After reaching his 50 year career milestone, which was rewarded with proclamations from New York Governor George Pataki, Mayor Rudolph Giulianni and Borough President Ruth Messinger, and achieving an endless list of recognitions and awards, Tito Puente showed no signs of creative fatigue.

Puente’s last concert appearance was in Puerto Rico, on April 29, 2000, completing the last of his series of performances with Puerto Rico’s Orquesta Sinfónica. After finishing that show, he was rushed to a nearby hospital due to breathing problems. Puente left the hospital and returned to New York to continue his treatment. He died May 31st, 2000.

Discography:

* Abaniquito (1949)
* El Timbral (1949)
* The Best of Tito Puente: El Rey del Timbal! (1949)
* Babarabatiri (1951)
* Mamborama! (Tico LP-1001, 1955)
* Goza Mi Cha Cha Cha (1955)
* Dance the Cha Cha Cha (1955)
* Cuban Carnival (1955)
* Cha Cha Cha, Vol. 3 (1955)
* Puente in Percussion (1956)
* Puente Goes Jazz (1956)
* Top Percussion (RCA Victor LSP-1617, 1957)
* Night Beat (1957)
* with Puente (1957)
* Basic Cha Cha Cha (1957)
* Tito Puente Swings/Vicentico Valdes Sings (1958)
* Puente’s Beat/Herman’s Heat (1958)
* New Cha Cha/Mambo Herd (1958)
* Dance Mania, Vol. 1 (RCA, 1958)
* Cha Cha Cha at the El Morocco (Tico, 1958)
* Puente in Love (1959)
* Mucho Cha Cha (RCA Victor LSP-2113, 1959)
* Mambo with Me (Tico LP-1003, 1959)
* Dancing Under Latin Skies (RCA Victor LSP-1874, 1959)
* Tambo (1960)
* Revolving Bandstand (1960)
* The Exciting Tito Puente Band in Hollywood(1961)
* Pachanga con Puente (1961)
* Dance Mania, Vol. 2 (1961)
* Vaya Puente (1962)
* Tito Puente y Parece Bobo (1963)
* Tito Puente Bailables (1963)
* More Dance Mania (1963)
* In Puerto Rico (1963)
* Excitante Ritmos (1963)
* El Rey Bravo (1963)
* Mucho Puente (RCA Victor LSP-1479, 1964)
* Latin World of Tito Puente (1964)
* El Mundo Latino de Tito Puente (1964)
* De Mi Para Ti (1964)
* Tú Y Yo (1965)
* Tito Puente Swings/The Exciting Lupe Sings (1965)
* The Best of Tito Puente (RCA, 1965)
* Homenaje a Rafael Hernandez (1965)
* My Fair Lady Goes Latin (Roulette 25726 , 1965)
* Combinacion Perfecta (1966)
* Carnaval en Harlem (1966)
* Cuba y Puerto Rico Son (1966)
* What Now My Love (1967)
* El Rey y Yo (1967)
* 20th Anniversary (1967)
* The King (El Rey) (1968)
* Etc, Etc, Etc (1969)
* Tito Swings, The Exciting Lupe Sings (Tico, 1969)
* Tito Puente en el Puente (On the Bridge) (1969)
* Ti Mon Bo (1969)
* Quimbo Quimbumbia (1969)
* Mambos by Tito (Palladium PLP 121, 1969)
* Lo Mejor de Tito Puente (1969)
* Bossa Nova (Roulette 25193, 1969)
* Pa’lante! (1970)
* Presenta a Noraida (1971)
* En España (1971)
* Tito Puente and His Concert Orchestra (1972)
* Algo Especial Para Recordar (1972)
* Para Los Rumberos (1972)
* Grandes Exitos de Tito Puente (1975)
* Los Originales (1976)
* La Pareja (1978)
* Homenaje a Beny Moré (1978)
* The Legend (Tico, 1978)
* Homenaje a Beny, Vol. 2 (1979)
* Ce’ Magnifique (1981)
* The Concord Jazz Heritage Series (1982)
* Oye Como Va: The Dance Collection (1982)
* On Broadway (Concord Picante, 1982)
* Puente Now! The Exciting Tito Puente Band (1984)
* El Rey (1984)
* Mambo Diablo (1985)
* Hits Candentes (1985)
* Un Poco Loco (Concord Picante, 1987)
* Sensacion (1987)
* Salsa Meets Jazz (Concord Picante, 1988)
* Goza Mi Timbal (Jazzyvisions, 1989)
* Out of This World (1990)
* The Mambo King: His 100th Album (1991)
* Mambo of the Times (1991)
* The Best of Tito Puente, Vol. 1 (1992)
* No Hay Mejor (1992)
* Lo Mejor de 12 Exitos (1992)
* Live at the Village Gate (1992)
* Dance Mania 80’s (1992)
* Cuando Suenan Los Tambores (1992)
* Royal ‘T’ (1993)
* Nuevo Mambo (1993)
* Night Beat/Mucho Puente Plus (1993)
* More Spanish Songs That Mama Never Taught Me… (1993)
* Master Timbalero (1993)
* Mambo Gozon (1993)
* Blue Gardenia (1993)
* Top Percussion/Dance Mania (1994)
* Tito Puente’s Golden Latin Jazz All Stars (1994)
* Barbarabatiri (1994)
* The Best of Dance Mania (1994)
* Mambo Y Cha Cha Cha (1994)
* Mambo Beat: The Progressive Side of Tito… (1994)
* Cubarama (1994)
* 3 Grandes Orquestas E Interpretes de La… (1994)
* Yambeque: The Progressive Side of Tito Puente (1995)
* Tito’s Idea (1995)
* The Complete RCA Victor Revolving Bandstand… (1995)
* Tea for Two (1995)
* More Mambos on Broadway (1995)
* Mambos with Puente (1949-51) (1995)
* Mambo Mococo (1949-51) (1995)
* Jazzin (1995)
* Fiesta Con Puente (1995)
* Fania Legends of Salsa Collection, Vol. 3 (1995)
* 20 Mambos/Take Five (1995)
* The Very Best of Tito Puente & Vincentico.. (1996)
* Special Delivery (1996)
* El Rey del Timbal (1996)
* El Rey de la Salsa (1996)
* Cha Cha Chá: Live at Grossinger’s (RCA Victor LSP-2187, 1996)
* Jazz Latino, Vol. 4 (1997)
* Greatest Hits (1997)
* Percussion’s King (1997)
* Selection of Mambo & Cha Cha Cha (1997)
* 50 Years of Swing (1997)
* Tito Meets Machito: Mambo Kings (1997)
* Cha Cha Cha Rumba Beguine (1998)
* Dance Mania ’98: Live at Birdland (1998)
* The Very Best of Tito Puente (1998)
* Timbalero Tropical (1998)
* Yambeque (1998)
* Absolute Best (1999)
* Carnival (1999)
* Colección original (1999)
* Golden Latin Jazz All Stars: In Session (1999)
* Latin Flight (1999)
* Latin Kings (1999)
* Lo mejor de lo mejor (1999)
* Mambo Birdland (RMM, 1999)
* Rey (2000)
* His Vibes & Orchestra (2000)
* Cha Cha Cha for Lovers (2000)
* Homenaje a Beny Moré. Vol. 3 (2000)
* Dos ídolos. Su música (2000)
* Tito Puente y su Orquesta Mambo (2000)
* The Complete RCA Recordings. Vol. 1 (2000)
* The Best of the Concord Years (2000)
* Por fin (Finally) (2000)
* Party with Puente! (2000)
* Obra maestra (2000)
* Mambo Mambo (2000)
* Mambo King Meets the Queen of Salsa (2000)
* Latin Abstract (2000)
* Kings of Mambo (2000)
* Cha Cha Cha for Lovers (2000)
* The Legends Collection: Tito Puente & Celia Cruz (2001)
* The Complete RCA Recordings, Vol. 2 (2001)
* RCA Recordings (2001)
* Puente caliente (2001)
* The Best of the Concord Years, double CD (Concord Picante 4391, 2001)
* King of Mambo (2001)
* El Rey: Pa’lante! Straight! (2001)
* Cocktail Hour (2001)
* Selection. King of Mambo (2001)
* Herman Meets Puente (2001)
* Undisputed (2001)
* Fiesta (2002)
* Colección Diamante (2002)
* Tito Puente y Celia Cruz (2002)
* Live at the Playboy Jazz Festival (2002)
* King of Kings: The Very Best of Tito Puente (2002)
* Hot Timbales! (2002)
* Dr. Feelgood (2002)
* Carnaval de éxitos (2002)
* Caravan Mambo (2002)
* Tito’s Idea (Verve, 2005)
* We Love Salsa (2006)

Bibliography

* Tito Puente: When the Drums Are Dreaming
* Tito Puente’s Drumming With the Mambo King
* Tito Puente – King of Latin Music
* Tito Puente and the Making of Latin Music
* Recordando a Tito Puente

Author: Angel Romero

Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music and progressive music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music and electronic music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World, Lektronic Soundscapes, and Mindchild Records. Angel is currently based in Durham, North Carolina.

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