A few months before he passed away, Tito Puente was kind enough to reminisce about his remarkable career over a lavish dinner in Los Angeles. Here are some excerpts from a memorable conversation.
You've been in the business for over 50 years. What was the happiest time of all to be making music?
In the '50s you had to work hard, because the competition was so good. Plus, you had to look good and put make-up on. Usually, the pretty boys were the worst musicians and the ugly ones were really good, like Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk. The geniuses.
In the '50s, you shared the Palladium stage with Machito. What was he like?
He was my mentor. An extraordinary man. His brother-in-law, Mario Bauzá, was also great. I started playing with him when I was 13 and my dad helped me to get in the clubs.
What about the Queen of Latin Soul - La Lupe?
An unforgettable experience. She was chévere, very charismatic. She had a strong impact on our music. The Queen, however, is Celia Cruz. There's no one in the whole world who can sing like her.
Do you remember the first time you met Celia?
I think it was in Cuba, in 1956, when she was still singing with La Sonora Matancera. When she moved to the U.S., in 1960, I was the first musician to record her. We did a beautiful album called Cuba Y Puerto Rico Son... When we played together, it was a very powerful combination. She used to be a schoolteacher. A very educated, highly intelligent person. I've played with her 588 times. She's kept count, you know, and she has the memory of an elephant.
In all your records, the swing is always there. Is it possible to learn how to swing?
It's a God given gift. Many people study music, all of them have the same books, but some excel more than others. Like my friend Giovanni Hidalgo. He plays five congas with a talent that's just out of this world. I've always surrounded myself with excellent percussionists, which is not to my advantage because they play better than me.