The King was born on April 20, 1923, in New York City. Named after his father, Ernest Anthony Puente Jr. grew up in fertile Spanish Harlem, the oldest of three children and by all accounts a musical prodigy. “I was always banging around cans and the walls,” he once recalled. “Some of our neighbors told my mother, ‘Hey, why don’t you put him to study drums?’” The young Ernestito, whose name was quickly condensed to those last two percussive syllables, began formal training on piano, saxophone, and in dance but always had a proclivity for the drums. “Tito was a fanatic for Gene Krupa,” says Joe Conzo, Puente’s longtime friend. ...MORE >
The King was born on April 20, 1923, in New York City. Named after his father, Ernest Anthony Puente Jr. grew up in fertile Spanish Harlem, the oldest of three children and by all accounts a musical prodigy. “I was always banging around cans and the walls,” he once recalled. “Some of our neighbors told my mother, ‘Hey, why don’t you put him to study drums?’” The young Ernestito, whose name was quickly condensed to those last two percussive syllables, began formal training on piano, saxophone, and in dance but always had a proclivity for the drums. “Tito was a fanatic for Gene Krupa,” says Joe Conzo, Puente’s longtime friend. This passion for big-band jazz along with the neighborhood influ- ence of fellow Puerto Rican musicians like Rafael Hernández—whose sister had a record store nearby and gave Tito piano lessons—combined with the rich tradition of Cuban music coursing through the Latin community to form the foundation of Tito Puente’s musical style.
By his late teens, the percussion whiz some called “El Niño Prodigo” had already played in the groups of legends Noro Morales and Machito, increasingly focusing his skills on the timbales, a paired set of shallow, single-skinned drums played with wooden sticks. After a stint in the Navy, where he played saxophone and led a band on the USS Santee, Puente took advantage of the GI Bill and enrolled to study arranging at Julliard. At the same time, he continued working in a number of dance bands, including those of Pupi Campo and José Curbelo. It was a period of intense growth and creativity—and when a promoter hired him to lead a Sunday afternoon session at the soon-to-be-legendary Palladium nightclub, it gave Tito the chance to make the leap from sideman to bandleader.
In the summer of 1949, Tito’s newly formed group played a two-month engagement at El Patio Club in Atlantic Beach, Long Island. When he returned to New York, he had a tight ensemble—including trumpeter Jimmy Frisaura, who would stay at Tito’s side for almost fifty years—and began headlining the Palladium, alongside Tito Rodríguez and Machito. The Palladium was by then the most important dance club in New York City, with frequent appearances from stars like Marlon Brando and Marlene Dietrich, and onstage competition between the bands was fierce. “Tito was serious on the job,” pianist Al Escobar remem- bered in 2002. “One time...a sax player asked to come up and play. We did about sixteen bars and Tito lifted up his sticks and stopped the band cold. Right there in front of everyone, he said, ‘Get off this stage, mother******. What balls you have to get up here and play with us professionals.’” Johnny Pacheco described to writer Jim Payne the effect the bands had on the dancers, and in turn the dancers had on the Palladium: “There were so many people moving...the floor used to shake. They had to reinforce it with steel beams.” Mambonik George Goldner heard Puente’s band at the Palladium and offered him a contract on his fledgling Tico label. Puente’s first recordings as a leader were made in late 1949 at WOR Studios in midtown Manhattan. “Abaniquito,” Puente’s arrangement of a José Curbelo tune, was recorded in one take at the urging of trumpeter Mario Bauzá. “I wanted to do it again,” Tito said, “but Mario stopped me. He said we couldn’t do it better.” “Abaniquito” features electrifying performances from all involved, especially Cuban sonero Vicentico Valdés, and became Puente’s first hit, getting immediate airplay from DJ Dick “Ricardo” Sugar on WEVD. The song’s sly use of the famous brass riff from the ground- breaking Dizzy Gillespie/Chano Pozo composition “Manteca” was no coincidence; Bauzá
had introduced Gillespie and Pozo. Between this first date and 1955, Puente churned out a staggering number of records for Tico (inventoried thoroughly on Fania’s The Complete 78s, Volumes 1–4), including many tunes that became standards in his repertoire. “Vibe Mambo” and “Mambo Diablo” both show Puente’s distinct knack for innovation without sacrificing danceability. Although the marimba was not unheard of in Latin music, its metal-barred cousin the vibraphone was never used before these recordings. The vibes would become a signature element of Puente’s sound, copied so often that they are now considered typical Latin jazz instru- mentation. The tour de force “Ran Kan Kan” displays the dazzling effect of this interplay between vibes and the percussive power of the orchestra. A composition Puente returned to frequently throughout his career, the title was inspired by the vocal improvisations of Cuban sonero Orlando “Cascarita” Guerra. The curious can examine La Orquesta Casino de la Playa’s “La Última Noche,” where Guerra’s onomatopoeic phrase can be heard clearly.
In 1955, despite Goldner’s misgivings, Puente went into the studio to record an all- percussion album. The late-night session (the only hour Goldner would allot for such a noncommercial venture) included Mongo Santamaria, Carlos “Patato” Valdéz, Willie Bobo, and “a bottle of Havana rum,” as Puente recalled. The result of this alchemy was the land- mark Puente in Percussion record, a watershed in the exploration of Afro-Cuban rhythm. From it, we hear the blazing Puente feature “Stick on Bongo.”
Beginning with the Cuban Carnival LP in 1956, Puente recorded a series of thirteen albums for RCA. The major label issued one of his most enduring classics (Dance Mania) and validated Puente’s confidence in his earlier concept by commissioning another all- percussion session (Top Percussion), but Tito soon tired of what he felt was second-tier billing to RCA’s star Pérez Prado: “They treated me like some small-time local artist.”
When he returned to Tico in 1961, Puente went on a tear, recording an astounding twenty-one full-length albums in the first half of the decade. After José Curbelo broke up his band to start a booking agency, Puente hired his former singer Santos “Santitos” Colón, who would provide the distinctive voice on most of Tito’s dates throughout the ’60s, starting with Dance Mania in 1958.
Goldner implored Puente to record 1961’s Pachanga con Puente album (from which “Caramelos” is taken) to capitalize on the short-lived early ’60s dance craze. Never comfortable with trends, however, Puente quickly returned to more familiar terrain with his next release for Tico, the outstanding Vaya Puente. “Timbalero,” as the title suggests, is a tribute to the man on percussion. Vocalist Rudy Calzado improvises lines celebrating Tito’s prowess on the skins, leading to a murderous forty-eight-bar Puente timbale solo that dances circles around the piano montuno. The bembé “Agua-Nile” accomplishes the improbable and raises the intensity of the rhythm as the ensemble runs through a succes- sion of ascending tempo shifts, climaxing in a reinterpretation of the theme in 6/8 time. The precise stop-on-a-dime cohesiveness of the band is remarkable. “He has his own style of breaks,” arranger Ray Santos said in 1994 of Puente’s technique. “He’ll take advantage of that rapidity, that looseness he has in his wrists. He can do things the average timbale player can’t do.”
“Oye Como Va” is rightfully considered Tito Puente’s most famous composition, although, ironically, it was likely a throwaway track to fill out 1962’s El Rey Bravo LP. “‘Oye Como Va’ was a fluke,” says Joe Conzo. “I think it was an added-on tune that he did, a ‘live in the studio’ thing,” he muses. “Tito had a habit of saying, ‘Next!’ Did it, it was put out, it didn’t go no place.” And that would’ve been the end of “Oye Como Va.” Except that eight years later in 1970, the guitar-playing son of a mariachi violinist named Carlos Santana recorded it. The year before, Santana had success with a cover version of Willie Bobo’s “Evil Ways” and was looking for a follow-up. At the suggestion of his manager Bill Graham, a mambo lover and Puente devotee from the Palladium days, he chose “Oye Como Va,” and it skyrocketed to fame, a development no one could have predicted when Tito first recorded it.
From El Rey Bravo, we also hear “Tokyo de Noche,” an inventive and mesmerizing com- position highlighting Puente’s fascination with what he called “Oriental” themes. “Some- times, Tito would tell me he was Chinese in another life,” Conzo says, laughing. The song features nimble solos from Johnny Pacheco on flute and Felix “Pupi” Legarreta on violin. While fascinated with Eastern sounds, Tito’s great love and inspiration was the music of Cuba, and the U.S. restrictions against traveling there during Castro’s regime pained him greatly. As a young man in José Curbelo’s touring band, Tito often took the short ride to Havana on his days off in Miami, simply to soak in the music scene. So complete was his immersion that, in 1958, the Cuban government (under Batista) formally recognized him in a ceremony honoring musicians, the only non-Cuban to achieve this distinction. “The Cubans have their own style of music; that’s what we play, really,” Puente emphasized in a 1994 interview. “That’s the good dance music.” Cuban sonero Beny Moré was a beloved figure whom Puente would honor with a series of three tribute albums in the late ’70s, but he was studying Moré’s songs well before that. On the 1963 album In Puerto Rico, Tito and Santos Colón tackle the tongue-twisting “Babarabatiri” with the help of a terrific trumpet solo from Pedro “Puchi” Boulong. Santitos again channels the Cuban masters Moré and Cascarita with the sensational “Kwa Kwa” (which riffs on the Cuban standard “Agua Pa’ Mi”)—the end result certainly makes Tito’s point about “good dance music.”
Despite taking top honors in a Mexican songwriting competition in late 1962, the bolero “Ay Cariño” was virtually unknown before this 1963 recording, one of many songs that were routinely shopped to Tico. Puente’s longtime percussionist John “Dandy” Rodríguez explains, “Some guy from wherever would write a song, and whoever was the hot company at the time, they’d send it to them, and you’d have tons of stuff to choose from when making an album.” Provenance aside, Tito’s interpretation became a huge hit. “I remember playing it at gigs,” says Dandy, “and it was monstrous.”
Tito never tired of combining his intense interest in Cuban styles with his Harlem-bred love of jazz, as the exciting “Cochise” and “Caribe,” now considered Latin jazz standards, show. Growing up, he adored the big-band sound. “I would listen to the great dance bands of the day on the radio—Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington,” Puente once recollected. “He was a lover of jazz,” confirms Dandy. “He was a lover of Buddy Rich, of the big-band drummers. Except for, say, Dance Mania, which was so straight-ahead mambo, a lot of his albums had that jazz influence.” One such album was Carnaval en Harlem (1965), which contained a version of the bebop standard “Jumpin’ with Symphony Sid.” From the same session comes “Corta el Bonche,” a composition by Cuban sonero Alberto Ruiz, originally done by his Conjunto Kubavana in 1947. Tito’s version really takes off in the second half of the tune, a descarga that allows him room to demonstrate his utter mastery of the timbales, despite driving the recording levels well into the red.
Although Tito worked with many vocalists, his relationship with Celia Cruz was a very special one. “I’m the King of the music,” Puente remarked in a 1994 interview. “She’s our Queen.” Cruz, a star in prerevolutionary Cuba, left the country a year or so after Castro took power and would never return. When she arrived in New York in 1961, she quickly began working with Puente, whom she’d met ten years earlier in Havana. By 1965, Cruz was signed to Tico and began recording a series of outstanding records backed by the Puente group. The fiery “La Guarachera” is from 1966’s Cuba y Puerto Rico Son... and, as one listen to the call-and-response scat/timbales solo will show, is a prime example of the impeccable synchronization the King and Queen possessed.
The other female vocalist most closely associated with Tito Puente is another Cuban sonera, Guadalupe Yoli Raymond, better known as La Lupe. While Tito was making his first recordings with Celia Cruz, his former percussionist Mongo Santamaria was introducing La Lupe on an album for the Riverside label. Tito managed to lure her from Mongo’s band and, between 1965 and 1968, recorded four albums with La Lupe as the featured vocalist. In contrast to the “straight-ahead, professional” sessions with Celia Cruz, Dandy remembers the Lupe recording sessions as “kind of crazy... Lupe was loose and loud. We had a lot of fun with her.” But La Lupe’s unhinged performing style began to outweigh her contributions, Tito Puente and Guille Averhoff, 1960s. Courtesy of Chuck Stewart’s Archives.and Tito ultimately stopped working with her. “She was eccentric,” Joe Conzo remembers, “and it had nothing to do with drugs. She was eccentric.” Lupe combined Cheo Marquetti’s “Oriente” (the Cuban province of her birth) and Felix Chappotín’s “Micaela Me Botó” into a tale of being dumped by Puente (“Ay yay yay, Tito Puente la botó,” the chorus cries), and their new version of “Oriente” became one of the singer’s best-known songs.
As the ’60s progressed, Puente proved his ability to acknowledge trends without compro- mising his style. “Algo Nuevo,” (“Something New”) resembles nothing so much as a hard salsa, a term which had yet to come into usage (and one that Tito famously shunned—“You eat salsa. You don’t listen to it. You don’t dance to it.”). The blistering montuno runs just under two minutes, probably a relief to any dancer who tried to keep up. The album also contains one of Tito’s first attempts at boogaloo, “Fat Mama.” Although the song was suc- cessful, Puente was rather open in his contempt for facile styles like the boogaloo and shing-a-ling, dismissing them with comments like “they all sound alike to me.” A more gratifying musical experience from the same LP is “Chan,” another of Puente’s “Oriental” mambo themes.
“TP’s Shing-A-Ling” from 1968’s The King was one of Puente’s more interesting forays into the popular sound of the time. Originally titled “Shing-A-Ling en Cuarto 403” (the lyric is an invitation to come party in Room 403, perhaps inspired by Willie Bobo’s “Boogaloo in Room 802”), the song first appeared on Manny Roman’s Eras LP, a little-known side date Puente did for the Decca label as an arranger. It is worth mentioning here that along with the dozens of full albums Tito recorded under his own name, the workaholic bandleader was constantly arranging and producing records for other artists, often with little fanfare.
In 1970, a funny thing happened. Tito’s royalty checks suddenly increased exponentially in amount. “It was not thirty-five dollars but thirty-five-thousand dollars!” he was quoted as exclaiming. Carlos Santana had covered his barely remembered album cut “Oye Como Va” and turned it into a worldwide smash. “It’s a happy theme,” Tito reasoned. “Everybody that hears it, right from the beginning they want to get up and dance.” On Para los Rumberos, Tito returned the favor, claiming Santana’s “Batuka” with a terrific Puente arrangement that makes the tune his own, as well as redoing the title track (which he had first recorded for RCA in 1956) in Santana’s style. Also on this 1972 album is the enduring “Niña y Señora,” a variation on an old Cuban guaguancó that features seamless harmonies from the vocalists Santos Colón, Yayo el Indio, and Panamanian singer Meñique, who also contributes the bold improvisations.
Tito’s 1973 album Tito Puente and His Concert Orchestra was one of his most ambi- tious projects yet. Seemingly out to prove his musical dexterity, he plays no less than ten instruments on the album, including the electric piano, melodica, and trap drums (or “rock drums,” as they were tellingly credited), as well as his typical timbales and vibes. In addition to seventeen members of his regular band and four vocalists, he adds three guest instru- mentalists, notably his old friend Charlie Palmieri on organ. The hefty ensemble recorded an ambitious set that ran the gamut from electrifying updates of some of his earliest classics (“El Rey del Timbal,” “Mambo Diablo,” and “Picadillo”) to movie themes (“Last Tango in Paris”) and could’ve-been movie themes (the blaxploitation-esque “Black Brothers,” featur- ing a psychedelic keyboard solo from Tito).
“Tito was never afraid to go to another idiom and change it to Spanish,” Conzo remarks, and with 1974’s Barry White–inspired Tito Unlimited, he took on the orchestral disco sound. Universally panned on its release (the critic Max Salazar recalled one DJ saying “it was a ‘piece of s***’ over the air”!), the record is in retrospect a solid and musically engaging affair, if admittedly a far stretch from his Palladium days. “The first time he played at Studio 54,” Conzo relates, “he’s trying to play disco music from that Unlimited [album]. He says, ‘Nobody’s dancing!’ [So] he played some mambos—the place went bananas.” Judge for yourself: the driving disco funk of “Wata Wasuri” includes a trademark Puente change-up to 6/8 time for the last third of the song, while the relaxed groove of “Margie’s Mood” (named for Tito’s wife) builds to an intense vibraphone workout that certainly seems to refute the scatological put-downs.
“Tito’s Odyssey,” a take on the 2001: A Space Odyssey theme, is excerpted from the 1974 concert LP Tico-Alegre All-Stars Live at Carnegie Hall. Though the bombastic performance leaves the audience screaming, it also illustrates that Puente had perhaps drifted a little too far from the dance-based grooves that sustained him for so many years. Plainly put, the mid-’70s were a low point as the King struggled to find an audience. Salazar doesn’t mince words: “He was dead at that moment.”
Then, as Tito rediscovered a balance between his ornate orchestrations and the crucial element of danceability, things began to turn around. The title track of the 1978 album La Leyenda is Panamanian singer/songwriter Rubén Blades’s tribute to El Rey. It fittingly features an extended timbale solo in addition to fine vocals from Santos Colón, by now approaching legendary status himself. The elegant instrumental mambo “Fiesta a la King” was another popular track from this record, an ornate throwback to the Palladium sound, complete with an extended vibes solo and a wonderfully complex arrangement.
Tito’s second recording in 1978 was a tribute to Beny Moré. A risky move in some respects, as the Cuban-American community could’ve seen it as condoning the despised Castro regime while, as the scholar Steven Loza points out, “the non-Latin American public and market scarcely knew who Moré was.” But against these odds, the album was a breakout hit. With an all-star cast of vocalists, Puente laid down a set of Moré’s finest compositions, including the infectious “Que Bueno Baila Usted.” The album ended up win- ning Tito his first Grammy Award. Puerto Rican vocalist Frankie Figueroa was a longtime component of the Puente orches- tra (he sang lead on 1973’s “El Rey del Timbal”) and Tito’s lead vocalist for his penultimate album on Tico, Dancemania 80’s. While the title is a reference to the important RCA album of 1958, the mood is entirely modern. “Generación del 80” has retained all of its vigor despite the passage of time—in fact, Puente would update the title to “Generación del 90,” as the song remained a popular part of his live repertoire into the following decade. Coming full circle, our set fittingly closes with “Guaguancó Arsenio” from 1981’s Ce’ Magnifique. The song is an homage to the blind Cuban bandleader Arsenio Rodríguez, an early influ- ence and, like Tito, an innovator with strong roots in traditional Cuban styles.
Although he never again recorded for the Fania family of labels, Puente continued touring and making records, mainly in the field of Latin jazz. In the years preceding his passing in 2000, he finally transcended the whims of the marketplace and settled into a well-deserved role as elder statesman of Latin music, a king finally comfortable on his throne. Tito Puente from Spanish Harlem had become a true cultural icon—he claimed a walk-of-fame star in Hollywood and appeared on Sesame Street and The Simpsons—always with an infectious smile, energy to spare, and, most importantly, a boundless enthusiasm for the music. At a dinner given in his honor, Tito once said, “If my music has brought joy to one person, then I have been successful.” After listening to this collection, a mere taste of his hundred-plus albums, I hope you will share my belief that he has been successful many times over.
LINER NOTES BY ANDREW MASON
Conzo, Joe. 2010. Author’s interview.
Rodríguez, John. 2010. Author’s interview.
Loza, Steven. 1999. Tito Puente and the Making of Music. University of Illinois Press.
Payne, Jim. 2000. Tito Puente, King of Latin Music. Hudson Music.
Powell, Josephine. 2007. Tito Puente: When the Drums Are Dreaming. Authorhouse.
Roberts, John Storm. 1979. The Latin Tinge: The Impact of Latin American Music on the United States. Original Music.