Tito Puente is internationally recognized for his seminal contributions to Latin music as a bandleader, composer, arranger, and percussionist. Known as "El Rey," or The King of Mambo, he has recorded an unprecedented 100 albums, published more than 400 compositions, and won four Grammy awards. "In a day when pop singers fake their way to the top and when for many artists, success is the child of hype, Puente is one of only a handful of musicians who deserve the title 'legendary,'" Mark Holston stated in Américas.
Credited with introducing the timbal — a double tom-tom played with sticks — and the vibraphone to Afro-Cuban music, Puente also plays the trap drums, the conga drums, the claves, the piano, and occasionally, the saxophone and the clarinet. While Puente is perhaps best known for his all-time best-selling 1958 mambo album Dance Mania, his eclectic sound has continued to transcend cultural and generational boundaries. As a testament to his popularity with a younger audience, Puente has recorded with rocker Carlos Santana and has performed regularly at college concerts throughout the country. He has also appeared in several films, received a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and performed on television's The David Letterman Show.
Ernest Anthony Puente, Jr., was born on April 20, 1923, in the Spanish Harlem section of New York City. Shortly before 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, Ernest Anthony Puente, Sr., worked as a foreman in a razor blade factory, his mother, Ercilia Puente, was the first to notice her eldest son's musical talent, enrolling him in 25-cent piano lessons when he was seven. As a child Puente also attended a dancing school and played baseball before seriously injuring his ankle in a bicycle accident. Although Puente received his first formal musical training in the piano, he always took an interest in percussion. Wanting to emulate his idol, drummer Gene Krupa, Puente began studying drums and percussion around the age of ten. "I was always banging on boxes, on the window sill," he once admitted in an interview with the New York Post's Edmond Newton. Also a member of a schoolboy quartet, Puente grew up listening to a variety of music, including Latin artists such as Miguelito Valdes and jazz musicians Stan Kenton and Duke Ellington.
While still in his early teens, Puente began playing weekend gigs near his home. "My father used to take me to the dances," he told Down Beat 's Larry Birnbaum. "At midnight I was already falling asleep." By the age of 15, Puente had dropped out of high school to take a winter job with a Miami Beach band, where he played Americanized rhumbas and a variety of Latin-American rhythms, including tangos, waltzes, and paso dobles. When he returned to Manhattan, Puente was hired to play drums with the orchestras of Noro Morales and José Curbelo, the latter of whom would later become Manhattan's first mambo king. Puente's first big break came when the United States entered World War II; after the regular drummer of the famous Machito Afro-Cubans was drafted into military service, Puente was given the opportunity to demonstrate his talents. "For perhaps the first time in Latin music," Holston wrote, "the timbales were brought to the front the bandstand." Puente, showing early signs of his trademark showmanship, also revitalized the band by playing the drums standing, instead of from the conventional sitting position.
Puente's tour with the band came to a temporary halt when he too received his call from the military; for the next three years Puente served on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier in the South Pacific. His military stint, however, provided several positive experiences. Not only did he have a chance to learn the saxophone — which he taught himself to play while on the ship — but he had the opportunity to further his education through the G.I. Bill. In what he has cited as one of the best decisions of his life, Puente enrolled in New York's Juilliard School of Music, where he studied composition, orchestration, and conducting. Many of the compositions and arrangements he wrote during this period were played by Machito and the other leading Latin band leaders of the day.
While continuing his reign as the "King of Mambo," Puente also began playing in New York jazz clubs such as Birdland and The Royal Roost, recording albums with trumpet player Doc Severinson like Puente Goes Jazz and Night Beat that attempted "to find a marriage between Latin music and jazz," Puente told Birnbaum. "I was trying to play jazz but not lose the Latin-American authenticity." About his years of playing jazz, Puente said in an interview with Alan Feuerstein in Planet Salsa, "I let my "typical" music go for a while and went into Latin jazz." But he clearly felt the new excitement over the music he had helped establish in this country. "Everything that was popular is coming back after twenty or thirty years — take a look at fashion, TV programming, and that applies to music as well. ... When I finished recording my 100th album, it was back to "typical."
Puente unexpectedly entered another genre of music in 1970, when California rocker Carlos Santana converted one of Puente's old songs, "Oye, Como Va," into a Top 40 hit. Seven years later the two teamed up for a memorable Manhattan concert. As Pablo Guzman described in Village Voice, "Puente conducted his fifteen-piece orchestra with snaps of his head and sweeps of his hands while playing timbales; at one point, when he signalled with his trademark stick over the head gesture, the entire brass section, spread in a row along his left, rose as one and played counter to itself. Folks went wild."
In 1979 Puente won his first Grammy award with a tribute album to Beny Moré, Homenaje a Beny. That same year he established a personal scholarship fund at Juilliard to recognize Latin percussionists in the United States. The Tito Puente Scholarship fund "gives a young Latin percussionist an incentive to learn how to read music, so that when you go into a recording studio, you know what you're doing," as Puente explained to Birnbaum. "It's not only what you learn in the streets — you've really got to go and study." Puente has 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 Central and South American students want representation on campus," Puente told Down Beat 's Fred Bouchard.
During the 1980s, Puente concentrated his efforts on blending the best of Latin and jazz music into his unique style. "Sometimes jazz can be boring, but I give it a new twist," he explained to Bouchard. "Latin music can be boring, too, because it's only tonic and dominant. [You take an] exciting progressive melodic line, then combine it with exciting rhythms ... that's the marriage we're after. You gotta know about jazz to play these things." Two more Grammy awards during the decade — and a fourth in 1990 — confirmed that Puente was still at the top of his performance. His compositions, too, have evolved over the years. According to Bouchard, Puente has written "more sharply" and "conceiv[ed] more hiply" in the early 1990s than in his previous work. Puente remarked to Feuerstein about his 100th album: "I did this album live.... I had everybody come in and play at the same time — not the trumpet on Monday and the sax on Thursday [because] I'm a dancer. I must dance in the studio while the whole band is playing to see if ti really works ... When you hear this album ... you'll feel the beat, you'll feel the vibrations — because this type of music was played and recorded like I did in the old days."
While continuing to produce solid albums, including a record 100th in 1992, Puente has become more visible to a mainstream audience. In addition to performing at the White House since the administration of President Jimmy Carter — who introduced him as "The Goodwill Ambassador of Latin American Music" — Puente has made several appearances on The Bill Cosby Show and The David Letterman Show. He played some of his own music in the movie The Mambo Kings, an adaptation of Oscar Hijuelos' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and has been honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was awarded an honorary degree at Columbia University in 1999, and the Latin Grammy for Best Traditional Tropical Performance for "Mambo Birdland" in 2000.
Although in his 70s by the early 1990s, Puente — who with his wife, the former Margie Asencion, has 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 that he planned to reduce his pace: "There's a lot of young people out there who need to develop their talents and old-timers like me have to give them space."
Puente died after undergoing heart surgery on May 31, 2000, in New York. He was 77.
Dance Mania, RCA, 1958.
Puente Now!, GNP Crescendo, 1960.
El Rey Bravo, Tico, 1962.
(With Santos Colon) The Legend, Tico, 1977.
Tito Puente and His Latin Ensemble on Broadway, Concord Picante, 1983.
Un Poco Loco, Concord Picante, 1987.
(With Phil Woods) Salsa Meets Jazz, Concord Picante, 1988.
(With Sheila E and Pete Escovedo) Latina Familia, Jazzyvisions, 1989.
Goza Mi Timbal, Concord Picante, 1990.
Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Volume 3, edited by Colin Larkin, New York, Guinness, 1992.
Américas, Vol. 42, no. 6, 1990/1991, pp. 56-57.
Boston Herald, January 29, 1993.
Down Beat, January 1984, pp. 27-29, 61; May 1991, pp. 20-21.
Los Angeles Times, February 22, 1992.
New York Post, May 18, 1974, p. 15.
San Juan Star, January 13, 1994.
Seattle Times, December 4, 1992.
Village Voice, March 14, 1977, p. 39.
Dictionary of Hispanic
Biography, Gale, 1996.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Gale, 1999.