Puente, Tito: 1923-2000: Bandleader, Arranger, Percussionist

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Tito Puente: 1923-2000: Bandleader, arranger, percussionist

Tito Puente, legendary band-leader and percussionist, performed his unique blend of Latin music and American jazz for over sixty years. He recorded an astounding 118 albums and was a central figure in nearly every trend in Latin music in the 20th century. "He was the founding father of Latin music as we know it, the master of masters. He took all the hits in the beginning. Without Tito, who would have carried it on this long? Who would have helped generations make Latin music their own?," singer Marc Anthony wrote in Time following Puente's death in 2000. Though Down Beat noted that he once humbly dismissed himself as "just a street musician from the neighborhood," Puente was proud of his impact on Latin music and culture. "I'm very happy that Latin music is now getting the attention it deserves, both here and overseas," he told Billboard. "Especially in the last five years. They might not dig the language, but they dig the percussion, the excitement." It is the attention that Puente himself first stirred up when he moved his timbalestwin Cuban metal floor drumsfrom their traditional place behind the band to center stage, up front. From that moment he dazzled audiences with his showmanship and talent, playing wild-eyed and furious, stirring audience after audience to their feet and winning five Grammies and status as a true musical icon along the way.

Showed Musical Talent at Young Age

Born Ernesto Antonio Puente, Jr., on April 20, 1923 in New York City's Harlem Hospital, Puente was one of three children of Puerto Rican immigrants Ernest and Ercilla Puente. His siblings both suffered untimely deaths while still childrenbrother Robert Anthony at the age of four from a fall from a fire escape and sister Anna in her teens. Raised in the Hispanic section of Manhattan known as Spanish Harlem or El Barrio, Puente gained the nickname ErnestitoLittle Ernestobecause of his short stature. He soon became known simply as Tito. While his father worked as a foreman in a razor-blade factory, his mother stayed home to raise Puente. It was she that first noticed his musical leanings and enrolled him in piano classes at the New York School of Music when he was just seven. By ten, she had switched him to twenty-five cents-an-hour percussion lessons. "I was always banging on boxes, on the window sill," he recalled in with the New York Post. Though he originally wanted to be a dancer and even took lessons, a bicycle accident injured his ankle sidelining his dancing days. Though he later confidently declared to Americas, " I pride myself as being one of the few bandleaders who really knows how to dance."

At a Glance . . .

Born Ernesto Antonio Puente, Jr., on April 20, 1923 in New York, NY; died May 31, 2000; son of Ernest (a factory foreman) and Ercilla (a homemaker); married Mirta Sanchez (divorced); married Margaret Acenio; children: (1st marriage) Ronald, (with Ida Carlini) Richard Anthony, (2nd marriage) one son, one daughter. Education: Julliard School of Perfoming Arts, 1945-47. Military: U.S. Navy, 1942-45.

Career: Percussionist, 1930s-48; band leader, percussionist, arranger, composer, recording artist, 1948- 00; recorded 118 albums; appeared on numerous other recordings; performed at major music festivals around the world; toured extensively for over fifty years; founded Tito Puente Scholarship Fund, 1979; appeared in Radio Days, Armed and Dangerous, 1986-87; appeared on The Bill Cosby Show, 1987; played self in the film adaptation of The Mambo Kings, 1992.

Awards: Recipient, Bronze Medallion City of N.Y., 1969; awarded, the Key to the City of Los Angeles, 1976; awarded the Key to the City of Chicago, 1985; awarded the Key to the City of Miami, 1986; named Musician of Month on several occasions by Down Beat,, American percussion magazine; named King of Latin Music, La Prensa newspaper, New York, NY, 1955; Best Latin American Orchestra, New York Daily News, 1977; received Grammy awards, 1978, 1983, 1985, 1990, and 1999; Awarded Honorary Doctorates from The College at Old Westbury, Hunter College in New York, and Long Island University; Eubie Blake Award, National Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1990; Percussionist of the Year in Down Beat's 56th Annual Readers Poll, 1992; Founders Award, American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, 1994; Hispanic Heritage Committee Award for the Arts, Washington D.C., 1994; El Premio Billboard Award, Billboard, 1995; National Medal of Arts, 1997; Named a "Living Legend", U.S. Library of Congress, 2000.

By the time he reached his teens, Puente was already something of a local celebrity having played as a child with local Latin bands at festivals and functions. By 16 he dropped out of Manhattan's Central Commercial High School to pursue music and was mentored by some of the most important names in Latin music at that time, flutist Anselmo Sacasas, pianist Noro Morales and band leader Frank "Machito" Grillo. In El Barrio traditional Latin musicboleros and rumbaspoured from open windows and street level clubs. But just blocks away in the swanky jazz clubs of Manhattan, big band, swing, and improvisational jazz were the norm. Puente, whose name means bridge in Spanish, was influenced by these two elements and he would spend his career building a bridge between them. "I was always trying to find a marriage between Latin music and jazz trying to play jazz but not lose the Latin-American authenticity," he would later tell Down Beat.

The next few years were instrumental in helping Puente to form that bridge. He began to develop his trademark showmanship when in 1941 he was called upon to fill in for the regular drummer of the Machito's famous Latin orchestra, the Afro-Cubans. Machito allowed the young prodigy to perform at the front of the stage. "For perhaps the first time in Latin music, the timbales were brought to the front of the bandstand, and Puente played the drums standing, not seated, as had been the custom. That simple change of routine liberated the rhythm section and opened the door for his extroverted style of performing," an article in Americas noted. Puente later was quoted in the Miami Herald as saying, "Once, I was strictly a musician with a long face and back to the audience. Now I'm a showman, selling what I'm doing, giving the people good vibes." A few years later Puente was drafted to serve in World War II. He found himself in the U.S. Navy stationed on the USS Santee along with a composer from a noted big band. The composer taught Puente the basics of big band composition. Despite participating in nine battlesfor which he earned a presidential commendationPuente also found time to teach himself saxophone. Finally, in 1945 Puente returned to New York and used his G.I. Bill money to study conducting, orchestration, and theory at the prestigious Julliard School of Music.

Formed His First Orchestra

Since his return from the South Pacific, Puente had become a sought-after arranger among the Latin orchestras. Then in 1948 he formed his own group, The Picadilly Boys, a ten-piece orchestra later renamed the Tito Puente Orchestra, and never looked back. The group became popular regulars at New York's Palladium Ballroom known as "Home of the Mambo," where audiences could not get enough of Puente's unique polyrhythmic sounds. He was soon tapped to record for Tico Records, the label of New York's Spanish Music Center. In 1949 his group recorded six songs one of which became the first mambo hit to crossover to mainstream audiences, "Abaniquito." Later that year, Tito signed with RCA Victor and recorded his classic song "Ran Kan Kan."

The 1950s and 1960s were exciting times for Puente. His music was becoming wildly popular and his trademark style was making him a bona fide star. In a 1956 poll conducted by the New York Hispanic daily La Prensa, Puente was voted "King of Latin Music," over older, more established musicians. Then in 1958, two years later, RCA released Dance Mania, which became his all-time best-selling album. His signature style of the era was to take Latin dance music such as the cha-cha, the pachanga, and of course, the mambo, and give them a Big Band twist. By the sixties he had begun to embrace jazz more and collaborated with many famed jazz musicians. He also was a regular fixture in recording studios and put out an immense body of work including titles such as Top Percussion, Let's Cha-Cha with Puente, The Exciting Tito Puente Band in Hollywood, Pachanga Con Puente, Mucho Puente, Mambo Beat, Vaya Puente, El Rey Bravo, and dozens more. Proof of his ability to appeal to Anglo audiences as well as Latin audiences was further demonstrated when he was invited in 1967 to perform a series of original compositions at New York's Metropolitan Opera, though he still catered to his Latin fans by hosting his own program, The World of Tito Puente, on Spanish-language television in 1968. That same year he served as the Grand Marshall of the New York's Puerto Rican Day Parade.

Puente found unprecedented fame outside Latin music circles when rock guitarist Carlos Santana recorded Puente's song "Oye Como Va" on the 1970 album Abraxas. The song became a top ten hit, opening up vast new audiences for Puente's music. About this time the music Puente was making became known as salsa. Puente rejected this term. "Salsa is a sauce. Something you put on a steak," he was quoted in Down Beat. "I don't play sauce. I play music." Whatever it was called, in 1979 it garnered Puente the first of five Grammy awards for his album, Homenaje a Benny More.

By this time Puente was well known as a musical virtuoso. In addition to his beloved timbales, he was a master at dozens of percussion instruments, from drums to cymbals. He was a skilled saxophonist, knew his way around a keyboard, and was a master of the vibraphone which is played with a mallet. In addition he had become renowned for his skills as a composer and arranger of music. However, it was for his over-the-top performance style that the general public knew him best. He acknowledged courting that image in an interview with Down Beat "I've even got my timbales painted different colors. It's what they see now, not what they hear. They've been hearing me for a hundred years already, so at least you see the drums. I put my cymbals around the timbales, three or four pairs of timbaleseight of themand I put my sticks up in the air.I put them around my head, holding them, and the people like that. Because how much can you play? They even talk about the instruments now, because they already know [I] can play." They also talked about his crazed facial gestures and mile-wide grin ever present as he played.

Became an Icon

Puente continued touring and recording throughout the 1980s and 1990s and was lauded with phenemonal success. He received four more Grammy Awards for the albums Tito Puente and his Latin Ensemble on Broadway, Mambo Diablo, Goza mi Timbal, and Mambo Birdland. In 1990 he was given a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. Then in 1991 he made music recording history when he recorded his 100th album, The Mambo King: 100th LP. He also moved from stage to screen during this period, making appearances on the television series The Cosby Show and in the movies Radio Days and Armed and Dangerous. In 1997 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. Puente was edging into the status of icon. Oscar Hijuelos, who put Puente in his Pulitzer Prize- winning novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love acknowledged Puente's status, "If you grew up in the city, he was a fixture, like the mayor or Santa Claus," he told U.S. News and World Report. Puente later played himself in the film adaptation of Hijuelos's novel. Yet despite his fame, he was also known for being a regular guy. "Tito, he always made you laugh," producer Emilio Estefan told the Miami Herald. "The biggest stars are always the ones who are more down to earth, and Tito was a humble man. But he implemented new sounds and rhythms and he was one of the pioneers in bringing Latin music to the world at a time when doing such a thing was extremely difficult." Puente established The Tito Puente Scholarship fund in the hopes that future Latin musicians would not have to endure the same difficulties.

As his entire career had been, Puente's last year was a productive one. At the beginning of 2000 he completed a new CD, Masterpiece/Obra Maestra: Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri. Then in April of 2000, he was declared a "Living Legend" by the U.S. Library of Congress. He was wrapping up a series of concerts in Puerto Rico with the island's Symphony Orchestra when breathing problems sent him to the hospital. Canceling his May and June concert dates, he returned to New York City for further treatment. On May 31, 2000, following heart valve replacement surgery, Tito Puente died. Though his passing was felt deeply by all who loved both the man and his music, Arturo Sandoval summed up his passing best. "That man spent 77 years spreading love and music throughout the world. He had a tremendous personality and extraordinary charisma. I think his music will be played forever," he told the Miami Herald, "and maintaining that legacy is the most important thing now."

Selected discography

Dance Mania, RCA, 1958.

Puente Now!, GNP Records/Crescendo, 1960.

El Rey Bravo, Tico Records, 1962.

Homenaje a Benny More, Tico Records, 1978.

Tito Puente and His Latin Ensemble on Broadway, Concord Picante, 1983.

Mambo Diablo, Concord Picante, 1985.

Un Poco Loco, Concord Picante, 1987.

Goza Mi Timbal, Concord Picante, 1990.

The Mambo King: 100th LP, RMM, 1991.

50 Years of Swing (Three CD Compilation), RMM, 1997.

Mambo Birdland, RMM, 1999.


Americas (English Edition), Nov-Dec 1990, p56.

Billboard, June 10, 1995, pL12; April 5, 1997, p10.

Down Beat, January 1984, p27-29, 61; May 1991, p20-21; Nov 1995, p16; August 2000, p6, 12, 62.

Miami Herald, June 1, 2000.

New York Post, May 18, 1974, p. 15.

Time, June 12, 2000, p. 27.

U.S. News & World Report, June 12, 2000, p. 12.

Candace LaBalle

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Puente, Tito: 1923-2000: Bandleader, Arranger, Percussionist

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