Puente, Tito (1923—)

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Puente, Tito (1923—)

No individual performer has contributed more to the popularity of Latin music in the United States than the legendary Tito Puente. A musician, arranger, composer, bandleader, and four-time Grammy winner, the internationally acclaimed "King of Latin Music" has moved audiences around the world to the beat of cha-cha-chas, mambos, and pachangas. Best known as a virtuoso of the timbales, Puente is also an accomplished pianist with a degree from the prestigious Juilliard School of Music. Puente's remarkable career to date has spanned nearly sixty years and produced over one hundred albums. He has been featured in numerous television sitcoms, commercials, music shows, and motion pictures (including Radio Days and The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love). The recipient of the Smithsonian Medal and three honorary doctorates, Puente has been nominated eight times for Grammy awards (more than any Latin music artist). His name, which means "bridge" in Spanish, truly captures his achievement—for Puente's music reaches across generational, national, and racial boundaries.

Born April 20, 1923, in New York City to Puerto Rican parents, Ernesto Antonio Puente, Jr., grew up in Spanish Harlem to the sounds of Afro-Cuban and jazz music. By 1949, the successful fusion of these influences produced one of his first crossover hit songs, "Abaniquito," and fueled the mambo craze of the 1950s. As one of the famed mambo kings of the era, Puente consistently earned top billing at New York's Palladium Ballroom, a nuyorican club that served as the cradle of what is now called "salsa." Jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Woody Herman often showed up to jam with the mostly Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians appearing nightly at the Palladium. Always in tune with the tempo of his day, Puente contributed to the various Latin music trends of the 1950s and 1960s, first appealing to the early popularity of the cha cha cha, then releasing several hits in the pachanga style that became the rage. In the late 1960s, when an R&B/Latin fusion called boogaloo emerged as the latest dance music craze, Puente kept up with the times and obliged his audiences, despite his professed dislike of the form. During those years, Puente recorded and performed with numerous other Latin music stars, including the "Queen of Salsa" Celia Cruz, La Lupe, Santos Colon, Machito, Mongo Santamaria, Mario Bauza, and Xavier Cugat. He also played with Gillespie and would pay tribute to the jazz master in a 1994 concert event at the Apollo Theatre. Puente's "Oye Como Va" and "Para los Rumberos," first recorded in the early 1960s, were later adapted and released by Carlos Santana, introducing audiences in the 1970s to a new synthesis of rock and Latin music. The overwhelming popularity of Santana's remakes led to a joint concert in 1977 and revitalized an interest in Latin music among a new generation of concert-goers. By 1979, when President Jimmy Carter invited him to play at the White House in honor of Hispanic Heritage month, Puente had achieved world-class status.

Puente's musical talent and warm, outgoing personality have made him a favorite among young and old. He has been featured on the popular television sitcom the Bill Cosby Show, in a Coca-Cola commercial, and even a 1995 episode of The Simpsons. Burger King has used Puente's tune "I Like It like That" in their ads, and he has hosted his own show on Spanish-language television. At the closing ceremony following the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta, Puente joined B. B. King, Wynton Marsalis, Stevie Wonder, and Gloria Estefan in an extraordinary finale. According to Time correspondent Mark Coatney, the group "whipped up an ever-growing conga line that threatened to spill into the streets." Puente's joyous participation in this event helped to rekindle everyone's spirits and proved that Latin music had truly achieved international recognition.

—Myra Mendible

Further Reading:

Contemporary Musicians: Profiles of the People in Music. Detroit, Gale Research, 1995.

Loza, Steven Joseph. Tito Puente and the Making of Latin Music. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1999.