He has been called El Rey del Mambo, El Rey de los Timbales, The King of Latin Music, and with a hundred records and countless epic solos to his name, Ernesto “Tito” Puente -- band leader, flamboyant timbales player and showman -- has more than earned the title of King. A finely trained musician, Tito was also a lyrical vibraphonist and a gifted arranger who played piano, congas, bongos, and saxophone.
He was born in East Harlem, El Barrio, in 1923, just three years after his parents arrived from Puerto Rico as newly-minted Americans under the Jones Shafroth Act, which granted Puerto Ricans US citizenship in 1917. Puerto Rican nostalgia was strong those first years in El Barrio, and as a child Tito learned the songs of his mother’s native land.
Though his first love was dancing, after he tore a tendon he began to play timbales in East Harlem’s local clubs. He got his first big break with Machito and his Afro-Cubans, absorbing Machito’s exciting fusion of Cuban rhythms and big band jazz. With Machito he got to play solos, standing with the timbales in front of the orchestra, the first time the instrument was played standing rather than sitting down. Drafted into the Army, Puente served between 1942 and 1945 and then, with the help of the GI Bill, attended Julliard, where he studied composition, orchestration, and piano.
By 1948 Tito Puente was running his own band, placing the timbales at the center of his orchestra with himself as the featured soloist. When Mambo fever crested at the Palladium Ballroom in New York in 1952, Tito Puente and his band headlined along with Tito Rodríguez and Machito and his Afro-Cubans, as the Palladium’s “Big Three.”
Everyone went to the Palladium, Tito Puente recalled. "Jews, Italians, Irish, Blacks, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Asians…. Everyone was equal under the roof of the Palladium, because everyone was there to dig the music and to dance." The Palladium attracted the elite of New York's artistic and literary community along with a host of Hollywood stars. On any given night Sammy Davis Jr. or painter Jackson Pollock might be seen, or Marlon Brando might be found sitting in on bongos with Machito and the Afro-Cubans. Tito’s reputation as a band leader and as a timbalero skyrocketed at the Palladium, as his frantic solos challenged dancers on the floor to perform their best.
Puente also helped popularize the Cha Cha Chá in the 1950s. And in 1958, he released his best- selling album, Dance Mania. His seminal “Oye Como Va,” recorded in 1960 and turned into a mega-hit by Carlos Santana in the 1970s, was included in National Public Radio’s 100 most important American musical works of the 20th century. Tito went on to play Boogaloo, Salsa, Jazz. He recorded with virtually every major Latin and jazz artist of his day. But his greatest contribution was the dissemination of the African rhythms of the Caribbean in the United States. As the musical pioneer Mario Bauzá said, “Nobody has done more for Afro-Cuban music than Tito Puente. Nobody.”
At his death in 2000, Tito’s son, Tito Jr. took over the Tito Puente Band.
Credit: Joe Conzo, Jr.