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Biography of Tito Puente - "The King of Mambo"


Tito Puente

The Great Showman - Tito Puente

Born: April 20,1923 in the Bronx, New York.

Died: May 31, 2000 in New York City while undergoing heart surgery.

Quote: "If there is no dance, there is not music."

Tito Puente Awards:

  • Best Latin Recording (1978)
  • Best Tropical Latin Performance (1983)
  • Best Tropical Latin Performance (1985)
  • Best Tropical Latin Performance (1990)
  • Best Traditional Tropical Latin Performance (1999)
  • Best Salsa Album (2000)
  • National Medal of Arts (1997)
Tito Puente lived with a heartfelt musical disappointment.

He made music for over 50 years and recorded over 100 albums. He acted in 4 movies, appeared on late night television and has his own star on the ‘Hollywood Walk of Fame’. He went home with six Grammys, recorded rock with Carlos Santana, dabbled with bossa nova and spent a decade concentrating on jazz, which he blended with his own brand of Latin music because, after all, “Sometimes jazz can be boring, but I give it a new twist”.

A consummate showman, Puente was called “El Rey del Timbao”(the King of Timbales), the “King of Latin Music’ and the “Sultan of Salsa” (even though he frequently argued that there was no such thing as salsa).

So – what was there to be disappointed about? Well, he really wanted to be a dancer.

The Early Years:

Tito Puente was born in the Spanish Harlem section of New York City. His parents emigrated from Puerto Rico a few years before his birth; his father worked as a foreman for a razor blade factory. His mother, Ercilia, started his piano lessons when he was 6 years old and a little later added dance lessons. Unfortunately, Puente had a bicycle accident as a child, seriously injuring his leg and forever ending his dreams of dancing his way to the top.

Although he was trained in piano, Gene Krupa was his hero, and Puente started studying percussion when he was 10. Five years later, he dropped out of school and took a seasonal job with a Miami Beach band where he learned and performed various Latin dance rhythms. Returning to Manhattan, he got a job with Jose Curbelo, who later became the first mambo king.

World War II:

Puente was drafted in 1942 and spent 3 years in the Navy, participating in 9 battles and learning to play the saxophone. Thankfully for Latin music, he came back from the war and took advantage of the GI bill. The next few years were spent at the Julliard School of Music, where he studied conducting, orchestration and musical theory

Tito Puente Becomes The King of Mambo:

In 1948 Tito Puente formed his own band, “The Piccadilly Boys”. A regular at the New York Palladium, Puente, Perez Prado and Tito Rodriguez became the stars of the Palladium, and helped popularize the new Cuban music called the mambo. In 1956, he was named the “King of Latin Music” by virtue of a popular poll and 1958 saw the release of his best seller Dance Mania.

Jazz and Rock:

In the 1960s, Puente became interested in jazz. He began playing in New York jazz clubs, trying to fuse jazz and the Latin beat he helped popularize. My favorite album from this period is Night Beat, recorded with Doc Severinson.

In 1970, Carlos Santana recorded an old Puente hit "Oye, Como Va" and it skyrocketed into the Top 40, while in 1977 Santana and Puente performed together in a Manhattan concert that sent the audience into screaming fits of adoration, more typical of a Ricky Martin concert.

Tito Puente never slowed down for a minute, recording his 100th album in 1992, opening a restaurant (see it in the wonderful film Calle 54) and establishing the Tito Puente Scholarship fund in order to help young artists work in music.

Performing until the end, Puente collapsed after a concert in Puerto Rico. He died after open-heart surgery in May 2000.

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