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Lifetime Achievement: Tito Puente

By Ed Morales

February 23, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Newsday. All rights reserved. 

The fact that the late Tito Puente is getting a Lifetime Achievement Award in a year that the Grammys are being held in New York is poetic justice. Being a Latin from Manhattan not only gave Puente an intense drive to succeed - it was an essential element behind his contribution to elevating the music. "Tito Puente almost singlehandedly revolutionized Afro-Cuban music," said percussionist, bandleader and fellow New York Puerto Rican Bobby Sanabria. "He brought his instrument, the timbales, to the forefront, redefining the vocabulary of theinstrument. Before Tito, no one used the technical prowess of a jazz drummer on the timbales."

A native New Yorker born of Puerto Rican parents in 1923 and raised in Spanish Harlem, Puente spent his youth going to see Machito's Afro-Cuban orchestra at the Palladium and Benny Goodman's and Count Basie's big bands at the Paramount Ballroom. After a stint in the Navy in World War II, he went to Juilliard on the GI bill and ultimately became one of the legendary mambo kings of the '50s. "It was one of his most creative periods," said percussionist-bandleader Ray Barretto, who was in Puente's band from 1957 to 1961. "His greatest strength was his charisma and communication with the audience."

But when the mambo era lost steam in the '60s, Puente's "Oye Como Va" was turned into a massive Latin rock hit by Carlos Santana. Puente kept his name in the limelight by collaborating with the great stars of the '70s salsa era, such as La Lupe and Celia Cruz. "I really enjoyed working with Tito," Cruz said. "I had my own way of singing, and even though he would direct me, he always respected my ideas and my space." Puente, whose recording career includes more than 100 albums, extended his longevity by recording with the Concord Jazz label, and never giving up on the showmanship and unstoppable energy that were his trademark.

As the '80s gave way to the '90s, Puente began peforming on major network talk shows and cemented his iconic status when fans of old-school salsa and the great mambo big bands demanded his return to center stage. His collaboration with dance remix star Little Louie Vega on the single "Ran Kan Kan" in 1992 solidified his following among young people. Appearances on "The Cosby Show" and in "The Mambo Kings" movie cast him as a living legend. By the time he died in 2000, he had become Latin music's ultimate icon.

"He always played with the same fire and passion," Cruz said. "Thanks to him, our music has been recognized internationally."


Top Percussion (1957). Released after several mambo and cha-cha records in the early '50s, this recording captures Puente's interest in Afro-Yoruban ritual music and features percussionists Willie Bobo and Mongo Santamaria.

Dance Mania (1958). Captures the peak of Puente's dance-band style, with a favorite vocalist, Santos Colon, and early work by congero Ray Barretto.

T.P. & La Lupe: La Pareja (1978). While I've always admired 1966's "Cuba y Puerto Rico Son," with Celia Cruz, this classic with La Lupe is an unforgettable tribute to their tempestuous recording relationship.

Royal T (1993). My favorite of the Concord Jazz recordings, with versions of Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee" and Chick Webb's "Stompin' at the Savoy." Also featuring the underappreciated Mario Rivera on saxophone.

The Complete RCA Recordings volumes 1 and 2: Released posthumously in 2000 and 2001, these are essential anthologies featuring 209 tracks of Puente's most innovative years, from 1949 to 1960.

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