Puerto Rico Profile: Tito Puente
June 2, 2000
Tito Puente, one of the all-time great Puerto Rican musicians, died on Thursday. He was 77.
Tito Puente was a performer who was around for so long, and whose work was so enduring, that he influenced, both directly and indirectly, several generations of American popular culture. From his first big band performances in the 1930s through a guest appearance on "The Simpsons" in 1995, the five-time Grammy winner was never far from the spotlight.
Tito Puente was truly a master showman whose art was honed over a lifetime in front of audiences. Anyone who saw him perform his explosive, joyous brand of Latin Jazz can understand why his appeal lasted for so long. A multi-talented musician and arranger, Puentes specialty was percussion. He stood behind his timbales with his back straight and chest puffed out, beating out a rhythm and adding his own flourishes. His tongue hung out, his eyes squeezed shut, and his arms spread out in front of him, as if for balance. Shrugging his shoulders, he would scan his audience and his face would transform into a huge smile as he winked and bowed to the crowd. When he finished a song, he would stand at mock attention, salute with his drumsticks, and goad the audience to applaud him more.
"Once, I was strictly a musician with a long face and back to the audience," Puente said. "Now Im a showman, selling what Im doing, giving the people good vibes."
Ernesto Antonio Puente, Jr., was born in Spanish Harlem on April 20, 1923. His parents came from Puerto Rico, and they were part of an early wave to leave the island and settle in New York City, laying the groundwork for the explosion of Puerto Ricans in the city after World War II. His father was a foreman in a razor-blade factory. His mother, who called him "Ernestito" "Tito" for short was the first to recognize his musical ability.
Young Tito dreamed of being a professional dancer, and he entered his first dance contest with his sister when he was only five years old. A torn tendon in his ankle, however, ended his hopes of dancing, leaving him to find other ways to express his boundless energy and magnetic talent.
It did not take long for Tito Puente to discover an alternative to dancing. When he was 13 years old, he began to work as a drummer in a big band in New York. He continued performing even while he served in the Navy in World War II. When he returned home after the war, he used his GI Bill to study composing, orchestration, and piano at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music.
In 1947, Puente formed the nine-piece "Pickadilly Boys." Two years later, he expanded the group and re-named it "Tito Puente and His Orchestra." Over the next 15 years, Tito Puente helped define Latin Jazz, shining in the forefront of the "mambo" and "cha-cha" crazes. He released numerous records, and he performed regularly at the Palladium Ballroom in New York City. He was so well respected that he even appeared at the "50 Years of Cuban Music" festival in Havana in 1952, the only non-Cuban to be invited.
It was during this time that Tito Puente acquired his nicknames "El Rey de Timbales" (The King of Kettledrums), "The King of Mambo," "The King of Latin Music" all of which boiled down to simply "El Rey." His success continued into the 1960s, when he recorded his signature song, "Oye Como Va."
In 1970, Carlos Santana recorded "Oye Como Va" and had a huge hit, providing what has been the introduction to Tito Puente for generations of rock fans. "Every time he plays Oye Como Va, I get a nice royalty check," Puente liked to say.
El Rey continued to record and tour throughout the 1970s and 80s. He collaborated with Celia Cruz on several albums. He appeared on the Cosby Show. In 1992, he took advantage of the success of the film "The Mambo Kings" to release a record called "The Mambo King: 100th Album."
Up until he died, Tito Puente continued to tour and perform in venues packed with fans of all ages and ethnicities. "I have not taken a vacation in my whole life," he told a New York Times interviewer last year. "Let me ask you a question: have you ever known a musician to take a vacation?"
In April, he was named a "Living Legend" by the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Celebrating the millennium, and the librarys bicentennial, the Library of Congress recognized Tito Puente and 77 other Americans from Julia Child to I.M. Pei to Muhammad Ali as people who have "advanced and embodied the quintessentially American idea of individual creativity, conviction, dedication, and exuberance."
Tito Puente acknowledged the honor that day in typical fashion. He contributed an electric performance to an outdoor concert celebrating the dynamism and diversity of American music. "The excitement of the rhythms and the beat makes people happy," he told the Associate Press in 1997. "We try to get our feelings to the people, so they enjoy it. It is not music for a funeral parlor."