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World Music Legends

Tito Puente

By Eliseo Cardona
Published October 9, 2005


For many, the late great timbalero, composer and bandleader Tito Puente was the public face of Latin music in America. Like Count Basie or Duke Ellington, he was more than a musician, he was a personality, a brand unto himself. In his later years he transcended music entirely, to become both a cultural ambassador and pop cultural reference. He was a five-time Grammy winner who could boast his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and was as apt to appear on The Cosby Show or The Simpsons as the bandstand. Yet to talk about Tito Puente’s music is to talk about Latin music its finest, most exquisite form.

              Although he recorded more than 100 albums in his long career, which stretched from the 1940s until his death in 2000, the stage, especially the concert hall, was Puente’s natural habitat. A former dancer, Puente’s music was always interactive, meant to be seen and felt, as well as heard. The big-band format was Puente’s true element and his best instrument. Always flamboyant behind his timbales or vibes, Puente was a charmer, a gentleman and a true ambassador of both Latin music and jazz.

            “They have the same blood and the same roots,” he would say in his breathless, rapid-fire style of speech. “The only difference is that, well, we Latinos like it with a little bit of spice.”

            To hear—and see—him perform live with his band was to experience a crucial chapter in the history of Latin music, stretching from the mambo era in the 1950s and ’60s, to the salsa boom of the 1970s, to the modern Latin jazz of the 1980s and 90s.

            Ernest Anthony “Tito” Puente was born on April 20, 1923 in East Harlem, New York to Puerto Rican parents. He started playing music in his teens, making his early apprenticeship with the bands of Johnny Rodriguez, Anselmo Sacassas, Noro Morales and Jose Curbelo. In 1942, he joined Machito and his Afro-Cubans, a seminal group in Latin jazz history. But he was soon drafted into the Navy and served in WWII on an aircraft carrier.  


Recommended Recordings


Dance Mania! (RCA International)

The Best Of The Concord Years (Concord Picante)

The Best Of Tito Puente: El Rey del Timbal! (Rhino)