Tito Puente, the bandleader and percussionist who helped popularize Latin dance music and jazz in America, is born on this day in 1923 in New York City. During a career that spanned six decades, the dynamic showman nicknamed “El Rey” (The King), recorded over 100 albums, won five Grammy Awards and was referred to by The New York Times as “the most important Latin musician of the last half century” upon his death in 2000.
Ernest “Tito” Puente, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, grew up in the Manhattan neighborhood then known as Spanish Harlem. As a child, he learned to play various instruments, including the timbales, a type of drum that would later become his signature. During World War II (1939-45), Puente served in the Navy. Following the war, he studied music at the Juilliard School on the GI Bill. In the late 1940s, he formed his own musical group, which eventually became known as the Tito Puente Orchestra.
In the 1950s, Puente’s career took off as his blend of dance rhythms and jazz arrangements earned him a following at nightclubs and ballrooms across New York City and beyond. Puente, who performed a variety of Latin music styles, received the title “King of Mambo” for his role in popularizing the fast-paced, rhythmic form of Cuban music. (Puente later played himself in the 1992 movie “The Mambo Kings,” based on Oscar Hijuelos’ novel “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.”) In 1958, Puente released the album “Dance Mania,” which went on to become an international best-seller. In 1963, he recorded “Oye Como Va,” a song that would be a huge hit for rock guitarist Carlos Santana (1947-) and his band in the 1970s, and was later covered by other musicians.
Puente, who during his career often gave several hundred performances each year, continued to perform until shortly before his death at age 77 on May 31, 2000, after undergoing heart surgery in New York City. Crowds of fans waited in line for hours to attend his wake in Manhattan, and the Puerto Rican government declared three days of official mourning.
In its obituary for the internationally acclaimed musician, The New York Times said of Puente: “…with his distinctive cherubic mug, [he] was an ebullient and wild performer who often clowned and laughed as he whapped away on his timbales.”
“What else have I got to sell?” he once said when asked about this style. “I’m not Ricky Martin, to wave my hips around and show my belly button. I don’t have a girl in front of the band singing. I need the people to see I’m having a good time.”