Tito Puente’s life reads like a Horatio Alger story: The son of Puerto Rican immigrants who were naturalized under the Jones Act, which in 1917 (as a result of the Spanish American War) gave the island’s inhabitants citizenship, Puente lived a ghettoized existence filled with the adversities of the time. A transcendent figure whose charisma and virtuosic skill on the timbales (the pint-sized cousin of the symphonic tympani) helped set the standard for modern day salsa music and Latin jazz, Puente also built an important bridge between Afro-Caribbean music and American pop.
Puente is also an outspoken advocate for the advancement of Latinos in the U.S. and he’s never forgotten where he came from. Today he is one of the most recognized Latin music faces in the country and the last of the bonafide Mambo kings.
“All my boys are leaving me,” Tito told me in 1988. “Charlie Palmieri passed away, my buddy Machito, Joe Loco [Jose Estevez], a lot of my close friends that I grew up with are gone. I always find wise guys telling me: Take care of yourself, man, you’re one of the last guys left. Dicen que soy el ultimo, el ultimo de que? [I’m the last of what?] Who cares? As long as you have your health you keep going.”
In The Beginning…
Ernesto “Tito” Puente grew up in New York City’s “El Barrio” in East Harlem when he heard Afro-Cuban music. The rhumba and conga were the rage of the ’30s and gave rise to Xavier Cugat and Carmen Miranda. Don Azpiazu broke ground in 1930 with “El Manicero (The Peanut Vender).” But it was music for americanos, and a watered-down replica of the real thing.
Living on 110th St. in the hub of a Puerto Rican musical renaissance, Puente was only a few blocks away from troubadour Rafael Hernandez, composer of the anthematic “Lamento Borincano,” and took piano lessons from his sister Victoria. Radio and jukeboxes changed the cultural horizon for Puente’s generation, making a variety of sounds more accessible. With one ear on the American swing big bands and the other on hot Cuban music he heard blasting on the street like that of Casino de la Playa, Puente underwent a unique musical acculturation.
“Miguelito Valdes used to sing with Casino De La Playa. The band had three saxes and two trumpets and at the time I thought it was very modern,” Puente recalls. “They were my main influence on the Latin side, as was Arsenio Rodriguez, the king of the guaguanco. As I got older, Machito and Mario Bauza became my mentors and greatly influenced my musical upbringing.”
New York City was a marvelous place during the 1930s. Tito was encouraged to enter show business by his parents, Ernesto and Ercilla, and danced with his younger sister, Anna, in talent shows at La Milagrosa Catholic Church at 115th & Lenox Ave. He studied piano, alto sax and drums, and was exposed to jazz at a time when pivotal figures like trombonist Juan Tizol graced the Cotton Club orchestra of Duke Ellington.
“I was pretty fortunate to be born in Spanish Harlem,” Tito explains. “Growing up I was surrounded by a lot of jazz musicians and, in my teens, met and sat in with heavies like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell. The sounds of the neighborhood back then were both jazz and Latin.”
Considered a child prodigy, Puente was inspired to play trap drums after hearing Gene Krupa on Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing.” As other drum stars emerged, like Louie Bellson and Buddy Rich, the role of the drummer changed from a timekeeper to a leading propelling force. Two great Puerto Rican drummers who crossed over and served as role models for him were Willie Rodriguez, a member of Paul Whiteman’s orchestra, and Humberto Morales, brother of pianist Noro Morales.
At 15 years old, Puente made his professional debut with a society band in Miami Beach, Fla. A year later he filled in for Humberto at the Stork Club as part of Noro’s group. It was an Afro-Cuban drummer from the neighborhood, named Carlos Montecino, with The Happy Boys that taught him the basics of timbales and the delicate art of baqueteo, a technique crucial to Cuban Danzon from where the pailas (timbales) rose. But nothing got past him as he tenured with the best Morales, Jose Curbelo, Pupi Campo and Machito and His Afro-Cubans.
In the early ’40s, Puente did his first recordings with Vincent Lopez’s orchestra and generally freelanced before joining Machito and his Afro-Cubans in 1942. But it all came to a screeching halt when he was drafted for military duty the same year. Serving in the Navy, Puente was discharged with a Presidential Commendation, but returned in 1945 to find Uba Nieto had replaced him in Machito’s band. He went to work with Frank Marti’s Copacabana Orchestra and others until he became musical director of the Pupi Campo Orchestra in 1947.
It was in post-war N.Y.C. that Puente came into his own. Puente began to arrange with a modern approach, incorporating musical skills he was learning as a student under the G.I. Bill at Juilliard School of Music. He studied composition, orchestration and the Shillinger musical method. Absorbing knowledge and experience, coupled with his ambition and a fierce work ethic, brought Puente a positive reputation. He was growing musically, too, and it was the progressive jazz sounds of Stan Kenton that turned him on.
“Stan was my main influence in my big band writing. I always wanted a band that sounded like Kenton but with tipico Latin rhythms. He was influenced a lot by us and loved my band as well as Machito’s orchestra. A few years before he passed, he came to see me at Concerts by the Sea in Redondo Beach and I dedicated a tune to him, “Salsa à la Kenton.”
It was the legendary promoter Federico Pagani who pushed Tito into the spotlight when he offered him a Sunday matinee gig in 1948 at the Alma Dance Studios (which a year later would become the Palladium Ballroom). With sidemen from the Campo band, Puente formed a conjunto (group) called the Picadilly Boys, reminiscent of the Arsenio Rodriguez band, with three trumpets and rhythm section. The only difference was Puente up front on timbales and vibraphone. One of the early Puente tunes they played was “Picadillo,” an instrumental guaracha with Puente on vibes. The gig deeply impressed because people talked about it for weeks, and they asked when the Picadilly Boys were playing again.
Birth of a Mambo King
The Picadilly Boys were a one-shot but it motivated Puente enough to split from Campo in early 1949 and form his own group. With a cast of colleagues that included his longtime trumpeter Jimmy Frisaura, Puente prepared a book of largely American pop instrumentals. Tito Puente and his Mambo Boys made their debut at El Patio Club in Atlantic City. Drawing inspiration from the Kenton sound, Puente came up with a distinctive musical stamp he called “percussive brass.” A week later he added a trumpet and bongo to his seven-piece band. But it was upon meeting the Cuban singer Vicentico Valdes that his sound came into focus.
When the Havana-born Valdes arrived in New York he was already a star in Cuba, having been part of the re-knowned Septeto Nacional alongside his brother Alfredito. In September 1949, Valdes sat in at the Palladium with Puente’s band and did a rendition of the bolero “Tus Ojos” that knocked everybody out. Dance aficionado George Goldner happened to catch them and signed Puente to his fledging Tico Records.
Puente went into the studio around November with a full big band, but it was a last minute jam from a stock Cuban chart called “Abaniquito” that gave him his first hit record. Disc jockey Dick “Ricardo” Sugar broke the recording and played it nightly on his radio show. It made Puente and Valdes instant stars.
Soon the Palladium was fueling the mambo and cha cha cha dance crazes with the orchestras of Machito, Tito Rodriguez and Puente pivotal to its vibrancy. It led to friendly rivalry, as stars like Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich and countless others made the scene at the “Home of the Mambo.”
“One of the things we had back then was a sense of competition. The way you dressed, looked, played and rehearsed is what made the music great. In those days, Machito’s band would go on the bandstand, play a great set and tear the place apart. Then Rodriguez would go on and try to outdo him. And I’d be on the side ready to take care of business, too. So who got the best out of it? The people.”
It was on his Tico 78-rpm disc of the “Vibe Mambo” that the vibraphone made its impact as a featured instrument in Latin music and greatly inspired devotees like the late Cal Tjader to explore jazz-Latin fusion. Puente had introduced the vibes to Latin music in 1949 on “Por Tu Amor,” one of his first Tico recordings. In 1950, Puente signed with RCA Victor and released his hit recording “Ran Kan Kan.” With pianist Charlie Palmieri (Eddie’s older brother) on board, he churned out hits like “Babarabatiri” and “El Rey Del Timbal.” The following year, a young Cuban drummer named Mongo Santamaria hooked up and things really heated up.
In 1953, Valdes left the orchestra over a dispute with Puente after a billing mishap in Los Angeles. But it didn’t stop him and Puente made the bold statement that his music didn’t need singers and only a strong coro (chorus) and went without a singer until 1956, when Santitos Colon joined the band. An important innovation came at this point at the suggestion of Frisuara, which manifested itself perfectly on his release Cuban Carnaval.
“It was my orchestra that put the rhythm section out in front of the band. In the old days with American bands the rhythm was always in the back. Even with Machito, the drummers were in back. It was hard to give cues so Jimmy said, ‘Why don’t you stand in front with the timbales so everybody can see you?’ And since that day, all Latin American rhythm sections now stand in front. People dance to rhythm and the beat of the skins and we started that.”
A youngster who experienced this phenomenon was Orestes Vilato, a timbalero who moved from Camaguey, Cuba to N.Y.C. in the 1950s when Puente was at his height of popularity. As a child, he learned to play in danzon orchestras and was well versed in the traditional styles, but when he arrived in the U.S. he noticed Puente had transformed the role of the pailas by adapting trap drum techniques to the instrument.
“Originally timbales didn’t have all that technique and the sound was different,” explains Vilato from his San Francisco Bay Area home. “It was soft. The sticks were thinner and you didn’t have to compete with rock and roll volume. It was acoustic music, where you’d play light as a fly and as heavy as an elephant.”
With drummers Mongo, Willie Bobo, Carlos Patato Valdes, Candido Camero and Johnny Rodriguez, Cuban Carnaval was a percussion tour-de-force with tunes like “Pa Los Rumberos” and the debut of the classic cha cha cha “Que Sera.” The writing and ensemble work were superb, but it was those oblique breaks that added a new twist.
In 1957, Puente made a series of albums showcasing the percussive art he was honing. Drawing from Afro-Cuban folklore, he demonstrated the complex web that surrounds the two-bar pulse known as clave. The sounds had texture and with Mongo, Bobo and Patato he wanted to orchestrate drums and percussion on a studio recording. He had to convince Goldner at Tico to let him do it, and finally did with the album Puente in Percussion.
“We didn’t even rehearse. We just put a bottle of rum in the center and stared at each other and when the breaks came they just fell in. It was great mental telepathy and the vibrations were right. Everybody was experienced and played at the same level. If we would have had a weak fellow on the session, one shot extra would have ruined it.”
In his prime, Puente recorded his masterpiece, Dance Mania, at the end of 1957. He had already made inroads traveling out west and established himself in the San Francisco Bay Area at places like Sweet’s Ballroom in Oakland and the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles.
“San Francisco has always been a hip city, musically better than L.A. They were always three years behind us, but Frisco is right there with us. I used to do these gigs where we would do the Hollywood Palladium on a Saturday night then take a car and drive to Oakland to play a matinee in Oakland at Sweet’s and then that night in San Jose. This was driving now not flying and back then it was mainly Perez Prado and myself touring out here.”
But in N.Y.C., Puente was a fierce competitor and his feuds with Tito Rodriguez and Willie Bobo are legendary. Puente grew up with Pablo Rodriguez and wrote arrangements for the legendary singer early on. They had been on the same ball team as kids, but as the Palladium Mambo Wars began over top billing, he was out to steam roll the competition. It’s alleged Puente spread rumors that got Pablo tossed out of the Palladium, but when owner Max Hyman brought him back with top billing, it outraged Puente.
Puente’s problem with Bobo was that he was a young upstart kid from Spanish Harlem who was the protégé of Mongo. He joined the band at its height when bongocero Manny Oquendo left. Mongo persuaded Puente to give Bobo a break. With Puente playing more vibraphones now, there were several tunes that featured Bobo on timbales. When he began to outshine the boss on his featured instrument, it began to grate on Puente who, during a national radio broadcast, introduced him as “Willie Boborosa.”
“I was the boss and don’t compete with me, boy, or you’re fired! But I put him away. A very talented man and a good friend of mine. There’s a lot of things written that aren’t true about me and Willie. He was good and I let him solo but he worked for me.”
Puente was driven and determined to see his ideas through, but “RCA Victor didn’t know what they wanted to do with me. So they put me away on a shelf. I was way ahead of my time recording all these things. But I screamed until they said, ‘Give that Little Cesar what he wants!’ Then I went in and did the albums Cuban Carnaval and Dancemania. In those days they had A&R men who tried to get you to record all kinds of things. I did albums with strings, guitars and Cha Cha at Grossinger’s. But I was so temperamental they finally just let me do what I wanted.”
He was soon crowned the King of Latin Music by promoter Bobby Quintero at the Manhattan Center after beating world famous Perez Prado (King of the Mambo) in a contest where the public voted for their favorite band. But the revolution of Fidel Castro in Cuba in 1959 soon brought new talent to the Big Apple and in the early ’60s two of Puente’s introductions to the American public were the Havana divas Celia Cruz and La Lupe.