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11/08/00

A discographic profile of legendary bandleader, composer and musician Tito Puente.


Profile: Tito Puente by John Child (John_Child@descarga.com)

PUENTE, Tito

(b 20 Apr. '23, Ernesto Antonio Puente Jr, NYC, of Puerto Rican parentage; d 31 May 2000, NYC) Bandleader, virtuoso timbales player, multi-instrumentalist incl. vibes, piano, sax, bongos, conga; composer, producer, showman. Called Ernestito for short stature, shortened to Tito; aka "El Rey" ("The King") and TP. Intended to be a dancer, but tore ankle tendon in accident; served in WWII aboard USS Santee where a former arranger with Charlie Spivak's band taught him some big band composition, arranging; studied at Juilliard under G.I. Bill. Worked in orchestras of José Curbelo, Noro Morales, Machito, Pupi Campo, others (TP plays and arrs. on Curbelo anthologies Rumba Gallega '94, Live At The China Doll (and also Live at the China Doll, Vol. 2) '95 and Campo collection Rumbas And Mambos '91, all on Tumbao); formed the Picadilly Boys '48, soon became the Tito Puente Orchestra. His initial lead vocalists were Angel Rosa and Paquito Sosa, then Vicentico Valdés '49-53, who left after a row about billing.

Record debut was on Gabriel Oller's SMC (Spanish Music Center); he signed with new Tico label (formed '48 by George Goldner [d 15 Apr. '70] and Art "Pancho" Raymond), released many 78s, eleven 10 inch LPs, some of these later issued on 12 inch LPs, i.e. Mamborama , Mambo With Me (these two mid-'50s classics respectively collected on Mamboscope '94 and The King of the Cha-Cha Mambo '95 on Caney; latter incl. three tracks each from his mid-'50s Tico LPs Cha Cha Chás For Lovers and Dance the Cha Cha Chá) and Puente In Love late '50s. With Machito and arch rival Tito Rodríguez, Puente was leader of the big band mambo style during late '40s and first half of '50s: "Abaniquito" '49 (incl. on Tumbao CD Mambo Macoco '92, which collects together Tico recordings '49-51, as does another Tumbao CD Mambos With Puente '92) was one of the first crossover mambo hits with assistance of English-language DJ Dick "Ricardo" Sugar. His big band had "an intense and nervous quality that was pure New York, his arranging, like his timbales playing, was fast, tight, jumpy, bravura" (John Storm Roberts). During a cessation of recording by Tico (because of a dispute between Goldner and Raymond), TP recorded for Seeco (eight tracks made c. '49 reissued with tracks by Tito Rivera as Tito Puente and Friend on Tropical), RCA Victor (15 tracks made '49-51 incl. classic "Ran Kan Kan" '49 collected on Cuando Suenan Los Tambores '92 in RCA Tropical Series) and Verne. Puente was also prominent during the mid to late '50s cha cha chá craze, transcribing some original Cuban cha cha chá hits from the violin-and-flute charanga format to the brass and reeds frontline of his big band, such as Orquesta Aragón's '54 Cuban hit "Pare Cochero" (incl. on Cha Cha Chás For Lovers ). Puente In Percussion '55 on Tico featured just Puente's rhythm section incl. Willie Bobo, Mongo Santamaría, Carlos "Patato" Valdes (reissued '96).

Morris Levy, president of Roulette, induced TP to leave Tico for RCA Victor '56: "You took away my number one act, you really hurt my label," accused Goldner on first meeting Levy (quoted by Fredric Dannen, Hit Men '90); LPs reissued in RCA Tropical Series '91 onwards, i.e. Cuban Carnival '56 incl. "Para Los Rumberos" (covered by Santana on their third LP '71, re-recorded by Puente as title track of new LP '72 on Tico), and perennial best-seller Dance Mania '58 (reissued as Dance Mania Vol. 1 '91), introducing lead singer Santos Colón (b Angel Santitos Vega Colón, 1 Nov. '22, Sabana Grande, Puerto Rico; d 21 Feb. '98, P.R.; relocated to NYC '50, there worked with Jorge Lopés, Tony Novos and José Curbelo prior to TP). Other titles in RCA Tropical Series incl. Dance Mania Vol. 2 '92 (reissue of More Dance Mania '63, recorded '59) Top Percussion '58 ('92 reissue); The Best Of Tito Puente Vol. 1 '92, Tambó '60 ('92 reissue); Mucho Cha-Cha '59 ('93 reissue); Mucho Puente '57 ('93 reissue); Let's Cha-Cha With Puente '57 (reissued as Cubarama: Let's Cha Cha '94); The Best Of Dance Mania Plus Unreleased Out-Takes} '94, Mambo Beat: The Progressive Side Of Tito Puente, Vol. 1 '94. Among those who played in band in the '50s were Charlie Palmieri, Manny Oquendo, Ray Barretto, Johnny Pacheco.

He made The Exciting Tito Puente Band In Hollywood '61 (reissued as Puente Now!) on GNP at Capitol as '60-4 pachanga dance craze was getting underway; collaborated with pachanga hit-maker Rolando La Serie (whose version of Eduardo Davidson's "La Pachanga" was a NYC chart-topper '60) on Pachanga in New York '61 on Gema. Returned to Tico '61 for Pachanga Con Puente ; on that label until '85, over 40 LPs incl. classics Vaya Puente '61, descarga-oriented El Rey Bravo '62 with violinist/flautist Pupi Legarreta, incl. the original of Puente's composition "Oye Como Va," covered note-for-note by Santana on their biggest hit LP Abraxas '70. Tito Puente In Puerto Rico - Recorded Live '63 was not a concert, but had on-the-spot immediacy; recorded for Roulette (which had taken over Tico) in crossover vein: Bossa Nova By Puente '64 and My Fair Lady Goes Latin '64; De Mi Para Ti (From Me To You) '64 highlighted vocalist Santos Colón (Colón made solo LPs on Tico and Fania through '79, hits compilations Exitos De Santos Colón: Imagenes '70 on Tico, incl. tracks with Puente, and Siempre Santitos '76 on Fania; also performed/recorded with Tico All-Stars, Fania All Stars, etc). Puente and band had won the Golden Cup first prize in Venezuelan carnivals '64-5; Carnaval en Harlem '65 mixed Latin rhythms with pop/jazz standards like "Bluesette," "Jumpin' With Symphony Sid"; Y Parece Bobo c. '65 on Alegre with lead singer Chivirico Dávila was prod. by label's founder Al Santiago. 20th Anniversary '67 was a celebration; The King Tito Puente '68 incl. boogaloo ("It stunk," said TP '77) and other styles, vocalists Andy Senatore and Rudy Calzado along with Colón; En El Puente/On The Bridge '69 incl. "Congo Mulense," co-written and sung by Machito. Pa'Lante!/Straight! '70 and Para Los Rumberos '72 featured Panamanian lead vocalist Miguel "Meñique" Barcasnegras, brother-in-law of Kako; TP arr./dir. Meñique's solo debut Meñique '72. Colón reunion The Legend '77, prod. by Louie Ramírez, garnered a Grammy nomination, incl. title track "La Leyenda" written by Rubén Blades; two vols. of Homenaje a Beny (Vol. 1 and Vol. 2) '78-9 on Tico paid tribute to Cuban singer/bandleader Beny Moré, with vocalists Colón, Celia Cruz, Cheo Feliciano, Héctor Lavoe, Ismael Quintana, Ismael Miranda, Adalberto Santiago, Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez, more: Vol. 1 became his first Grammy winner. Other big band albums from this period were Grammy nominated Dancemania 80's '80, with lead vocals by Frankie Figueroa, and Ce' Magnifique '81, with Panamanian vocalist Camilo Azuquita, who also wrote some of the LP.

Puente was seen in action in the South Bronx in Jeremy Marre's TV film Salsa '79 (released on video in the US by Shanachie), toured Europe that year with the Latin Percussion Jazz Ensemble (LPJE), a quintet with "Patato" Valdes, Colombian pianist Eddie Martínez; expanded to sextet for LP Just Like Magic '79; LPJE's third European tour incl. LPJE Live At The Montreux Jazz Festival 1980 with Cuban violinist Alfredo de la Fé, Argentine pianist Jorge Dalto (1948-87: died of cancer). Group became octet Latin Ensemble, recorded Tito Puente and his Latin Ensemble On Broadway '83 for Concord Jazz's Picante Latin series and won Grammy, with stalwarts from the big band incl. Jimmy Frisaura (b Vincent Frisaura, 2 Oct. '24, McKeesport, Pennsylvania, of Italian-American parentage; d 23 Feb. '98, Perth Amboy, New Jersey; trombone, trumpet, flugelhorn, band's business manager '49-89, retired after a heart attack), Bobby Rodríguez on bass, Mario Rivera on saxes and flute, plus Johnny "Dandy" Rodríguez on percussion; further LPs on Picante are the outstanding El Rey '84 (live at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco), Mambo Diablo '85 (another Grammy, incl. George Shearing on his famous "Lullaby Of Birdland," Sonny Bravo on piano for the rest), Sensación '86 with guest Terry Gibbs, Un Poco Loco '87 incl. both Latin Ensemble and big band, Salsa Meets Jazz '88 with guest Phil Woods, Goza Mí Timbal '90 (dedicated to Frisaura; track "Lambada Timbales" won a Grammy), Out Of This World '91, Mambo Of The Times '92, Royal T '93, Master Timbalero '94.

He returned to a big band line-up for Grammy nominated The Mambo King: 100th LP '91 (also dedicated to Frisaura) and electrifying concert video Tito Puente: 100th LP '92 (latter made at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan, Puerto Rico), both on RMM, with mini-galaxy of salsa singers incl. Colón, Cruz, Miranda, Oscar D'León, José Alberto, Tito Nieves, Tony Vega, Domingo Quiñones. TP's Latin jazz recorded work underwent a revitalization with the Golden Latin Jazz All Stars (incl. Santamaría, Paquito D'Rivera, Dave Valentín, Hilton Ruiz, Andy González and Mario Rivera, others) on "Live" at The Village Gate '92, followed-up by "In Session" '94 (minus D'Rivera), both on RMM's Tropijazz label; Puente and "The Golden Men of Latin Jazz" performed at London's Royal Festival Hall, July '93. Latin Ensemble made their Tropijazz debut with Tito's Idea '95. Teamed-up with so-called "La Diva" La India for Jazzin' '96 on Tropijazz with Count Basie Orchestra guesting; participated in all-star RMM set RMM's European Salsa Explosion '95, TropiJazz All-Stars' Volume 1 '96 and Live! Volume 2 '97 on Tropijazz and Nuyorican Soul '96 on Talkin' Loud. Celebrated 50th anniversary with Special Delivery '96 on Concord Picante with guest Maynard Ferguson and highly recommended three CD box set 50 Years Of Swing '97 on RMM, containing an unprecedented multi-label survey of his recording career incl. two previously unreleased tracks recorded '77. Anniversary was also marked by an event at NYC's Museo del Barrio on 23 Feb. '97, proclaimed Tito Puente Day by the Bronx Borough President. Recorded two shimmering big band sets for RMM at a renowned NYC jazz venue: the Grammy nominated Live At Birdland/Dancemania '99 '98 and his fifth Grammy winner Mambo Birdland '99.

Puente backed many singers: Valdés on Tito Puente Swings, Vicentico Valdés Sings c. '58 on Tico, Manny Román on Eras '67 on Decca, Myrta Silva on Puerto Rico Canta y Baila '60s on Musicor; from mid-'60s he backed a number of women on Tico: with La Lupe (1939-1992) on Tito Puente Swings - The Exciting La Lupe Sings '65, Tú y Yo c. '65, Homenaje a Rafael Hernández '66, El Rey y Yo '67; Celia Cruz on Cuba y Puerto Rico Son '66 (co-prod. by Al Santiago), Quimbo Quimbumbia '69, Alma Con Alma '71, En España '71, Algo Especial Para Recordar '72, Grammy nominated Homenaje a Beny Moré Vol. III '85 on Vaya also incl. Santiago, Lavoe, El Conde plus Justo Betancourt and Héctor Casanova; Noraida (Beny Moré's widow) on Tito Puente Presenta Noraida '71 and Me Voy a Desquitar '71. He also played with Woody Herman on Herman's Heat & Puente's Beat '58 on Everest, with the Tico All-Stars on their Descargas at the Village Gate - Live '66 (Vol. 1, Vol. 2 and Vol. 3), with Fania All Stars Live At The Red Garter '68 (Vol. 1 and Vol.2), with Tico-Alegre All Stars Live At Carnegie Hall '74, also on Cal Tjader LP Primo on Fantasy '73, Ray Barretto's 2-disc Tomorrow '76 on Atlantic, La Cuna '81 on CTI; jazz singer Dianne Reeves stopped the show at Monterey Jazz Festival '84 with "Be My Husband," backed by Puente; he played timbales, vibes, arr. his "Ban-Con-Tim" on Super All Star '84 on Caimán.

He established the Tito Puente Scholarship Fund '80 to help young musicians attain music degrees. His movie appearances incl. Radio Days '87, starring and directed by Woody Allen, and The Mambo Kings '92 (also performed on the soundtrack album '92). NARAS presented him with a Eubie Award for Lifetime Achievement in the recording industry '89; received a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame '90. In July '95 TP held an impromptu jam at the grand opening of own restaurant in City Island, NY; celebrities in attendance incl. Celia Cruz, Johnny Pacheco, Al Santiago and wife Louise, Larry Harlow, Paul Simon, others.

At the beginning of 2000 he finished working on a new CD eventually titled Masterpiece/Obra Maestra: Tito Puente & Eddie Palmieri, his first full studio collaboration with Eddie Palmieri. After completing the last in a series of performances in Puerto Rico with the island's Symphony Orchestra on 29 April 2000, he was rushed to hospital with breathing problems. He was discharged in good condition and returned to NYC for further treatment, necessitating the cancellation of his entire May and June 2000 international schedule. He passed away following surgery for a heart valve replacement and bypass at New York University Hospital at 11:45 pm on Wednesday 31 May 2000. His funeral was held the following Sunday, 4 June.

The King may be dead, and greatly missed, but his monumental legacy lives on via his vast body of recorded work.


-This is a revised version of one of over 130 Latin music entries written by John Child (John_Child@descarga.com) for The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 2nd Edition, edit. Donald Clarke; Penguin Books; 1998; 1524 pages; US$22.95, UK£16.99.

They are published on the Descarga website by kind permission of Mr. Donald Clarke.



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