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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

10 Tito Puente essentials for the Mambo King’s centennial

Tito Puente’s centennial was celebrated on April 20. The percussionist’s impact on Latin music, and the sounds of New York City, resonates loudly.

By Ed Morales

Ernest Anthony Puente, known as Tito, was born in Harlem on April 20, 1923, and went on to create an enormous body of work (more than 100 albums) while earning a reputation as a tireless performer. His irresistible swirl of energy helped make his main instrument, the timbales, emblematic of Latin music in the mid-20th century.

In a career that stretched more than six decades, Puente was a clever innovator and a prized collaborator. He got his start playing with Machito and his Afro-Cubans, the band led by Frank (Machito) Grillo that pioneered Afro-Cuban jazz fusion. He then went on to headline, becoming one of the stars of the glitzy Palladium mambo era — named for the club on West 52nd Street in Manhattan that attracted diverse crowds to dance to mambo orchestras with elaborate horn and percussion sections. When stripped-down salsa bands of a new generation began to steal his thunder, he persisted by hiring both La Lupe and Celia Cruz — two brilliant and beloved Cuban singers — as his lead vocalists. In the 1980s, he found new ways to evolve Latin jazz by spotlighting the work of unheralded instrumentalists, and at the end of the century, he teamed with younger singers like La India and Marc Anthony.

Growing up in New York, decades before the “Great Migration” in the 1950s of Puerto Ricans to the United States, Puente was a prototypical Nuyorican. He was just as comfortable speaking in English as in Spanish, and he idolized big-band jazz icons like Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa while studying piano with Victoria Hernández, a sister of the famed Puerto Rican bandleader Rafael Hernández. Like Krupa, Puente moved his percussion kit to the front of the band, a move that centered the rhythm as the driver of the dance beat and came to define the mambo sound — big-band jazz fused with Afro-Cuban rhythms and featuring extended improvisational breaks that fueled dancers’ energy — much in the way Eddie Palmieri and Willie Colón would later feature trombones to define salsa.

When Puente died in June 2000 at 77, it was a great blow not only to fans of mambo, cha-cha-cha, bugalú, salsa and Latin jazz, but also to New York itself. Yet his sound lives on and concerts celebrating his era resonate in the city he called home and beyond. (Jazz at Lincoln Center will present its “Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez Centennial Celebration” on May 5-6 at the Rose Theater.)

Here are 10 examples of how Puente became known as the King of Latin music.

“Abaniquito” (1949)

The song that started Puente’s ascent was released as a 78-rpm single with a hyperactive piano vamp and frenetic rhythm section that showcased the unrestrained dance floor energy of what was then an emergent Palladium scene. Featuring the beloved vocalist Vicentico Valdés as well as Graciela Pérez, Machito’s sister, on the chorus, the track exemplifies the strong influence of the Machito band on Puente’s jazz-mambo fusion.

“Babarabatiri” (1951)

Arriving at the dawn of the mambo era, this song is a riveting immersion in Puente’s rapidly coalescing sound. It’s flush with jazz swing, irresistible syncopation and a call-and-response between a repetitive vocal chorus, the horn section and percussion. Seizing on the momentum created by an earlier version— by Cuban vocalist Beny Moré fronting Pérez Prado’s orchestra — the Puente rendition, with the vocalist Santos Colón, comes off as a cooler jazz reinterpretation.

“Mamborama” (1955)

By the mid-1950s, Puente had emerged as one of the dominant performers on the Palladium scene, engaged in his famous rivalry with bandleader and vocalist Tito Rodríguez, who responded to the “Mamborama” album with his 1956 release “Mambo Madness.” Puente’s LP features the loping yet propulsive rhythmic figures of “Ran Kan Kan,” another classic, but the anthemic “Mambo Inn” makes perhaps the album’s strongest statement with its triumphant melodic theme, bruising horn section and the powder-keg pummeling of Puente’s timbale-conga attack.

Tito Puente & His Orchestra, “Top Percussion” (1957)

Taking a short break from Palladium mambo, Puente dug deep into the African roots of Cuban dance music on this album, bringing together the percussionists Mongo Santamaría and Willie Bobo with the vocalist Merceditas Valdés to re-create the feeling of rumba and ritual toque de santo, a practice designed to communicate with the pantheon of Yoruban deities. The album closes with the seven-minute “Night Ritual,” an Afro-Cuban jazz suite featuring Johnny Carson’s bandleader, the trumpeter Doc Severinsen. Puente revisited the concept in 1960 with “Tambó,” which repeated the deep percussion theme while using more mambo orchestra instruments.

“Dance Mania” (1958)

Perhaps Puente’s most famous and most listened to album, “Dance Mania” began the shift from mambo to what would become known as salsa by including some tracks identified by their Cuban-derived genres. While the track list is populated with standard mambos, “Cuando te Vea,” is listed as a guaguancó, a Cuban groove quintessential to the future evolution of the salsa sound, with Santos Colón doing an early take on the soneo, or lead vocal improvisation. The album also includes an early appearance from Ray Barretto, who would become one of salsa’s most renowned congueros and bandleaders.

“Oye Como Va” (1962)

At once tracing the roots and routes of Latin music in the 20th century, the song “Oye Como Va,” while not exactly a Puente masterpiece, tells the story of how Afro-Cuban music found its way into the American mainstream. Its opening riffs are based on the Cuban bassist Israel “Cachao” López’s classic “Chanchullo,” and the track is formally a cha-cha-cha that celebrates dance floor flirting. It was famously covered in 1970 by Santana, and the band’s leader, Carlos Santana, was said to have been convinced to do the song by rock promoter Bill Graham, who had spent much of his youth in the 1950s dancing to mambo at Puente’s Palladium.

La Lupe and Tito Puente, “Tito Puente Swings/The Exciting Lupe Sings” (1965)

While an argument can be made that “El Rey y Yo (The King and I)” from 1967 is the peak of Puente and La Lupe’s collaboration, their album “Tito Puente Swings/The Exciting Lupe Sings” seems more spontaneous while capturing Puente’s peak cha-cha-cha grooves. It also marks Puente’s attempts to reconcile the end of the Palladium era with the emergence of the Cuban/African American R&B hybrid of bugalú.

Tito Puente and Celia Cruz, “Cuba y Puerto Rico” (1966)

As Puente’s working relationship with La Lupe became more contentious, he began to turn to Celia Cruz, another Cuban vocalist who had made her mark as the lead singer of the legendary Sonora Matancera orchestra. Cruz seized the opportunity to become a solo star in her own right, ultimately becoming la Reina de la Salsa (the Queen of Salsa), largely as a result of her magisterial performances with Puente. “La Guarachera,” from the album “Cuba y Puerto Rico,” became one of her signature tracks.

Tito Puente, India and the Count Basie Orchestra, “Jazzin’” (1996)

Toward the end of his career, Puente became a prominent member of promoter Ralph Mercado’s stable of salsa and merengue acts that proliferated in New York’s Latin club scene. He became El Rey (the King) for young people who were trying to reconnect with their parents’ music by learning to dance at clubs like the 14th Street Palladium and S.O.B.’s. This era included his team-up with La India, a salsa vocalist who began her career singing house music, on “Jazzin’” (which also featured the Count Basie Orchestra); and a collaboration with Marc Anthony that began on a 1991 album Anthony recorded with the Paradise Garage DJ Little Louie Vega (“When the Night Is Over”), making Puente’s sound a rediscovered staple of the ’90s downtown Latin scene.

Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente, “Masterpiece” (2000)

Going back to “Puente Goes Jazz” (1956), an underrecognized tour de force that also features Ray Barretto, and “Herman’s Heat & Puente’s Beat,” a 1958 collaboration with Woody Herman, Puente excelled at making records that strongly connected with his first love: jazz. Beginning with “On Broadway” in 1982, Puente embarked on a nine-album relationship with the jazz label Concord Records, doing covers of John Coltrane’s “Afro Blue,” Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” and Bud Powell’s “Un Poco Loco,” among an avalanche of original material that redefined Latin jazz as a genre, particularly through the spirit of underrecognized collaborators like the Dominican saxophonist Mario Rivera. His jazz period reached its peak with his 2000 collaboration with Eddie Palmieri, “Masterpiece.”

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