Tito Puente Mambo King

tito_bw1.gif (13440 bytes) A sadness that may never dissipate looms large in the souls of Latin music fans around the world. The gloom began on June 1, 2000 as people awoke to the distressing news that Tito Puente had died the night before.

Ernest Anthony “Tito” Puente began experiencing shortness of breath during his last concert performance with Puerto Rico’s Orquesta SinfĂ›nica on April 29, 2000. After completing that show, he entered a nearby hospital. He returned to New York to continue treatment. He died the night of Wednesday, May 31, 2000 at the age of 77 during an operation to replace a faulty heart valve.


Puente known as “El Rey del Timbal” and the “Mambo King”is credited with popularizing Latin music around the world. As an unofficial Latin music ambassador, Puente was responsible for breaking down cultural and racial barriers through his art.

Born on April 20, 1923 at Harlem Hospital Puente’s artistic talents first developed in the field of dance. In 1935, he and sister Anna became members of “Stars of the Future” a neighborhood artistic organization. On four occasions, Tito was crowned king for his exceptional dance ability.

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After hearing a solo by Cuban pianist, Anselmo Sacassas Tito began his musical education as he studied that instrument. Occasional tutors were Victoria Hernandez, sister of Puerto Rico’s legendary composer Rafael Hernandez, and Luis Varona of the Machito orchestra who later would play with Tito’s orchestra. He also studied drums and idolized Gene Krupa. He later mastered the alto sax and was tremendous vibraphonist.
Puente worked with Cuban pianist and bandleader Jose Curbelo beginning in December of 1939. Curbelo became his first music mentor and perhaps more importantly taught Puente the fundamentals of business. He then played with Johnny Rodriguez, Anselmo Sacassas, the musician that had inspired his piano study, and the great Noro Morales. In June 1942, he began with the Machito orchestra. Machito became Puente’s primary musical model. At one point Tito left Machito to drum for the Jack Cole dancers. Soon thereafter he was drafted into the Navy and served in WWII. He played saxophone and drums with the band on the ship. He learned arranging technique from a pilot that played sax.After his discharge in 1945 (with presidential commendation), he returned to New York to work again with Curbello, Brazilian band leader Fernando Alvarez featuring Charlie Palmieri on piano and Pupi Campo. He then began study at the Julliard School of Music. There he studied orchestration, conducting and music theory. In 1949, Puente formed his own band the Piccadilly Boys.
In the 50s during the Palladium era, Tito Puente’s band was one of the top three orchestras in New York. The orchestras of Machito and Tito Rodriguez were the others. Mambo and Cha-Cha-Cha were the rage at the time. The music with its high energy became a catalyst for bringing together people of all races and ethnicities. Puente rode the wave of the Mambo craze and went on to become a household name.

Tito Puente had strong leanings toward jazz which he “Latinized”. Puente later led two groups; an orchestra and a jazz ensemble. He continued to record both Latin jazz and straight-ahead Latin music with many different artists and his own bands.

In 1970, Carlos Santana re-popularized Tito Puente’s music with his rendition of Oye Como Va and in 1972, Para Los Rumberos.

In 1979, he won the first of five Grammy Awards for his Homenaje a Beny album which was a tribute to the Cuban singer Beny More’. The other awards came in 1983 for On Broadway; 1985 Mambo Diablo; 1990Gosa Mi Timbal; and Mambo Birdland in 2000.

Puente was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1990 and was featured in the 1992 filmThe Mambo Kings. He was given the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton in 1997 and was honored by the Library of Congress in April of 2000 as a Living Legend. The New York Times chose Puente’sDancemania as one of the 25 most influential albums of the 20th century. Other awards and honorary degrees are too numerous to list.

Puente recorded 120 albums, composed over 450 songs, and has over 2,000 arrangements to his credit. He has over 10,000 live performances around the world. Shortly before his death, he completed work on an album with Eddie Palmieri released July 18, 2000.

Tito’s admirers thank him for decades of joy and pride. Rest in peace our King.

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