Tito Puente [1923-2000]
Born in 1923 to Puerto Rican parents in New York, Ernesto Antonio Puente studied piano and percussion as a child and was playing professionally while still in his teens. He played briefly with Machito and his Afro-Cubans, the top Latin band in New York in 1940, but that gig was cut short when he was drafted into the U.S. Navy.
After the war he used the G.I. bill to study music theory and orchestration at the Juilliard School of Music and formed his own band in 1948. As a bandleader, Tito Puente played timbales at the front of the band, giving the percussion a new prominence in Latin dance music and earning him the nickname, “El Rey del Timbal” (King of the Timbales).
Puente was also a talented vibraphone player and dancer. His brilliant arrangements and spectacular shows helped fuel the mambo dance craze of the 1950s and Puente’s band was a big draw at New York’s Palladium Ballroom, where he competed for the dancers’ favor with Machito and other bands. His rivalry with Puerto Rican bandleader Tito Rodríguez was especially intense.
Puente recorded over 50 albums in the course of his career, of which Dance Mania in 1958 was one of the most acclaimed. Many of his compositions were covered by other artists, including Carlos Santana, whose Latin rock versions of Oye Como Va and Para Los Rumberos, both Puente originals, helped catapult him to fame in the early 1970s.
In 1979 Puente received the first of five Grammy Awards. Even as the fashion in Latin music changed from mambo to salsa to Latin jazz, Puente remained a towering figure and a profound influence on generations of percussionists and bandleaders.