Fuller Up The Dead Musician Directory 
Ernest Anthony Puente, Jr.
Tito Puente
June 1, 2000
Age 77 
Heart Condition 

Buy or Hear the Music 
Editor's Pick:  Mambo Birdland
      Bandleader Tito Puente Dies 

     By DIEGO IBARGUEN, Associated Press Writer  

     NEW YORK (AP) - Bandleader and percussionist Tito Puente, who rode to fame on the heels of the 1950s mambo craze and 
     for the next five decades helped define Latin jazz, died today. He was 77.  

     Puente, who was recently treated for a heart problem, died at NYU Medical Center in New York, said his agent, Eddie 

     Puente recorded more than 100 albums in his more than 60 years in the business. He won his fifth Grammy in February for best 
     traditional tropical Latin performance for ``Mambo Birdland'' and has been nominated for the award 10 times.  

     Puente brought the timbales, a pair of single-headed drums mounted on stands and played with sticks, from behind the band to 
     the front of the bandstand and played standing up.  

     ``In front of a bandstand you've got to be a showman,'' Puente says. ``Once, I was strictly a musician with a long face and back 
     to the audience. Now I'm a showman, selling what I'm doing, giving the people good vibes.''  

     He also loved playing vibraphone. ``I have a nice following of people who love my vibe playing,'' he said.  

     Puente joked that he profited off the talent of Santana, whose early hits include Puente's ``Oye Como Va.''  

     ``Every time he plays 'Oye Como Va,' I get a nice royalty check,'' Puente said.  

     ``The excitement of the rhythms and the beat make people happy,'' he said in a 1997 Associated Press interview. ``We try to get 
     our feelings to the people, so they enjoy it.  

     ``It is not music for a funeral parlor.''  

     That year, RMM Records released a three-CD, 50-song compilation from Puente's recorded output through 50 years. It's titled 
     ''50 Years of Swing.'' The first cut, ``Que No, Que No,'' is from his ``El Rey del Mambo'' (``The King of the Mambo'') recording 
     of 1946.  

     One of his most successful albums of the '50s was ``Puente Goes Jazz.''  

     ``Some jazz bands, like Kenton's, had added Latin rhythms,'' Puente told an interviewer in 1957. ``It sounded good to me. So I 
     figured I might as well do the same thing, in reverse. I start off writing a straight jazz arrangement, then I just add a Latin rhythm 

     ``It's the same reason kids like rock 'n' roll. It has the beat. I think bop, which neglected rhythm and neglected dancers, did a lot 
     to kill big bands.''  

     The eldest son of Puerto Rican parents, Puente was born Ernest Anthony Puente Jr. in New York City on April 20, 1923. (Some 
     references give other years.)  

     His father, Ernest Sr., was a foreman in a razor-blade factory. His mother called her son Ernestito, Little Ernest, then shortened 
     the name to Tito.  

     It was his mother who first discerned his musical talent and enrolled him in a piano class when he was 7. Puente studied drums 
     for years before switching to timbales. He studied conducting, orchestration and theory at the Juilliard School from 1945 to '47 on 
     the GI Bill.  

     Puente had been released from a San Juan, Puerto Rico, hospital May 2 after two days of treatment for an irregular heartbeat. 
     Puente canceled all his events in May, including three concerts planned with the Symphonic Orchestra of Puerto Rico.  

     ``I play in jazz festivals all over the world,'' he said in 1997. ``Next year I'm going to China and Russia. Our Latin sounds are 
     really spreading out.  

     ``As long as I have my health, I'll continue to work as long as I can,'' he said. ``I may have to slow down next year a little, get to 
     the semiretirement stage. But there are a couple of things I want to do first.'' 

 Tito Puente, Famed Master of Latin Music, Is Dead at 77

          By JOYCE WADLER 

                     Time, which Tito Puente 
                     could make throb, pulsate, 
                     swivel, shake and finally, 
                in the pounding rhythms of 
                mambo, cross over from El 
                Barrio in Harlem to the 
                Palladium to the airwaves of 
                America, caught up with the 
                legendary band leader and 
                percussionist late Wednesday 
                night, when he died at the age of 

                He suffered complications after 
                open heart surgery at New York 
                University Medical Center, his 
                manager, Eddie Rodriguez, said.  

                The man popularly known as El 
                Rey, The King, who put mambo 
                on the map -- and who came to 
                be nearly as much a symbol of 
                New York City as Yankee 
                Stadium -- had been scheduled 
                to perform at a benefit 
                Wednesday evening at Christie's 
                Auction House.  

                When it became apparent to Mr. 
                Puente, who had become ill 
                while performing in San Juan 
                with the Puerto Rican 
                Symphony last week, that he 
                would be unable to go on, he 
                gave the order that his band be 

                Why was it so important for Mr. 
                Puente, with his five Grammys 
                and 118 records and CD's, that 
                one little show go on?  

                "Tito was always a band leader, 
                the last of the real, true band 
                leaders, in the line of Duke Ellington and Count Basie," said Mr. Rodriguez, 
                who had spoken to Mr. Puente Monday before he entered the hospital. 
                "He felt responsible. He said, 'Keep the boys working.' That's what he 
                always said, 'Keep the boys working. Because I want to have my band 
                when I get out; I want it to be tight.' "  

                The most important Latin musician of the last half century and a key figure 
                in the fusion of Latin music with jazz, Mr. Puente, with his distinctive 
                cherubic mug, was an ebullient and wild performer who often clowned and 
                laughed as he whapped away on his timbales.  

                "What else have I got to sell?" he said a few months ago when asked 
                about this style. "I'm not Ricky Martin, to wave my hips around and show 
                my belly button. I don't have a girl in front of the band singing. I need the 
                people to see I'm having a good time."  

                Known to the youngest of his fans as the man who wrote Carlos Santana's 
                hit "Oye Como Va," or perhaps from the 1992 movie "The Mambo Kings," 
                in which he played himself, Mr. Puente had a career that spanned five 

                There were few jazz stars from the bebop era and beyond who did not find 
                him a compatible playing companion, and he was a staple of the old Salsa 
                Meets Jazz series at the Village Gate nightclub in Manhattan.  

                While many jazz groups added jazz sounds to Latin rhythms, Mr. Puente 
                liked to add a Latin rhythm section to a straight jazz arrangement. A fine 
                showman, he was not beyond gimmicks like recording Dave Brubeck's 
                "Take Five" in four-four time. He was also tireless; even in recent years he 
                worked 200 to 300 performances a year.  

                But it was Mr. Puente's impact at the beginning of his career, bringing 
                Latin music to a new audience at the Palladium on Broadway at 53rd 
                Street, that made many grow nostalgic and teary at the news of his death 

                "He gave us all a life," said Robert Farris Thompson, a professor at Yale 
                University, where Mr. Puente had been awarded a Chubb Fellowship this 
                year. "And by us I mean not only Puerto Ricans, but mainland blacks, huge 
                numbers of Italians and Jews. We all loved him. There were guys my age 
                who were envious they weren't at the Moulin Rouge in the days of 
                Toulouse-Lautrec; who weren't at Minton's in the days of the birth of bop. 
                I was secure in the knowledge that I had been there on the birth of New 
                York mambo."  

                A musician who often said that he was "born in rhythm," Ernest Anthony 
                Puente was born on April 20, 1923, at Harlem Hospital and grew up on 
                110th Steet, off Madison, in the neighborhood then known as Spanish 
                Harlem, or the Barrio.  

                Both his parents were immigrants from Puerto Rico; his father worked in a 
                razor blade factory; there was a younger sister and a younger brother. Life 
                was not easy: Tito's father, Mr. Puente said in an interview in The New 
                York Times last April, was a gambler. His brother died at 4 in a fall from 
                the fire escape.  

                The young Tito was a drummer from the time he could remember, 
                drumming so loudly and so often, on the kitchen table, with pots and pans, 
                that the neighbors beseeched his mother to get her son music lessons. She 
                did, though to get the 25 cents a lesson she needed she had to go through 
                her husband's pockets for money when he was asleep.  

                Tito studied piano, then drums, then timbales -- a rack-mounted setup of 
                drums, cowbell, woodblock and other percussion instruments, which 
                provide crisp upper-register rhythms for Latin bands. He also toyed with 
                the idea of becoming a dancer, performing in the neighborhood with his 
                sister, Anna. The girls, Mr. Puente admitted in an interview in the autumn 
                of his years, were "nuts" about him.  

                But the music took precedence. Tito's big break came in the 40's, when the 
                United Stated entered World War II. The drummer from the Machito 
                Orchestra, one of the first bands to fuse jazz and Latin music, was drafted, 
                and Tito took his place. A few years later, Tito dropped out of Central 
                Commercial High in Manhattan; the band, he would say years later, would 
                provide schooling.  

                Mr. Puente served in the Navy during World War II. His was not an 
                uneventful war; he served in nine battles, later receiving a presidential 

                He also suffered a personal loss: his sister died.  

                His music education, however, continued. Mr. Puente met the jazz 
                trumpeter Charlie Spivak on the aircraft carrier Santee, and Mr. Spivak 
                taught him jazz arranging.  

                After the war Mr. Puente studied at the Juilliard School of Music under the 
                G.I. Bill. But the school's emphasis on classical music made him restless. 
                In 1948 he started his own band, the Piccadilly Boys. Later, saying he did 
                not want a band whose name could be confused with something on the 
                menu (picadillo is a meat and potato hash), he changed the name to the 
                Tito Puente Orchestra.  

                His early distinctive touch, putting percussion in front, happened by 

                "The pretty boys were always in front, the percussion always in the back," 
                Mr. Puente said in an interview with The Toronto Star. "But the frontmen 
                needed to get their rhythm cues from the percussion, and someone 
                suggested putting the rhythm in front instead. Now everyone does it."  

                Mr. Puente's first hit, "Abaniquito," came one year later. By the early 50's 
                the band had become the Tito Puente Orchestra and was packing them in 
                at New York's Palladium. Mambo was king, and Tito Puente was king of 
                mambo, recording dance favorites like "Barbarabatiri," "El Rey del Timbal" 
                and "Mambo Gallego." In the late 50's, Mr. Puente was fusing cha-cha -- 
                the hot Latin cross-over dance of the Catskills -- with big band 
                compositions. The people who heard Mr. Puente play the Palladium still 
                get excited when they recall his sound.  

                "He was a genius, okay? The man who made you get up out of your chair 
                no matter who you were and dance," said Cuban Pete Aguilar, who knew 
                Mr. Puente when he was a boy, drumming in the basement in El Barrio 
                and who would years later be the choreographer for "The Mambo Kings." 
                "There was a rivalry between him and another orchestra leader, Tito 
                Rodriguez, and when the two of them got together to outdo each other, 
                when they got up and played their hearts out, let's just say the world knew 
                they were playing."  

                In the 60's Mr. Puente began to collaborate with other New York 
                musicians, including Celia Cruz, who would become the Queen of Latin 
                Music to his King, with the trombonist Buddy Morrow, with Woody 
                Herman. In 1963 he recorded "Oye Como Va," which 12 years later would 
                be a hit for Carlos Santana. In 1968, Mr. Puente had his own television 
                show, on Hispanic television, "The World of Tito Puente."  

                The 70's were a down time for Mr. Puente.  

                "It was kind of a boogaloo era, and there were some other nonmusical 
                fads, and he had to do things to keep up with the Jones that were not so 
                good for his records," said Johnny Rodriguez, Mr. Puente's longtime road 

                But in the 80's, and particularly in the 90's, he was coming back. He 
                recorded with the jazz musicians Phil Woods, George Shearing, James 
                Moody, Dave Valentin, Hilton Ruiz and Terry Gibbs; he and his band often 
                performed with symphony orchestras.  

                He also became a sort of symbol of the New York Puerto Rican identity, 
                marching prominently in Puerto Rican parades. In 1995 Mr. Puente opened 
                a popular 250-seat restaurant on City Island.  

                The Oscar Hijuelos novel "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love," which 
                became the film "The Mambo Kings," also offered sweet vindication.  

                In that story two Cuban brothers move to New York in the 50's and form a 
                mambo band; Mr. Puente is portrayed as the King, the center of the 
                mambo universe.  

                "I never thought playing in those places, writing that music, experiencing it 
                all, that there would be a movie of it," Mr. Puente said in The Times. "It's a 
                place and time that has really been overlooked."  

                And on a more personal note: "I'm finally getting some due. It's too bad it 
                happened at this stage in my life, but better now than never."  

                Mr. Puente's personal life, as befitting a big band leader, was not tame. 
                During the war, on leave, he married a longtime girlfriend, Mirta Sanchez. 
                In 1947 they had a son, Ronald. The marriage ended in divorce. Today 
                both live in New York.  

                In the 50's, Mr. Puente also had a longtime relationship with Ida Carlini, a 
                dancer, now living in Miami, who says she met Mr. Puente at the 
                Palladium as a girl of 15. ("An Abby Lane type, gorgeous," one Palladium 
                regular recalls, still smitten many decades later.) Their son, Richard 
                Anthony Puente, was born in 1953. He became a musician.  

                There followed a 30-year relationship with Margaret Acencio, with whom 
                Mr. Puente had a son, Tito Puente Jr., a musician, and a daughter, Audrey 
                Puente, a weather forecaster at Channel 4. Ms. Acencio and Mr. Puente 
                were married, Mr. Puente told The Times, "four or five years" ago, with 
                their 28-year-old son and 30-year-old daughter serving as their parents' 
                best man and maid of honor. There was no honeymoon.  

                "I have not taken a vacation in my whole life," Mr. Puente said in that talk 
                four months ago. "Let me ask you a question: Have you ever known a 
                musician to take a vacation? You know when you're on vacation? When 
                the phone don't ring."  

                Mr. Puente, in that conversation, was happy, his spirits high. He was 
                recording, he believed, his 119th record. He said he felt wonderful -- like a 
                12-year-old kid.  

                Asked in that conversation what the King might want as his obituary, he 
                couldn't be bothered to give it a serious thought.  

                Or maybe he did.  

                "Nuthin'," Mr. Puente said, in that perfectly paced, musician's rhythm. 
                Then, laughing, which he liked very much to do, "Or maybe put a pair of 
                timbales on my grave." 


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