Larry Blumenfeld
June 16, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Remembering Tito Puente

Orchestra leader Tito Puente used to joke about a gig decades ago: ”Some people asked if I could play that Santana song. I told them I didn’t know any Santana songs. They started to sing my tune ‘Oye Como Va.’ That was a Saturday. Monday morning, I got a royalty check from Carlos Santana’s record company. Ever since that moment, I play as much Santana as you want.”

The anecdote illustrates not just Puente’s sense of humor and crowd-pleasing nature, but a bit of the breadth of his influence on American culture. Although some classic-rock fans may not know that ”Oye Como Va” is his composition, Puente is perhaps the most recognizable Latin star of the last half century, a crossover musician who laid the foundation for today’s Latin music wave. His cameo in 1992’s The Mambo Kings reflected his status; he scored, among other honors, five Grammys, a Chubb Fellowship at Yale, and even a guest spot on The Simpsons.

When he died on May 31 at age 77 from complications following open-heart surgery, fans and friends mourned the passing of ”El Rey.” Puente’s innovations, his spirit, and his storied stamina — he recorded 118 albums and played 200 to 300 dates a year — knew no boundaries. A pillar of the Latin music establishment, he played a vital role in nurturing displaced Caribbean ”Nuyorican” culture in New York City. And in the 1950s, Puente’s fusion of dance rhythms and jazz arrangements set the pace at the Palladium and other famed Manhattan ballrooms.

Pianist and bandleader Eddie Palmieri recalls how Latin bands competed for dancers’ hearts and feet in mambo’s heyday. ”Tito was the greatest dance-band warrior there ever was,” says the fellow Latin-jazz luminary, who recently played with Puente on Masterpiece, set for release on July 18. ”He was a natural genius who took dance music to its highest level.”

Ernesto Anthony ”Tito” Puente, who maintained he was ”born into rhythm,” grew up in Spanish Harlem. He got an early break when the drummer in Cuban bandleader Machito’s orchestra was drafted at the start of World War II. By the late ’40s, after a stint in the Navy and at Juilliard, he was leading his own bands. It was Puente’s idea to bring the rhythm section out front, his virtuosity on the timbales and entertainer’s instincts making him an international star. In the 1960s, Puente began to work with other New York City musicians, including singer Celia Cruz, dubbed the Queen of Latin Music to his King. By the ’90s, Puente was a guiding hand for rising stars like Marc Anthony and India. From his marriage to second wife Margaret Acencio, he leaves a son, musician Tito Puente Jr., and a daughter, newscaster Audrey Puente. He’s also survived by two other sons, musician Ronald Puente (from his first marriage to Mirta Sanchez), and Richard Anthony Puente (from a long-term relationship with dancer Ida Carlini).

Sums up Palmieri: ”He was our Ellington, our Louis Armstrong.”

Essential Recordings
On stage, Tito Puente was often recorded for one of his many live dance albums. Off stage, he was frequently in the studio with the cream of the crop of Latin and jazz players. Here, a few highlights:

Tito Puente: 50 Years of Swing
This 3-CD boxed set surveys Puente’s landscape admirably, featuring collaborations with Latin Stars Cella Cruz, Cachao, and Ray Barretto, as well as American jazzers like Woody Herman and James Moody.

Cuban Carnival
A 1956 recording capturing the essence of Puente’s early work — a mixture of Latin rhythms and the big-band styles of Ellington and Basie. Many of the players here — Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo, and Carlos ”Patato” valdez — would become standard-bearing stars themselves.

Tito’s Ideas
The ’96 album displays Puente’s aesthetic as applied to standards like ”Joy Spring” and ”Woody ‘n You,” expressed by a thoroughly bilingual band.

Mambo Birdland
This live date from 1999 won a Grammy for its relentless energy, its churning rhythms, and its impossible-to-ignore call to the dance floor, music as potent as it was half a century earlier and no less relevant.
Larry Blomenfield

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