While Elvis may be the king of Rock and Roll, there is only one musician referred to as “The King of Mambo”, Tito Puente. Other names are “El Rey del Timbale” and “The Sultan of Salsa”. These are all the deserving nicknames of the legendary percussionist, bandleader and composer.
Tito Puente was born from Puerto Rican parents on April 20, 1923 as Ernesto Antonio Puente, Jr. in New York’s Spanish Harlem. Urged on by his mother, Puente took dancing classes as a child and even entered competitions. Although it became and early love of Puente, he would have to give up dancing due to a bicycle accident. Instead, Puente turned to music, learning the piano first, and latter the drums. His knack for percussion led to early gigs with Latin band leader Noro Morales and mambo pianist Jose Curbelo.
After being drafted into the US Navy during World War II, Puente used the GI Bill in order to graduate from the prestigious Julliard School of Music. He then used his newfound skills in composition to front his first band “The Piccadilly Boys”. The band’s name would change to “Tito Puente and His Orchestra” and would frequent the legendary home of Latin jazz, the Palladium Ballroom. Puente would gain a large following during the 1950’s, as the Palladium was attracting a large number of Puerto Ricans coming to New York after World War II. To compliment the dancers, Tito Puente and his band would play mambo, cha cha cha , and the style he would be credited with founding, Latin Jazz. Puente would also be credited with being an early pioneer of salsa music, although this was a term he publicly criticized as not being an actual musical style. Puente has been quoted as saying, “I’m a musician not a cook.”
Puente would also renowned for the use of his signature instrument, the Timbales, a single-headed drum tuned rather high and played with sticks. Puente’s fame soared when he teamed up with Carlos Santana in 1970 to create one of the most recognizable Latin pop songs “Oye, Como Va”.
Puente won six Grammy Awards including the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award shortly after his death. He died during heart surgery on May 31, 2000 after collapsing during a concert in Puerto Rico. Tito Puente’s music continues to live on in his over 100 recordings, the Tito Puente Scholarship Fund, and through the music of his youngest son, the percussionist, Tito Puente Jr.