Tito Puentes was such a visible presence in the music industry, that he helped bring Latin music to the forefront and gave it crossover appeal. His dynamic showmanship made him exciting to watch and garnered him fans from all genres of music. He was labeled as “The King of Latin Music” and “The Mambo King” and his distinguished career lasted for over 50 years, in which he made over 100 albums.
Born Ernesto Antonio Puente, Jr. on April 20, 1923, he was raised in Spanish Harlem and started playing music at an early age. He was participating in bands like Los Happy Boys by the age of ten-years-old and was considered to be extremely gifted for so young a performer. His music career continued to prosper, until he was forced to join the Navy during World War II. During that time, he was fortunate enough to meet Charlie Spivak, a bandleader who inspired Puente to get into writing big band music. Tito remained in the service until the age of 22, going on to study at the prestigious Julliard School of Music until 1947.
After playing with Latin musicians such as .Fernando Alvarez, Puente decided it was time to launch his own group, so he formed his own orchestra, which got enough attention to get him a contract with the RCA Victor record label in 1949. From that point, he went on to popularize mambo music, recording such hit albums in the 1950’s as Dance Mania and Puente Goes Jazz.
As his musical influence grew, Tito began playing with other musicians, like Woody Herman. He also performed with fellow Latin musicians, such as La Lupe and the inimitable Celia Cruz. He became a crossover success with the recording Oye Como Va, which was later recorded by Carlos Santana, whose cover rendition is more widely known. During the `1970’s, Puentes rhythmic, dance-provoking style of music became identified as a part of the growing salsa music movement and he influenced many younger Latin musicians.
During his career, Tito received four Grammy Award nominations, four of which he won. He appeared in films like The Mambo Kings, on television shows like The Cosby Show, played before Presidents, toured worldwide and continued to make more highly acclaimed albums. Younger people may remember him in cartoon version on the popular animated show The Simpsons. He received other honors as well, such as the Smithsonian Medal and induction into The National Record and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Tito Puete also used his celebrity to help budding young musicians by founding the Tito Puente Scholarship Foundation, to help disadvantaged music students across the United States.
Tito remained active up until his late 60’s, when he had a heart attack. He passed away on May 31, 2000, after being ill briefly, although his demise may have been attributable to illegal drugs.