Latin music in the United States has gone through many changes in the last six decades, as its sound evolved from Cubop to mambo, from cha-cha to salsa, and from Latin rock to the latest tropical beats. Numerous stars appeared along the way, but only one seemed to stay the course: Tito Puente.
No more. Some 63 years after he began drumming professionally, the great "Mambo King" has laid down his sticks for good. Wednesday evening, Puente died in a New York hospital from complications experienced during heart surgery. He was 77.
Tributes began to pour in immediately upon word of his demise. "Our world is in mourning because one of the souls of Latin music has died," said Celia Cruz, one of the greatest stars of salsa music and a frequent collaborator with Puente in the '60s. Singer Gloria Estefan and her husband, Emilio, said that Puente was "an inspiration for artists and music lovers alike."
President Clinton declared that Puente "was more than a musician -- he was a trailblazer." Referring to the day in 1997 when he awarded Puente the National Medal of the Arts, Clinton recalled, "At that ceremony, I said, 'Just hearing Tito Puente's name makes you want to get up and dance. With his finger on the pulse of the Latin American musical tradition and his hands on the timbales, he has probably gotten more people out of their seats and onto the dance floor than any other living artist.' "
Puente was one of the best-known Latin musicians in the world. In addition to a discography that passed the 100-album mark in 1992, he was familiar to millions from appearances on "The Bill Cosby Show"; "The Late Show with David Letterman"; and the film "The Mambo Kings." Ever animated onstage, he even made a cartoon appearance on an episode of "The Simpsons."
Although he was best known for his work on the timbales -- tuned, open-ended drums suspended from a single stand -- he was a bandleader and composer. His fiery, percussion-driven version of the Cuban standard "Abaniquito" was among the first mambo crossover hits in 1949, while his composition "Oye Como Va" became a huge pop hit for Carlos Santana in 1971. He won five Grammys, including one in February for the album "Mambo Birdland."
A percussionist of enormous talent and versatility, he was born Ernesto Antonio Puente, Jr. in 1923 in the Harlem section of New York City. As a child, his mother called him Ernestito, or "Little Ernesto," which became simply "Tito." He began taking percussion lessons at 10, and quickly made his way up the ranks of the New York Latin music scene.
After an apprenticeship with bandleader Noro Morales, Puente joined the famed percussionist Machito in 1941. It was Machito who first fused Cuban rhythms and melodies with jazz harmonies and arrangements. His band, the Afro-Cubans, are widely believed to have invented Latin jazz -- and Puente was part of it.
After a military stint during World War II, Puente studied at the Juilliard Conservatory, and began making a name for himself as a composer and arranger. He worked for various bandleaders in New York before putting together his own combo in the late '40s.
As a performer, he was largely known for his energetic and charismatic work on the timbales. In fact, he was such a visual attraction that in his days with Machito, he was moved from the back of the band to a front-and-center position in the orchestra.
But Puente is also credited with introducing the vibraphone to Latin music. As John Storm Roberts notes in his book "Latin Jazz," Puente began using vibes for non-Latin numbers while playing resorts in the Catskill Mountains in the late '40s. "By the early 1950s he was recording numbers like 'Autumn Leaves' and 'Tea for Two' with a vibraphone quartet," Roberts writes.
Eventually, Puente's combo expanded to big-band dimensions, and became a major draw on the mambo circuit. It signed with RCA Victor in 1956, and made a number of successful recordings of both mambos and cha-chas.
He recorded "Oye Como Va" in 1962, a tune he had written as a feature for the Cuban flutist and violinist Pupi Legarreta. The song was a sensation in the Latin jazz world then, and became an even broader hit nine years later when the Latin rock band Santana recorded a new version.
But "Oye Como Va" wasn't Puente's only brush with the popular end of Latin music. A few years later, he made the first of numerous recordings with Cruz, the "Queen of Salsa" and an influence on singers from Gloria Estefan to La India. It was no wonder fans began calling him "El Rey" -- "The King."
Although Puente always made an effort to keep up with the trends in Latin music, he wasn't always happy with the music's commercial edge. After several recordings using the then-popular "boogaloo" beat in the '70s, he declared in 1977 that boogaloo music "stunk," saying he and other bandleaders didn't want to make boogaloo records "but had to in order to keep up with the times. "
Fortunately, in his later years, Puente didn't have to worry about such things. Established as a legend and esteemed by several generations of fans, Tito Puente could stick to the Latin jazz he loved best, and played so movingly.
Sun wire services contributed to this story.