Tito Puente: El Rey de la Percusión Latina

Tito Puente: El Rey de la Percusión Latina

Written by Anne E. Johnson

When Tito Puente (1923 – 2000) was a kid, he won a “Play Like Gene Krupa” contest. He always considered drums and the big band sound to be the basis of his musical development. But he made his name as a percussionist, helping to define Latin jazz and popularizing Afro-Cuban sounds around the world.

He was born in East Harlem in New York City – it was known as Spanish Harlem back then – to Puerto Rican parents who indulged his habit of banging on everything in the house. Besides drums and percussion, he also played piano and was a skilled dancer, forming a semi-professional duo with his sister until an injury forced him to hang up his shoes.

Puente had just gotten his percussion career underway when the US Navy drafted him during World War II. As soon as he returned home, he continued finding ways to combine Latin rhythms, particularly mambo, with jazz conventions. He was an innovator and influencer: for example, he attached to his drum kit a pair of timbales (shallow, high-pitched drums struck with sticks on the head or rim) making them easy to remove so he could carry them to the front of his band, allowing him to lead while he soloed.

Known for being both a strict, detail-obsessed music director and a true friend to fellow musicians, Puente believed that complete music could be created from the spectrum of sounds available from percussion instruments. To prove it, in 1955 he invited several other percussionists to make an album with no band. At the time, that was unheard-of, but today Puente in Percussion is considered a groundbreaking masterpiece.

In terms of his pop-music influence, Puente’s most important contribution was “Oye cómo va,” which he wrote and recorded in 1962; Carlos Santana turned it into a massive hit in 1970 on his album Abraxas.

Enjoy these eight great tracks by Tito Puente. 

  1. Track: “Mambo Típico”
    Album: Mamborama
    Label: Tico
    Year: 1955

While singer Machito and pianist Perez Prado were bringing the Afro-Cuban sound called the mambo into the swing/big band culture, Puente was doing the same, but with a special emphasis on percussion. The musical style, which had started in the 1930s, had a particular type of dancing associated with it by the 1950s, thanks in part to recordings like Puente’s Mamborama.

This album features Tito Puente and His Orchestra, with Puente on vibraphone and timbales. The song “Mambo Típico” was written by Cuban bandleader Gilberto Valdés. It’s an example of the outgrowth of the mambo rhythm called a cha-cha-chá.


  1. Track: “Elegua Chango”
    Album: Cuban Carnival
    Label: RCA Victor
    Year: 1956

Cuban Carnival is a good demonstration of the swing jazz influence on Puente. The Puente orchestra was notable for its trumpet solos, here uncredited. Over the years Doc Severinsen and Ray Vega held that lead-trumpet spot, so Puente clearly had terrific taste.

Most of the tunes on the album were written by Puente, including one called “Oye mi guanguancó,” which is a sort of melodic precursor to “Oye comó va.” Another Puente original is “Elegua changó”; at the 3:01 mark, he takes a long timbales solo.


  1. Track: “Estoy siempre a junto a tí”
    Album: Dance Mania
    Label: RCA Victor
    Year: 1958

A seminal album in Latin jazz, Dance Mania offers loads of percussion and sophisticated arrangements. In 2002, this album had the rare distinction of being added to the National Recording Registry, which keeps track of culturally significant sound recordings.

Besides timbales and vibraphone, Puente also plays marimba. His mighty horn section consists of seven trumpets and four saxophones. The percussion section is filled out by Ray Barretto on congas and Ray Rodríguez on bongos. “Estoy siempre a junto a tí” (“I am always with you”) was composed by Cuban pianist and lyricist Pepé Delgado and features the silky voice of Santitos Colón.


  1. Track: “Dance of the Headhunters”
    Album: Tambó
    Label: RCA Victor
    Year: 1960

As part of RCA Victor’s Savage Drums Series, all the song titles on the album Tambó have “native” connotations, like “Jungle Holiday” and “Witch Doctor’s Nightmare.” When this line of recordings was re-released digitally in the 1990s, RCA had the good sense to renamed it The Tropical Series.

Cultural insensitivity aside, Tambó is a great album. Puente teamed up with fellow percussionists like conga players Patato Valdes and Ray Barretto, plus flutist Alberto Socarras and trumpeter Doc Severinsen. The polyrhythms in “Dance of the Headhunters” will make your head spin.


  1. Track: “Menéalo”
    Album: Tito Puente Swings, The Exciting Lupe Sings
    Label: Tico
    Year: 1965

Cuban singer La Lupe gained legions of American fans by singing sentimental boleros and Latin soul music. Here she pairs with Puente, a true joining of the stars. 

According to the notes on the back of the Tico LP, La Lupe and Puente first performed together at the 1964 Venezuelan Carnival in Caracas, where the Puente Orchestra won first prize. One result of that triumph was this lively album. 

Dominican composer Luis Kalaff composed “Menéalo,” featuring “the irresistible rhythms of the Guarachas,” as the liner notes put it.


  1. Track: “Equinox”
    Album: El Rey
    Label: Concord Picante
    Year: 1984

Puente was still in full swing in his sixties, as evidenced by the album El Rey (The King), with a title obviously referring to the veteran Puente himself. He put together a nine-piece band and opened the album with a new recording of “Oye comó va.”

Ray González plays flugelhorn, Mario Rivera plays flute and saxophone, and the dense layers of percussion are bolstered by the talents of Dandy Rodriguez, Francisco Aguabella, and José Maderas. Puente created the imaginative arrangement of John Coltrane’s “Equinox,” one of two tunes by Coltrane included here.


  1. Track: “Mambo Diablo”
    Album:  Mambo Diablo
    Label: Concord Picante
    Year: 1985

In the 1980s Puente established his Latin Ensemble, and their album Mambo Diablo leans heavily toward jazz classics by the likes of Billy Strayhorn and Paul Desmond.

The title track, an original composition, finds Puente primarily on vibraphone in an arrangement that effectively compares the timbres of that instrument and piano. Although renowned British pianist George Shearing is heralded on the cover as a special guest, he only plays on one track, “Lullaby of Birdland.” Cuban-American Sonny Bravo plays the piano on “Mambo Diablo.”


  1. Track: “Aeregin”
    Album: Goza mi timbal
    Label: Concord
    Year: 1989

Sonny Bravo was also in the band for the 1989 album Goza mi timbal. It’s appropriate that the title means “Enjoy my drum.” Throughout Puente’s career, no matter how exacting he was in his arrangements and playing, the most important factor for him seemed to be bringing joy to audiences and himself through music. 

Puente would continue to record until the end of his life in 2000. In 1997 he was decorated with the National Medal of Arts. Today, a signed set of his timbales is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Here is Puente’s joyous Latin-flavored arrangement of “Airegin,” composed in 1954 by Sonny Rollins (the title is “Nigeria” backwards). The wildly virtuosic trumpeters are Piro Rodriguez and Robbie Kwok.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Kingkongphoto and www-celebrity-photos.com.

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