Born of Puerto Rican parentage, Puente began piano lessons when he was seven years old and around the age of 10 started tuition in drums and percussion, which became his forte. Around 1936, Puente commenced his professional career as a drummer with the orchestra of Noro Morales. In 1941, he played with the Machito band which provided valuable lessons in the fusion of Latin rhythms and modern jazz. World War II intervened and Puente was drafted into the US Navy for three years' service. After his discharge he took composition and piano courses at New York's Juilliard School of Music and did stints with the bands of José Curbelo and Fernando Alvarez between 1946 and 1947. With Curbelo, Puente performed alongside Tito Rodríguez, who later became his arch-rival. Puente's reputation as a sizzling arranger quickly grew and led to numerous assignments from prominent band leaders. Even Rodríguez hired him to write the charts for four numbers he recorded with his Mambo Devils on Gabriel Oller's SMC (Spanish Music Center) label. In the late 40s, while Tito was performing the roles of contractor, arranger and timbales player with Pupi Campo's orchestra, he organized a group that promoter Federico Pagani dubbed the Picadilly Boys ('Picadillo' meaning beef or pork hash) after being impressed by their performance of the Latin jam style (descarga). With them, Puente recorded a number of sides for SMC. Shortly afterwards, he renamed his aggregation Tito Puente And His Orchestra. He used two lead vocalists, Angel Rosa and then Paquito Sosa, before settling for Cuban Vicentico Valdés as his resident lead singer.
In late 1949, Puente organized a line-up of four trumpets, three trombones, four saxophones and a full rhythm section for a recording session for Tico Records. One recording from this session, leaving out the trombones and saxophones, resulted in a fiery version of 'Abaniquito'. With the help of an English translation by disc jockey Dick 'Ricardo' Sugar, the song became one of the first crossover mambo hits. Between the late 40s and mid-50s, Puente issued recordings on Tico. During a suspension of recording by the company in 1950 - due to a wrangle between the co-founders, George Goldner and Art 'Pancho' Raymond - Puente recorded for the Seeco, Verne and RCA Records labels. Along with Tito Rodríz and Machito, Puente became one of the kings of the 50s mambo era. His consistent top billing at New York's Palladium Ballroom, the famed 'Home of the Mambo', became one of the areas of friction between himself and Rodríz. Puente switched to RCA Victor Records and between 1956 and 1960 he released a string of albums on the label, including the notable Cuban Carnival and the bestselling Dance Mania. The album marked the debut of Santos Colón (b. 1 November, Mayagüez, Puerto Rico) as Puente's new lead singer. Colón arrived in New York in 1950 and performed with the bands of Jorge Lopés, Tony Novos and José Curbelo before joining Puente. He remained with him until 1970, when he departed to pursue a solo career and released a series of albums on Fania Records. Several of Puente's Tico and RCA Victor releases between the mid-to late 50s were entirely devoted to the cha cha chá rhythm, which was enjoying considerable popularity at the time. At the beginning of the 60s, the pachanga style took over. One of the prime-movers of the dance craze was Afro-Cuban singer Rolando La Serie's 1960 smash hit recording of 'La Pachanga' with the Bebo Valdés band. The following year, while the fad was still raging at full force, Puente teamed up with La Serie to make Pachanga In New York for Gema Records. In 1960, Tito And His Orchestra journeyed to the west coast of America to record The Exciting Tito Puente Band In Hollywood (aka Puente Now!) for GNP Records. Upon his arrival, Puente contacted Los Angeles-based flautist Rolando Lozano (b. José Calazan Lozano, 27 August 1931, Cienfuegos, Santa Clara Province, Cuba), an alumnus of Orquesta Aragón, Orquesta América, Orquesta Nuevo Ritmo, Mongo Santamaría and Cal Tjader. Puente rejoined Tico Records (and remained with them until the mid-80s) to make Pachanga Con Puente, which yielded the big hit 'Caramelos'. El Rey Bravo was essentially a descarga set: an untypical Puente album, it stands as one of his strongest recordings. The disc featured Cuban violinist/flautist Félix 'Pupi' Legarreta and spawned the original version of Puente's perennial classic 'Oye Como Va', which was given a hit Latin-rock treatment by San tana in 1970. Puente linked up with Alegre Records for Y Parece Bobo, which was produced by the label's founder, Al Santiago, and featured Chivirico Dávila on lead vocals. Santiago also co-produced Cuba Y Puerto Rico Son … on Tico, Puente's first in a series of collaborations with the 'Queen of Salsa' Celia Cruz. Puente also recorded a string of successful albums with La Lupe between 1965 and 1967, and made a couple of albums with Beny Moré's widow, Noraida, at the beginning of the 70s. On his late 60s releases, 20th Anniversary and El Rey Tito Puente, he was obliged to bow to the overwhelming popularity of the R&B/Latin fusion form called boogaloo. 'The Boogaloo meant nothing to me. It stunk', he said forthrightly in 1977. 'It hurt the established band leaders. It was a dance Eddie Palmieri, I and other band leaders didn't want to record but had to in order to keep up with the times' (quote from Latin Times).
Panamanian vocalist Meñique Barcasnegras, who worked previously with Kako and Willie Rosario, did a brief stint with Puente's band in the early 70s. After performing on Pa'Lante! (Straight!) and Para Los Rumberos, Barcasnegras departed to work as a solo artist (Puente arranged and directed his 1972 solo debut Meñique) and with Santos Colón, Charlie Palmieri, Charanga Sensación De Rolando Valdés and Conjunto Chaney. In 1977, Puente and Santos Colón reunited on The Legend, the title track of which was written by Rubén Blades. The album, which was nominated for a Grammy Award, was produced by Louie Ramírez. The following year, Puente's first tribute album to Beny Moré (in a series of three volumes) won a Grammy Award.
The trio of albums featured a galaxy of vocalists from the Fania Records stable, including Cruz, Colón, Cheo Feliciano, Ismael 'Pat' Quintana, Adalberto Santiago, Héctor Lavoe, Pete 'El Conde' Rodríguez, Ismael Miranda and Justo Betancourt. In 1979 and 1980, Puente toured Europe and recorded with the Latin Percussion Jazz Ensemble (LPJE), members of which included Argentinian pianist Jorge Dalto, violinist Alfredo De La Fé and conga player Carlos 'Patato' Valdés. This group was a precursor of his own Latin jazz outfit, which debuted on the Concord Picante label in 1983 with Tito Puente And His Latin Ensemble On Broadway. He garnered another Grammy Award for the album. Puente released a further seven albums with his Latin Ensemble on Concord Picante between 1984 and 1991, two of which - Mambo Diablo and Goza Mí Timbal - received Grammys. However, his work with his Latin Ensemble woefully sank into tired recycling of his earlier material. At concerts Puente and his high-calibre musicians often appeared just to be
'going through the motions'.
For 1991's The Mambo King: 100th LP on RMM Records, Puente returned to a full big band line-up to back an assortment of the label's vocalists (including Oscar D'León, Tito Nieves, Tony Vega, José 'El Canario' Alberto and Domingo Quiñones) plus Santos Colón and Celia Cruz. Although the album was purported to be his 100th, the actual total of his recordings by 1992 exceeded that figure. He carried on recording throughout the 90s, winning a final Grammy for 1999's Mambo Birdland. In addition to those artists mentioned, Puente recorded with an array of Latin music and jazz names, including the Tico All-Stars, Fania All Stars, Bobby Capó, Ray Barretto, Camilo Azuquita, Gilberto Monroig, Sophy, Myrta Silva, Manny Roman, Doc Severinsen, Woody Herman, Buddy Morrow, Cal Tjader, Terry Gibbs, George Shearing, Phil Woods, Pete Escovedo and Sheila E. (Escovedo's daughter). Shortly before his death in May 2000, of complications following open-heart surgery, Puente was bestowed the honour of 'Living Legend' by the United States Library Of Congress.
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