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Tito Puente: 1923-2000: Bandleader, Arranger, Percussionist

Formed His First Orchestra

Since his return from the South Pacific, Puente had become a sought-after arranger among the Latin orchestras. Then in 1948 he formed his own group, The Picadilly Boys, a ten-piece orchestra later renamed the Tito Puente Orchestra, and never looked back. The group became popular regulars at New York's Palladium Ballroom known as "Home of the Mambo," where audiences could not get enough of Puente's unique polyrhythmic sounds. He was soon tapped to record for Tico Records, the label of New York's Spanish Music Center. In 1949 his group recorded six songs one of which became the first mambo hit to crossover to mainstream audiences, "Abaniquito." Later that year, Tito signed with RCA Victor and recorded his classic song "Ran Kan Kan."

The 1950s and 1960s were exciting times for Puente. His music was becoming wildly popular and his trademark style was making him a bona fide star. In a 1956 poll conducted by the New York Hispanic daily La Prensa, Puente was voted "King of Latin Music," over older, more established musicians. Then in 1958, two years later, RCA released Dance Mania, which became his all-time best-selling album. His signature style of the era was to take Latin dance music such as the cha-cha, the pachanga, and of course, the mambo, and give them a Big Band twist. By the sixties he had begun to embrace jazz more and collaborated with many famed jazz musicians. He also was a regular fixture in recording studios and put out an immense body of work including titles such as Top Percussion, Let's Cha-Cha with Puente, The Exciting Tito Puente Band in Hollywood, Pachanga Con Puente, Mucho Puente, Mambo Beat, Vaya Puente, El Rey Bravo, and dozens more. Proof of his ability to appeal to Anglo audiences as well as Latin audiences was further demonstrated when he was invited in 1967 to perform a series of original compositions at New York's Metropolitan Opera, though he still catered to his Latin fans by hosting his own program, The World of Tito Puente, on Spanish-language television in 1968. That same year he served as the Grand Marshall of the New York's Puerto Rican Day Parade.

Puente found unprecedented fame outside Latin music circles when rock guitarist Carlos Santana recorded Puente's song "Oye Como Va" on the 1970 album Abraxas. The song became a top ten hit, opening up vast new audiences for Puente's music. About this time the music Puente was making became known as salsa. Puente rejected this term. "Salsa is a sauce. Something you put on a steak," he was quoted in Down Beat. "I don't play sauce. I play music." Whatever it was called, in 1979 it garnered Puente the first of five Grammy awards for his album, Homenaje a Benny More.

By this time Puente was well known as a musical virtuoso. In addition to his beloved timbales, he was a master at dozens of percussion instruments, from drums to cymbals. He was a skilled saxophonist, knew his way around a keyboard, and was a master of the vibraphone which is played with a mallet. In addition he had become renowned for his skills as a composer and arranger of music. However, it was for his over-the-top performance style that the general public knew him best. He acknowledged courting that image in an interview with Down Beat "I've even got my timbales painted different colors. It's what they see now, not what they hear. They've been hearing me for a hundred years already, so at least you see the drums. I put my cymbals around the timbales, three or four pairs of timbales—eight of them—and I put my sticks up in the air….I put them around my head, holding them, and the people like that. Because how much can you play?… They even talk about the instruments now, because they already know [I] can play." They also talked about his crazed facial gestures and mile-wide grin ever present as he played.

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Brief BiographiesBiographies: Jan Peck Biography - Personal to David Randall (1972–) Biography - PersonalTito Puente: 1923-2000: Bandleader, Arranger, Percussionist Biography - Showed Musical Talent At Young Age, Formed His First Orchestra, Became An Icon