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Tito Puente | Frontera Project

Tito Puente

Biography

There are only a handful of musicians whose careers have encompassed a half century in the evolution of recorded sound, from 78-rpm discs to digital streaming and downloads. One of them is Tito Puente, the versatile bandleader, percussionist, composer, arranger, and vibraphonist. Born in New York of blue-collar Puerto Rican parents, Puente debuted as bandleader during the thrilling mambo era of the 1950s and was actively touring and recording fifty years later, still a star in the new millennium.

            Last month marked the 17th anniversary of Puente’s death, on May 31, 2000. El Rey del Timbal, as he was affectionately nicknamed, was 77 and performed on stage the week before he passed away. Because Puente enjoyed such a long and fruitful career, he had the chance to record some songs multiple times, years apart.

            Puente was known for his work in Afro-Cuban music, Latin jazz and straight-up salsa. Those are not the genres most closely associated with the Frontera Collection, which specializes in Mexican and Mexican-American music. Still, Puente’s work is amply represented in the archive, especially on 78s, because from the start of his career he recorded on major labels that got scooped up, fortuitously, in large acquisitions.   

            A search of the Frontera Collection yields more than 150 recordings by Puente, on 78s, 45s, LPs, and cassettes. The most valuable are the 78s, which number about 100. They are mostly on RCA and Tico Records, the pioneering independent Latin label founded in 1948 by George Goldner. In 2008, a complete collection of those Tico 78s was released in a 4-volume set of eight CDs, featuring a total of 156 tracks originally released between 1949 and 1955.

            In his liner notes to the collection, Joe Conzo, described as Puente’s confidante and chronicler, recalls his friend as a child prodigy in Spanish Harlem, excelling as a dancer, singing in a barber shop quartet, and learning to play sax and marimba, in addition to percussion.  These recordings, he adds, “showcase the true genius of Tito Puente” as “creator of a sound that became popular all over the world.” They also show how Puente surrounded himself with musicians who would go on to become stars in their own right, including Mongo Santamaria,

Charlie Palmieri, Willie Bobo, and Mario Bauzá.

            Though not as exhaustive as the definitive Tico compilation, the Frontera Collection offers a substantial view into the formative years of one of the leading Latin artists of the 20th century. Following are some of the highlights, described with a little help from my friend Alan Geik, a Grammy-nominated record producer and pioneering salsa deejay in Los Angeles. Geik recalls the first time he saw Puente perform at New York’s famed Palladium Ballroom, circa 1962. “The venue was exciting in so many ways,” says Geik who was a student at City College of New York at the time. “A few of the numbers Puente played would get dancers to their feet on the first notes–everybody knew the songs!”

Los Diablos del Mambo and/or The Picadilly Boys

            “Arthur Murray Rumba” (SMC Pro-Arte 1234) is one of the oldest and rarest Puente tracks in the collection, though it does not come up in a search by the musician’s name. That’s because the recording is credited to a group called Los Diablos del Mambo, or the Mambo Devils. Released on the SMC (Spanish Music Center) label, the disc identifies Puente as the composer and band director.

            So who are the Mambo Devils?

            Curiously, Oxnard musician, Latin jazz deejay, and record collector Raul Rico posted this same track on his YouTube page, with the band identified as Tito Puente and his Picadilly Boys, not Los Diablos del Mambo. But it’s most likely the same band under two different names.

            The recording was released June 1, 1949, according to Rico’s post. Around that same year, Puente became a bandleader for the first time. He was hired to play Sunday matinees at the Palladium by promoter Federico Pagani, who helped turn the Manhattan ballroom into a showcase for Puente and other famed bandleaders during the 1950s mambo craze. It was Pagani who dubbed the band The Picadilly Boys, according to the book Recordando a Tito Puente, El Rey del Timbal, by UCLA ethnomusicology professor Steven Loza.  Puente formed The Picadilly Boys with former members of a group led by Cuban bandleader Pupi Campo, some of whom are credited in the YouTube video. Unfortunately, the record label does not identify the members of the Mambo Devils, with the exception of “trumpet solo by Chino.” That’s most likely a reference to Chino Gonzalez, identified as second trumpet in The Picadilly Boys. So, Chino’s trumpet ties the two bands together.

            Coincidentally, the “Arthur Murray Rumba” is also identified by two different names. Rico’s video subtitles the track: “aka Picadillo,” the tile of a famous Puente hit. The Frontera Collection contains a version of Picadillo on RCA Victor, by Tito Puente (El Rey del Timbal) y Su Conjunto. In her book Tito Puente: When the Drums Are Dreaming, author Josephine Powell reports that Arthur Murray himself commissioned the song from Puente, who frequently performed at the Park Avenue studio owned by the famed ballroom dance instructor. “Mr. Murray wanted to record an album of mambos with dance instructions on the backside,” she writes. “Tito merely changed the title of “Picadillo” … and included the number in the album Arthur Murray Mambos.

            The songs sound very similar, though they vary in significant ways as well. “Picadillo” has become a standard of the Latin jazz and salsa repertoire. The Fania All Stars, at the peak of their popularity in 1976, recorded this extended album version featuring the electric guitar of Stevie Winwood. And Puente, on his very last album, a collaboration with pianist Eddie Palmieri titled Masterpeice/Obra Maestra (2000), revisited the song with a jazzy, descarga treatment titled “Picadillo Jam.”

Cuban Carnival

            Cuban Carnival is the title of Puente’s first RCA LP, released in 1956. The bandleader wrote eight of the eleven songs on the album, including a couple of hits that would become hallmarks of his career. Interestingly, the original liner notes were written by Richard Joseph, then travel editor at Esquire Magazine, a reflection of how Americans at the time saw music as a vehicle for discovery of other cultures (though Puente’s music flourished in their own backyard). The Frontera version of this album is, lamentably, a re-issue on Cariño Records, a mid-priced label used for recycled RCA material, distributed in the United States by Caytronics, the major domestic licensee of Latin music in the 1970s and ’80s.

            Three tracks from the album are especially notable:

             “Guaguanco Margarito” is an Afro-Cuban number with underlying santería themes. “It’s always been one of my favorites,” says Geik. “The breaks in the music were made for the dancers of the 1950s who, unlike many of today’s dancers, actually paid attention to the music and appreciated the breaks for their mambo ‘stylings.’ Those breaks were the musical impetus on the dance floor.”

            Puente recorded a fresh rendition of the song in his penultimate album “Mambo Birdland,” a live set which won a Grammy in 2000, the year he died. The arrangement is updated and the singer takes the liberty of changing the lyric in the opening line. Instead of addressing the Margarito of the title, he sings, “A ti te gusta la rumba, Tito Puente, y a mi me gusta el bembé.” You can hear and compare the new version on this YouTube clip.

            "Elegua Chango" is another track inspired by Afro-Cuban religion, named for two important deities. It’s an old rumba that shows how the rhythms of religious rituals informed the popular, secular music we later called salsa. This track also highlights Puente’s arranging skills, bringing a brassy jazz sensibility to the traditional folk idiom.

            The final track from the album I want to mention will be familiar to many fans of Latin music around the world. It’s titled “Pa’ Los Rumberos” and, as we shall see in the next section, it is one of two Puente songs that drew a link between New York’s glitzy Latin dance scene of the 1950s and the politicized Latin rock scene in San Francisco of the late 1960s and early ’70s.

The Santana Connection

            Two of Tito Puente’s most famous songs, both from the mid-1950s, became hits for Latin rock star Carlos Santana almost two decades later. “Oye Como Va” is undoubtedly Puente’s biggest hit, recorded in 1963 with smooth Puerto Rican crooner Santos Colon on vocals. In 1971, this cha-cha-cha became a Top 20 hit for Santana, when it was released as a single from his second album, Abraxas. The following year, Santana recorded “Pa‘ Los Rumberos,” the second Puente tune which he turned into a crossover hit.

            Most people, it’s safe to say, still don’t know that Puente wrote both songs. Geik recalls asking Puente what he thought of Santana’s version of “Rumberos,” and in a wisecracking reference to the steady flow of royalty checks, the musician said, “Every time I open the mailbox, I love it."

            Unfortunately, the Frontera versions of the tunes are unremarkable. Santana’s “Oye Como Va” is on a scratchy 45-rpm single (Columbia 4-45330), with terrible sound quality. Puente’s version of his signature hit is from that Cariño Records re-issue. The collection also has a clunky, Tex-Mex version of the song by Augustine Ramirez, which only makes you pine for Puente’s rhythm and Santana’s guitar.

            Puente re-recorded “Oye Como Va” also for that last live album from 1999, tipping his hat to Santana in his introduction. I also found a live video of the number, billed as his final performance, in which singer Jose Alberto amazingly whistles the flute part. The song remained essentially the same after almost 50 years. The big difference between Puente’s earlier and later versions, says Geik, is in the recording quality, which saw a big evolution between mid-century and new millennium, the bookends of Puente’s career.

The Celia Cruz Decade

            While Santana was busy churning out Puente hits on the West Coast, Puente was busy in New York making records with a new singer who had recently arrived from Cuba, via Mexico: Celia Cruz. The pair made several albums during the 1960s, but a big hit eluded them. Celia eventually moved back to Mexico, but she emerged again in New York during the salsa boom of the 1970s, this time as the newly crowned Queen of Salsa.

            The Frontera Collection has just four tracks by Celia from her Puente period and they are worth only a passing mention. Both are Tico 45-rpm singles: “En El Batey” backed by “Aquarius - Let the Sun Shine In” (1969), and “La Plena – Bomba Me Llama” backed by “La Rueda” (1966). The latter disc was co-produced by two top New York Latin producers of the day, Pancho Cristal and Al Santiago.

Puente, The Arranger: A Bridge to Other Styles

            Puente, born and raised in Spanish Harlem, also known as El Barrio, started music studies at an early age. His mother enrolled him in piano lessons at the New York School of Music, according to Conzo’s liner notes. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he attended Julliard School of Music on the GI Bill, studying orchestration, conducting and theory. The formal training gave him the versatility to work in a variety of musical styles, especially jazz and adaptations of American pop standards.

            Puente maneuvered easily out of his mambo comfort zone. Just listen to the exquisitely tailored orchestral arrangement for the bolero “Yo Quiero Verte,” by the vocal duet of Johnny Lopez and Alicia De Cordova. It is subtle and supportive of the singers during the verses, but turns dramatic during an instrumental break, with dissonant notes and changes in rhythm. He also does a nice job with the traditional Mexican standard “A la Orilla de Un Palmar,” on the flip side of the duo’s Tico 78. Again, Puente’s non-traditional jazz touches stand out during the instrumental break as well as the striking string flourishes at the very end. The arranger also offers an up-tempo, tropical adaptation of the traditional Mexican folk song, “Pénjamo,” by Rubén Méndez, with a playful, Mexican-hat-dance ending.

            Though the term was not popularly used at the time, crossover was common among the big Latin bands in the 1940s and ’50s. Sometimes Latin bandleaders recorded American pop tunes, as Geik notes, “under pressure from their record labels who wanted to expand beyond the largely Latin audiences of that era.” A good example: “How High The Moon,” recorded by Pupi Campo’s orchestra with a Puente arrangement. The 78 disc was released by Seeco Records which, as Geik obvserves, “was named for owner Sidney Siegel, a Jewish businessman who had a building in Spanish Harlem and made the storefront a record store.”

            But it wasn’t just record label pressure that drove the crossover. Musicians of different genres mixed naturally in New York. Conzo points out that during his stint in the Navy, Puente met many musicians who played for the bands of Benny Goodman, Charlie Spivak and others. So musicians naturally swapped genres.

            Here are a few other examples of Puente’s crossover work:

“I Get a Kick Out of You” (Tico 10-156)

            Written by Cole Porter and performed as an instrumental mambo by Tito  Puente and His Rhythm Sextette, with Puente on sparkling vibes. The Tico  logo on the label features a banner inscribed with one of Puente’s titles: “El Rey del Mambo.”

“Autumn Leaves” (Tico 10-155)

            Another instrumental mambo, with Puente again carrying the melody on vibes. This time, he’s leading his Rhythm Quartette.  Listen for the unusual ending.

“My Funny Valentine” (Tico 10-276)

            Puente does an instrumental rendition of the Rodgers and Hart classic, this time with a full orchestra. The label gives him yet another title: “King of the Cha Cha Mambo.”

“All of You” (Tico 10-256)

            Another Cole Porter standard gets the instrumental mambo treatment, with Puente on vibes. The song, as the label notes, is “From the B’way Show ‘Silk Stockings.’ ”

“Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” (Tico 10-256)

This was a crossover smash for Perez Prado, hitting No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1955. It topped Billboard’s year-end chart of Top 30 singles that same year, beating Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” at No. 2. Puente’s arrangement is more relaxed, less brassy than Prado’s. Instead of using trumpet, Puente gets a sweeter melody on what sounds to me like a clarinet.

More Puente Classics from the Frontera Collection

El Rey del Timbal (Tico 10-109A)

            “This is one of Tito’s signature numbers,” says Geik. “He played it throughout his long career. It is an interaction between him playing timbales and the rest of the band, a very high intensity number. When the song ended Tito would  often say, ‘This proves the band rehearses.’ ” The vocal is by Vicentico Valdes.

Mambo Macoco and Abaniquito (Tico 1012)

            In his liner notes, Conzo identifies “Abaniquito” as Puente’s first big hit, though it was the B-Side of this Tico 78. The lead vocal is again by Vicentico Valdes, who later had a long solo career. It also features Mario Bauza, of Machito fame, on trumpet, and Graciela singing coros.

Mama Ines (RCA Victor 20-6417)

            Puente jazzes up this old Cuban standard written by Moises Simon, who also composed the crossover classic “El Manisero” (The Peanut Vendor). Puente adds multiple time changes to take the song through a series of rhythms, from mambo to cha-cha-cha to merengue.

Lágrimas Negras (RCA Victor 23-5117)

            This is another old Cuban standard written in 1929 by one of the fathers of the Cuban son, Miguel Matamoros. It has been recorded countless times by myriad artists, from Panama’s Rubén Blades to Spain’s flamenco star Diego El Cigala. On this RCA version, a bolero mambo, Puente is credited as vocalist   along with Hermanos Valdés.

Ariñañara (RCA Victor 23-5117)

            A Puente perennial written by Chano Pozo, one of the pioneers of Latin jazz. Vocals again are credited to Hermanos Valdés.

Ran Kan Kan (RCA 23-1470)

            A favorite of dancers at salsa dance competitions, this is another Puente  classic, identified as a son montuno. Puente is billed on the label as El Rey del Timbal y Su Conjunto.

Cuban Nightingale (Tico 10-126)

            This is one more standard from the incredibly rich Afro-Cuban catalog. The song, known in Spanish as “Sun Sun Babae,” was written by Rogelio Martinez of Cuba’s seminal salsa band La Sonora Matancera, where Celia Cruz got her start.  Frontera has a wonderful version of the tune by Ramón Márquez and his orchestra on Coast Records. Puente’s recording is notable because it features bilingual vocals by the DeCastro Sisters, a trio nicknamed the Cuban Andrews Sisters.

Babalagua (Tico TR-145)

            This Afro-Mambo, written by Pepe Delgado, is most notable for the extraordinary Afro-Cuban vocal by Bobby Escoto, who did a short stint as one of Puente’s early singers.

Hot Tomales (Tico 10-248)

            This favorite Cuban cha-cha-cha was written by a famed Cuban bandleader and flautist named Jose Antonio Fajardo, who moved to New York in 1961. The tune, first popularized by Orquesta Aragon, is originally titled “Los Tamalitos de Olga,” ostensibly about a street vendor of tasty tamales, though I suspect it has a sexual double-entendre.  Aside from the nice flute work,    Puente’s track is most notable for the misspelling of the title on the label – twice. It’s not “Toe-males,” but tamales. The subtitle also gets it wrong, turning Olga’s “tamalitos” into more “tomales.” To top it off, the Tico people misspelled the composer’s name as “Fasardo,” instead of Fajardo. As these things go, these errors probably make this disc more valuable to collectors.

                                                                                           --Agustín Gurza

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