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Santos Colon

The Eternal Bolero, Part 2: Songs I Learned in College

            In the first installment of my three-part series on the bolero, I offered an overview of the romantic genre and highlighted songs I had learned from my parents as a child. In Part 2, I’ve selected eight more classics that I discovered during my college years in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.

            Those were years of cultural upheaval and explosive creativity, especially in pop music. For ethnic minorities fighting for civil rights and racial respect, it was an exciting time of cultural discovery. Many young Mexican Americans, swept up in the Chicano Movement, made it their mission to explore and affirm their cultural roots in food, literature, art, and music.

            That reawakening sparked a wave of community-based arts among Latinos/as, producing influential clusters of new music that put Latinos on the national pop music map.

            In Texas, Little Joe and other Tejanos pioneered the Tex-Mex sound. In San Francisco, Carlos Santana, the son of a mariachi musician from Tijuana, kicked off the Latin Rock craze by incorporating Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va” into a brash new rock/tropical fusion. And in Los Angeles, Los Lobos spearheaded Chicano rock, and Tierra forged the East L.A. sound.

            Meanwhile on the East Coast, the children of Puerto Rican and Cuban immigrants fueled an exciting new era of Caribbean dance music dubbed salsa, featuring a hip style, jazzy elements, and modern recording techniques.

            I was a huge fan of the salsa music coming out of New York at the time. It felt a little like the so-called British Invasion of the previous decade, with U.S. fans hungry for the latest releases from London. The salsa craze set us on a similar hunt for music from the top New York artists recording for a cluster of independent labels, primarily Fania, Coco, Tico, Alegre, and Salsoul.

            The new music was hard to find in California. Even at Berkeley, which boasted a couple of cutting-edge record stores, the Latin music sections were small and poorly stocked, if you could find them. So, when my girlfriend (and future wife) announced she was making a summer trip to Manhattan, I eagerly asked her to bring me back some salsa albums – any salsa albums. She returned with the Holy Grail of new Afro-Caribbean music – top albums by Willie Colon, Larry Harlow, Ismael Rivera, Santos Colon, and Johnny Pacheco with vocalist Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez. I listened to them alone in my cozy apartment, on the upper floor of a home in Oakland, overlooking the tree-tops, absorbed by the sounds of a different culture.

            In those days, salsa albums generally stuck to a loose formula, a mix of dance tracks (mambo, son, cha-cha-cha, guaracha, merengue), along with a couple of boleros, often one per side. Keeping the flame alive 50 years later, the podcast Radio Alimaña recently posted a one-hour compilation of boleros by various artists on Fania Records, including the much-admired Hector Lavoe and the under-appreciated Justo Betancourt.

            Eventually, my record collection had exposed me to the canon of Cuban and Puerto Rican boleros, expanding on my parents’ Mexican-influenced song selection featured in Part 1. Below are some of the boleros that I discovered during that ear-opening era. These songs touched me from the start and have stayed with me since then.

“Convergencia” by Johnny Pacheco & Pete “Conde” Rodriguez

            I was immediately captivated by the lyrical and melodic mystique of this old bolero, with lyrics by Bienvenido Julián Gutiérrez and music by Marcelino Guerra. It was composed in 1938 and first recorded the following year in New York by Cuarteto Caney, featuring famed Cuban bandleader Machito and Puerto Rican singer Johnny López.  I first heard it on a 1972 compilation album, Ten Great Years, by Johnny Pacheco, the Dominican bandleader who co-founded Fania Records, the label that spearheaded the salsa boom of the 1970s. The tune originally appeared on Pacheco’s 1967 album Sabor Típico, featuring the sublime vocals of Afro-Puerto Rican singer Pete “Conde” Rodriguez. As a team through the early 1970s, Pacheco and “El Conde” would produce a series of popular albums featuring a “típico” sound with a conjunto lineup, tighter and more compact than the salsa big bands of the 1950s. Those traditional albums were like primary textbooks in my early salsa education.

            This song still holds mystery for me. Clearly, it’s about heartache and lost love that makes you lose sleep (novelesco insomnio do’ vivió el amor), but the conclusion still escapes me. The one-word title (“convergence”) never appears in the song as a noun. The single use of the word is as a verb in the final line, where the singer says he is like “the straight line that converged” (la linea recta que convergió). But converged with what? It’s not clear, at least to me. To make matters worse, there are small inconsistencies in various versions of the lyrics, online and in liner notes, that make big differences. Is it “de playas y olas?” Or “de playas solas?” Is it “porque la tuya final vivió,” or “al final vivió?”

            In the end, precise words and ambiguous phrasing don’t matter. Just let the feeling carry you. In the middle section, the melody cascades down the musical scale in short phrases, creating a gently flowing sensation, as if pulling the listener downstream to an inevitable end. The sad, five-syllable phrases are like steps on the emotional waterfall:

Madero de nave que naufragó,
            piedra rodando,

                        sobre sí misma,

                                    alma doliente

                                                vagando a solas

                                                            de playas, olas,

                                                                        así soy yo:

La línea recta que convergió
porqué la tuya final vivió.

            The brilliant arrangement on the Pacheco/Conde recording uses overlapping horns to echo the cascading melody. Sadly, no arranger is credited on the album (Fania LP 339). Ironically, Fania would eventually become known as the label that meticulously credited musicians, composers, and arrangers on its releases, reversing the anonymity that prevailed in the Latin music industry during earlier decades.

            The Frontera Collection has a 78-rpm version of that early recording by Cuarteto Caney (Decca 21047B). Identified as a bolero-son, it opens with a solo trumpet playing the entire melody before the singing starts, an unusual approach. A full version is available on YouTube.    

            This is the only copy of the song in the database, but it has been recorded many times over the decades. In Cuba, fans treasure the 1980s duet by revered sonero Miguelito Cuní with singer-songwriter Pablo Milanés, the New Song icon who also recorded a solo vocal in 1978 with Cuban jazz pianist Emiliano Salvador. Another notable recording, despite the strangely unsynchronized harmonies, is the duet between Cuban singer Omara Portuondo (of Buena Vista fame) and the song’s co-composer, Marcelino Guerra, nicknamed Rapindey.  Omara’s fellow Buena Vista vocalist recorded a tender, touching rendition on his 2007 album, Mi Sueño, with the sensitive piano accompaniment of Roberto Fonseca.

            Half a century after that Pacheco recording, contemporary musicians keep finding new ways to interpret the bolero. In 2014, a genre-busting, mind-bending version was recorded by none other than the son of El Conde, trumpeter Pete Rodriguez Jr., who holds a doctorate of musical arts from the University of Texas at Austin. The new version released the following year by Destiny Records on the album El Conde Negro, shows that the song has no stylistic boundaries. This is not your father’s bolero anymore.

“Usted” by Santos Colon

            In its one-word title, this sad song gives a cryptic clue to its meaning, though at the end, it’s still a bit of a mystery.

            The title is the formal variant of the pronoun “you” in Spanish. “Usted” is used, rather than the informal “tu,” when addressing a figure of respect: an elder, a parent, a teacher, or simply a stranger. It connotes both distance and unequal status in a relationship. In this case, the use is completely incongruous, since the speaker is supposedly addressing a person of great intimacy, perhaps a former lover who presumably has left, and left behind a broken heart.

            “Usted” is included on Colon’s 1972 album, Fiel (Fania Records SLP 430), a 10-track set of love songs tastefully arranged by Argentina’s Jorge Calandrelli. The song was composed by two prominent Mexican songwriters, music by Gabriel Ruiz and words by José Antonio Zorrilla. They blend so well together, the song feels like it blossomed from a single creative mind.

            I found 30 recordings of the song in the Frontera Collection, with two of special interest, both recorded in Mexico. First, the popular trio Los Tres Diamantes bring their high-pitched harmonies and hyper-romantic approach to the song, released by RCA at all three playback speeds – 78, 33, and 45. On another RCA Victor recording, composer and pianist Ruiz accompanies emotive Mexican vocalist Amalia Mendoza, primarily known for her rancheras. In this rendition, prominent arranger and bandleader Chucho Ferrer provides restrained orchestration that spotlights the singer while adding lovely musical embellishments throughout.

            I first heard the song in the smooth, honeyed voice of Santos Colon, a Puerto Rican artist who had fronted the high-powered dance band of Tito Puente, and who, at the time of this release, was still performing with the explosive Fania All Stars. As a soloist, affectionately nicknamed Santitos, he was known for his understated but compelling bolero interpretations.

            In the case of “Usted,” the typical bolero theme seems obvious at first. It’s about a man who has had his heart broken by a woman who is “the blame of all my anguish and all my losses,” who filled his heart with “sweet restlessness and bitter disappointments.”

Usted es la culpable
De todas mis angustias y todos mis quebrantos
Usted llenó mi vida
De dulces inquietudes y amargos desencantos

            It is only at the end that we realize this guy’s been suffering from afar. He uses “usted” because they are, in fact, strangers and he’s been hoping to get up the nerve to kiss her.

Usted me desespera
Me mata, me enloquece
Y hasta la vida diera por vencer el miedo
De besarla a usted

            With that revelation from what turns out to be an obsessed but timid admirer (stalker?), the use of the formal “usted” packs a powerful surprise punch, perhaps more disturbing than romantic. But make no mistake, bolero fans read it as a love story, as illustrated by the following comment from a fan on a YouTube clip of the song from Los Panchos.

            Cecilia Posadas writes: “I owe my very existence to this song. My grandfather was a whisker away from losing my grandmother, but one night he took her this song in a serenata. They got back together that same day, they married, and they had my dad. ❤” (Le debo mi existencia a esta canción, mi abuelo estaba a nada de perder a mi abuelita pero una noche le llevó serenata con esta canción, regresaron ese día, se casaron y tuvieron a mi papá ❤.)

“Dos Gardenias” by Angel Canales

            This is perhaps the weirdest version of the oft-recorded bolero, and I can’t get enough of it. The unusual interpretation is not unexpected from an upstart performer known for his offbeat vocal style as “El Diferente.”

             Fans loved Canales for his pirate persona, with his bald head, long necklaces, and gold lamé outfits. His band’s arrangements are jazzy and hip, although his lyrical themes are fairy traditional – paens to Puerto Rico, Nuyorican culture, social musings, and, of course, torch-songs-to-kill-yourself-by (corta-venas), such as “La Hiedra” and “Nostalgia,” a bolero tango.

            Canales’s voice is decidedly, and deliberately, non-traditional. His nasal tones and strangely modulated phrasing make him sound like a Latino Bob Dylan. In an aching, desperate song like “Dos Gardenias,” written in 1945 by Cuban pianist and songwriter Isolina Carrillo, the singer’s edgy style adds an additional dose of anguish to the seething jealousy, as if he were losing his mind as well as his heart.

            The two gardenias of the title are a symbolic gift from one lover to another, explicitly representing their two hearts. It’s a good choice of imagery, since the white flower is said to represent purity, trust, and hope. However, a sense of suspicion and potential betrayal arises in the final line:

“Pero si un atardecer
Las gardenias de mi amor se mueren
Es porque han adivinado
Que tu amor me ha traicionado
Porque existe otro querer

            Where did that poisonous possibility come from? He suddenly refers to the specter of a potential infidelity, to be revealed by the death of the gardenias. It makes you wonder if, despite all the prior romantic lyrics, the flower-giver already suspects he’s losing her love.

            If so, that suspicion would align with another trait that gardenias symbolize – clarity. But that’s not necessarily a good thing, explains, a website devoted to flowers:

            “In fact, you could use a gardenia flower to show that you know more than you need to know.”

“Sin Fe” by Jose Feliciano

            Most people know this Puerto Rican singer and guitarist by his two biggest hits: “Light My Fire” and “Feliz Navidad.” The Doors cover was released in June 1968 on the the singer’s first big hit album for RCA Victor, titled Feliciano!. But by then, Feliciano had recorded a series of Spanish-language albums featuring nothing but boleros: Sombra, Una Guitarra y Boleros (1966, live at Mar de Plata, Argentina), Más Éxitos de José Feliciano (1967), and El Sentimiento, La Voz y la Guitarra de José Feliciano (1968).

            As a die-hard Doors fan, I cringed at Feliciano’s lightweight “Light My Fire.” But I loved his bolero albums, which predated Luis Miguel’s “Romance” series by 20 years. For some weird reason, these are the only LPs I brought with me on a Christmas trip to Juarez in 1973, the whole family packed in a rented mobile home to share the holidays with the south-of-the-border Gurzas. I was playing the records on my Tía Laura’s console when an incredulous cousin asked, “Is he really that popular over there?”

            By that time, yes, he was. Not for these bolero recordings but for the song that was to become a ubiquitous Christmas standard, “Feliz Navidad,” released November 24, 1970, on the album of the same name. Both hit albums – the Christmas collection and the album of rock covers – were helmed by Rick Jarrard, an RCA staff producer who also worked with Jefferson Airplane, Harry Nilsson, and others.

            While Feliciano’s mainstream pop career took off, I was still stuck on his bolero collections. His Mas Exitos contains a bushel of classics, including “Noche de Ronda,” “Piel Canela,” and “El Reloj.” It also contains my featured song, “Sin Fe,” written by Puerto Rican singer-songwriter Bobby Capó, who also wrote “Piel Canela.”

            “Sin Fe” is sometimes called “Poquita Fe,” a variant used for all 24 of the recordings in the Frontera Collection. That includes the first recording of the song credited to Jorge Valente, a bolero ranchero released in 1960 by Discos Columbia on a 45-rpm extended play (Columbia EPC-244-A-1), with the backing of Mariachi Mexico de Pepe Villa. The track comes from Valente’s debut LP on Colombia, Love in Mexico, although the prominent mariachi bands are not credited on the U.S. release (Columbia EX 5132). Other notable versions in the database include the recording by Trio Los Panchos with three-part harmonies, and an instrumental rendition by Flaco Jimenez on accordion and Ry Cooder on slide guitar. (The 13 recordings titled “Sin Fe” in our database are entirely different songs.)

            By any title, I feel entranced by this song’s aching melody, with almost hopeless tones reflecting the title, “Without Faith.” It’s really one broken heart singing to another, across the gap of pain, disappointment, and betrayal. The singer acknowledges his own destructive failings in the relationship, doesn’t blame his disillusioned partner for doubting him, and finally pleads for her help in restoring his ability to love, and to forgive. His approach is low-key and soft-spoken. But at the end, there’s a musical flourish that embellishes the singer’s emotional appeal for restored trust and love.

            Feliciano’s natural, earthy vocals help convey the flesh-and-blood yearning and despair of the bolero style, which is deeper and more mature than the common pop love song. The feelings are enhanced on these albums by the traditional arrangements, mostly guitars and light percussion. In 1998, perhaps in an attempt to ride the coattails of Luis Miguel’s bolero success, Feliciano put out a new album called Señor Bolero, with a bigger orchestral sound that smothered the songs.  

            That album didn’t touch me like his early work did. You can feel the difference, and the feeling is missing.

“Lo Mismo Que Usted” by Fania All Stars

            Tito Rodriguez is another Puerto Rican crooner known for his cool style and velvety voice. He was big in the 1950s during the mambo craze in New York, part of a troika of bandleaders who dominated the dance floor at New York’s Palladium ballroom, along with Tito Puente and Machito. During that era, I was a kid buying singles at my local record store by Elvis Presley, Fabian, and The Four Seasons. Twenty years later, I discovered a whole new blend of salsa music through a popular album by the Fania All Stars titled Tribute to Tito Rodriguez. It was released by Fania Records in 1976, when I was starting to carve out a career in music journalism, freelancing for the Los Angeles Times and Billboard Magazine. In October of that year, I wrote a review for the Times of the local debut of the Fania All Stars at the Hollywood Palladium.

            The All Stars had been conceived as a showcase for the label, representing the roster’s premiere singers and bandleaders in one supergroup. From the start in 1968, the ensemble conveyed the excitement and spontaneity of the music through live recordings of shows staged especially for that purpose. That led to a series of live albums that propelled the scrappy startup to stardom – Live at the Red Garter (1968), Live at The Cheetah (1972), Latin-Soul-Rock (1974), and Live at Yankee Stadium (1975).

            The tribute to Tito Rodriguez was their first studio LP, featuring songs popularized by the Nuyorican singer who, like Santos Colon, jumped from the big-band dance format to the softer stylings of the bolero, which perfectly suited his romantic style. The album opens with an intricately constructed, ten-minute medley of three boleros sung by three different singers – “Inolvidable” by Cheo Feliciano, “Lo Mismo Que a Usted” by Chivirico Davila, and “Tiemblas” by Bobby Cruz. Composed of three separate tunes written by three different composers with charts by three different arrangers, the medley manages to sound like a single composition in three movements. It’s a theatrical, romantic opening for an album that goes on to feature up-tempo dance numbers.   

             “Lo Mismo Que a Usted” was written in 1965 by a pair of Argentinean songwriters, Palito Ortega and Dino Ramos, each famous in his own right. Ortega, a popular pop singer, made the first recording of his composition on April 12, 1965, more as a ballad than a bolero. Though not as widely known as other standards of the genre, it has been recorded by a host of artists, a sampling of which you can hear on this Amazon Music playlist.

            The Frontera Collection contains six versions, including a live recording by Tito Rodriguez during what was to be his final concert in 1972 at El Tumi, a nightclub in Lima, Peru. The beloved singer would die of leukemia early the following year, at the young age of 50. The live album of his final show, backed by La Sonora de Lucho Macedo, was released posthumously in 1973 by his own label, TR Records, titled 25th Anniversary Performance, a milestone that had marked the occasion for the show in Peru.

            Frontera also contains recordings of the song by Nuyorican bandleader Ray Barretto, Argentine vocalist Roberto Yanes, and Mexican tropical band La Sonora Santanera.

            Once again, the song lyrics use the formal, respectful “usted” in addressing the other party in the dialog. Once again, the grammatical usage raises questions about the relationship between the two. The lyrics are expository, laying out details of the singer’s lonely and heart-broken condition. The litany of woes is interspersed with the line, “lo mismo que usted” (the same as you), repeated seven times. So, we have a lonely-hearts club of two people, maybe strangers, mired in misery, and perhaps reaching for some connection in their shared isolation.

A mí me pasa lo mismo que a usted.

Me siento solo, lo mismo que usted.

Paso la noche llorando,

La noche esperando, lo mismo que usted.


A mí me pasa lo mismo que a usted.

Nadie me espera, lo mismo que usted.

Porque se sigue negando el amor

Que voy buscando, lo mismo que usted.


Cuando llego a mi casa y abro la puerta,

Me espera el silencio.

Silencio de besos, silencio de todo,

Me siento tan solo, lo mismo que usted.


            To this day, Tito Rodriguez is the song’s best interpreter. His mellow, mournful vocals suit the song’s interior gloom and sad resignation.

“Plazos Traicioneros” by Celia Cruz & Willie Colon

            In English, this song could be called “Why Do You String Me Along?” That’s the nut of the theme, longing for love dangled just beyond reach, always tempting, never fulfilled. “Plazos Traicioneros” was written in 1953 by Cuban songwriter, Luis Marquetti (1901-1991), who was also a teacher, poet, and unpublished novelist. Nicknamed El Gigante del Bolero, Marquetti wrote more than five dozen songs, including “Deuda,” the one that launched his career in 1945.

            I first heard the song on one of those bolero albums by Jose Feliciano, and the haunting melody became one of my favorites. My featured version above is by salsa stars Celia Cruz and Willie Colon from their first studio collaboration, Only They Could Have Made This Album. The song title is tricky to translate. Some lyric websites have it as “Treasonous Times,” but that smacks of political intrigue. In Spanish, “plazos” can mean deadline, or simply a specified time period, or a pause. And “traicioneros” can mean treasonous, as well as duplicitous and disloyal. So, a more accurate translation, without the lyricism, could be “periods of betrayal.”

            In three verses and a bridge, the singer questions the motives behind the constant foot-dragging by the target of his affections. Every time he declares his love to her, she responds, “Let’s see if tomorrow might be the day you get what you want.” In the lovely bridge section, before the final verse, he reveals the insecurity that is filling him with desperation. He asks if she is putting him off because “another has stolen your heart from me.”


Cada vez que te digo lo que siento,

tu siempre me respondes de este modo,

“Deja ver, deja ver,

si mañana puede ser lo que tu quieres.”


Pero asi van pasando las semanas,

pasando sin lograr lo que yo quiero.

Yo no se, para que,

para que son esos plazos traicioneros.


Traicioneros porque me condenan

y me llenan de desesperación.

Yo no se si me dices que mañana

porque otro me robó tu corazón.


Cada vez que te digo lo que siento,

no sabes como yo me desespero.

Si tu Dios es mi Dios,

para que son esos plazos traicioneros.


            The song shines in this version produced by Willie Colon and arranged by veteran producer, arranger, and bandleader Louie Ramirez. The Spanish-style guitar of Yomo Toro adds beautiful accents, while the band provides a subtle, understated backup. Celia’s rich, modulated lead vocal is complemented by brief, perfectly placed harmonies, presumably between her and Colon, who also does lead vocals on his own solo albums.

            Their rendition is one more gem in one of Celia’s biggest selling albums. It also includes the Brazilian-based hit, “Usted Abusó,” which roughly means “you took advantage of me.” With its sturdy resolve in the face of rejection, the song is a counterpoint to “Plazos Traicioneros,” because in this case, the suitor is not willing to wait around and take more abuse.

“Sombras” and “Amanecí en Tus Brazos” by Javier Solis

            I can’t write about my college years without mentioning these two songs. They are the stalwart bookends, the opening and closing tracks, on an album by Mexico’s cosmopolitan crooner Javier Solis, released in 1966 by CBS in Mexico as “Sombras” and in the U.S. as “Romance in the Night.” The following year, after graduating from high school, I moved to Mexico City to attend the National University, and these songs were in the air, everywhere. They were hits that transcended class, race, and neighborhood boundaries. It seemed like the whole country was transfixed by the voice of Javier Solis.

            For me, this music triggers a warm nostalgia that transports me to that specific time and place, as music often does. As a teenager raised from infancy in the United States, I remember the songs as part of the soundtrack of my induction into Mexican society, part of my own cultural immersion program. And just like this life-changing experience left an indelible mark on my mind, these tunes will always echo in my head.

            Thematically, the two songs could not be more different.

            “Sombras” was originally written as a tango in 1943 by Francisco Lomuto and José María Contursi. It was adapted for mariachi for Solis, known as El Rey del Bolero Ranchero. In either format, the song is a dark, desperate cry from a man on the verge of killing himself over lost love that left him in the “shadows” of his life. In the shocking opening lines, he says he wants to slice his veins and let his blood flow at her feet, proving his boundless love with his death. Talk about corta-venas!

            “Amanecí en Tus Brazos,” on the other hand, is brimming with the joy of true love. Written by Mexico’s prolific composer, José Alfredo Jimenez, the song expresses how lovers can get lost in each other, lose track of time, revel in intimacy from morning to night, with the moon and the dawn as their only witnesses. The opening line sets the mood: “Amanecí otra vez entre tus brazos / Y desperté llorando de alegría” (I arose once again within your arms, and I awoke weeping of joy).

            These songs express the polar extremes of relationships, from blissful love to suicidal loss. And within that range of romantic experience, lives the bolero.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      – Agustín Gurza

Also in this series:

The Eternal Bolero, Part 1: Love Songs That Endure for Decades

The Eternal Bolero, Part 3: Staying Alive

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The Recordings of Tito Puente: Spanning Genres and Generations

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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