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Tito Puente  Birth name Ernesto Anto­nio Puente.  Also known as “El Rey de los Tim­bales”, The King of Latin Music

Born April 20, 1923 New York City Died June 1, 2000 (aged 77) New York City

Gen­res Afro-Cuban jazz, mam­bo, sal­sa, Occu­pa­tions Musi­cian, pro­duc­er Instru­ments Tim­bales, Vibra­phone, Drum set

Years active 1946 — 2000.  Labels Fania Records, Sony Dis­cos, RMM Records

Ernesto Anto­nio “Tito” Puente, (April 20, 1923 – June 1, 2000), was a Latin jazz and sal­sa musi­cian and com­pos­er. The son of native Puer­to Ricans, Ernest and Ercil­ia Puente, liv­ing in New York City’s Span­ish Harlem com­mu­ni­ty, Puente is often cred­it­ed as “The Musi­cal Pope,” “El Rey de los Tim­bales” (The King of the tim­bales) and “The King of Latin Music.” He is best known for dance-ori­ent­ed mam­bo and Latin jazz com­po­si­tions that helped keep his career going for 50 years. He and his music appear in many films such as The Mam­bo Kings and Fer­nan­do True­ba’s Calle 54. He guest-starred on sev­er­al tele­vi­sion shows includ­ing Sesame Street, The Cos­by Show and The Simpsons.

Tito Puente was born on April 20, 1923, at Harlem Hos­pi­tal Cen­ter in New York City. His fam­i­ly moved fre­quent­ly, but he spent the major­i­ty of his child­hood in the Span­ish Harlem area of the city. Puente’s father was the fore­man at a razor­blade factory.

As a child, he was described as hyper­ac­tive, and after neigh­bors com­plained of hear­ing sev­en-year-old Puente beat­ing on pots and win­dow frames, his moth­er sent him to 25 cent piano lessons. By the age of 10, he switched to per­cus­sion, draw­ing influ­ence from jazz drum­mer Gene Kru­pa. He lat­er cre­at­ed a song-and-dance duo with his sis­ter Anna in the 1930s and intend­ed to become a dancer, but an ankle ten­don injury pre­vent­ed him pur­su­ing dance as a career. When the drum­mer in Machi­to’s band was draft­ed to the army, Puente sub­se­quent­ly took his place.


Tito Puente Sr. served in the Navy for three years dur­ing World War II after being draft­ed in 1942. He was dis­charged with a Pres­i­den­tial Unit Cita­tion for serv­ing in nine bat­tles on the escort car­ri­er USS San­tee (CVE-29). The GI Bill allowed him to study music at Juil­liard School of Music, where he com­plet­ed a for­mal edu­ca­tion in con­duct­ing, orches­tra­tion and the­o­ry. In 1969, he received the key to the City of New York from for­mer May­or John Lind­say. In 1992, he was induct­ed into the Nation­al Con­gres­sion­al Record, and in 1993 he received the James Smith­son Bicen­ten­ni­al Medal from the Smithsonian.

Dur­ing the 1950s, Puente was at the height of his pop­u­lar­i­ty, and helped to bring Afro-Cuban and Caribbean sounds, like mam­bo, son, and cha-cha-cha, to main­stream audi­ences (he was so suc­cess­ful play­ing pop­u­lar Afro-Cuban rhythms that many peo­ple mis­tak­en­ly iden­ti­fy him as Cuban). Dance Mania, pos­si­bly Puente’s most well known album was released in 1958. Lat­er, he moved into more diverse sounds, includ­ing pop music, bossa nova and oth­ers, even­tu­al­ly set­tling down with a fusion of Afro-Cuban and Latin jazz gen­res that became known as “sal­sa” (a term that he dis­liked). In 1979, Puente won the first of five Gram­my Awards for the albums A Trib­ute to Ben­ny Moré, On Broad­way, Mam­bo Dia­blo, and Goza Mi Tim­bal. In 1990, Puente was award­ed the James Smith­son Bicen­ten­ni­al Medal. He was also award­ed a Gram­my at the first Latin Gram­my Awards, win­ning Best Tra­di­tion­al Trop­i­cal Album for Mam­bo Bird­land. In 1995, he appeared as him­self on the Simp­sons episode “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” In ear­ly 2000, he shot the music doc­u­men­tary Calle 54, wear­ing an all-white out­fit with his band. After a show in Puer­to Rico on May 31, he suf­fered a mas­sive heart attack and was flown to New York City for surgery to repair a heart valve, but com­pli­ca­tions devel­oped and he died dur­ing the night of May 31 – June 1, 2000. He was posthu­mous­ly award­ed the Gram­my Life­time Achieve­ment Award in 2003.

Tito Puente’s name is often men­tioned in a tele­vi­sion pro­duc­tion called La Epoca, a film about the Pal­la­di­um era in New York, Afro-Cuban music and rhythms, Mam­bo and Sal­sa as dances and music and much more. The film dis­cuss­es many of Tito Puente’s as well as Arse­nio Rodríguez’s con­tri­bu­tions, and fea­tures inter­views with some of the musi­cians Puente record­ed with such as Alfon­so “El Pana­meno” Joseph, Luis Man­gual, Julian Lianos and others.

Puente’s youngest son, Tito Puente, Jr., has con­tin­ued his father’s lega­cy by pre­sent­ing many of the same songs in his per­for­mances and record­ings, while daugh­ter Audrey Puente is a tele­vi­sion mete­o­rol­o­gist for WNYW and WWOR-TV in New York City. Grand­daugh­ter Janeen Puente is singer band­leader, known as the Janeen Puente Orchestra.

Awards and recognition

Tim­bales on dis­play at the Smithsonian

Dur­ing the pres­i­den­cy of Sen. Rober­to Rex­ach Benítez, Tito Puente received the unique hon­or of hav­ing both a spe­cial ses­sion of the Sen­ate of Puer­to Rico ded­i­cat­ed to him, and being allowed to per­form in his unique style on the floor of the Sen­ate while it was in session.

On Sep­tem­ber 10, 2007, a Unit­ed States Post Office in Span­ish Harlem was named after him at a cer­e­mo­ny presided by House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee Chair­man Charles Rangel (D‑NY) and Rep. José Ser­ra­no (D‑NY).

An amphithe­atre was named in his hon­or at Luis Muñoz Marín Park, next to the Rober­to Clemente Col­i­se­um, in San Juan, Puer­to Rico.

Puente per­formed at the clos­ing cer­e­monies at the 1996 Sum­mer Olympics in Atlanta, Geor­gia. The tim­bales he used there are on dis­play at the Nation­al Muse­um of Amer­i­can His­to­ry in Wash­ing­ton D.C.

In 1997, he was award­ed the Nation­al Medal of Arts.

In 1990 he received a Star on the Hol­ly­wood Walk Of Fame. (ref Hol­ly­wood Cham­ber Of Commerce)

In 1984 he received an hon­orary Decree from the Los Ange­les City Council.

On June 5, 2005, Puente was hon­ored by Union City, New Jer­sey with a star on the Walk of Fame at Union City’s Celia Cruz Park.