Vaya Con Tito Puente

Vaya Con Tito Puente

By Eugene S. Robinson


Because without Tito Puente, salsa music would not exist. And without salsa music, music minus sabor? Life just wouldn’t be the same at all.

By Eugene S. Robinson

Tito Puente wore nothing but white for a year: white shoes, socks, trousers and shirts.

Fairly typical for a santero, a priest or practitioner of santería, the Afro-Caribbean reinvention of Roman Catholicism, and as deep and mystical. For an entire year, back in the late 1970s, this son of Puerto Rican parents underwent an all-white 365-day baptism for santería in New York’s Spanish Harlem. Right around the time, maybe not-so-coindentally, he made some of the most rigorously reckless — some, like us, say genius — Latin music around.

The GI Bill made it possible for Puente to head over to Juilliard after the war…

Every single one of his childhood neighbors, child prodigy stuff aside, could have predicted his future as a percussionist, as the complaints about his hammering and banging on household pots and pans heralded his talent, while also driving folks in adjacent apartments out of their minds. But it was being drafted into the U.S. Navy at 19, from 1942 to World War II’s end, that set Puente up to do more than just annoy the neighbors. 

The GI Bill made it possible for Puente to head over to Juilliard after the war, where he learned what would make him a monster in the 1950s: orchestration and theory. It was also where he picked up what he could never learn in a schoolroom: how to groove his ass around any form of Latin music. From mambo, son, cha-cha and bossa nova to, eventually, the heavily Afro-Cuban-influenced salsa (a word he hated), Puente tore things up. And in 1958, he hit with his most popular record ever: Dance Mania.

“But you know, Tito always really wanted to get off of what they called the ‘cuchifrito circuit,’” said Ed Newton, Latin music critic for the New York Post back in the 1970s and scribe behind the liner notes on the definitive 1976 Fania All-Stars’ salsa masterpiece Live at Yankee Stadium, Vol. 1, describing Puente’s desire to expand beyond all-Latin audiences. “But he never really crossed over. His stuff appeared in commercials and movies, and even the Sex in the City theme song was Latin-influenced, and lots of rock groups started using Latin percussion sections. But cross over? No.”

Which, if you’re a purist like us, makes his music an even more delectable treat. His five Grammys and his National Medal of Arts notwithstanding, Puente may be huge in New York, but he’s not recognized nationally. “He really benefited from the Cuban embargo, because people thought he was Cuban for a long time,” says Newton, referring to the Big Apple’s large and largely diverse Latin population.

But the way we figure it: It’s the nation’s loss. 

And our gain, since Puente’s music has lived well beyond his death 14 years ago. There is time yet to give him his due for his role in the spread of Latin styles.

“Virtually all of the major popular forms — Tin Pan Alley, stage, and film music, jazz, rhythm and blues, country music, and rock,” wrote John Storm Roberts in The Latin Tinge: The Impact of Latin American Music on the United States, “have been affected throughout their development by the idioms of Brazil, Cuba, or Mexico.”

Which is true enough. And if he added East Harlem in there, his list would be just about perfect.