The music world lost one of its true international icons when Tito Puente died at New York’s NYU Medical Center this morning, following a month of heart troubles. He was seventy-seven. Puente was hospitalized in Puerto Rico in early May after being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat, forcing him to back out of his May performance schedule. At press time, the NYU Medical Center was unable to reveal the cause of death.
More than two decades before Ricky Martin was even a glimmer in his father’s eye, Puente was the ambassador for Latin music, serving up his irresistibly dancy mambos as far back as 1949. The consummate bandleader and percussionist, Puente — nicknamed “El Rey de Timbales” — exuded exuberance, banging away on his drums with a youthful vigor deep into his seventies.
The son of Puerto Rican parents, the five-time Grammy winner was born in New York City in 1923 (though there is some dispute about the year of his birth). It was during a WWII Navy stint that Puente’s love of big-band music fully developed. Following his discharge he rode the G.I. Bill to a short stint at Julliard followed by some work in Noro Morales’ orchestra. A remarkably versatile musician, he was capable of tackling piano, congas and saxophone in addition to his trademark timbales, and it wasn’t long before Puente took his fiery brand of mambos and cha-chas out on his own.
“The King of Mambo” recorded more than 100 albums in his lifetime, starting in the mid-Forties. Fusing Latin rhythms with jazz in a singular style, by 1950 Puente was an international star, trading fierce percussion duets with the lower profile (but equally dazzling) Mongo Santamaria. He was also impervious to the here-today, gone-tomorrow world of musical trends. Puente was constantly performing and recording, never falling below the radar. In 1970 he crossed over into the pop charts when Santana covered Puente’s “Oye Como Va” on Abraxas. Puente remained in the American public consciousness with appearances on The Cosby Show, Woody Allen’s Radio Days and The Mambo Kings. In 1997 he was given the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton.
And through the “Latin explosion” of the past two years, Puente continued to perform and record. Earlier in the year he won his fifth Grammy (Best Traditional Tropical Latin Performance) for last year’s Mambo Birdland.
“I have a son who’s going to be eighteen, and his name’s Tito,” Grammy-winning Latin percussionist Pancho Sanchez told RollingStone.com of Puente. “You know how much you respect a man if you name your son after him. He is one of my heroes.”