The Mambo King

At 74, Tito Puente is still sitting on Latin music's throne.

Throughout his remarkable career, Tito Puente--the Magnificent Timbalero who at age 74 is the undisputed king of Latin music--has made music shot through with joy. But he has seldom exhibited such effervescence to the media. Legions of journalists floored by his impatient manner have branded him a terrible grouch, a man as misanthropic off the stage as he is ebullient on it.

Until recently, that is. While promoting Tito Puente: 50 Years of Swing, a boxed set released by Puente's current label, RMM, to commemorate his first half-century in show business, he has been, by his standards, an absolute pussycat. The old Puente would have rankled when Geraldo Rivera, during a recent episode of his talk show that featured the bandleader, consistently referred to 50 Years as "a wonderful two-CD set" even though it contains three discs. And he might well have lost it entirely after realizing that Rivera was less interested in talking about his music than in discussing a Puerto Rican postage stamp that features Puente's image. But despite these gaffes, Puente was courtly, polite--a perfect gentleman. And although he says he was not informed of this interview in advance, Puente (who was reached by telephone in a European hotel during a recent tour of the old country) dropped what he was doing to chat at length about his work--and threw not a single temper tantrum as he did so.

Why the change? Perhaps Puente has mellowed--or maybe he's been softened by the unprecedented outpouring of affection his anniversary has unleashed. "Everybody is pulling surprises on me these days because of my fifty years," he points out. "Everybody has been coming through beautifully for me--all the papers, the magazines and television and the recording companies. With all the concerts and everything, I'm pretty busy now. This only happens once in a lifetime, you know. Thank God I'm alive to be able to appreciate it."

The boisterous laugh Puente unleashes after making this comment makes it clear that he's much more than merely alive. Indeed, he's brimming with the same flamboyant energy that has long been his trademark. His drive "amazes everyone," he admits. "But I guess it comes down to health. As long as my health holds up, that's where it's at, really. But you know, that's the idea: to give the good vibrations to the people with our music. They come to concerts and jazz festivals, and it's up to us to keep them happy. People need that. That's why we get them together with the music--and there's no language barrier. I go to Japan a lot--ten times already--and to Hong Kong and Indochina. All those places. And even if they don't understand what we are saying, they love our percussion rhythms. The real Latin rhythms--that's what makes them happy."

A four-time Grammy winner, Puente still resides in New York, the city of his birth. By his own admission, he did not come from a musical family: "Well, I have one uncle who is 92, and he plays a lousy violin. But he sounds like a cat--forget about it." However, he always exhibited a love of show business. At age five he began dancing with his sister, and he considered becoming a professional hoofer until a torn ankle tendon put an end to that dream. Afterward, he concentrated on music. "When I started playing, at a very young age, they sort of looked to me as a child prodigy," he reveals. "They saw me making it because I did have the talent--I was very creative. My mother was the one who put me in the music school, to study piano. By the age of thirteen, I was already semi-professional, playing in bands in New York. I knew by then that this is what I would do, and it's all I've done all my life. Period.

"Now, you might think that it's wonderful for a kid that young to know what he wants to do," he goes on. "But today I find kids five years old who play that good. They're out there." Twenty years ago Puente created a scholarship fund to assist such students. He continues to give seminars and lecture at institutions dedicated to the performing arts.

After serving as a sideman with several acts (including Noro Morales, Pupi Campo and Machito) during the mid-Forties, Puente finally formed his own group, the Picadilly Boys. Before long, he began making albums that were instrumental in fueling the era's mambo craze. It was not the first trend with which Puente would be associated. He also was a key figure in popularizing the cha-cha-cha sound that rose to prominence in the late Fifties. His skills as a composer had a lot to do with these achievements; even rock fans are familiar with his skills as a result of the Seventies-era recordings of "Oye Como Va" and "Para los Rumberos," by guitarist Carlos Santana. But just as notable are his abilities as an arranger. His brassy, big-band versions of vintage Cuban folk and cha-cha-cha tunes sound as good in the Nineties as they did generations ago.

Appearances in films such as 1992's Mambo Kings, co-starring Antonio Banderas, have helped keep Puente in the public eye, too. But Puente credits his longevity to his willingness to adapt his music to the times. "I stayed with it--and I always was up-to-date with the young people. I was always willing to play the music that they liked, particularly for dances. I was always aware of what was happening. Because styles change every two or three years, I've kept up with what everyone wants to hear."

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