On April 20, 1923, at the Harlem Hospital Center in New York City’s Harlem Community, a son was born to Ernest and Felicia Puente. With great pride, they named this new addition to the Puente family Ernest Anthony Puente Jr.
At the time of Tito’s birth, Ernest earned meager wages as a foreman at the razorblade factory he worked in. As a result, the Puente’s moved frequently’ As a boy, in the 1930s, Tito lived at 53 East 110th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues in Spanish Harlem. Because at the time, the community was a hodgepodge of ethnic groups, most German and Eastern European, Tito’s Puerto Rican identity became very important to him. Until his death, at the age of 77, he maintained a heavy Puerto Rican accent despite being his being born in New York City.
Tito Puente was said to have been very hyperactive as a kid, and neighbors often complained of hearing the seven-year-old banging on pots and pans. In an attempt to curtail this hyperactive and banging behavior, his mother sent him for piano lessons. Some of his first piano lessons took place in the backroom of Almacenes Hernandez, at Madison Avenue and 115th Street, from Victoria Hernandez. Hernandez who was the store owner was also the sister of Rafael Hernandez, who is recognized as Puerto Rico’s most important popular composer, and who wrote the island’s unofficial anthem, ‘Lamento Borincano.’
In the 1930s, Tito and his sister Anna created a song-and-dance duo. It was Tito’s aspiration to become a dancer. Unfortunately, an ankle tendon injury prevented him from pursuing dance as a career. Instead, he immersed himself in his music. At the tender age of 10, Tito switched from piano to percussion, drawing influence from jazz drummer Gene Krupa.
In the 1940s, When Tito was a teenager, 110th Street and Fifth Avenue were the centers of Latin music in New York City. Spanish Harlem was home to performers like Tito Rodriguez, Machito, Jose Curbelo, and Mario Bauza.
There were two Latin clubs, on the corner of 110th Street, the Park Palace, and the Park Plaza. Then there was the Boys Club, as well, where young men would form their own small Latin bands known as ‘conjuntos.’ Tito had his own conjunto and played in the Spanish movie theaters of Spanish Harlem like the Teatro Boriqua on Lexington Avenue near East 107th Street, and Teatro Hispano on Fifth Avenue at East 116th Street. He also played the clubs of Harlem, such as the Apollo Theater, and the Renaissance Ballroom.
When the band leader Machito’s drummer was drafted into the army, Puente quickly took his place. During World War II, in 1942 after himself being drafted, Puente served in the Navy for three years. He was subsequentially discharged with a Presidential Unit Citation for having served in nine battles on the escort carrier USS Santee (CVE-29). Upon discharge the GI Bill allowed him to study music at Juilliard School of Music, where he completed his formal education in conducting, orchestration, and theory.
During the 1950s, Puente was at the height of his popularity and helped to bring Afro-Cuban and Caribbean sounds like the Mambo, El Son, and Cha-Cha-Chá, to mainstream audiences. Possibly Puente’s most well-known album, Dance Mania, was released in 1958. But among his most famous compositions are “Oye Como va” (1963). This composition was later popularized by Latin rock music legend Carlos Santana, and later interpreted, by among others, Julio Iglesias, Irakere, and Celia Cruz.
In 1969, Puente received the key to the City of New York from former Mayor John V. Lindsay. In 1992, he was inducted into the National Congressional Record, and in 1993 he received the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal from the Smithsonian.
Tito’s timbales can be seen at the Tito Puente exhibit in the Artist Gallery of the Musical Instrument Museum of Phoenix, AZ.
Years after moving on from his meager beginnings in Spanish Harlem, Puente poured energy into the Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts, the division of Boys Harbor in East Harlem, where he helped establish the Latin music department in the 1970s. Puente would rehearse there six or seven times a year, bringing with him other great Latin performers like Celia Cruz. He even donated his vast store of Latin jazz memorabilia to the conservatory to help create the Raices Latin Music Collection, one of the most important archives of Afro-Caribbean music in all of America.
Because of Tito’s huge influence in Music; Jazz, Mambo, and others, and his roots on 110th Street in El Barrio, his philanthropic work with the Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts, in East Harlem, can anyone refute that the ‘the Mambo King,’ ‘the King of Latin Jazz,’ and ‘El Rey del Timbal’ truly is one of El Barrio’s Greatest?