It’s an early summer Saturday afternoon in El Barrio, in New York and the guys have taken the chairs to the sidewalk, right on Second Avenue, right next to the Old Timers Lounge, and are just sitting around, hangin’ out, making plans for the big stickball tournament next week – and talking about Tito. They are loud. But as they bluster and laugh, they also mourn.
These were his neighborhood guys, his friends of many years – guys like Joe Conzo, Charlie Candelario, Senon “The Shadow” Rivera and Tony Gorilla.
They saw him grow up. “He was playin’ already when he came out of the diapers,” says Tony, the group’s elder. “He was beating on cans, on whatever he could get his hands on. And he was a genius already.”
And they were there at the end.
“I saw him when they were taking him to the operating room,” recalls Candelario, an anesthesiology technician at NYU Medical Center, where Puente was being treated for heart trouble. “And I said ‘Good luck, pops. I’ll see you tomorrow’ and he didn’t answer, he just closed his eyes and nodded with this half-smile.”
Puente died on May 31st, 2000, of complications after heart surgery.
For music fans everywhere news of his mortality was a shock. He had been part of nearly every major trend in Latin music in the United States for more than 50 years – from the mambo craze to turn-of-the-century Rickymania. He had 138 albums to his name. He had always been there. Throughout, he had remained the rarest pop music star, he was a showman but also a true artist; a popularizer but also an innovator; a king, and a cheerleader.
He was a crossover artist before the term had been invented but also, as he once told the New York Times, “just a street musician from the neighborhood.”
And these guys were there for the whole ride.
“Tito era auténtico,” says Conzo, Puente’s longtime sidekick, historian, curator and self-described “boy Friday.” He was authentic, Conzo says. True. “Tito, Machito, Tito Rodríguez they were all part of El Barrio and it was nothing to see them walking around the neighborhood. That’s why Tito was so loved around here. He was always available, and so were Machito and Rodríguez. They were all available. They lived here and if they moved away, they’d still come to El Barrio.”
“Tito always came back. He was a real guy, a natural barrio boy,” says Candelario. Even after he became world-famous, “he might finish a gig and come by at two o’clock in the morning. Margie [Puente’s wife] would complain and he’d say ‘I didn’t mean to. The car made the turn. And he would come and hang out with the guys. These are the people he grew up with. He knew everybody by name. He could walk up the street here and no one would bother him. He might just come and sit out here. He always came back.”
Maybe Tito never left.
It is perhaps appropriate that the house at 53rd East 110 Street, where he lived in the 1940’s — and where he wrote “Picadillo,” his breakthrough piece — is the last building standing in that block. Fittingly, on August 20th, 2000 the street, from 5th Avenue to First Avenue, was renamed Tito Puente Way.
Ernest Anthony Puente was born on April 20, 1923, of Puerto Rican parents not far from there, in a Harlem hospital and raised in Spanish Harlem, El Barrio. He had a brother, Robert Anthony, who died at 4, and a sister, Anna, who died in her teens. Their parents, Ernest and Ercilia, were part of the first wave of Puerto Rican immigrants to settle in New York. Ernest worked at a razor factory. Ercilia took care of the home.
As Tito became a teenager, life around them was becoming harder and harder.
Puerto Ricans had been migrating to the mainland since the mid-nineteen century. But by the early 40’s there was a massive emigration underway, product of the harsh economic situation in the island and, some have suggested, the encouragement of the local government looking to alleviate overcrowding. Whatever the reason, Puerto Ricans, who had been granted U.S. citizenship in 1917, flocked to New York. There were 70,000 Puerto Rican residents in New York in 1940. That number jumped to 250,000 in 1950, and jumped again, to 613,000 by 1960.
In the early years, the heart of Puerto Rican New York was around 116th Street and 3rd Avenue, in East Harlem. By the 1950’s, it moved North, to the Bronx.
“WWII was over but there was warrin’ in the streets,” says the title character in Edwin Torres’s “Carlito’s Way,” a Puerto Rican version of “The Godfather.” “Kiddie gangs was goin’ strong. The Puerto Ricans was boxed in. Irish to the south, Italians to the east, Blacks to the north and west. Wasn’t none of that brotherhood jive in them days. Git that Po’Rican. We was catchin’ hell.”
That was the New York where Tito Puente came of age.
“Tito always said: there was no such thing as ‘ethnic’ in those days, says Conzo, himself of Italian and Puerto Rican ancestry. “ We all knew that the blacks were from 5th Avenue West side up, the Puerto Ricans, or Latinos, from 5th Avenue East to 3rd Avenue and from 3rd Avenue down were los italianos and that was that. But we all had to mingle because we all went to school. The neutral zone was La Marketa, the market at Park Avenue between 110th Street to 116th Street. Everybody went to shop at La Marketa. You had to go to there.”
Anna and young Ernestito were encouraged by their mother early on to get involved in music and dance. He studied piano at the New York School of Music, took drum lessons and even sang in a barbershop quartet. He also partnered with his sister, dancing ballroom style and tap. Many years later he would still brag about being “one of the few bandleaders who knows how to dance.”
Conzo says that, for Puente, it remained a point of pride.
“And if you think about it, looking back, Machito was a good dancer, Mario was a good dancer, Tito Rodríguez was a fantastic dancer and so was Puente,” he says. “These guys, the great ones, were from a different school, maybe it was the way they were brought up the way they were taught, the way they learned the music. They got their rhythms from their feet and they arranged that way, from the feet up.”
Even his Latin jazz was, until the later period, danceable jazz.
At 16 Puente dropped out of school to become a full time musician and got a job playing in a Latin band. Cuban pianist José Curbelo was a member of the orchestra and, in short time, became his mentor. Puente was on his way.
He worked with pianists Anselmo Sacasas and Noro Morales and served what amounted to an apprenticeship with Cuban singer and bandleader Frank “Machito” Grillo. In 1942 he was drafted into the Navy where he served three years. Puente not only saw action during WWII (“He never wanted to talk about that,” recalls Conzo, a friend of 40 years) but also learned arranging from a pilot who worked as an arranger for Charlie Spivak’s big band.
At his return, Puente worked with Curbelo and Pupi Campo, among others, and studied at the Juilliard School of Music. In 1949 he organized his first group, the Piccadilly Boys, and never looked back.
His RCA Years (1949 to 1951 and 1955 to 1960) were, arguably, the defining years in his career.
There had been hits before – most notably “Ran Kan Kan” a 78 released in 1949 by RCAVictor, and “Abaniquito,” a favorite at The Palladium. And there were many hits after, even a rebirth as a jazz bandleader in the 1980’s. But recordings such as Cuban Carnival, (RCA Victor 1956), Top Percussion (RCA Victor 1957), Dance Mania (RCA Victor 1958), Mucho Cha Cha (RCA Victor 1959) and Tambó (RCA Victor 1960) are some of the greatest albums of Afro-Caribbean music ever recorded.
“Ran Kan Kan,” included here in a 1949 version featuring singers Vicentico Valdés and Vitín Avilés, is not only a fine example of Puente´s orchestra-as-a-percussion-instrument approach and a classic, but also a point of reference for a generation of Latino New Yorkers.
“I still remember to this day that “Ran Kan Kan” was the theme song for Radio WADO (1280 AM),” recalls Conzo. “I have this image of my mother and my aunts sitting by the radio, at night, to hear some Latin music — and the program would open up with ‘Ran Kan Kan.”
From Cuban Carnival check tracks such as “Elegua Chango,” a piece titled after two deities of the Afro-Cuban orisha religion, better known as santería. Here Puente bridges earthy ritual drumming and advanced big band section writing, including extended harmonies and densely layered textures. “Nobody would play something like that in those days,” says Conzo. “It was unherad of.”
And to play this music, Puente assembled a remarkable band featuring an extraordinary rhythm section that included congueros Mongo Santamaría, Ray Barretto, Carlos “Patato” Valdés and William Correa, better known as Willie Bobo.
Listen to “Pa’Los Rumberos,” included here in its original version. Guitarist Carlos Santana, who already had made a hit of “Oye Como Va” in his album Abraxas (Columbia 1970), featured an explosive arrangement of “Pa’ Los Rumberos” in his album Santana III ( Columbia 1971). Later on, notes Conzo, Puente adapted Santana’s intro and tag — which had been drawn from a Puente riff – into his own performance.
“[‘Pa’ Los Rumberos’] was not very popular at the time but, for me, it was a classic the moment it came out,” says Conzo. “That’s Mongo [Santamaría] and him trading solos. That’s something that could never be equaled. In later years Tito was paying a compliment to Santana using his intro.”
This set also includes Puente’s version of Israel “Cachao” López “Chanchullo,” a song, some critics have argued, is, basically, the blueprint of “Oye Como Va.”
“Tito would get upset at those claims that he had stolen the song. He’d say ‘those guys are not musicians and don’t know what they are talking about,’” recalls Conzo. “People will hear for themselves. But besides, Cachao came to his funeral. We were crying together at the funeral home. He was not only Tito’s friend but a true musician and if someone had taken credit for something he did, he would have made a case about it.”
Other significant tracks from the period included here are “Ti Mon Bo,” a reference to Tito, Mongo and Willie Bobo. Also, check the flute work in the tracks from Mucho Cha Cha – songs such as “Campanitas de Cristal” or “Cha Cha Son”. That’s Dominican flute player and percussionist Johnny Pacheco – who later would be a crucial figure in the development of what came to be known as salsa.
“The RCA years were very, very productive years, years of growth,” says Conzo. “The second period was in the ‘80s, with his jazz ensemble. The Tico years, [in the Tico Records label] between 1952-1955 were also of growth for him, but when he went back to RCA Victor in 1955 and did Cuban Carnival, fuggedaboutit. He was untouchable. You could hear the change from Cuban Carnival to Puente Goes Jazz (RCA Victor 1956) to Night Beat (RCA Victor 1957) to Be Mine Tonight (RCA Victor 1957) the versatility, the progress, was unbelievable. It was impossible that this was the same man who just a few years before was playing “Ran Kan Kan” or “Picadillo.” This band was huge. And it was at the level of an Ellington, or a Basie, and that un Latino had the capacity to do something like that … fuggedaboutit. The only band that did anything like it was Machito with Mario Bauzá. They were always there first. They opened the doors. But Puente took it to another level… and tú sabes, these arrangements were his.”
This box set includes tracks from Puente Goes Jazz and Night Beat (in which Puente brought together his Latin roots and his love of jazz), a sampling of his more commercial side (as in “What a Difference a Day Makes” or “Ecstasy” from Mucho Puente (RCA Victor 1957)) as well as some of his more adventurous works such as the little known Revolving Bandstand (RCA Victor 1960, released in 1963). In it, Puente and his orchestra literally share the studio with trombonist Buddy Morrow and his orchestra, bouncing the double arrangements, written by Puente and George Williams, from one band to the other.
“These are two full orchestras answering each other, completing each others’ thoughts, as it were,” says Conzo. However, the album was not immediately released and, perhaps in part because of the stormy relationship between Puente and RCA Victor, speculates Conzo, it became a sort of cursed album. “When I was putting together The Many Moods of Tito Puente (RCA Victor 1972) they made test pressings of some tunes for me and so I asked for a test pressing of Revolving Bandstand — and the word came down that they couldn’t, that there was some sort of ban on that record.”
The selection in this box set, assembled by Conzo, includes never before heard versions of songs such as “Duerme” and “Lullaby of the Leaves” featuring here trumpet solos rather than the sax solos in the released versions. There are also rare versions of some tune such as the take of “Hong Kong Mambo” found by producer and musicologist Domingo G. Echevarria, who worked on many of the Puente reissues of the 1990’s. “Here Tito plays marimba,” points out Conzo. “And when I played it for him in 1998 he flipped out. ‘Coño Joe I didn´t remember this’ and he loved his solo. He had forgotten he had taken a solo that long. In those days the records were three minutes long.”
It is worth noting that Puente was not only a superb percussionist, showman, and a timbalero who, figuratively and literally, brought the instrument to the front of the stage, but that he also pioneered the vibraphone in Latin music.
Trumpeter and conguero Jerry Gonzalez, interviewed in Steven Loza’s “Tito Puente and the Making of Latin Music” (University of Illinois Press, 1999), makes an astute comparison, equating the relationship between the Puente and Machito bands as that between Basie and Ellington.
“Even the sound of Machito’s saxophones and horns was coming out of the Duke Ellington sound,” says Gonzalez.” But Puente was more like the Basie band, a riff band. They …weren’t orchestral in the beginning as Macho. And it was more percussive. … Puente was listening to the band as a rhythm player and interpreting the band as a drum.”
It is an intriguing observation, most evident in albums such as Puente’s masterpiece Cuban Carnival, or his extraordinary trilogy of Afro-Caribbean percussion albums: Puente in Percussion (Tico 1955), Top Percussion and Tambó.
And yet even in those projects, Puente never lost touch with the dancers.
“The way I understand it, the way Tito explained to me, is that Tito recorded for dancers,” says Conzo. “Always.”
In fact, a look at Puente’s RCA years shows a shrewd, and nearly constant, tacking between commercial projects such as Puente at Grossingers (RCA Victor 1959) or Dancing Under Latin Skies (RCA Victor 1959) and more adventurous ones such as, say, Tambó and Revolving Bandstand. It suggests Puente tending to his white, Anglo audience one moment and playing for the dancers from El Barrio the next.
“In those days you had the Palladium, the Park Plaza, the China Doll, the Conga, and what made it so special was the camaraderie, the sense of community around this music,” says Conzo in his trademark growl. “Every month you’d go to the record store, and in those days, they were 78’s and would cost $.50 or $.75 depending on the artist, and you’d go and ask ‘what came out new?,’ ‘Did Tito Rodríguez do anything new?’ Did Tito? Machito?” They would record once a month. And they only pressed 500 copies.
“And these records were sold everywhere. In El Barrio they were sold not only in the record store but la mueblería (the furniture store) sold records — and they had speakers outside, so you’d be walking in the street and the music would be playing.”
That Puente managed to negotiate a crossover, in his own terms, while staying true to his roots is perhaps even more remarkable given his stormy relationship with RCA.
He refused to take what he perceived was second billing after best-selling Dámaso Pérez Prado, the self-proclaimed Rey del Mambo, and he refused to go along with the accepted practices of the day by which producers were kings and artists recorded what they were told.
“Tito was known as ‘Little Caesar’ around RCA. That’s what they called him,” recalls Conzo with a chuckle. “They tried to put him in the back shelf because Pérez Prado was their fair-headed boy and Tito would go ‘No, no, no, no. Yo soy el pingú aquí. (I’m the big guy here)’ He wouldn’t put up with any shit.”
Even in that, he was the neighborhood guy, playing by the neighborhood rules: never back down.
“He didn’t trust many people, he was very guarded, but he was very personable. He joked, he liked his drink, but didn’t smoke and he was very, very funny. He was a comedian.”
Charlie Candelario nods and smiles. As he stands in the sidewalk on 2nd Avenue, near the group sitting in the circle of chairs, he recalls one of his last visits with Puente at the hospital.
“I was in the room when the nurse comes in, a Latina, and he tells her ‘Tú sabes porque yo estoy aquí?” (Do you know why I’m here?) She says ‘No.’ ‘Porque estoy preñao.’ (Because I’m pregnant) The poor lady didn’t know what to say. ‘Y tú sabes quien es el papá? Ricky Martin. (And you know who´s the daddy? Ricky Martin) So I said ‘You got nutin’ better to do?. I’m outtahere. I see you later. He was like that.”
Conzo probably has heard the story before, heck, he probably has heard those same lines dozens of times, but he laughs and shakes his head. Genio y figura …
“Tito knew he was Tito Puente but didn’t know his worth. Tito protected his name. He was old school, he wanted top billing. But Tito didn’t know how far his name carried. And what he says in that reissue from Germany is amazing,” he says, alluding to the notes for Night Beat/Mucho Puente Plus (The Bear Family, 1993 under license by BMG). In them, Puente is quoted saying: “But I’m very proud of my RCA Victor albums. People hear them and they think I just recorded them. I guess I was ahead of my time. Now they realize that. I’ve always thought: Don’t worry, I’ll get my recognition in the year 2000.”
Conzo shakes his head. “I mean, … what was he thinking? Did he know he was going to die in the year 2000?”
The group falls silent for a moment and the noise of the street and of a summer afternoon in El Barrio grows louder. Then someone speaks.
“The Old Guy upstairs called him. It was time to go. He said ‘I have Macho, I have Mario, I have Tito Rodríguez and I don’t have nobody here who can play timbales and keep the clave. I’m sick of this shit. I need you here’.”
And Joe and Charlie and Shadow and Tony and the others, they all laugh and fall silent and miss him some more.
Tito Puente: The Complete RCA Recordings, Part 1 was released in Sept. 2001