Ernest Anthony Puente, Jr. was born on April 20, 1923 in New York City to parents who had just arrived from their native Puerto Rico. Young Tito was nurtured in East Harlem’s "El Barrio," the neighborhood that served as a cultural crossroads for Latino youth. Although they were surrounded by the urban sophistication of the world’s most cosmopolitan city, Puente and his friends were strongly influenced by an island culture that maintained its love of tropical music and the mother tongue. "Ernestito" grew up with one ear tuned to boleros and rumbas while the other one strained to hear the great swing bands of the day and an emerging jazz tradition.
With his younger sister Anna, Tito performed in a child song and dance team in the early 1930’s. "I pride myself on being one of the few band leaders who really knows how to dance," he proudly reveals. His dance background played an important role in the development of Tito’s sense of rhythm. It also encouraged the development of the extroverted personality and flamboyant stage presence for which he would soon be known, traits that helped lift him from the ranks of sideman to star status by the late 1940s.
It was clear from an early age that percussion would become Tito’s principal manner of musical communication. His lifetime opportunity came when the United States entered World War II and Machito’s regular drummer was drafted into military service. Tito’s percussion was so persuasive, his spirit and skill so dynamic that the timbales were brought to the front of the bandstand. He played the drums standing, not seated. That simple change of routine liberated the Latin rhythm section and opened the door for the flashy style of performance that in time would become the norm.
Through numerous changes in labels and musicians, Tito Puente has been in front of his group ever since. Tito rode the cha-cha wave on Tico, then switched to RCA for what are considered his best albums, including 'Top Percussion,' 'Dance Mania,' his top-seller, and 'Mucho Puente.' In the early 1960s, he moved from cha-chas and mambos to the new pachanga style and rejoined Tico to record 'Pachanga Con Puente.' His 1962 descarga (Latin jam) album, 'El Rey Bravo' debuted Puente's composition, "Oye Como Va," which later became a huge pop hit for Carlos Santana.
Tito endured the boogaloo craze ("Boogaloo meant nothing to me. It stunk.") and carried on into the rise of salsa in the early 1970s. He recorded several albums in collaboration with Celia Cruz, the "Queen of Salsa." In the early 1980s, he moved into more traditional Latin Jazz for the Concord label, earning a Grammy award for 'Tito Puente and His Latin Ensemble on Broadway.'
Prolific as he is famous, Tito Puente’s hit records and compositions have become classics for all Latin music aficionados. 'Oye Como Va' and 'Para Los Rumberos' have been recorded by the rock music legend, Carlos Santana. His own albums 'Top Percussion,' 'Dance Mania,' 'Puente in Percussion,' 'Cuban Carnival,' 'El Rey' and 'El Nzmero Cien' are essentials on any collectors list.