Thursday, January 26, 2023

Tito Puente: Mambo King and Sea-Going Sailor

By Zach Smyers
HRNM Educator

Before he became the “King of Latin Jazz,” Ernest Anthony Puente Jr., better known to the world as Tito Puente, served his country in the Navy during World War Two. Puente, who was born in New York’s Spanish Harlem in 1923, developed an ear for music at a young age. Listening to Puerto Rican and Cuban music on the radio, Puente also developed a love of the big band music that was growing in popularity. Puente was a natural when it came to music, learning multiple instruments, including his signature instrument, the timbales. Developed in Cuba in 1900, the timbales are shallow single-headed drums with a metal casing. They are tuned much higher than the single-headed tom-toms (which are typically found on a trap set).

Young Tito Puente playing the timbales (

By the time he was 13 years old, Puente was working as a professional musician. He got his first big break as a professional playing with the Machito Orchestra as the drummer in the early 1940s. The Machito Orchestra, formed by Frank “Machito” Grillo in 1939, combined Afro Cuban Jazz with traditional salsa music. The popularity of this hybrid genre continued to grow with fans; however, Puente’s roll as the drummer was put on hold when he was drafted into the Navy in 1942.

Frank "Machito" Grillo and his orchestra (

Nineteen-year-old Tito Puente completed his basic training and received orders to USS Santee (ACV 29). Puente was one of the ship’s buglers and during his time aboard Santee, he became a co-leader of the ship’s band. The Hampton Roads-based carrier would take Puente and the crew to the shores of North Africa during Operation Torch in 1942, and into the Pacific during the Battles of Leyte Gulf in 1944 (Santee was actually hit by a Kamikaze during the battle) and Okinawa in 1945. USS Santee received two battle stars for service in the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign, seven battle stars for service in the Pacific, and a Presidential Unit Citation. Puente served aboard Santee from 1942 to 1945.

Seaman First Class Puente aboard USS Santee (

After the war, Puente received an honorable discharge and used his GI Bill to attend the Juilliard School of Music. While at Juilliard, Puente studied orchestration, conducting, and music theory. He graduated in 1947, and in 1948 formed his own band called the Tito Puente Orchestra. In 1958, Puente released his best-selling album Dance Mania. In 2002, Dance Mania was added to the National Recording Registry, a list of sound recordings preserved by the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” to life in the United States. Dance Mania also made the list of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.

Album cover from The King of the Cha-Cha Mambo (

Tito Puente had a fifty-year career in the music business as a musician, songwriter, bandleader, and producer. He was also a pioneer of combining his beloved Latin and big band music into one fused style. His talent as a performer carried over to film and television. He played himself in the 1992 film The Mambo Kings with Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas, and he appeared in a two-part episode of The Simpsons. Puente received numerous awards during his career, including five Grammy Awards, an induction into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame in 1999, as well as a posthumous Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003. Puente recorded over one hundred albums and performed with music legends like Dizzy Gillespie and Quincy Jones. Of his many hit songs, probably the most memorable are "Babarabatiri," "Ran Kan Kan," and "Oye Como Va." Tito Puente was a gifted musician and performer, and also a member of the Second World War’s Greatest Generation.

Tito Puente with Armand Assante in the film The Mambo Kings (

1 comment:

David Titus said...

Alice & I were at the September 3, 1995 performance of Tito Puente at the Tanglewood Jazz Festival. A magical moment.