Tito Puente was born on April 20, 1923, at Harlem Hospital Center in New York City. His family moved frequently, but he spent the majority of his childhood in the Spanish Harlem area of the city. Puente’s father was the foreman at a razorblade factory.
As a child, he was described as hyperactive, and after neighbors complained of hearing seven-year-old Puente beating on pots and window frames, his mother sent him to 25 cent piano lessons. By the age of 10, he switched to percussion, drawing influence from jazz drummer Gene Krupa. He later created a song-and-dance duo with his sister Anna in the 1930s and intended to become a dancer, but an ankle tendon injury prevented him pursuing dance as a career. When the drummer in Machito’s band was drafted to the army, Puente subsequently took his place.
During the 1950s, Puente was at the height of his popularity, and helped to bring Afro-Cuban and Caribbean sounds, like mambo, son, and cha-cha-cha, to mainstream audiences. Puente was so successful playing popular Afro-Cuban rhythms that many people mistakenly identify him as Cuban. Dance Mania, possibly Puente’s most well known album was released in 1958. Later, he moved into more diverse sounds, including pop music, bossa nova and others, eventually settling down with a fusion of Afro-Cuban and Latin jazz genres that became known as “salsa” (a term that he disliked). In 1979, Puente won the first of five Grammy Awards for the albums A Tribute to Benny Moré, On Broadway, Mambo Diablo, and Goza Mi Timbal. In 1990, Puente was awarded the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal. He was also awarded a Grammy at the first Latin Grammy Awards, winning Best Traditional Tropical Album for Mambo Birdland. In 1995, he appeared as himself on the Simpsons episode “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” In early 2000, he shot the music documentaryCalle 54, wearing an all-white outfit with his band. After a show in Puerto Rico on May 31, he suffered a massive heart attack and was flown to New York City for surgery to repair aheart valve, but complications developed and he died during the night of May 31 – June 1, 2000. He was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003.
Tito Puente’s name is often mentioned in a television production called La Epoca, a film about the Palladium era in New York, Afro-Cuban music and rhythms, Mambo and Salsa as dances and music and much more. The film discusses many of Tito Puente’s as well as Arsenio Rodríguez’s contributions, and features interviews with some of the musicians Puente recorded with such as Alfonso “El Panameno” Joseph, Luis Mangual, Julian Lianos and others.
Puente’s youngest son, Tito Puente, Jr., has continued his father’s legacy by presenting many of the same songs in his performances and recordings, while daughter Audrey Puenteis a television meteorologist for WNYW and WWOR-TV in New York City. Puente’s granddaughter, Janeen Puente, is a singer and bandleader. Her band is known as the Janeen Puente Orchestra.