In honor of United States Hispanic Heritage Monthtoday’s animated video Doodle, illustrated by the Puerto Rican artist Carlos Apontebased in New York, celebrates the life and legacy of “Nuyorican” American musician and internationally renowned artist, Titus Bridge.
A multi-talented artist of Puerto Rican descent, Puente was a percussionist, songwriter, composer, recording artist, and bandleader. With a career spanning five decades, he is often referred to as “The King of Timbales” and “The King of Latin Music.” On this day in 2021, the Tito Puente Monument was unveiled in East Harlem, New York.
Puente was born on April 20, 1923, at Harlem Hospital Center in Spanish Harlem, New York City. He was surrounded by Puerto Rican, Cuban and big band music growing up, and showed significant musical talent from a young age. He began his career as a drummer in his teens and found his big break playing for Federico Pagani’s Happy Boys and Machito’s Orchestra. He served in the Navy during World War II, playing the alto saxophone as leader of the ship’s band, along with more than ten instruments. He continued his studies at the Juilliard School of Music after the war.
He started his own band, the Orquesta Tito Puente, in 1948 and quickly gained a reputation for performances that brought audiences onto the dance floor. Puente was known for his impressive skills on the timbales (or timbales/kettledrums), as well as for the way he combined big band instrumentation and jazz harmonies with Afro-Cuban music. He recorded over 118 albums and is credited on dozens more, more than any other timpani bandleader to date. This journey began with Ran Kan Kan, his first professional track recording and the soundtrack of today’s Doodle.
Beyond the mambo movement, Puente experimented with other genres of Latin music such as Boogaloo, Pachanga, and eventually Salsa. He was considered a musical pioneer for his creativity and experimentation, and is widely credited with popularizing Latin music in the United States. In 1969, he was awarded the key to New York City.
In addition to the musical accolades he received throughout his career, Puente was also deeply dedicated to creating opportunities for the Latino community. In 1979, she introduced a scholarship fund that supported promising young Latin percussionists for more than 20 years.
The author of the Doodle, Carlos Aponte, commented on his work that, “the theme was significant because Tito was part of my musical experience growing up in Puerto Rico. My aunt introduced me to Tito Puente through La Lupe, a famous singer in Puerto Rico and New York. Tito was like a Svengali for talents like Celia Cruz. He was a household name. So Tito was part of my Puerto Rican soundtrack.”