Tito Puente is the face of Latin music for many people. His showmanship, musical talent, and dedication to performing kept him in the spotlight from his early performances in the 1940s until his death in 2000. He was born in 1923 in Spanish Harlem to parents who were both Puerto Rican immigrants. The sounds of Puerto Rican and Cuban music filled his childhood and influenced his music, as did the big band sounds he loved to listen to on the radio. His early interest in drumming prompted noise complaints from his family's neighbors, who begged his mother to get Tito lessons.
Puente's talent blossomed with his drumming lessons, and in the '40s he joined the Machito Orchestra when their drummer was drafted for World War II. This was his big break, and Puente played with them until he was also drafted into the Navy. After the war, Puente went to the Julliard School of Music on the G.I. Bill to study music and orchestration, and in 1948 he formed his own band and began developing his distinctive performance style.
Tito Puente was known for his blending of Latin and jazz sounds, for placing percussion in the spotlight, and for celebrating the music with dancing and joy during his performances. His band became a regular sound at the Palladium Ballroom, where the Tito Puente Orchestra packed in the crowds and helped popularize mambo. Over the years he became known as "El Rey," the king of mambo music, and he collaborated with many other major performers, including Celia Cruz. Puente began recording with RCA Victor in the 1950s. He continued to record, collaborate, and perform for the next several decades. In the 1990s, he played himself in the movie, Mambo Kings, which helped drive a renewed awareness of his music. When he died at age 77, he was still regularly performing.
Tito Puente's legacy has been recognized in many ways. He received five Grammy Awards during his lifetime, as well as a posthumus Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award; among other honors, he also received honorary degrees, presidential recognition, and the Key to New York City.