Photo Credit: Contributed. Tito Puente
Growing Up TITO with the King of Latin Music
By Lori Goldstein
Oye cómo va/Mi ritmo/Bueno pa’gozar/Mulata*—that’s the joyful chorus that’s been my earworm ever since I spoke to Tito Puente, Jr. “It was an incredible experience being the son of the king of Latin music, the ambassador of mambo music worldwide,” says Tito, who feels his life journey is to continue the legacy of his late father, making sure everybody remembers who Tito Puente, Sr. was, and introducing future generations to the man, his career, and his music. Tito accomplishes that whenever he brings his 7-piece ensemble to the Philadelphia/Bucks County region.
Tito readily responds to the question that so many people want to ask: what was it like growing up with your father? He feels fortunate that when he turned 13, his mother allowed him to accompany his father on tour during the summers. Tito Jr. gravitated toward percussion just as his father had. “They say that when you’re a child, your parents say ‘don’t touch certain things.’ Of course, we had a garage full of drums in their New York City home. Even though my father said, ‘Don’t touch nothing!’ what did I go and do? I started slamming on the drums.”
Tito Sr. was a street musician from Spanish Harlem. When he was a teenager in the 1930s, he played in Central Park, on 13 different instruments including the saxophone, brass, and woodwind instruments. His mother, Ercillia Ortiz Puente, gave him piano lessons for a quarter. With piano being a percussion instrument, he transferred his skills to other percussion instruments, primarily the timbales. “If you ever see [a video] of my father performing on timbales,” says Tito Jr., “it looks like he’s dancing. It’s as if he’s playing the piano, it’s an amazing thing.”
Tito Sr. attended The Juilliard School to perfect his musicianship and learn the art of composition and arrangement. “My father loved the arts, but he didn’t have the patience to teach.” That’s why he insisted Tito Jr. get a formal music education, which he did at Five Towns College in Dix Hills, New York, learning how to read and write jazz compositions. Like his father, he started out playing a trap kit—the type of drum set rock percussionists play. From there Tito progressed to the timbales and the congas, the tall, barrel-shaped drums that his father played.
Traveling with his father’s band taught Tito Jr. how to hone in on the 3/2 clave rhythm characteristic of Afro-Cuban jazz, the mambo rhythms, and all the other Afro-Cuban rhythms which were trademarks of his father’s compositions. He also learned the practical side of the music business: how to set up drums, break them down, the ins and outs of being a road manager, “and being just a band boy at the time. That’s what we were called.”
In high school, Tito Jr. was a drummer with a heavy metal band called Monoxide that toured all over the United States, Canada, and Europe. He admits that as a teenager he did feel like he had to measure up to his father. That’s why his favorite music was heavy metal and rock. “Bon Jovi, Iron Maiden, Phil Collins—those were [and still are] my go-tos on my Ipod or phone.”
Tito Jr.’s first professional song was “Sound of the Latin Rhythm,” featuring his father on drums. It was released in 1993, on the dance record, “Sounds of the Latin Flow,” which garnered a lot of airplay. “I started touring with not rock music, but Latin dance music, so that was really the beginning of my recording career.
By the late 1990s he was dabbling in Latin dance music and traveling with his own group, complete with dancers and a DJ—a whole stage show. “I started playing the timbales like my father, but I didn’t want to be compared to him at that time.” Tito Sr. was an icon legend winning six Grammys. In the late 1990s, Tito had gravitated toward spending more time with his father and after his passing in 2000, “I started to embrace who he was.”
Tito’s focus was now his own percussion playing, and “with the blessing of my family, my comrades and all my musician friends–they wanted me to start playing the music of my father maybe two or three years after his passing.” In 2004, “En Los Pasos De Mi Padre,” was his first album playing the timbales. “I gravitated toward playing with a live orchestra, including piano, bongos and all that.” Now 51, Tito’s proud to say he’s been working as a musician for 30 years and 20-plus years in the Latin jazz world.
“It’s really incredible that I’ve honed in more on my percussion playing, and I’m glad I got that experience with my father teaching me how to do that. Overall, I’m grateful that he named me Tito Puente, Jr. There must have been some reason why he did that. I guess he wanted me to continue his legacy and keep his music going.”
Tito has a hectic tour schedule that rivals his father’s, taking him all over the country, and all over the world. “The whole Philadelphia, Camden, South Jersey area is really special for me. I’ve done so many concerts there, of course Atlantic City, Wildwood, Seaside Heights… I have an admiration for the great mambo fans in South Jersey and North Philly. They love coming to the shows and dancing.”
Tito even ventures to the Midwest–to states like Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, and Mississippi–where there are always pockets of fans who demand to hear the music of his father. A far-ranging tour of Eastern Europe beginning in March 2023 is also on his itinerary. Whenever Tito performs in the Caribbean and South America, “They don’t let me talk, they say, ‘Keep playing the music, we don’t want to hear the stories!’”
The stories they’re referring to are the ones Tito likes to tell, especially to younger audiences who did not grow up with his father’s music. “In between songs I take you through the lineage of my father’s career and his songs…explain[ing] how those songs were written and where they were composed and arranged. People get that learning curve through the concert.”
He also likes to share personal stories about his father, for example, reminding the audience “there would be no king without a queen, and that was Celia Cruz. She was instrumental in bringing Latin music around the world…even to the Far East, where the people didn’t know English or Spanish, but they understood the language of Afro-Cuban music.”
Born in Cuba, Celia was married for over 40 years to her childhood sweetheart, Pedro Knight, a trumpeter in her first orchestra. “When people asked Tito Sr. if he was married to Celia, he’d say ‘Absolutely not! My wife is from Puerto Rico and New York City.’” Incredibly close to the Puente family, Celia was Tito Jr.’s godmother and “a titan of salsa and mambo music.”
Tito Puente, Jr.’s setlists include many of Tito Sr.’s monster hits, including “Mambo Gozon,” the world-famous “Ran Kan Kan,” and of course, “Oye Cómo Va.”
All the arrangements on Tito’s latest album, The King and I, are his father’s. One song,“20 Anos,” is an original composed by two-time Grammy winner Marlow Rosado as a tribute to Tito Sr. “I took five decades of arrangements, some of the singers are the original ones who recorded those songs,” says Tito. “But the melodies and the compositions are from my father’s vault, which is in New York.” In one of the numbers on this album, “El Rey del Timbal,” the great percussionist, Sheila E., Tito Sr.’s goddaughter, performs.
“My mother has given me access to all this great music…[There are] over 10,000 arrangements, so I could probably do a volume 2, a volume 3, a volume 4–maybe even a box set–that’s how much music we have. It was a very good gift that he gave me.”
Tito’s next recording might include some original material, possibly a song with La Lupe, the current queen of Latin soul. “We did a tribute to her back in 2017 called ‘Mi Socio,’” with a music video for that on You Tube. Melina Almodovar, who frequently sings with Tito’s band, “knocked it out of the park when we recorded that, so we’re looking forward to doing another song by that legend.”
With a touring schedule as hectic as his father’s, Tito manages to carve out quality time with his wife and two children in their Fort Lauderdale home. He drives the kids to school, helps them with homework, hunkers down watching movies with them. He also makes visits to members of his family and his wife’s family, who all live in New York.
Tito has a radio show on the website, power787radio.com. You can tune in every Sunday from 3:00 to 4:00 PM EST to hear him live, telling you more stories and playing his father’s music. Also, an 8-part documentary series on the life and legacy of Tito Puente, Sr., will be released at the end of 2022–the streaming service to be determined. “It will contain some exclusive footage that no one’s ever seen before from our family archives, of our home videos with my father.” A biopic on Tito Sr.’s life will hopefully be available in 2024.
Tito sings chorus and some of the numbers with his 7-piece band. When I ask him does he dance, he says, “No, I stink at dancing!” But you can be sure that his fans will be dancing at their seats or in the aisles. “I have never performed my father’s music and not seen anybody dance.”
“I’m 51 years on this planet,” says Tito. “I feel very content that I can do maybe another 40, 50 years pushing this music to its farthest reaches to make sure who the king of Latin music was and will forever be.” Tito holds up one of his father’s Grammy statues, and I say I bet he’s headed toward winning a Grammy of his own.
You can follow Tito Jr. on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok (“my kids got me on that”) @titopuentejr. He posts daily, starting with Mambo Mondays.
Photo Credit: Contributed. Tito Puente
*Translation of Oye Cómo Va’s chorus
Oye cómo va Listen to how
Mi ritmo My rhythm goes.
Bueno pa’ gozar Good for having fun,