King of Mambo. The Musical Pope. El Rey De Los Timbales (“King of the Timbales”). The King of Latin Music. Tito Puente—born Ernesto Antonio Puente, Jr—has numerous titles, and each of them is well-earned. With a career spanning fifty years, pioneering and perfecting the sound of dance-orientated mambo, Latin jazz, cha-cha, and son, Tito Puente is credited with bringing Afro-Cuban and Caribbean music to mainstream audiences. The gravity of his legend is this: if your folks heard a Latin American-sounding song on the radio back in the day and liked it, Tito was probably playing it; and if you hear a modern day Latinx track on a stream, or see a music video on Youtube, yep, its because Tito helped to bring the whole musical discipline to the world.
His synonymity and association with Latin American music is so powerful that, to date, many dance enthusiasts still assume he was Cuban. Close, but no cigar. While his parents were native Puerto Ricans living in New York’s Spanish Harlem, Tito was a born American. Nonetheless, his total immersion in the budding musical genre as a percussionist, songwriter, and bandleader was so total he went on to become its symbolic and spiritual head. Years on, he is still regarded by many singers, songwriters, and performers as Latin American music’s greatest champion.
His discography stretches over 120 albums and the famous musicians he performed with are legendary—Quincy Jones, Dizzy Gillespie, and Woody Herman, to name but a few—and he was a key player in the discovery of future musical stars like Celia Cruz. Tito’s melodies are memorable, spotted by a quick ear and eager feet the world over. El Cayuco and Ran Kan Kan anyone?
Also known for his energetic performances, even well into advanced age (as many as 200 to 300 performance engagements a year) Tito was a consummate showman adept at entertaining the audience with his drumming and conduction.
Oye Como Va—his most enduring and popular song (later reinterpreted by the likes of Carlos Santana, Julio Iglesias, and, of course, Celia Cruz)—is a staple wherever dance and music enthusiasts are found. Its iconic start—“RRRRRRR SABOR!”—is why The Salsa Club and his mambo faithful call him El Rey De Sabor: The King of Flavour.
From a long career defined by prolific output and universal respect, here are five classic songs from one of Latin America’s greatest musicians and performers: Tito Puente.
Hong Kong Mambo
Ran Kan Kan
Oye Como Va