An Audience with the King

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I was on my way to interview Tito Puente, the King of Latin Music, and my first major assignment as a writer. I was excited, elated to have been picked for this project, and nervous, very nervous. Absentmindedly, I bit the last of what remained of my right thumbnail thinking of the many questions I had researched over the past few days as the #1 train pulled into my station. It was hard to see the stop from inside the bubble-art, graffiti-covered car, “Taki 183” tagged all over the windows. I already knew to get off three local stops after Seventy-Second Street. Climbing the stairs at the Fiftieth Street exit, I pulled the yellow piece of paper from my pocket: RMM Management, 1650 Broadway and Fifty-First.

My mouth was so dry I stopped first at the corner Nedick’s for an orange soda. Adjusting my pea coat and turtleneck sweater in the nippy October air, I looked through my pouch, checking for my tape recorder and notes. I was really wanting an Orange Julius, but I felt too good to push through all the pimps, dealers, hustlers, hookers and junkie thieves to get to Forty-Second, even though I was early for the 9 pm appointment. Besides, the beasts in blue were all over the place after the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped Patty Hearst. The cops seemed to be on a mission to get rid of blacks and Puerto Ricans, especially after Governor Rockefeller imposed his draconian drug laws to toughen up his presidential profile. Shit was really getting ugly here. The Serpico cops were few and far between, and by the time the movie had come out earlier that year, the four-year-old Knapp Commission the city set up against police corruption had already lost its steam.

While waiting on line for my soda, I could only hear the TV on the counter behind the register, my vision blocked by the huge Afro on the dude in front of me. The volume was loud enough though to hear the latest on the Watergate trials. Nixon had resigned. Ford was the new president. My orange soda arrived.

It was late for an interview I thought as I waited by the counter, but I shouldn’t have been surprised, after all, this is the entertainment industry. Isn’t that where I wanted to be? I’d grown up listening to Tito Puente, learning those mambo steps as I held onto my mother’s arms, my feet on her shoes, going through the paces. I loved Latin music, but I loved me my R&B too.

I’d gone clubbing the night before and could still hear Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” ringing from the dance floor. We’d slow danced grind to the Stylistics’ “You Make Me Feel Brand New” followed by the syncopated drumming of Ray Barretto’s “Indestructible.” Eddie Palmieri’s “Harlem River Drive” drove us nuts while Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” brought the wild out in us. DJs mixed R&B with salsa then and all of those old school morenos knew how to get down with the mambo. In fact, back in the day, you weren’t hip in Harlem if you didn’t know how to Latin. Hey, we lived together in the projects, went to the same schools, played in the same playgrounds, fought in the same wars, did time in the same jails. We married and had babies together.

“Thems Mira, Miras,” they taunted us.

Cocolos,” we countered, jumping like coconuts falling from trees.

Afterwards, we marched together for the same cause, we danced together on the same floors. There were no Cocolos or Mira, Miras there. It was who could throw down the best, whether you were from Harlem, Little Italy or the Catskills.

Ellie was my college friend Karen Taylor’s mom and one of those Harlemites who loved to Latin, especially in the ’50s and ‘60s, when everyone danced mambo.

Every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, Ellie went from Birdland on Fifty-Second and Broadway, up the block to the Palladium Ballroom on Fifty-Third.

“Child,” she said, emphasing the “i” and the “l”, “we used to dance to Tito when he was a nobody.” She giggled like a little girl, her eyes twinkling.

“I won two dance contests, I did. One night at the Palladium, my friend Barbara had herself on a new strapless dress. We all kidded her ‘bout it. ‘Be careful you don’t fall outta that dress Barbara,’ we all laughed.

“Tito and his band start playing; we start dancing. After three of those fast, heart attack mambos of his, he announces a new number. We stay on that dance floor. The drums were beating, the bass was thumping, the brass start roaring, and those handsome men began singing: ‘Babarabatiri, ahi. Babarabatiri, ahi.’

“We all swore they were singing, ‘Barbara showed her tittie.’ Ya’see. Barbara showed her tittie. Ya’see.’

“When we all turned around, Barbara was on the dance floor, embarrassed, trying to hold up that strapless bustier she knew all damn well was really too small for her big ol’ titties. We had us some good times with Tito Puente.”

Ellie went into her mambo steps as I laughed wildly.

I told her all about The Fania All-Stars, the Latino counterpart to the Motown sound, and how they had made major league headlines the year before in ‘73 when 40,000 fans stampeded the Yankee Stadium field to get a closer look at their favorite bandleaders performing alongside Africa’s Manu DiBango. The film, Our Latin Thing had opened in major American theaters the year before that, taking the music and its artists around the world. The sold-out salsa shows at the new Madison Square Garden featured wild backstage parties, orgies and drugging, the envy of the rockers. Mick Jagger, Steven Stills and even Andy Warhol skulked backstage trying to hang with all the gorgeous bad boys who sweated, sang and gyrated to the polyrhythmic beats of African-fused music. Hang on to your girls, break out the hooch, bring on the blow (and these guys had the Colombian best), the Fania All-Stars are coming through.

The music was pouring from the streets, cars, apartments and beaches. Carnegie Hall hosted Larry Harlow’s first Latin music opera Hommy in 1973, a historic concert made sweeter with a free copy of the Fania album to all ticket holders of both sold out shows that night. Based on The Who’s Tommy, Harlow’s version dazzled the filled to capacity crowd with original Latin music, songs that rebooted Celia Cruz’s career to a younger, hipper generation, who went to college and were fighting for a cause.

I was glad to be taking a break from Lehman College. After two years on the dean’s list, a year on the school paper The Meridian, and the showdowns I’d had at President Leonard Lief’s office as part of the campus Puerto Rican student movement, I needed to take a breather to work, to experience the real world outside school and the ‘hood. Besides, after storming into the president’s office followed by 200 screaming radicals, I’d almost been arrested. Breaking a hole through the locked double doors with my combat boots after occupying a couple of campus buildings demanding black and Puerto Rican studies, I was caught on video, and it wasn’t Candid Camera. There I was crawling through the shattered glass, unlocking the entrance for our sit-in when police arrived. I stood my ground reciting my rights as I questioned why all the recent “mystery” hangings of our brothers seemed to occur after “routine” arrests and detentions.

“Suicides,” coppers claimed. “That’s why we take their belts and shoe laces.”

“Really?” I confronted him. “So what happened to Jazzy last month? We were all together at the precinct when your guys picked us up at the Central Park protests. He was about to go to grad school. You separated him from us. You guys taunted him, berated him. Told him the only school a black Dominican would ever see was a penitentiary. Why was he found dead the next morning hanging from his cell when he didn’t have a belt?”

I sipped my soda, at ease in my good fortune to be here in Midtown instead of the Bronx campus. The campus memories began to fade as I thought about this interview with a major artist, a plum assignment for a cub reporter. I looked up at the clock, right by the grinning giant orange head of Nedick’s logo. I still had time.

I browsed through the Latin N.Y. magazine I’d spotted at a newsstand while at lunch from my copy editing job at Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich. It was a hip publication, almost counter culture, written in English. I didn’t read El Diario. And my editor at the publishing firm told me I’d get nowhere in the literary world with my “accent.” Never mind that his English inflection was so strong, unless you were an Anglophile, you could barely understand his bloody, haughty ass. I called the magazine.

I had just started working as a volunteer at Latin N.Y., when I was assigned the Puente story. Pablo “Yoruba” Guzman, today a reporter for WCBS news, was its editor and a former Young Lords and Black Panther Party member. After our two-hour interview, where he talked only about himself and Maoism, I began to write for and edit the magazine.

Something new happened every day at that office. Immediately I was thrown into a grassroots campaign to create a separate category for Latin music in the Grammys, something I didn’t know we didn’t have. We walked on fresh ground, paving new paths as we documented our reality, recorded our words, poems, music, dance and art; we wrote our own original rules that bloomed from the seeds of our parents’ culture, budding in the heat of our urban reality. There was more than a rose in Spanish Harlem; there was a freaking Latin New York botanical garden complete with weeds and all. Hip met with tradition here as we managed to merge it all together in an honest, unpolished format as counter culture as the Village Voice yet as traditional as abuelita’s pasteles. As part of the already shorthanded editorial staff planning the next issue, the Puente piece went to me.

It was time for my audience with the king.

As soon as I knocked on the door, a deep, sandpaper sounding voice yelled out to come in. I stepped through the threshold right foot first, as Mom always told me to do if I wanted things to go well. I sat on the leather sofa in the small, square waiting area. A reception desk, bookended by two doors, stood empty in front of me. The right door was shut. The left was ajar. The voice came at me once more.

“Whadaya want?”

I got up and rapped gently on the left, partially unlocked door as it opened all the way revealing a fat, squat, sweaty looking pig of a man plopped on a desk; his stringy, greasy, black hair flopping over the angry looking, greenish, ripe pimples scowling at me.

I stammered.

“I, I, I’m here from Latin N. Y. magazine, ah, to do an interview on T-T-Tito Puente. This is Ralph Mercado’s office, right? They told me to be here at 9 and…”

He scanned me up and down, from the frayed hems of my bellbottom jeans, up to my opened pea coat and turtleneck sweater to the part in my long, dark hair wrapped with a leather headband.

“How old are you?” he demanded, interrupting me. “You don’t even have tits.”

I felt like he had just ripped my clothes off. I sank into my jacket, completely ignoring his remark, got back my composure, and, as if I’d put him on rewind, began again.

“My name’s Aurora Flores. I’m here to do an interview with Tito Puente for Latin New York magazine.”

He just glared at me as he chomped on his gum like a cow chewing cud, giving me the once over.

“Wait outside.” He pointed to the lobby.

I went back to the sofa as he made an exit through a side door in his office.

I was stunned. How dare he. And why didn’t I tell him off? Did I really run out of words? Was I afraid? I realized then that my knees had been shaking because they stopped. Maybe I should’ve put on some makeup, but I hated that male chauvinist tool for the subjugation of women. I didn’t even have lipstick on me. Bad Latina. My Cosmo-reading sisters thought using our looks to get ahead was a powerful tool, especially in entertainment. But wasn’t I part of the counterculture, a feminist who went to college to build my brain, not my body?

Well, my brain knew there was some heavy, hardcore shit going on around here. I recalled those NOW ladies saying women should be able to walk around naked, without fear, in front of men; the same white women who always got off the train on 96th street. They never walked across 110th.

I was glad I had no make-up on, that I was all covered-up from head to toe. In the real world, Mom told me, never eat a hamburger in front of a bunch of hungry dogs.

Suddenly, the same nasty dude opened the right door and barked. “Okay. You can go in now.”

I walked through into a large, smoke-filled, office with a big, square glass desk in front of wide windows overlooking mid-Manhattan. The venetian blinds were up, exposing the many lights gleaming from the surrounding buildings like stars against the blue-black night. On one side of the room was a huge potted palm tree surrounded by African masks. On the opposite wall, an entertainment cabinet held a state of the art Zenith stereo system, an 8-track tape sticking out of the slot near the turntable. An Akai reel-to-reel tape deck stood sturdy on the shelf above the record player, as big, black speakers, like bodyguards, strategically guarded each corner of the carpeted room. Latin and R&B records lined the cabinet’s shelves. A long, tan, leather sofa sat in the center of the room, a matching chair on its left.

Tito Puente sat on the far right of the couch next to his agent, Ralph Mercado. Both of them wore suits, but the king’s looked frumpy and he had a stain on his tie. A glass cocktail table dotted with glasses, bottles, an ice bucket and other paraphernalia stood before them. They motioned to close the door behind me and sit at their side.

Ralph Mercado spoke first, flashing a big Colgate smile.

“I see you met my partner Ray Avilés. Don’t mind him; he’s had a long day. So you’re the new writer for Latin N.Y. eh? How’s Izzy?”

The publisher, Izzy Sanabria, was getting ready to go to Zaire, Africa with the Fania All-Stars for the Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” fight. The All-Stars, along with Celia Cruz, would share the stage at a major outdoor arena with James Brown, The Pointer Sisters, Bill Withers, B.B. King and Miriam Makeba.

A long, slender, copper-toned Latino with a nicely cropped Afro, three-piece suit and tie, Ralph took a drag of one of his equally long, brown cigarettes as he poured a Remy Martin for Tito.

“Oh, he’s going to Africa with the Fania All-Stars, ya know.” I was trying to be as casual and comfortable as they were.

As I sat into the chair, I slipped my coat off tucking it behind me, taking my notes and tape recorder out of my pouch. As I placed everything on the table, I spotted the big round mirror with the mound of white powder, little lines neatly cut across the snow mountain’s valley. A single-edged razor blade lay nearby. My right knee started twitching again. Ralph turned and looked at me, still smiling like a Cheshire cat.

“Would you like a drink?”

“Oh no, I don’t, ah, drink.”

Which was true; the most I’d had was a little Boone’s Farm wine with weed, and that was in college. Some of us had experimented with LSD, even mushrooms and mescaline as we were so into Castaneda’s Teachings of Don Juan, but this—this was out of my league. Not that I was a prude or anything. I’d jumped over the dopers sprawled out on their sides twitching their junkie kick on the stairs of the project when the elevators were out on my way to high school. From the monkey bars in the projects I’d watch as the fine boys with “D.A.” cuts or Afros strutted their stuff in sharkskin pants, Alpaca knits and playboy shoes in the vest pocket parks the summer before they were drafted, only to return from ‘Nam, broken, doing the dirty dope fiend dance of death defying gravity. No, cocaine was not the drug of the proletariat. Cocaine was for the bourgeoisie.

Here I was trying to be one.

I took an “all business” profile, put the tape recorder on the table, and looked straight at Tito.

“Were you introduced to the Schillinger method of arranging while at Julliard, after the war?”

Tito stops laughing and drinking. He looks at me.

“Yeah, how’d ya know that, kid?”

“I think I read that in DownBeat magazine. Tell me a little about that. You studied under the G.I. Bill, right?”

“You mean you don’t want to know my birth date, where I was born?”

“I already know all that. I didn’t want to waste your time so I did research at the library. Forty-Second Street. They got microfilm from way back.”

“Listen to this smart little girl.” He pops out his eyes at Ralph who picks up the mirror. Tito sounds like James Cagney. Ralph looks like a Latino version of Soul Train’s Don Cornelius; I’m thinking, this is a gangster movie.

A tiny silver spoon flashes out from Ralph’s lapel pocket. With his gold ringed pinkie up in the air, he gingerly digs into the mound and passes it over to Tito who, faster than you can say mambo, noisily snorts the whole thing up, along with the loose lines.

Both my knees begin to twitch now.

Ralph turns his body from Tito to me, the platinum plate still in one hand, the spoon in the other. Sliding around on the leather seat, he looks straight at me.

“You do this, right, college kid?”

It is more a challenge than a question. Was this some kind of acid test for the cool I had to pass if I was going to hang?

“Sure, all the time,” I answer, a big cheesy smile on my face.

As he brings that crystal mirror under my nose, he picks out a plump spoonful, placing it right under my left nostril. Not knowing what I’m doing, I snort out instead of in, spraying the powder into the air, making myself sneeze, sending whatever was left on the mirror onto the beige colored carpet.

From the sofa, Ralph quickly rises to his feet only to dive down on his knees in a futile effort to rescue the already camouflaged snow from the carpeted floor. Tito Puente laughs so hard he slides off the couch onto the floor, buttocks first. Then the door busts open and in storms the pit bull I’d met earlier, pointing at me, snarling, “I told you she’s a kid. She could be a narc; a set up, what are you mother f***s’ doing?”

Spit spews from his mouth, raining down on me. My cheeks burn with fear and mortification. Hot tears stain my face. I want the floor beneath that chair to open up and swallow me into a deep, black hole; take me from this place where I was now convinced I would be beaten or killed.

Tito stops laughing, picks himself up from the floor, adjusts his suit jacket, and commands, “Leave her alone Ray; stop f***-yelling at her. She’s a good kid, can’t you see that?”

Without missing a beat, he looks at me.

“You hungry, kid?”

I’m not feeling anything but panic. But I am cool.

I nod.

“Come on kid. Let’s go to the Asia. We can talk good there without all these jokers.”

We walked to Fifty-Fourth and Eighth, to the Chinese Cuban restaurant all the Latino artists hung out at, La Asia Numero Uno.

Aida, the proprietor, was a thick, handsome Asian woman who loved a good joke, in Spanish, English, or Mandarin. She ran a strict restaurant alongside her husband Juan and their children. Raised in Cuba’s Chinatown after her family came over on the Coolie trade, they fled to New York after Castro.

She brought out Tito’s order of steaming white rice covered in picadillo, a flavorful Cuban stew of ground meat, alongside some crispy, fried Chinese dumplings.

“Don’t fall asleep around this one,” she warned with a wink as she motioned to Tito with her pouted lips.

“I’m sorry about all that sheet back there, kid.” Tito emphasized the “shit.”

“This is a tough business but you already know that. You don’t do any of that sheet do you?”

“No, not really. I’ve smoked pot.”

“That’s good. Stay clean, kid. How old are you anyway? Are you legal?”

“Yeah, I’m 21.”

“Well, be careful in this business. There’s a lot of ugly sheet out there. You want to keep away, not get too friendly with some of these bands you going to have to interview.”

“Like who?”

“You can start with that Willie Colon band. They’re into all that dope stuff. And his music will give you a headache. His singer’s not bad though." I smiled.

“What about the Harlow Orchestra? They’re always tight.”

"You wanna keep away from Larry Harlow too. He’s gotta great band, always in the pocket, but he’s a swinger man, into all these orgies kid. He’s got women all over him all the time. Hey, a young kid like you, you’ll get pregnant just standing next to him.” He chuckled.

“So tell me about the Schillinger method.” I continued trying to change the subject. “Glen Miller, Benny Goodman, George Gershwin, all these prolific writers churned out so much work in so little time with it. Is it a shortcut for arrangers?”

He looked stunned.

“That’s right kid! It can help you write faster, more creatively.”

“Where did you learn this?”

“The G.I. Bill paid for my classes at Julliard, at 135th Street in Harlem. They was just startin’ out then.“

“Is that how you seamlessly fused Chinese scales into Afro-Cuban music? I love the way you wrote ‘Hong Kong Mambo’ and ‘Que Sera Mi China.’ From a musical standpoint, it’s brilliant.”

“You play music, don’tcha’, kid? What do ya play?”

“I played double bass; studied with Frederick Zimmerman.”

“I knew it. You couldn’t notice all that if you didn’t know music. Zimmerman’s a master, a great man”

“He’d play a lot of show tunes for me when I took his lessons. By the way, I loved the way you Latinized those Broadway songs like from My Fair Lady. ‘I Could’ve Danced All Night’ made me mambo all day.”

“Look at that. And here all these old fogies tell me the young people today can’t appreciate my music. Listen to you.”

“Whose idea was it to do the Revolving Bandstand recording? I mean, there’s no other record I know of that has two big bands; Buddy Murrow’s on one side and yours on the other. How did you guys pick the music for that one?”

He looked at me with those bulging eyes and leaned back on his chair.

“That was 1960, kid, over at Webster Hall. I did all the arrangements for my big band then. Buddy had George Williams do the arrangements for his. We wanted the two bands to blend rather than just play Latin and then American dance music… and that’s what we did. We were two separate big bands joined by one musical heart; my bass player Ruben Rodriguez and the only musician who played with both orchestras. Nothing like that’s ever been done since.”

“Now you must tell me about La Lupe. Everyone says you two had a tempestuous affair on and off stage. What do you say? I mean, you’re the King and she’s the Queen right? What happened? When she hit with ‘Fever’ it was all over the place; I think it was bigger than Peggy Lee’s version. You know, she was singing ‘Fever’ before she started with that song where you’re throwing her out of the band. She says it over and over, Tito Puente threw me out…‘me boto, me boto.’ What happened?”

He didn’t answer, instead, every time an artist walked in, Tito made it his personal mission to introduce me, to let them know I was the new writer on the scene and I really did know music. We sat with Machito, ate with Pacheco, and danced to Charlie Palmieri’s virtuosity on the piano. We closed the restaurant that night.

Click on the photo for additional images

Days after the interview, he called me to go to one of his concerts, leaving tickets for me at the door. He’d invite me to dances or sometimes to lunch giving me history on the Diaspora of the music or on a certain group, or style. In those first few weeks after that interview, I was busy following him around.

I met Margie, the woman he lived with and later married, and the many more women he played with and never married. He became my mentor, teaching me about the good and the bad. And there was a lot of bad.

One early evening he called and asked to meet him downstairs. He was performing at La Casa Blanca nightclub on Fifty-Third Street. As I got into the stretch limo that pulled up to One Hundred and Third Street and Columbus, I spotted the other promoter in there with him; two blondes in miniskirts and halter tops adorned their sides. Tito made the introductions in Spanish since this Cuban gentleman only spoke the language of Cervantes. They already had an opened bottle of Remy Martin and Champagne in an ice bucket, the back seat thick with cigarette smoke. Shot glasses were everywhere. I was offered a drink. I kindly declined. They kept partying and after a few blocks, they broke out the blow. The snow they passed around came wrapped in aluminum foil and looked like a chunky meat pie, only filled with cocaine.

They all had their noses dusted when the Cuban dude passed it over to me. I looked at him and said no thank you, gracias, thinking that was OK until I saw his face change. He opened his leather jacket and from his left side pulled out a .357 Magnum. He placed it on the seat next to him, looked me straight in the eye, and told me in a deep, heavy Spanish accent, “We want participants, not witnesses.”

I wet my panties, and not in a good way. Tito, who sat to my left, leaped up from his seat and, shielding me with his right arm, told the guy “Nooo! She’s a good kid. Pull out a joint or something, she’ll smoke that sheet but don’t do this. She’s a college kid.”

We got to the club quickly after that. Tito’s table was front and center by the stage at the edge of the dance floor. I’d already calmed down, even making jokes about the “misunderstanding.” Tito was still teasing me about that after his first set, when a buzz started spreading from table to table like a tsunami.

“La Lupe’s in the house.”

The room was smoky, packed, and dark, as we both looked up to see her angular figure shadowing the entrance. As she inspected the room I began to make out her trim, curly dark wig, knee-high patent leather stiletto boots over skin-tight black leather pants, a white bustier and an ostrich feather boa. She made a beeline straight to Tito’s table.

You could cut the tension in the room with a switchblade. All eyes were on us. Annoyance was on Tito’s face. He stood up as she reached us.

At 51, Tito’s Afro had already gone grey. He was shorter than her, causing Lupe to stoop slightly when she kissed him. Or maybe it was her stiletto-heeled boots. Whatever, he grabbed her arms right away and made the introductions. She shot a look at me. Her cat eyes narrowed. She’d just had the first of a few facelifts, leaving her with an ominous feline look. I’m not going to lie, I was scared shit of her. I think I was more terrified of her than the guy with the gun. She looked like she could explode into a million pieces; her energy was like a ticking time bomb. I remembered seeing her in my youth at El Teatro Puerto Rico in the Bronx with my parents. I was about ten. She got so caught up in the song she kicked off her shoes straight into the audience. She jumped up and down, grabbing her dress and her tits, pulling out her extensions, and throwing them along with her rings at the public. It was like watching a possession. She even bit herself, drawing blood from her arm. Home girl scared the sheet out of me.

She’d been a hit on the Dick Cavett Show but was banned from television in Puerto Rico for pulling out her bare breast during a live taping. She put the D in Diva; before Madonna, before LaBelle or Lady Gaga, we had La Lupe.

Now here she was, in living color, looking at me like I was a rival, until she saw the tape recorder next to my glass of water. Her face changed.

As soon as Tito let her arms go she reached over to shake my hand. Her fire engine red nails came dangerously close to my face as she slowly lowered her reach to mine and sat down. After a few moments of conversation, she quickly let me know she wasn’t impressed with my Spanish. She’d taught Spanish in Cuba, she noted. Don’t let the act fool you, I interpreted her as saying. She didn’t stay too long. I think she just wanted to mark her territory.

When we left, Tito made sure we took a cab and not the limo back to the Harlem projects where I still lived with my mother. He talked about how important it was to document this music and not let it die. He could really wax poetic when he wanted to, when he wasn’t around his boys, the liquor or the scene.

“We need more people like you to write about the music. People that are from the culture, that know what being poor is, that have gone to college and have this music in their blood. You understand this kid, you feel this, otherwise you would’ve run away already. I’m tired of all these other people trying to tell us who we are and what our music’s all ‘bout. It’s about time one of our own tells the world about it, someone who survived all this bullshit to write about what really goes on here, what really happens when we create and play this music that makes even the spirits dance. Don’t give up on me. You’re tough and you’re smart. Don’t let these f***** scare you; don’t let them bully you. You’re the one kid.”

I gulped hard.

What started as an interview with a legendary musical icon from my childhood turned into a platonic friendship that lasted until his passing in 2000. I wrote many interviews and reviews on Tito for many other publications in particular Billboard magazine where I was the first female music correspondent covering Latin Music and R&B at a time when clubs still had signs displayed “Unescorted Women Not Allowed.”

Tito’s tenacity kept me going fueled by tapes from Cuba, books on the history of Puerto Rico, his collaborations with Rafael Cortijo, and stories on everyone especially the guests he’d bring to the apartment I eventually moved into on the Upper West Side. When I went into Madison Avenue Marketing & Public Relations it was Tito I’d count on to appear at an event or gala function. And it was Tito who challenged Oscar the Grouch to dance over Sesame Street while my consulting firm handled the race relations publicity campaign for the Children’s Television Workshop. A major league appearance among the toddler set, Tito was a source of pride for my young son who earned bragging rights in school after the King’s star rose with the muppets.

Yes he was, the King of Latin Music, but he was one of the most pervasive of writers, arrangers for this genre of music. His prodigious writing confirms this. His ear for harmony and counterpoint, underscores this. Oye Como Vavalidates this. But he had other lessons for me, whether he knew it or not.

Breaking through in a man’s world isn’t easy. I saw that in the mangled face of La Lupe. I heard it in the backrooms of clubs where women are considered part of the perks: drinks, drugs and degradation, and not the scene. I felt it in the stares from men who wondered why I didn’t wear a mini skirt, or hang out with the bands at the bars. I heard it in the words of Celia who despite being called Queen, was always heavily escorted and guarded.

Regardless of the many interviews I’ve done with hideous men, (believe me there are many disguised in the corporate, political, academic and business world as well), I have found a few jewels of virtue and virtuosity exemplary of the title “salt of the earth” or alma de Dios. Through Tito I learned at a very young age how to take the desafinado of life and turn it into a major chord. Most important, I found my own voice in music and culture.

____________

FYI: From my very own "salsa diaries."


© Aurora Flores. Published by permission in Centro Voices on 22 October 2014. 

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.