by Bobby Sanabria

Drawing on his early musical experience, Tito structured his band to be versatile enough to play a wide variety of music, ranging from straight-ahead jazz and society music to pop standards and typical Latin music, thereby increasing the number of venues it could play and widening its audience. Even as music writers proclaimed the passing of the big band, Tito and his contemporaries in the Latin scene were keeping the genre alive and vital.

From 1951 through 1955 Tito recorded for the Tico label. At Tico, Puente was given free rein to explore diverse musical ideas, a relationship that culminated in the highly innovative recording, Puente in Percussion, recorded in 1955. On the date Tito used no pianos or horns, featuring only percussionists Willie Bobo, Mongo Santamaria, and Patato Valdez, along with bassist Bobby Rodriquez.

"George Goldner, an executive at Tico, was resistant to the project at first", remembers Tito. "He couldn't see my making an album without piano and horns. I explained to him the significance of the drum in Africa, its used in religious dance rituals and communication, and how the tradition was handed down to us in Latin America. He finally gave me the go-ahead on the condition that we use the studio late at night to keep the cost down. We recorded everything in one or two takes," continued Tito, "and the album was very successful both from the standpoint of sales and quality drumming."

In 1955, RCA released Mambo on Broadway, a compilation of Tito's previously recorded 78's. That same year, Puente signed an exclusive recording contract with the company. Tito's years at RCA would be marked by prodigious artistic output and commercial success, achieved despite RCA's less than enthusiastic support of his efforts. "At the time," stated Tito, "RCA was pushing Perez Prado and Luis Avarado whom they felt appealed to a wider audience because of their toned-down approach to Latin music. Here I was ready to record with new arrangements and composition, and they called me 'little Caesar.'"

In 1956 Puente recorded the album Cuban Carnival, his first hit with RCA. His next release, Puente Goes Jazz, which showcased Tito's instrumental writing, was also a major commercial success. Despite RCA's lack of promotional support, Dorothy Kilgallen, writing in her daily column, "The Voice of Broadway" reported: "Tito Puente's new album, 'Puente Goes Jazz' is rocking the aficionados. They've snatched up 28,000 copies in two weeks." Tito stated, "RCA didn't know what to do with Latin music and they still don't. They treated me like some small-time local artist although I would consistently sell records."

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Originally from Latin Percussion. | Reprinted by permission from Latin Percussion.
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