And when the heavens open I saw
I heard her say "Asucar turn this on."
Tito Puente's dressed in white
Playing timbales while the angels
Sing with Selena
Ay Mamma. Is you carnival shoes on.
--Wyclef Jean, "Selena"
As a depression-era child in New York's Spanish Harlem, Ernesto Antonio (Tito) Puente enjoyed banging on pots and pans so much that the neighbors convinced his parents to give him music lessons.
His Puerto Rican immigrant parents obliged, with lessons for piano, percussion, saxophone, vibraphone and timbales, and Tito became a professional musician at 13. Following an apprenticeship in the Machito Orchestra, he served in the Navy during World War II.
After his return to New York in 1945, he used the G.I. Bill to finance his studies at the Juilliard School. By 1950, he had his own band and commanded large crowds who were drawn to his creative mix of Latin, jazz, cha-cha, merengue, bossa nova and salsa. In 1958 he released his best selling album "Dance Mania," which was followed by many more hit records.
In 1970, the band Santana rose to fame for their version of "Oye Como Va," a song which rose to #13 on on the Billboard Top 100 (see Tito's lively version, below). Written by Puente in 1963, NPR named it one of the "NPR 100: The most important American musical works of the 20th century."
Puente was nominated for 12 Grammy Awards, and won 5, including one Latin Grammy for "Mambo Birdland."
A long-time supporter of the Latin community, he created a music scholarship for Latin percussionists at the Juilliard School. "The scholarship was a dream of mine for a long time," Puente later said, explaining, "In the Latin community, we have a lot of gifted youngsters who don't get an opportunity to develop their talent because of a lack of money. Long after, I'm gone, the fund will be helping kids."
Puente had performances scheduled all the way up to the day of his death in 2000 at age 77, and is estimated to have appeared in nearly 10,000 live performances. His daughter Audrey Puente is a meteorologist in New York City and his son Tito Puente, Jr. is a band leader.
Check out Top Ways to Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month in Denver from CBS Denver.