Tito Puente's Cha-Cha-Cha


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Yesterday, the temperature hit the mid-90s in New York. As the mercury climbed, thoughts turned to Tito Puente, the Les Brown of Latin dance music. In the 1950s, Puente was one of the so called “Big Three" mambo dance kings—Puente, Machito and Tito Rodriguez. While Machito veered toward Latin jazz and Rodriguez, a vocalist, was a bit more commercial, Puente's orchestra was primarily a dance band. But oh, what a dance band. The musicianship was extraordinary, as were the arrangements. He also became a master of the cha-cha-cha.

A little history about the music. The mambo arrived in the States with the the influx of Cubans in the late 1940s, when sugar monopolies, government corruption and political violence raised tensions there. To ease the pressure and undercut the threat of Communism, the U.S. established quotas for Cuban immigration. Mambo first surfaced in Havana, a city that thrived after World War II as a major resort city and adult playground that pre-dated Las Vegas. Gambling was legal and so was virtually everything else.

When Cuban families moved to the U.S., they settled in Florida and New York, and brought with them a passion for records from back home. At the same time, American band leaders, producers and record industry executives who visited Havana were exposed at clubs to the intricate rhythms and jazz-influenced brass arrangements of mambo ensembles and bands. During this period, the mambo of Perez Prado flourished in Mexico City, the recording capital of Latin America. In New York, Machito ruled.  

In 1952, when Puerto Rico became a U.S. Commonwealth and commercial air travel blossomed, a growing number of Puerto Ricans emigrated to New York to escape a faltering economy. With a market established for Latin music, many Puerto Rican musicians rode the mambo wave. These artists included Tito Puente, who was born in Manhattan's Spanish Harlem in 1923, and Tito Rodriguez, who was born the same year in Puerto Rico.

In the early 1950s, the cha-cha-cha emerged in Havana as a twist on the traditional mambo. The earliest cha-cha-cha records were by Orchestra Americana—La Engañadora and Silver Star. The craze leapt from Havana to Mexico City and then to New York. The cha-cha-cha had an addictive beat and all but compelled listeners to dance. The dance along with the mambo quickly became popular at summer resorts in the Catskill Mountains north of New York City and at New York's Latin ballrooms, including the Palladium and Roseland. Puente (above) was a master of this beat.

Here's an introduction to Puente and why he was on par with Les Brown as a dance band leader in the 1950s:

Here's Habanero from Let's Cha Cha with Puente in 1956...

Here's Cubarama from the same album...

Here's New Cha-Cha with Woody Herman from Herman's Heat & Puente's Beat! in 1958...

Here's Tito Meets Woody from the same album...

Here's How High the Moon from At Grossinger's in 1960...

Here's The Continental with Buddy Morrow from The Revolving Bandstand in 1960...

Here's Cha Cha Cha de los Pollos from Cuban Carnival in 1956...

And here's Que Sera from the same album...

Continue Reading...

This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2021. All rights reserved.

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