Tito Puente, Sr., (April 20, 1923 – June 1, 2000), born Ernesto Antonio Puente, Jr., was a Latin Jazz and Mambo musician. The son of native Puerto Ricans Ernest and Ercilia Puente, of Spanish Harlem in New York City, Puente is often credited as "El Rey" (the King) of the timbales and "The King of Latin Music". He is best known for dance-oriented mambo and Latin jazz compositions that helped keep his career going for 50 years. He and his music appear in many films such as The Mambo Kings and Fernando Trueba's Calle 54. He guest starred on several television shows including The Cosby Show and The Simpsons.
Tito Puente Sr. served in the Navy for three years during World War II after being drafted in 1942. He was discharged with a Presidential Commendation for serving in nine battles. The GI Bill allowed him to study music at Juilliard School of Music, where he completed a formal education in conducting, orchestration and theory. In 1969, he received the key to the City of New York from former Mayor John Lindsay. In 1992 he was inducted into the National Congressional Record, and in 1993 he received the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal from the Smithsonian.
During the 1950s, Puente was at the height of his popularity, and helped to bring Afro-Cuban and Caribbean sounds, like mambo, son, and cha-cha-cha, to mainstream audiences (he was so successful playing popular Afro-Cuban rhythms that many people mistakenly identify him as Cuban). Dance Mania, possibly Puente's most well known album was released in 1958. Later, he moved into more diverse sounds, including pop music, bossa nova and others, eventually settling down with a fusion of Afro-Cuban and Latin jazz genres that became known as "salsa" (a term that he disliked). In 1979 Puente won the first of five Grammy Awards for the albums A Tribute to Benny Moré, On Broadway, Mambo Diablo, and Goza Mi Timbal. In 1990, Puente was awarded the "James Smithson Bicentennial Medal." He was also awarded a Grammy at the first Latin Grammy Awards, winning Best Traditional Tropical Album for Mambo Birdland. In early 2000, he shot the music video Calle 54, wearing an all-white outfit with his band. After a heart attack following a show in Puerto Rico, on May 31, 2000 in New York City, Puente had open heart surgery from which he never recovered. He died during the night of May 31 – June 1, 2000. He was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003.