Joe Conzo met Latin percussionist Tito Puente at a performance at New York’s Palladium in 1959. After that, the two kept running into each other and eventually became such good friends that Conzo ended up as his de facto archivist. He'll soon publish a biography about the music legend.
“I tell everybody it was destiny,” says Conzo, who co-wrote the liner notes to the reissue of Puente’s Dance Mania, due out later this month. “I always archived his music since I was a kid. Everybody grew up with his 78s. The music was always there. The house parties were always playing his music, especially in Spanish Harlem. You can’t do it today, but years ago, the doors were open and everyone would share drink and food with you. Like Tito once said, the Palladium was one of the few places that wasn’t segregated. Everybody and their mother went there.”
Puente’s popularity escalated after he signed a deal with RCA in 1956. Dance Mania, recorded in 1957, was groundbreaking because it incorporated so many instruments (even the cowbell!) and successfully crossed over into jazz circles. The Sony Legacy reissue includes numerous bonus tracks and remastered versions of the original tunes.
The music really swings too, right from the opening notes of the exuberant “El Cayuco.” “Tito’s albums were mindblowers,” says Conzo says. “He always hated the word ‘salsa.’ He always said, ‘That’s tomato sauce.’ If you have a
chance to sit down and listen to all of his music, he grew from a small group to a big band. He incorporated jazz. He had one of the best percussion rhythm sections. When those musicians left, he brought in Mr. Hot Hands himself, Ray Barretto, who plays with Tito on Dance Mania.”
Conzo, who helped provide the original cover art and vintage photos you see in the liner notes, says the album was significant in ways that Puente didn’t even realize at the time. “This album the New York Times listed as one of the top 25 of the 20th century,” he says, reiterating a point he makes in the liner notes. “This was the only one there — not Celia Cruz, not Gloria Estafan. This was the only Latin one there. It put this country to dance. It represented the height of the mambo. People were flocking to the Palladium to hear this music. It was very important. It blew everybody’s mind. To Tito, it was another album. He didn’t foresee it to be a hit.”
Conzo says he’s currently “crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s” on his “tell-all” biography, due out before the year’s end.
“He was a human being and had faults like everybody else,” he says. “But it’s important to show the public who he was. People get tired of salsa, and the advantage that Tito Puente had is that he could play Latin jazz or Latin music. You don’t have that today. Nobody’s progressive in that sense. When you listen to the radio, it’s the same garbage day in and day out. I’m a believer in culture. We’re losing our culture. If you don’t educate the young, forget about it. Thank God for Tito Puente. You gotta keep letting the public know about it. You need to listen and educate yourself because the sad part is that the radio doesn’t play it.” —Jeff Niesel