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Bandleader Tito Puente Dies

Bandleader Tito Puente, who rode to fame on the heels of the 1950s mambo craze and for the next five decades helped define Latin jazz, died Thursday. He was believed to be around 77.

Puente died at NYU Medical Center in New York, said his agent, Eddie Rodriguez.

Puente recorded more than 100 albums in his more than 60 years in the business. He won his fifth Grammy in February for best traditional tropical Latin performance for Mambo Birdland and has been nominated for the music award 10 times.

Puente joked that he has profited off the talent of Santana, whose early hits include Puente's Oye Como Va.

"Every time he plays Oye Como Va, I get a nice royalty check," Puente said.

"He's just one of those cats that we will never, ever forget. We can't. He made it possible for just about everybody today," Ewilda Rivera told CBS Radio News. Rivera is the host of Latin Jazz Cruise, a jazz program on WBGO, a public radio station in Newark, N.J.

"He definitely earned the title of 'The King.' He was one of the biggest bridge-builders of them all," Rivera added. "He set the foundation. I'll always remember Tito Puente as that flamboyant, funny, entertaining, talented, warm, down-to-earth person that he was, in addition to being one of the biggest bridge-builders of them all."

Puente said in a 1997 Associated Press interview: "The excitement of the rhythms and the beat make people happy," "We try to get our feelings to the people, so they enjoy it.

"It is not music for a funeral parlor."

That year, RMM Records released 50 Years of Swing, a three-CD, 50-song compilation from Puente's recorded output through 50 years. The first cut, Que No, Que No, is from his El Rey del Mambo (The King of the Mambo) recording of 1946.

The eldest son of Puerto Rican parents, Puente was born Ernest Anthony Puente Jr. in New York City on April 20, 1923. (Some references give other years.)

His father, Ernest Anthony Puente Sr., was a foreman in a razor-blade factory, and his mother was Ercilia Puente, who called her son Ernestito, Little Ernest, then shortened the name to Tito.

It was his mother who first discerned his musical talent and enrolled him in a piano class when he was 7. Puente studied drums for years before switching to timbales. He studied conducting, orchestration and theory at the Juilliard School from 1945 to '47 on the GI Bill.

Puente had been released from a San Juan, Puerto Rico, hospital May 2 after two days of treatment for an irregular heartbeat. Puente canceled all his events in May, including three concerts planned with the Symphonic Orchestra of Puerto Rico.

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