Puente embracing his father’s legacy
With Father’s Day just a month away, Tito Puente Jr. is relishing the rare chance to play the role of dad.
Just off a string of symphony pops dates with Marvin Hamlisch and Jon Secada, he is back home in Fort Lauderdale taking care of his son, Tito Puente III, 3, before heading out to pick up his daughter Miranda, 4, from school.
“You go from sold-out concerts to coming home and trying to get your son to pee in the toilet,” says Puente, 39, laughing. “I understand now what my father went through when I was my son’s age, traveling and performing a lot of music. He was home very rarely. So when I do come home, I try to spend as much quality time as I can with my kids. I don’t know if potty training is quality time, but I try to spend as much time with them as I can.”
Puente’s devotion to family extends well beyond his children. It has defined him as an artist as he has picked up the mantle left by his father, the late “King of Latin Music” Tito Puente. Second-generation artists are nothing new in pop music, but most try to put some distance between themselves and their parents, to establish their own artistic identity. Few embrace their legacy with the gusto of Puente, who performs Saturday at the Buckman Performing Arts Center.
“I embrace it 100 percent,” says Puente, who with his broad smile and black curly hair bears more than a passing resemblance to his father. “I think it was my destiny to continue his music and embrace the fact that I am his son. I will always be compared and look like him and have his mannerisms, but it’s OK.”
New York-native Tito Puente was perhaps the brightest star to emerge from the post-World War II Latin music explosion. The Julliard graduate was a charismatic stage performer and prodigious musician, playing the vibraphones, piano, saxophone and most of the percussion instruments, including his trademark timbales. Before his death in 2000 at the age of 77, he recorded 168 albums and won five Grammy Awards and a Latin Grammy.
He was posthumously awarded the Grammy’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and 11 years after his death the honors keep rolling in: In March, Puente, who already has a post office in his old neighborhood of Harlem in New York City named after him, was among the five artists selected to be featured in the United States Postal Service’s “Latin Music Legends (Forever)” stamp series.
Puente Jr.’s earliest recollections of his father are of watching him from the wings of the stage when he was 4 or 5. The father never expressly sat down and taught the son how to play music, but Puente learned lots just from watching him. The youngest of Puente’s three children, he followed his father into the life of a professional musician. (Tito’s half brother, who is retired and in his late 60s, plays sporadically and not professionally; his sister, Audrey, is a television meteorologist in New York.) But for several years Puente rejected his dad’s mambos and salsa music in favor of newer, trendier forms.
“When I started off in my career in the early ’90s I was doing Latin dance and Latin hip-hop music, but I always gravitated toward the Latin roots,” says Puente, who also played for a time in a heavy metal band called Monoxide. “My father knew nothing of rock music or heavy metal. But one of the biggest rock icons of the world re-did one of my father’s signature standard songs, ‘Oye Como Va,’ and that’s Carlos Santana. After that he started liking rock music.”
Though they were on different musical paths, father and son did work together, with Senior appearing on Junior’s 1996 contemporary dance album Guarachando. But it wasn’t until his dad’s death that Puente fully accepted his Latin music roots.
“I wanted to continue his legacy,” says Puente. “It’s some big shoes to fill, but you can’t just let a dynasty like that just fade away.”
Three years after Puente’s death, his son made his debut fronting a traditional salsa band, appropriately named In My Father’s Shoes. Since then, he has nudged the tradition along a little. His most recent record, last year’s Got Mambo, features seven originals that were “a little more modern, more progressive Latin jazz, if you will.” It’s an approach he plans to continue on his in-the-works follow-up. He has also lent his talents to records by such mainstream artists as P. Diddy and Cypress Hill.
But his father’s work still remains very much on Puente’s mind. He is in talks to develop a film of Puente Sr.’s life. And the series of symphony pops dates he has been doing with Hamlisch as conductor draws on recently discovered arrangements the elder man had developed in his final years.
“Performing those concerts is almost like a calling from the grave,” he says.
Meanwhile, Puente hopes to pass on his sense of destiny to his own son as well.
“I always thought there was some meaning of my life, of being here on this planet. After all, my father named me after him,” says Puente. “Hopefully, (Puente III) will continue his grandfather’s tradition of playing this music. But first we got get this potty training down.”