The influence of New York City was in Ernest Puente Jr.’s blood, from the mixture of different ethnicities around him on a social basis to the celebration of music on the stage and on the silver screen. When you heard and saw Tito Puente, you saw the best in what NYC had to offer. Being called a child prodigy did not slow him down, and for fifty years he became the king of his terrain, and no one ever dared step into his territory and tell him otherwise. The Complete 78’s Volume 1, 1949-1955 is a comprehensive collection of early Puente material back when the only way to buy recordings were on records spinning at 78 revolutions per minute. Those early sides are still cherished not only by those who experienced them the first time around, but by anyone who has become mesmerized by Puente’s power; the sense of charisma that was a part of who he was and what he wanted his musicians to present to the public.
Like many musicians, Puente started out as the bandleader for bands and orchestras that would back up the headlining vocalist, including Johnny Lopez and Vicentito Valdes. Despite the age of these recordings (all recorded between 1949 and 1955), the performances and the musicianship sound quite fresh, partly due to the fact that a lot of bands incorporating that Nuyorican sound got it from listening to the man who helped create it. You’ll hear it in performances of “Cuban Mambo,” “Oye Lo Que Tiene El Mambo,” “Soy Feliz,” “Guajeo En Dominante,” “Mari Juana,” and “Babalaqua,” all of it played with style, finesse, and the occasional eyebrow raise that allowed his fans to know exactly when those clever moments were being played in the music. What you’ll also hear is the confidence in Puente as an artist, moving away from just the bandleader to the front man whose name was on the marquee bigger than everyone elses. His music was meant to dance and romance to, and there was no time to waste. In fact Puente released 78 singles in a six year time period, 156 songs to a public who bought each and every one. It wasn’t just a need to have output on the market so people wouldn’t forget, he truly loved the music he wrote and performed and he was fortunate to be given the opportunity to record at a pace that no one could ever compete with in the 21st century.
This is the reason why this 40 song, 2-disc set of The Complete 78’s is just Volume 1 (there are three other 2 disc volumes, and don’t dare question if Tito Puente is worth an 8CD box set). Even if you don’t understand a word of Spanish, you still feel a sense of hope and freedom in these songs, just as you should when you’re listening to them while on the dance floor or washing dishes in the kitchen. The talent of Puente, the musicians, and the singers would influence the group of people that were a part of the Fania label in the 1970’s, and can still be heard today in someone like Marc Anthony. Sometimes the musical monarchy game can be a silly one, but if there is someone who is deserving of his status as the King of Latin music, I dare anyone to come up with someone other than Tito Puente. These 40 songs are merely the surface of what’s available, but a great beginning for futher exploration into Puente’s vast catalog.
The only problem I had was with the mastering, only credited to “Miami Tape.” A good portion of these songs were mastered from the original 78’s, and while they can be cleaned up, I tend to like a bit of surface noise when I hear a vinyl transfer. Unfortunately it sounds as if these recordings were given the NoNoise treatment, where removing a bit of hiss and crackle also removed a lot of the qualities of the actual recording, so some of it sounds dull and uneasy. Granted, the limitations of recording music in the 1950’s involved everyone in one room with nothing but one or two microphones capturing the sounds being played, but a lot of times those recordings are great due to the “magic” of those limitations. Fortunately the bad mastering decisions on a few songs do not dominate these two discs, and definitely do not take away the emotions one will feel from hearing the performances.