Just in Time for Xmas: Great New Deluxe Tito Puente RCA Classics

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Sony has just released, on cd and vinyl, the definitive reissue of Tito Puente’s great RCA Living Stereo recordings.    It’s called Tito Puente / Quatro, and there is a 5th bonus album in there too.  Both cd and vinyl come in attractively-packaged box sets.

I’m a huge fan of Tito Puente, and was fortunate to interview him several times and put those interviews into my book Rhythm Planet:  The Great World Music Makers (Universe Books, 1998).   I loved his story:  growing up beating on the walls with various sticks, having the neighbor tell his mom to get him some drums;  his going out into World War II on the U.S.S. Santee and having his superiors refuse to let him off until the end of the war because they loved his band arrangements and latin spices so much.  He sailed into Tokyo Bay as McArthur signed the peace treaty with Japan in September, 1945, bringing WWII to an end.  Only then could he start his career as El Rey de la Música Latina.   I also loved Tito telling me how he wondered who that young rocker Carlos Santana was and why he recorded Tito’s song “Oye Como Va”.  And how, when the publishing royalties started pouring in from Santana’s hit album Abraxas, Tito praised him all the time and wanted him to record more of his songs.

Tito recorded over 100 albums during his lifetime (1923-2000), and a new set promises to be the best set of reissues ever released.  It’s called Quatro: The Definitive Collection.  The new deluxe set features his greatest  quartet of RCA sides:  Dance Mania, Night Beat, Cuban Carnival, Revolving Bandstand, and a fifth, bonus cd of unissued rarities.  These RCA latin classics were recorded during the heyday of mambo and the mecca of mambo, New York City’s Palladium at 53rd & Broadway.  The four records were recorded from 1955-1960.    The umbrella term “salsa” had not yet been invented.  That term came later from Jerry Masucci of Fania Records as a marketing term to unite the plethora of latin styles (mambo, pachanga, merengue, cha-cha,  boogaloo, etc)  into one genre and locate it in one part of the record store.  The term “World Music” was devised for the same reasons in the early 1980s.

It is a lush production with great notes, memorabilia,  and photos, and written tributes from Celia Cruz, Orlando Cepeda, Bobby Sanabria, Arturo Sandoval, Ricky Martin, Sheila E, Mark Anthony, and other latin superstars, as well as a certificate of authenticity from Tito’s definitive biographer, Joe Conzo.  All tropical artists knew Tito was El Rey del Timbal;  later they just called him El Rey.   The new collection features vintage graphics and photos, as well as detailed production and liner notes and info on these immortal RCA sessions.  It’s nice to see the original cover art.  Finally, RCA Living Stereo was always known for its superb recorded sound.  Nice job, Sony!

The set is a great tribute to El Rey.  Christmas is coming, and this would be a hell of a present.  These four RCA sides are Tito’s best work.  And equally exciting for Tito fans is the new box set of audiophile 180 gram vinyl.   That set will showcase the great cover art and original back cover liner notes of the original lp’s.  Thoughtful little details enhance the pleasure of the set:  booklets that are yellowed on the margins like old paper;  cd’s that snap into place in their respective envelopes.    Nice touch. Kudos to Sony’s Anthony Gonzalez and all the people who worked hard to honor Tito Puente with this masterful set.   It’s truly a labor of love and it shows.

Here’s a rare 1965 clip of Tito playing “La Cumanchero”

…..and a clip of Mambo Birdland with some smooth dance moves: