Ernest Anthony Puente Jr. was born in New York on April 20, 1923, one of three children of Ernest Puente, a foreman at a razor blade plant, and Ercilia Ortiz, both Puerto Rican immigrants in New York. He grew up in the neighborhood that eventually became known as Spanish Harlem.
Puente attended elementary school at Public Schools 43 and 184, Cooper Junior High School, Galvani High School, and Central Commercial High. He eventually enrolled in the New York School of Music, where he expanded his training to other instruments and eventually became proficient in many different instruments such as piano, xylophone, clarinet, and saxophone. However, he achieved his major accomplishments playing the drums, particularly timbales, which are very popular in salsa music.
As an adolescent Puente participated in several youth music groups including the Stars of the Future. His first professional engagement took place when he was just 11 years old with the band the Happy Boys, playing at the ballroom of the Park Palace Hotel in New York. He also played the drums for Cuban musician Machito and his Afro-Cubans. Shortly after, Puente joined an orchestra led by José Curbelo and Noro Morales and went on a national tour; he was 13 years old. By the age of 16, Puente dropped out of Commercial High School knowing that he wanted to pursue a career in music and continued playing with some of the popular Latin bands of the time.
Puente was drafted into the navy in 1942. Unlike many other musicians of the time, who were assigned to fulfill entertainment duties while in the service, he was placed on an aircraft carrier and participated in active combat during the war. He eventually received a medal for his role during World War II. One of his fellow soldiers on the carrier was jazz musician Charlie Spivak, who has been credited with exposing Puente to jazz and with teaching him jazz arrangement and instrumentation.
One of the lesser-known facts about Puente's musical formation was that he also had substantial training in classical music, theory, orchestration, and conducting, having attended the prestigious Julliard School of Music between 1945 and 1948. However, as someone with clear preferences for the sounds of popular Latino music, he left to form his own band; by 1948, Puente already had his own successful band, which became known as Tito Puente and His Orchestra. The launching of his band coincided with the boom of Latin music in New York. At the time, scores of Puerto Rican immigrants in New York longed to have entertainment that catered to their interest for Latino music.
During the 1950s Puente performed regularly at New York's famous Palladium nightclub and took advantage of the popularization of the mambo, a music style created in Cuba and popularized by Cuban performers Dámaso Pérez Prado, Xavier Cugat, and Machito in New York. His recordings in the genre were extremely popular among New York's Latino radio stations. A review of his discography reveals that he released 13 mambo recordings during this part of his career. He also recorded swing, pachanga, and cha-cha-chá music. After winning a competition with Pérez Prado's orchestrain New York, his visibility on the New York and the Latin American musical scene was so huge that he was baptized as the "King of Latin Music" and the "King of the Timbales."
One of Puente's most significant talents was his ability to integrate Latino beats such as mambo, swing, jazz, and cha-cha-chá and to blend Latino musical styles with North American musical styles, helping to create the distinctly unique musical genre known as Latin jazz. As a musician, Puente evolved as a musician and adapted his music to new styles. His composition "Oye Como Va" (1963), a jazzy ballad recorded by Mexican American Carlos Santana years later, became a huge hit. As the mambo craze faded from the dance halls, Puente started collaborating and recording with scores of other musicians such as Tito Rodriguez, Woody Herman, Rolando La'Serie, Buddy Morrow, La Lupe, Los Hispanos, Celia Cruz, Johnny Pacheco, Sophie Hernandez, and members of the Fania All Stars. Many of these collaborations lasted for the rest of his musical career. He joined the bandwagon of performers working in the new music style known as salsa. During the 1960s and 1970s, Puente continued to adapt his style to fulfill the needs of the music market and the demands of the public, even when he claimed that there were no differences between salsa music and Latin jazz.
Married Margaret Asencio, October 19, 1963. Children: Ronald, Audrey, Tito Anthony.