Puerto Rican-born Tito Rodríguez (1923-1973) was "equally talented as an uptempo improvising sonero and a romantic singer." "At its peak, the Rodríguez band’s blend of Cuban-oriented numbers and tight, solo-filled instrumentals equalled any of his rivals," wrote John Storm Roberts in The Latin Tinge, 1979. At 16 he played maracas and sang second voice with Cuarteto Mayari before relocating to New York’s East Harlem to live with his older brother Johnny (1912-1997, a popular vocalist and composer), who had moved there in 1935. Between circa 1940 and 1942, Tito worked with Cuarteto Caney, Enric Madriguera and Xavier Cugat (replacing Miguelito Valdés as a singer and percussionist); then a spell in the US Army was followed by work with Noro Morales and Eddie LaBarron. In 1946 Cuban pianist and composer José Curbelo recruited Rodríguez and Tito Puente (on timbales) to his band, which became an "incubator" for the future New York mambo sound. While still with Curbelo, Tito sessioned with Chano Pozo, Arsenio Rodríguez and Machito’s Orchestra for Gabriel Oller’s Coda label in Feburary 1947. Fired by Curbelo due to a misunderstanding in 1947, Tito briefly led a quintet, then formed his own trumpet-led Mambo Devils in mid-1948 (one of NYC’s first conjuntos) and made eight numbers for Oller’s SMC label. He signed with Tico Records in 1949, but Oller protested against the continued use of the name Mambo Devils, so Tito briefly named his group Los Lobos del Mambo (Mambo Wolves) before saxes and trombones were added to create a big band (simply called "his Orchestra’), which he led until 1965. Tracks he recorded between 1949 and 1951 from Vol’s. One, Two, Four, Five and Six of his Mambos series of 10 inch LPs on Tico were compiled on the Tumbao CDs Mambo Mona and Mambo Gee Gee in 1992. In pursuit of the crossover market, he switched to RCA from 1953 to ‘56, recording with big band, conjunto and charanga line-ups (three volumes of The Best Of Tito Rodríguez & His Orchestra were issued in RCA’s Tropical Series in ‘92-4). On his return to Tico from 1956 to ‘58, he issued Wa-Pa-Cha (1956), Latin Jewels (circa 1957) and Señor Tito Rodríguez (1958). He also recorded with La Playa Sextet for the Mardi Gras label; tracks are compiled on Tito Dice…Separala Tambien! (Alegre, circa 1971).
In 1960 Tito signed to United Artists on the basis that he would be the only Latin bandleader to record for the company. His first album on the label, Live At The Palladium (including Eddie Palmieri on piano), was made at the famed NYC ballroom, where he was regular resident between 1949 and 1964 (Returns To The Palladium – Live! ‘61, his third UA album, was even better). In 1962 Tito had three massive hits in a row: "Vuela La Paloma" (from West Side Beat), "Cuando, Cuando" (from Back Home In Puerto Rico), and "Cara De Payaso" (from Tito Rodríguez’ Hits). Tito and his band recorded Back Home In Puerto Rico during a two-week stay on the island in June 1962. His return was marked by official government receptions and heavy media coverage. In 1963 he issued the Latin jazz set Live At Birdland, featuring Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Bobby Brookmeyer and Clark Terry. The same year Tito had a monster hit of over one and a half million sales with the smoochy string-laden bolero "Inolvidable" (penned by Cuban bandleader and pianist Julio Gutiérrez, 1919-1990), contained on From Tito Rodríguez With Love. He followed this with a series of soft romantic bolero albums, interspersed with uptempo collections like Tito Tito Tito (1964), on which sideman Israel "Cachao" López’s championing of Latin jam sessions was spotlighted on the opening track "Descarga Cachao". Bad deals and financial friction with musicians caused him to disband; he returned to Puerto Rico in 1966 where he starred in his own TV series, featuring guests like Sarah Vaughan, Sammy Davis Jr, Shirley Bassey and Tony Bennett. In the late ’60s he relocated to Miami. His albums of that period included the swinging Estoy Como Nunca (UA Latino, 1968) with big band line-up of four trumpets, four trombones, five reeds and five-piece rhythm section including future Libre leader Manny Oquendo. In 1971 he founded his own TR Records label. His second album for the imprint, Palladium Memories, was a best seller. He teamed up with Louie Ramírez for the 1972 follow-up Algo Nuevo. Tito’s 25th Anniversary Performance (1973), made in a Peruvian nightclub, was released a month before his death, sparking conjecture that he’d meant it as a farewell. His last appearance was with the Machito band at Madison Square Garden on 2 February 1973, 26 days before he died of leukaemia.
- John Child