Born: January 4, 1923 Primary Instrument: Vocal
Tito Rodriguez - vocalist, percussionist, composer, bandleader (1923 - 1973)
Tito Rodriguez in the 1950’s through ‘60’s was a smooth voiced Latin nightclub crooner, who reigned over the radio and record charts geared toward the Puerto Rican community both in New York and on the island, where his music is still very popular. His popularity then grew broader and reached into all of Latin America. His distinct, resonant voice floated crystal-clear above the dense sound of his large orchestra, which was the best in its day. He is still revered as an uptempo sonero and a romantic singer who influenced the wave of salsa singers that followed.
Pablo “Tito” Rodriguez was born on 4 January 1923, in Santurce, Puerto Rico. His father was from the Dominican Republic and his mother from Cuba. At 13 he was part of El Conjunto Industries Nativas under the direction of Ladi-Ladislao Martinez and making guest appearances on Radio WKAQ, the premier radio station in Puerto Rico at the time.
At the age of 16 he played maracas and sang second voice with Cuarteto Mayari before relocating to New York to live with his older brother Johnny who had moved there in 1935. A popular vocalist and composer, Johnny had formed his own trio in 1940.
Tito’s first job in New York City was with the Cuarteto Caney. After brief stints with Enric Madriguera and Xavier Cugat as a singer and bongo player; a year in the US Army was followed by a job singing with Noro Morales. “El Dinamico Tito Rodriguez,” was a reissue of a Morales collection with Rodriguez.
In 1946 Cuban pianist and composer Curbelo recruited Rodr�-guez and Tito Puente (on timbales) to his band, which became an incubator for the future New York mambo sound. Recordings made by Curbelo’s band during the two years that Rodriguez was with him were later compiled on “Los Reyes Del Mambo.” In 1946, while Curbelo’s band was appearing at the China Doll nightclub, Rodriguez met a Japanese American chorus girl called Tobi Kei, whom he married a few months later.
In February 1947, while he was still with Curbelo, Rodr�-guez participated in a recording session by Chano Pozo for Gabriel Oller’s SMC label, which included the Machito band, Arsenio Rodriguez and Miguelito Valdes.
After leading a short-lived quintet, which he formed in late 1947, Rodr�-guez organized a trumpet conjunto called the Mambo Devils in 1948. He recorded eight tunes for with the band on the SMC label. Four of those were arranged by Tito Puente, who went on to become his musical competitor. Rodriguez later expanded his outfit to a big band, which he led until 1965.
In 1949 he signed to Tico Records, formed just a year earlier. Rodriguez had to rename his band the Lobos Del Mambo (Mambo Wolves) as the record company objected to the name Mambo Devils. He did two stints with the label, between 1949 and 1953 and between 1956 and 1958, during which time he released 78 RPM recordings, six 10-inch volumes of mambos and various 12-inch albums. Material from both these periods was later compiled on Nostalgia and Uptempo. Tito made no records during 1950 because of turmoil in the record company which suspended all recording at Tico. He resumed recording the following year when the problems were resolved.
In pursuit of the crossover market, Rodriguez switched to RCA Records in 1953 and his recordings on that label sold well. “Ritmo y Melodia, 15 Joyas Tropicales,” was the most recent compilation of material culled from his RCA period. On his return to Tico, he issued “Wa-Pa-Cha.” His final release for them was “Señor Tito Rodriguez.”
In 1960 he signed to United Artists Records with the agreement that he would be the only Latin bandleader to record for the company. His first album on the label, “Live At The Palladium,” was a great success, marred only by the continued conflict over top billing at New York’s famous Palladium Ballroom and elsewhere, between Puente and Rodriguez.
In 1962, Rodriguez had three great consecutive hit songs: “Vuela La Paloma,” “Cuando, Cuando,” and “Cara De Payaso,” which all went to the top of the charts in Puerto Rico and other South American countries. Rodr�-guez and his band recorded “Back Home In Puerto Rico,” during a two-week stay on the island during June 1962. His return was marked by official government receptions and heavy media coverage.
He also tried to find fame in Las Vegas with a revue, but it was a dismal failure that caused a heavy financial loss. Rodriguez also recorded as lead singer with La Playa Sextet, whose line-up substituted the electric guitar of their Puerto Rican leader, Payo Alicea, for traditional piano. A compilation of La Playa Sextet cuts with Rodriguez on lead vocals was issued under the title, “Tito Dice ... Separala Tambien!”
In 1963 he issued the Latin jazz “Live At Birdland,” which featured the jazz musicians Zoot Sims, Clark Terry, Bob Brookmeyer, Al Cohen and Bernie Leighton. The same year Rodriguez had a huge hit of over one-and-a-half million sales with the song, “Inolvidable,” on the album “From Tito Rodriguez With Love.” He followed this with a series of soft romantic bolero albums, interspersed with uptempo collections like “Tito Tito Tito,” on which accompanist Israel “Cachao” Lopez’s championing of Latin jam sessions was spotlighted on the opening track “Descarga Cachao”.
The Rodriguez/Puente feud was reflected on some of the recordings Rodriguez made for Musicor Records, such as “Avisale A Mi Contrario Que Aqui Estoy Yo,” from the “Carnival Of The Americas” album. Cuban vocalist Miguelito Valdes and Machito appealed to the two combatants in the song “Que Pena Me Da”, composed by Valdes for their 1963 collaboration Reunion. Rodriguez and his band accompanied singer Nelson Pinedo on his Musicor release “A Latin In America.”
Bad business deals and conflict with his colleagues over pay led him to disband and move to Puerto Rico in 1966. He focused on Puerto Rican television, and he managed to get a show when the parent company of United Artists acquired one of the island’s channels. This venture was short lived and he returned to New York to the delight of the capacity audience at the Manhattan Center with the title track of “Estoy Como Nunca.” He followed that with the “El Doctor.” album which contained “Esa Bomba,” his last rivalry tune aimed at Tito Puente.
Rodriguez first displayed signs of illness in 1967 while making one of his last television shows. He decided to found his own TR Records label in 1969 and while waiting for medical test results in the UK, he used British musicians to record the music for his first TR album, “Involvidable/Unforgettable.” It was confirmed that he had leukemia but he insisted that the results be kept secret. TR Records, Inc. was launched in August 1971 and his second album on the label, “Palladium Memories,” sold well. He teamed up with Louie Ramirez for the third release, “Algo Nuevo. Rodriguez’ 25th Anniversary Performance,” recorded in a nightclub, was issued a month before his death. The album provoked speculation about whether he had intended it to be a farewell.
Tito Rodriguez’s last appearance was with Machito and his band at Madison Square Garden on 2 February 1973. He finally lost the battle with leukemia and 26 days later, on 28 February 1973, Rodriguez died in his wife’s arms.