To date, the Latin dance album that holds the record for sales remains Tito Puente's Dance Mania. Recorded in November and December of 1957 and released in early 1958, Dance Mania was the first recording for a major label (RCA) to feature Cuban dance rhythms without relying on commercial gimmicks or jazz constructs. It also was the first popular mambo album to feature vocals sung in Spanish—recreating the sound heard at New York's Palladium dance hall in the 1950s. To celebrate this album's magnificence, Sony Legacy has reissued Dance Mania (1957) and Dance Mania Vol. 2 (1960) in a new two-CD set. It's a joy to have the albums together with outtakes, bonus tracks and comprehensive liner notes by Charles Granata and Joe Conzo.
Virtually all modern Latin music has its roots in the spirit and execution of this album, as does all post-1960 Latin-jazz. If this game-changing album had jazz cousins, they would be Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker's Groovin' High of February 1945 and Miles Davis' "Birth of the Cool" recordings of 1949 and 1950. And like those seminal jazz recordings, Dance Mania sounds as electrifying today as it did the day the album was released.
Born in New York's Spanish Harlem, Puente learned to play percussion in his teens from local musicians Carlos Montesino and Tony Escollies. After serving in the Navy during World War II, Puente attended Juilliard. He studied conducting, orchestration and music theory, all of which would come in handy after graduation in the second half of the 1940s.
After Juilliard, Puente merged his formal training with skills as a percussionist and vibraphonist, and began leading a Latin-jazz group in 1949. He recorded steadily for RCA between 1949 and 1951 and for Tico Records between 1951 and 1955. During this period, the mambo became a commercial dance phenomenon popularized most notably by Perez Prado after jazz abandoned dance music. [Photo of "The Big 3," from left: Tito Rodriguez, Frank "Machito" Grillo and Tito Puente at the Palladium, circa 1950]
By 1956, Puente's popularity was surging, thanks largely to his dual abilities as a fast arranger and dynamic performer of both big-band mambo and jazz. Mambo originally was a riff contained within the formal Cuban "son," an up-tempo style that fused Spanish guitar with African percussion. But in the hands of Perez Prado, Machito, Puente and Tito Rodriguez, the mambo riff coupled with jazz infusions became the basis for an entire popular dance genre. With the rise of the 12-inch LP in 1956, RCA signed Puente to an exclusive multi-year contract.
Shortly after re-joining the label, Puente recorded a string of successful Latin-jazz LPs, starting with Puente Goes Jazz in 1956 and Night Beat in 1957, which featured trumpeter Doc Severinsen, trombonist Eddie Bert and other seasoned jazz players. One of Puente’s trademark innovations was to move the timbales—mounted drums played with sticks—to the front of the bandstand from behind, and he typically played them standing up. And like Lionel Hampton, Puente played with enormous physicality and expression, which translated into charisma, especially from the dance floor.
When Dance Mania was released, its special appeal was its breathtaking authenticity. The album captured mambo and other rhythms as they were heard in dance clubs—without influence from its earlier commercial chaperones. More important, Puente included the Spanish-language vocals of Santos Colon [pictured]. This was a commercial gambit considering that up until 1957, mambo albums had been largely instrumental affairs to avoid alienating buyers who did not speak Spanish and could not understand the lyrics. Dance Mania broke through that barrier and allowed the music to be played authentically, and at its natural length of more than three minutes.
Said Puente in Tito Puente: When the Drums Are Dreaming by Josephine Powell:
“In those days, the DJs wanted less than three minutes, because they wanted short numbers for their radio programs. For American tunes, it is different; you can do it. Not for Latin. We need the time to crack that big market out there. We were inhibited by that time limit.”
When Dance Mania was released, the LP catapulted Puente to extraordinary popularity both in Latin and dance circles. The significance of Dance Mania was instant. Its infectious rhythms and tight in-and-out horn arrangements put Latin music on par with big band jazz and opened the doors for dozens of Latin artists in the 1960s and beyond. The LP also popularized the steamy sensitivity of bolero and son vocalist Colon, particularly on Estoy Siempre Junto a Ti. [Photo of dancers performing the mambo in 1954 by Yale Joel for Life]
“There was no question about what Tito had done to the music,” recalls [journalist] Max Salazar in Tito Puente: King of Latin Music by Jim Payne and Tito Puente. “He took it light years ahead. When Dance Mania came out, that’s all you heard for three years.” Adds pianist Hilton Ruiz: “Tito’s horn lines are percussive, based on the drum beats. You just add a melody, and the whole band becomes a drum.”
"Dance Mania is probably the most important album in the history of big band Afro-Cuban dance music. Up until 1958, when the album was released, Tito [Puente] had been recording Afro-Cuban jazz-oriented material for RCA with some occasional vocal-oriented dance tunes interjected in those recordings repertoire.
"During the period from 1955 to 1957, Tito recorded Cuban Carnival, Puente Goes Jazz and Night Beat for RCA. All those recordings in their own right have achieved cult status among the cognoscenti, and they had established Tito's reputation as a master musician in the jazz community.
"But on Dance Mania, Tito displayed what it was like to hear the majesty and power of his big band when he performed at 'New York City's Home of the Mambo,' The Palladium. Dance Mania gave voice to why New York's mambonik dance community considered Tito a god.
"The album features a variety of tempos/styles for the knowledgeable dancer, including cha-cha-cha, mambo, son montuno, guaguanco, bolero, a jazz mambo (3-D Mambo), and even 6/8 bembe (a rhythm rooted in the West African Yoruba based religion that is known in the Caribbean as Santeria). [Photo of mambo dancers by Yale Joel for Life]
"On an individual level, all of the tunes on Dance Mania are instantly recognizable to mambo fans. It also established the career of vocalist Santos Colon who remained with the Puente Orchestra for 18 years. Dance Mania features Ray Barretto on congas who had just joined the band a few days before, replacing Mongo Santamaria.
"To this day, Dance Mania is the highest selling recording in the history of Latin dance music and practically every dance school that teaches mambo and cha-cha-cha uses it as a teaching tool."
JazzWax tracks: Sony Legacy's release of Dance Mania and Dance Mania Vol. 2, the 1960 follow-up, can be found here. In addition to being a magnificent Latin dance album, the recording features incredible arranging and playing by Puente and enormous taste. Hats off to Fred Reynolds, RCA Records' musical director, who at the time dared to give Puente the green light to express the pure Latin experience. Ultimately, this is thrilling music that expresses the energy, excitement and perfectionism of Latin dance music of the late 1950s and the musicians who pioneered the art form.