Tito Rodriguez was the ultimate Latin music entertainer of his time. Tito could sing equally well “guarachas” and “boleros”, he could dance, play the timbales and vibes, and had a unique charisma that won over Latino audiences across the United States and Latin America. This puts him in the same category of extraordinaire entertainers like Sammy Davis, Jr.
This month marks 40 years since Latin music lost the maestro Tito Rodriguez. To commemorate the occasion, and since it coincides with the month of love, Fania Records released the CD “Boleros del Ayer”, which captures 14 of Tito Rodriguez most memorable “boleros”.
Versatility and Charisma
These are the 2 words with which I can describe Tito Rodriguez. To this day, Tito remains one of the handful of singers that could sing equally well “guarachas” and “boleros”. Many singers do both, but only a handful do both well enough to create big hits out of each type of Latin music song.
Although Rodriguez began singing mostly “boleros” at a young age, it would be his unique style of singing “guarachas” or Salsa that would open the doors for him into Latin music greatness. His versatility and his ability to attract women to his presentations, earned him a spot at the Palladium stage in New York City, the premium stage for Latin music. At the Palladium , his band alternated with such greats as with Machito and his Afro-Cubans, and with Tito Puente’s band.
Because of his great versatility and charisma, Tito Rodriguez landed his own TV show in Puerto Rico. His show as about comic sketches, interviews, and obviously songs with musical guests. Although short lived, having a TV show is not many musicians can add to their resume.
The Palladium Years
Tito Rodriguez played frequently at the Palladium during the 1950’s. He honed his skills as an entertainer at this big stage for Latin music. Perhaps because he was alternating the stage with the best bands of the time, Tito’s competitive spirit came out.
Tito Rodriguez wanted to have the best Latin music band of the time. He hired the best musicians available, paid them well and treated them well, in order to keep them. His album “Esta Es Mi Orquesta” showcases his band in mostly instrumental songs, highlighting such greats as Panamanian trumpeter Victor Paz, Cuban bassist Israel “Cachao” Lopez, Dominican saxophonist Mario Rivera, and Cuban pianist Rene Hernandez among others.
In those years, bands dressed formally for their presentations. Tito Rodriguez wanted his band to be sharpest of all. I recall a conversation I had with conguero Johnny Rivero (Little Johnny) in a presentation Eddie Palmieri did in Seattle a couple of years ago. I asked Little Johnny why Palmieri’s band dressed so sharp, and he mentioned that was part of Palmieri’s discipline, which he probably got from his days playing with Tito Rodriguez.
The competitiveness for the Palladium supremacy created a feud with Latin music great Tito Puente, which is well known to have lasted for years. This and other events, led Tito Rodriguez to write what we call now “tiraera” songs (songs aimed at a particular person, but not mentioned by name), like “Avisale a Mi Contrario” (aimed at Tito Puente) and “El Que Se Fue” (theories o who its amid at vary, but some suggest it was directed to Johnny Pacheco).
Tito Rodriguez “El Caballero”
It was the “bolero” that help internationalize Tito Rodriguez through Latin America. The “son” reached everywhere, but the combination of a good “guarachero”, “bolerista”, and entertainer, made Tito Rodriguez an international star. For all this and his stage presence, I consider Tito Rodriguez the 1st “Caballero de la Music Latina” (Gentleman of Latin music).
It’s hard to remember singers for both, their “guarachas” or salsas, and for their “boleros”. Cheo Feliciano is one that comes to mind. Cuban Benny More also had extraordinary talent on both genres. What separated Tito from the rest was his extraordinary stage charisma and sense for being the ultimate entertainer. And he still remains “inolvidable” after 40 years of leaving us.