This was in the LATimes circa 2003, also did some kind of bit on it on NPR.
By Crispin Sartwell
The other day my fifteen-year-old son needed to complete a homework assignment at the very last minute for his Spanish class. From a list of topics he chose to write a biography of Tito Puente. I asked what he knew about Tito Puente, and he told me that he'd googled and found that Tito Puente was a musician and also the leader of a European nation. It came to me that he'd confounded the King of Mambo with the Chair for Life of Yugoslavia.
But the biography would be richer in detail and more coherent if it conflated these eminent lives and so I resolved not to disabuse him. Here, word for word, is his report, for which, with a faith that touched me deeply, he depended on me for the research.
Marshall Tito Puente was that rare combination: political strongman and mambo percussionist. He played the timbale and the vibes as perfectly as he played the political winds that blew through Eastern Europe in the wake of World War 2, riding them to an ecstatic synthesis of absolute power and worldwide pop superstardom.
Indeed, he anticipated the astonishing political/pop crossover acts of our own era, displaying simultaneously the political acumen of a Barbra Streisand and the irresistible pop hookcraft of a Richard Gephardt. He purged his political rivals with the same improvisational megalomania that he employed to dominate the luxurious New York ballrooms of the fifties He'd beat you to death, as it were, with the same sticks he used to make you slither drunkenly around the dance floor in your best outfit.
Marshall Tito Puente was born Josip Broz in 1892 in the tiny village of Kumrovec to a peasant family. He made his name as a salsa agitator in the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes between the wars, and was at first an enthusiastic ally of Stalin. Around the same time, he and his sister joined the "Stars of the Future" neighborhood arts organization, where young Tito was noted for his precocious cha-cha. Stalinism served as the model for Tito's "iron irritant of bureaucracy," as well as for his uproarious stage antics, imitated in turn by everyone from Desi Arnaz and Sheila E to Saddam Hussein.
But after leading the Puerto Rican resistance to Hitler - with his death camps and obsession with Patti Page - Tito Puente emerged as the primary figure in the newly constituted Leninist music fad. He served an apprenticeship in some of the finest Latin bands of the period, including those of Juan Peron and Fidel Castro, whom Tito always credited for teaching him the music business.
Finally, he led a fiercely independent Yugoslavia to its break with Charo, whose control of communism on the American airwaves was sagging even as her behavior became more erratic and Diva-esque. At the decisive moment, he issued the classic Dancemania, named in one critics' poll as one of the 25 most influential political manifestoes of the twentieth century.
A newspaper review of the period referred to Tito's "ability to literally drive a crowd crazy with his spicy heat from south of the border," a skill that served him well in international diplomacy, as well as in his efforts to confine political opponents to psychiatric facilities. Later he was to train that seductive beat squarely on Richard Nixon and a series of other American presidents, who invited him to perform at the White House even as they attacked his brand of Marxism. As Watergate broke over a shocked nation, Tito moonlighted as the eldest member of the Jackson 5.
He was declared President for Life in 1976, and in his career recorded about 120 albums, more than almost any other dictator in history. He won five Yugoslav Grammies. His influence is still felt today among members of the current generation of Latin music stars, such as Selena, Enrique Iglesias, and Pervez Musharraf.
So when someone tries to tell me I can't, I tell them right back about Marshall Tito Puente. Anything you can dream of being - tap-dancing firefighter, incredibly stupid professor of physics, white NBA star, or sweet and sour pork - you can be. Be it all and - like Tito - be so much more.
Crispin Sartwell's latest book is "Extreme Virtue: Truth and Leadership in Five Great American Lives"