Beat Poet

updated 06/19/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/19/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

For Tito Puente, being alive meant being onstage. Even in April, when his heart began to fail, the percussionist kept his band on the road, playing with symphony orchestras in Dallas, Toledo and Puerto Rico. "I have not taken a vacation in my whole life," said Puente, 77, who died after open heart surgery on May 31. "I never had the time."

But the man musicians called El Rey (The King) could certainly keep time. A master of the timbales—the high-pitched drums that help give Latin music its distinctive snap—Puente brought his trademark gusto and flair to up to 300 shows a year, smiling, shouting and rocking like the dancer he had once hoped to be. He released nearly 120 albums of his fiery Latin jazz tunes. "His music made people wild," says Rita Moreno, a longtime friend.

The first of three children born to Puerto Rican parents in New York, Puente grew up in Spanish Harlem. And though he dropped out of high school to play with a Latin band, Puente eventually earned a spot at the prestigious Juilliard School, where he studied music theory. Forming the Tito Puente Orchestra in the late '40s, the bandleader launched his distinctive form of Latin jazz and mambo onto the pop charts, where it continues to power the hits of Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan and Marc Anthony.

A multiple Grammy winner who has performed for presidents, Puente—who had three children from two marriages—played himself in the 1992 film The Mambo Kings. "I'm a showman," he once said. "I'm giving the people good vibes."

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