(Published in The Record of Hackensack, NJ. on June 2, 2000)
There I was, in a cocktail reception at the fancy lobby of a Manhattan office building, watching "The King of Latin Music" perform with his band. I thought I had mingled enough to become just one more of the 300 Latinos who were there to celebrate their heritage.
But when he really wanted to impress you, no one could do it like Tito Puente.
In the middle of a song, as he played his timbales with lightning speed, Tito spotted me in the crowd. And as he continued playing, he began to wave his hands, quite artistically, in my direction.
I actually looked around me, like one would in a palace courtyard, curious to see who had the distinction of getting such recognition from "The King." But then suddenly, the great maestro signaled another band member, who walked over and took control of the timbales as Puente proceeded to walk off stage and directly into the crowd.
It wasn't until he stood right in front of me, with arms stretched out and two drumsticks in one hand, that I realized that I would be the recipient of a heartfelt embrace and a kiss from his highness.
A few weeks earlier Puente had granted me an interview and I had written a column about him. This was Tito's way of showing me he liked it.
The column profiled life growing up in East Harlem, his career as a percussionist who helped to shape and define Latin jazz, and his beloved scholarship fund to give other Latinos the opportunity he had -- to study at the Julliard School of Music.
"It was beautiful," he said, referring to the column, as he turned around, walked back to the stage, and continued playing the timbales as if he had not missed a beat.
For the rest of the endless song, I didn't know where to put myself, especially since Tito occasionally pointed at me. All my life I had been his fan, and now my idol was going out of his way to recognize me.
How often does that happen? It's one of the fringe benefits of being a journalist. Sometimes you get to meet the famous people you admire.
At the moment, frankly, receiving so much attention was kind of embarrassing. But for the rest of that evening, to most of the people there, I was much more than a newspaperman. I was "the guy Tito came down to embrace" — what an honor!
That was 17 years ago. But it all came flashing back Thursday morning, when I heard the sad news that Tito Puente had died.
Over the years, we had become friends. I never wanted to bother him, especially since he was always surrounded by a crowd of admirers. But if he spotted me in a crowd, it was he who always came over, just to say hi.
That's what made Puente the people's king. It wasn't just his talent for playing the drums, it was his dynamic personality.
This was a humble and grateful man who demonstrated his humanity with the same energy as he played the drums. He was proud of his Puerto Rican roots, and his music made many others proud to be Latinos. On how to express yourself, Puente could have written the definitive book.
The obituaries will say that Puente, 77, died of apparent heart complications at NYU Medical Center, that he started his drumming career by beating on practically anything he could get his hands on -- from parked cars to cardboard boxes. He just couldn't stop his hands from expressing the Latin tunes that were playing in his head. But he became much more than just a drummer.
The obituaries will say that his career spanned six decades, that he recorded more than 100 albums, and won five Grammys. But he was so much more than that. He became the king because he also became the most beloved Latin entertainer on the planet. And he earned that love by showing that he cared about his people and that he was always willing to give something back to his community.
"Being in the position that I am in and having studied at Julliard, I was in a position to be able to form a scholarship fund to give our new generation an incentive to continue with our music," Puente once told me. "If no one does anything to preserve our music, it will be forgotten," he added, as if describing his life's mission, "and I wasn't going to let that happen."
He never did. In fact, he paved the way for many other Latin entertainers who have now infused more Latin music into the American mainstream.
And now that his job is done, when the beat of his heart wound down, the man with the perfect musical beat went to play in a better concert hall, where he is probably impressing the angels by walking offstage to embrace them in the middle of a song.
At a White House reception with the King and the Queen of Latin music. What an honor!
On ABC's Tiempo with Tito Puente, Miriam Colon and my co-host Anna Carbonell