An Intimate Interview with Mambo Master Tito Rodriguez Jr.

An interview with Les Moncada on the World Music Central site.

Tito Rodriguez Jr. is the son of the legendary Latin orchestra leader and singer Tito Rodriguez Sr., from New York City who was also a timbales player (known as timbalero in Spanish). Tito Rodriguez Sr. was one of the Big 3 Palladium Orchestra, during the Latin mambo and cha cha cha craze that took this nation by storm during the 1950’s; the other two being Machito and his Orchestra and Tito Puente and his Orchestra.

The Mambo dance craze of the 1950s, brought together all individuals in the USA, whites, blacks, Latinos, and Jews, united for the first time to go out and dance and learn these new dance steps after a hard day’s work.

Tito Rodriguez Jr. has maintained his father’s legacy, as a Latin orchestra leader, called Tito Rodriguez Jr. and his Orchestra. Tito Rodriguez Jr. is also a timbalero like his father, with a different, more modern tipica sound and style. The music of Tito Rodriguez Sr. was played at my home as a child and greatly influenced my love for Latin orchestra, and my mother and father would see Tito Rodriguez Sr. in person and dance to his music. As a Latin orchestra leader and timbalero, Tito Rodriguez as well as Tito Puente have had a huge impact on my life and my love for Latin Music.

It is a pleasure for me that Tito Rodriguez Jr. made time during his busy touring schedule to discuss a few questions that I have had regarding his career, I have been a fan of his music since his “Curious” album was released years ago, and one of my all-time favorite “Classic” Latin albums.

Tito, how many years have you been playing now?

I have been playing professionally since 1974 so that would make it 38 years now.

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My most recent recording was with The Big 3 palladium orchestra “Live at the Blue Note” with Machito Jr. and Tito Puente, Jr. performing the music of the Palladium era with an 18 piece orchestra using the original arrangements.
This was a live recording at the famous Jazz Club The Blue Note.

You seem to have a real heavy touring schedule, where have you been and what tours do you have coming up.

I have toured to the following places/Countries: France, Italy, Spain, Germany, England, Finland, Turkey, Canada, United States, Puerto Rico.

Who is your all-time favorite timbalero and conguero?

My favorite congueros are Eddie Montalvo, who has been with me for over 22 years, and of course Giovanni Hidalgo with his superior soloing techniques. Timbaleros I like are of course Tito Puente, Edwin Clemente, and Tito De Gracia.

I really enjoyed your “Curious” album years ago. Can you tell me a little about that album and how it came about?

Curious was recording that was supposed to be a gimmick to see if I could create a fan base for my music after my father passed away.

I formed a 13 piece orchestra with Jose Alberto on the vocals (his first recording ever) and had Ruben Blades and Adalberto Santiago doing the coros. Ruben Blades also composed 2 songs for me for that LP. The songs were Oye mi son and Se Comienza por el uno.

The hit song on that LP was Sabor Criollo written by Johnny Ortiz a very prolific song writer in Latin Music.

The recording did very well and sold 50,000 copies alone in Africa and is still selling today all over the world. It was recently re-released by Universal as a classic.

Long ago, did your father Tito Sr., ever mention about their tour buses and how Latin bands toured in those mambo legend days. Things are much simpler now. I spoke to Israel “Cachao” Lopez on several occasions, and once in the 1980s, he asked where I was residing, and I answered Sacramento, California. Cachao said ‘Oh yes, I was playing there the other day with Tito Rodriguez.’ I asked Cachao, when was the other day and he modestly said ‘oh in 1968.’

My father never did bus tours with his orchestra. He would fly in and fly out. He never mentioned anything about ever being on a bus tour with the Orchestra.

I always like to mention up and coming young musicians, do you know of a few in New York City or other places, that you can mention.

There are a lot of new musicians, timbaleros who are very good at what they do but in my opinion put too much attention to soloing and to see who is the fastest. It is about being in the pocket time wise and keeping the afinque happening. In addition, a lot of these new players do not understand the old school big band style of playing. And maybe it is not their thing.

But the roots of the music today are what the masters recorded before so education is a good approach here to apply to their style of today. After all it is still 2/3 or 3/2 clave period. It is a totally different approach to playing and unless you have heard and studied what these players of that mambo era laid down on these recordings.

I encourage new players coming up to listen to Tito Rodriguez, Tito Puente, Machito, to really get educated about our music.

Well, during the Palladium days, the competition was hot. It was your father, Tito Rodriguez Sr., Machito, and Tito Puente, and the competitiveness just made the music better and better for all. Who do you think is in your competitive space right now?

There are a lot of great groups out there. But not many 18 piece orchestras out there so it is hard to compare. I just do the best I can do to keep my father’s integrity intact when I perform his music. And to perform my original music to the best of my ability so my audience can dance and have fun and have my songs be memorable.

What desires and/or deep wishes do you have for your career at this given moment in your life?

My latest projects include getting my father a posthumous Hollywood Walk of Fame Star which I have applied for and also a Posthumous Latin Grammy. I really feel it is way overdue that the Latin Grammys finally recognize what my father did for his contribution to Latin music all over the world.

In addition I am working on a script for a full length movie on the Life of Tito, Tito Rodriguez. I am very excited about this project.

Can you disclose your future plans of yourself as a Latin Orchestra leader your Latin Orchestra and your fans?

My latest endeavor/dream was to form an orchestra in Puerto Rico (The Tito Rodriguez Orchestra). I assembled the orchestra 2 years ago and I am very proud of the sound of the orchestra and we are getting ready to tour Latin America this coming year. I also will be recording a new CD as well in Puerto Rico.

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