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Latin singer, bandleader, and long-time rival of Tito Puente. Rodriguez moved to New York to live with his brother Johnny, and joined the traditional Latin vocal group, Cuarteto Caney. During the early 1940s, he worked briefly with Cugat and Noro Morales. While working with Puente in Jose Curbelo's band at the China Doll nightclub, Rodriguez met and married one of the chorus girls, a Japanese American named Tobi Kei.
Fired on a misunderstanding by Curbelos, Rodriguez bummed around until he formed a combo he called the Mambo Devils. After recording a few singles for the SMC label, he had to change the group's name to the Mambo Wolves due to a dispute with another group. He soon dropped the name entirely and stuck with the billing of Tito Rodriguez and his Orchestra for the next 20 years.
He recorded for Tico throughout the 1950s, enjoying great popularity among Latin audiences. In 1960, he signed with United Artists on the condition that he would be the label's sole Latin artist. The early 1960s brought his greatest success, with covers of pop hits such as "Cuando, Cuando" as well as Latin numbers such as his all-time best-seller, "Inolvidable (Unforgettable)." His nightclub act did well in New York and Latin America, and he recorded an excellent Latin jazz album with Zoot Sims and Bob Brookmeyer, Live at the Birdland.
Rodriguez disbanded his group in 1966. A strict taskmaster, he developed ulcers from the stress of keeping his fourteen musicians in line at home and on the road, and chose to pursue his career as a solo act. United Artists musical director Leroy Holmes supported him in this move and helped Rodriguez record his long-time dream, an album as a singer backed with a lush string orchestra.
In 1971, he moved to Florida and began producing and starring in a Spanish-language television variety show. Although the show was a tremendous success, particularly in his native Puerto Rico, a certain amount of animosity on the part of some Puerto Ricans dogged Rodriguez throughout his life. He was accused of having sold out to the American market and abandoning his native culture. He formed his own label, TR Records, and recorded four albums. His last appearance, a month before he died, was with Machito at the Madison Square Garden.
Throughout his career, he was often set (usually for show,but at times by choice) into a rivalry with the other popular Tito, Tito Puente. Both were exceptional talents and fierce competitors, and although they held each other in a grudging high regard, they refused to speak to each other for over 20 years. Ironically, Puente was the first to arrive at the funeral home when Rodriguez's memorial service was held.
Rodriguez's son and daugther have continued his legacy. His son, Tito Jr., revived the sound of his father's heighday with a 15-piece band, and has recorded several albums. His daughter Cindy recorded an album of posthumous duets ala Natalie Cole's highly successful dubbed duets with her father, Nat King Cole. Produced with the help of Khalis Bayaan (formerly Ronald Bell of Kool and the Gang), Alma Con Alma was released on Polygram Latin in 1997.
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