The cliché statement they don’t make them like they used to anymore becomes especially poignant in the case of Tito Rodríguez. Arguably the most elegant vocalist to ever grace the spectrum of Afro-Caribbean music, Rodríguez showed an exquisite sensitivity when it came to designing the repertoire of the many LPs that he released during the 1950s.

Released on the Tico label in 1959, “Mambo Madness” delivers a briskly paced tour through the many shades and colors of vintage tropical music. Smoldering boleros, vibrant Cuban standards (“Dónde Estabas Tú”, “La Engañadora”), bubbly instrumentals, novelty numbers and, of course, the ubiquitous mambo– the Puerto Rican crooner leaves no stone unturned in his effort to deliver a rich listening experience. During the glorious mambo era in New York, the Palladium was the place be for Latin music dancers– and the three most popular combos that performed there were the orchestras of Machito, Tito Puente and Tito Rodríguez. Understandably, there are certain similarities between some of the “Mambo Madness” tracks and the works of both Puente and Machito. Written by Rodríguez himself, the velvety “Mambo Manila” has the same sophisticated piano lines and swinging touches of vibes that you may find in many of the instrumentals that Tito Puente recorded for the RCA label during that same decade. “Mambo Manila” creates an indelible mood of past grandeur by combining the barely restrained combustion of Afro-Cuban music (listen to those electrifying brass riffs) with a wistful, almost nostalgic melody. The result? An exhilarating entry in the Rodríguez canon. Similarly, when he tackles the majestic, chant-like chorus of “Tremendo Cumbán”, it is hard not to think of the version that Machito recorded in the early 1950s. Only that instead of the ragged, jovial singing of Machito and his sister Graciela, we have the perfectly pitched melodiousness of Rodríguez’s voice.

A remarkably versatile singer, Rodríguez gained such fame performing steamy boleros like Inolvidable that most Afro-Caribbean aficionados have forgotten his verve for interpreting the most upbeat, guaracha styled material. Still, lovers of simmering, nocturnal ballads will enjoy Tito’s take on the standard “Piel Canela”, the collection’s closing track. There is nothing timid about this version– we’re definitely far away from Los Panchos’ sweet sonic universe. The tempo is slightly upbeat, there’s bravado to spare in the brass section and the cowbell adds urgency to the procedures. Rodríguez’s voice glides throughout the tune.

His delivery is manly without falling into macho archetypes, boasting absolute control while leaving enough space to show a vulnerable side. An unforgettable performance. Less momentous is the novelty hit “Chiqui”, Rodríguez performs it in endearingly broken English. Remarkably, he gets away with it, even when belting out lyrics such as she dance the rumba/she dance the mambo/she likes the samba, conga, she likes tango. It could be said that the Tito Rodríguez story ended tragically. El Maestro died of leukemia in February of 1973. He was only 50 years old. And yet, in such a short lifespan, Rodríguez managed to leave behind an exhilarating recorded legacy, evoking a time when Latin music was poised to conquer the world. The sounds of “Mambo Madness” prove that, indeed, they don’t make them like they used to anymore.

Credits: Tito Rodriguez – Leader, Percussion, Vibes (“Mambo Manila”) Al Beck – Trumpet Willie Dubas – Trumpet Paquito Davila – Trumpet Cino Gonzalez – Trumpet Tommy Garcia – Piano Luis Barreto – Bass Ignacio Reyes – Timbales Ray Tinto – Bongo Chuck Miala – Conga Lead Singer – Tito Rodriguez

Written by Ernesto Lechner