East Harlem’s Legendary “The Unforgettable” Tito Rodríguez, Singer And Bandleader, 1923 – 1973

January 26, 2022

Pablo Rodríguez Lozada, January 4, 1923 – February 28, 1973, better known as Tito Rodríguez, was a Puerto Rican singer and bandleader.

He started his career singing under the tutelage of his brother, Johnny Rodríguez.

In the 1940s, both moved to East Harlem, New York, when he was 17th years of age on East 110th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues.

In the 1940s, both moved to East Harlem, New York, when he was 17th years of age on East 110th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues.

Tito worked as a percussionist in several popular rhumba ensembles, before directing his own group to great success during the 1950s.

His most prolific years coincided with the peak of the mambo and cha-cha-cha dance craze. He also recorded boleros, sones, guarachas and pachangas.

Rodríguez is known by many fans as “El Inolvidable” (The Unforgettable One), a moniker based on his most popular song, a bolero written by Cuban composer Julio Gutiérrez.

Early years

Rodríguez was born in Barrio Obrero, Santurce, Puerto Rico, to José Rodríguez Fuentes from San Sebastián, Puerto Rico, and Severina Lozada from Holguín, Cuba.

During his childhood, he aspired to be a jockey and tried out racing horses at Hipódromo Las Casas in Villa Palmera, Santurce.

His older brother, Johnny Rodríguez was a popular singer and composer, who inspired the younger Rodríguez to become a musician.

In 1936, 13-year-old Rodríguez joined the group of Ladislao (El Maestro Ladí) Martínez, Conjunto de Industrias Nativas, as a singer.

When he was 16 years old, he participated in a recording with the renowned Cuarteto Mayarí. In 1940, Rodríguez moved to New York City shortly after his parents, José and Severina, died.

He went to live with his brother Johnny, who had been living there since 1935.

Musical career

Beginnings as a musician

In New York, Rodríguez was hired as a singer and bongó player for the orchestra of Eric Madriguera. In 1941, he recorded “Amor Guajiro”, “Acércate Más” (Come Closer) and “Se Fue la Comparsa”. In 1942, Rodríguez joined the band of Xavier Cugat, and recorded “Bim, bam, bum” and “Ensalada de congas” (Conga Salad).

Rodríguez joined and served in the U.S. Army for one year. After he was discharged, he returned to New York where he joined the orchestra of José Curbelo. On one occasion, the band performed at the China Doll Cabaret.

There he met a young Japanese chorus girl by the name of Tobi Kei (b. Takeko Kunimatsu), who eventually became his wife.

Success as a bandleader

In 1947, Rodríguez made his “solo” debut and finally organized his own band, which he named “Los Diablos del Mambo” (“the mambo devils”). He renamed his band “Los Lobos del Mambo” (“the mambo wolves”) and later dropped the name altogether, deciding to go with “The Tito Rodríguez Orchestra”.

The first song that he recorded under the band’s new name which became a “hit” was “Bésame La Bembita” (Kiss My Big Lips). In 1952, he was honored for having developed his own unique singing style (early in his career he had been heavily influenced, as had so many other singers, such as the Cuban vocalist Miguelito Valdés) by the “Century Conservatory of Music of New York”.

His orchestra won the “Gran Trofeo Award” for two consecutive years.

In 1953, Rodríguez heard a percussionist by the name of Cheo Feliciano. He was so impressed with Feliciano that he offered him a job in his band as a band boy.

Rodríguez discovered that Feliciano also knew how to sing and gave him an opportunity to sing at the popular Palladium Ballroom.

Eventually, Feliciano went to work for another band, but the friendship between the two lasted for the rest of their lives.

Among the other orchestras that played at the Palladium were the Machito, Tito Puente and Charlie Palmieri orchestras. The popular Latin music craze at the time was the chachachá and the mambo.

At the peak of his popularity during the 1950s, Rodríguez was only rivaled by Tito Puente in New York’s Latin music circuit.

Although described by historians and musicians alike (including both Titos) as “a friendly rivalry”, their purported feud became a sort of urban legend in the salsa world.

For example, Rodríguez’s version of “Avísale a mi contrario” has been often cited as an example of such “feud”, despite the fact that the song was written by Ignacio Piñeiro in 1906.

United Artists years

In the beginning of the 1960s, the popularity gained by rock music brought changes. Latin bands began to switch their styles and started playing more salsa and boogaloo, which was more attractive to Latin youth of the day.

Rodríguez then tried his luck with boleros and recorded various albums for the United Artists label, spawning various hit songs such as “Inolvidable”, composed by Julio Gutiérrez, and “En la soledad”, composed by Puchi Balseiro. “Inolvidable” sold over a million and a half copies world-wide in 1963.

He also produced records for other groups, such as Los Hispanos and Los Montemar.

Later years

Rodríguez returned to Puerto Rico in 1966 and built a Japanese-style house in Ocean Park, Santurce, where he lived with his family.

Rodríguez produced his own television show called “El Show de Tito Rodríguez” which was transmitted through San Juan’s television Channel 7 (whose call letters were WRIK-TV at the time).

Among the guest stars that appeared on his show were Harlemite Sammy Davis Jr., Tony Bennett, Shirley Bassey, Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda.

Rodríguez also founded his own recording studio/label called TR Records.

Rodríguez’s last public appearance was with Machito and his band on February 2, 1973 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Tito Rodríguez died of leukemia on February 28, 1973.


In April 1999, Tito Rodríguez was represented by his son, Tito Rodríguez Jr., in the induction ceremonies of the International Latin Music Hall of Fame.

Tito Rodríguez’s Japanese-style house in Puerto Rico is featured in tours of the San Juan metropolitan area. The aforementioned Cheo Feliciano recorded a tribute to Rodríguez honoring his memory.

In August 2010, reggae band Cultura Profética released the song “Me faltabas tú” on the album “La Dulzura”, where the band plays Tito’s song in a modern bolero style.

Photo credit: 1) Wikipedia. 2) Youtube.

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