Conzo's primary goal was to put Puente's accomplishments and experiences in their proper perspective. First, Puente called his music "Afro-Cuban," rather than salsa. It was steeped in the multiple sounds he'd heard growing up in New York. He later played in the U.S. Navy Band, then studied at Juillard. His compositions and arrangements had the improvisatory zeal of jazz, and the percussive firepower and rhythmic variety of African and Cuban fare. Puente navigated the fine line between artistry and popularity, innovation and tradition. Conzo documents many occasions when Puente clashed with labels and/or musicians because of differences regarding vision and direction. He was a combative type, and was delighted at the musical fireworks happening in the late '50s at such clubs as the Palladium and the Copacabana. Puente also paid close attention to what his rivals were doing, as well as songs and developments in other styles. His ability to integrate them into his own work, yet also maintain a highly personal sound, was another among his many impressive skills.
The book details Puente's outspoken attitudes in several instances. He became somewhat bitter in his later years. Puente was angry because he felt the younger generation was forsaking its heritage and ignoring great active musicians. He spoke with disdain about some contemporary singers and musicians, even though he was very cordial towards others like Carlos Santana, who covered "Oye Como Va.". But Puente was savvy enough to remain cognizant of what was happening in the clubs and on the streets. While his music retained its signature rhythm aspects, he consistently updated it with current tunes and references.
Puente was a trailblazer whose band often debuted new voices and players. Simultaneously, he was also a mentor to others on the Latin scene. Conzo documents his interaction with Mario Bauza, Machito, Tito Rodrigez. Celia Cruz, Cal Tjader, even performers not commonly associated with him like Jose Feliciano and Rafael Hernandez. He doesn't ignore his importance as a player either, especially on vibes and timbales. Puente liked to play just off or behind the beat. His recordings feature stunning solos with intricate lines, beautiful phrases and catchy licks. Puente could also hold his own against any timbales player in his prime, and was knowledgeable of both traditional rhythms and newer ones developed during late-night jam sessions.
But this isn't strictly a musical work. Some hardcore fans might object to segments covering Puente's life away from the bandstand. Conzo doesn't shy away from acknowledging Puente's fondness for women, or his occasional drug use. He avoids mentioning names of Puente's romantic conquests as a favor to his widow. He praises Puente for never abandoning his friends, even those having their own problems (Conzo battled drugs himself and includes his own fight with substance abuse in the book). The nagging weaknesses in Conzo's account comes from his unwillingness to discuss potential ramifications of some revelations. For instance, he mentions Puente became a priest in the Santeria religion. But he doesn't discuss what impact, if any, that had on the music he wrote and played afterwards. There's not even much information included about Santeria, and even less about what led Puente to make that decision.
Indeed, "Mambo Diablo" constantly fluctuates between too much and too little information. Conzo's recall is extensive, and the various encounters and incidents fully document the closeness shared with Puente. But he's not interested in any amateur psychology, nor peeling back the covers beyond a certain point. So you get a portrait of Puente that's not sanitized, but also not scrutinized the way many 21st century biographers routinely do with their subjects. Still, "Mambo Diablo" does effectively chronicle Tito Puente's life and times, showing the excitement and fervor he and his music created over a remarkable career.