Joe was born in 1942 in New York City. His mother is Puerto Rican and his father is Italian. When Joe was 11 or 12 his family moved from Harlem to the Bronx. They moved to 163rd street near Southern Blvd. At this time, however, he was still attending school in Manhattan at Galvini Junior High School. He remembers music being everywhere and was therefore exposed to a lot of different styles. He attended Morris High School briefly. During this time he was involved with a gang and he discusses the gang culture of his youth and shows how different it was from the gang culture of the new millennium.
At 17, his mother put him in the National Guard. First he was sent to Rye, New York. He was doing reconnaissance work when he met his wife. They married while he was in the service, but unfortunately they could not live together because shortly after the wedding, Joe was sent to Korea. While stationed there, he developed a heroin addiction that continued when he returned from the war. He was still an addict when he was working with Tito Puente, who Joe credits with helping him kick the habit.
Tito Puente was the first and only male role model he had in his life. He met Tito right before he went into the service through his sister, who worked with Tito’s wife at a drycleaners. He formerly met Tito at the Palladium. Their relationship gradually strengthened through the numerous connections they had. Eventually, Joe became Tito’s PR person. The first piece Joe ever wrote was on the album “The Many Methods of Tito Puente.” At the time he also wrote a column for a paper in Orange County. Additionally, he traveled with Tito’s band and listened to a lot of Tito’s ideas. Joe says that Tito trusted him more than he trusted his wife. The reason for this was that Tito could relate to Joe. When Joe was working with Tito, Machito, and Celia Cruz he would bring his son around, who was an aspiring photographer. (see Joe Conzo Jr’s interview).
They discuss the many places Tito played, as well as the style of music and artists he worked with. Joe says that the Timbales were not a solo instrument until Tito came around. Tito got started by playing Timbales for Machito’s band.However, he was a showman and the audience recognized his talent even when Tito was stuck in the back of the orchestra. Gradually, Tito got more and more solos until he formed his own group. Before being drafted and playing as a professional musician, Tito attended Julliard where he learned compositional skills. He also talks about the camaraderie between Latin musicians at the time. Everyone played with everyone.
At some point, Joe began collecting pictures, memorabilia, posters, recordings, letters, and anything that had to do with Tito. He would keep them wherever he was living at the time in a very unorganized fashion.
Joe remembers the live music scene fading in the Bronx when drugs really became popular. Drugs destroyed the buildings of the South Bronx and also the careers of many musicians, as Joe points out. He says this was in the 1960’s and the 1970’s. He talks about his own struggle with drugs as well.