Barretto was born on 29 April 1929, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, of Puerto Rican parents. Noted for his many years as a prominent Latin bandleader, his music career actually began as a studio performer on the conga for jazz recording sessions.
He was raised in the Latin ghettos of East Harlem and the Bronx, in an environment filled with music of Puerto Rico but with a love for the swing bands of Ellington, Basie and Goodman. He escaped the ghetto by joining the United States Army when he was 17 years old, but he did not escape the music.
Influenced by a record of Dizzy Gillespie, “Manteca”, with conguero Chano Pozo. He was hooked and he knew then that his calling was was to become a professional musician. Barretto sat in on jam sessions held at the Orlando, a GI jazz club in Munich, Germany. After military service in 1949, he returned to Harlem and taught himself how to play the drums.
Barretto’s first regular job was with Eddie Bonnemere’s Latin Jazz Combo. He then went on to play for four years with Cuban bandleader/pianist Jose Curbelo. In 1957, Barretto then replaced Mongo Santamaria in Tito Puente‘s band, with which he recorded nis first album: Dance Mania. After four years with Puente, he was one of the most sought-after percussionists in New York City’s thriving music scene. He attended jam sessions with notable artists such as Max Roach, Charlie Parker, Art Blakey and other jazz giants. He also recorded with Sonny Stitt, Lou Donaldson, Red Garland, Gene Ammons, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Cannonball Adderley , Freddie Hubbard, Cal Tjader, Dizzy Gillespie, and others.
Barretto got his first job as a bandleader in 1961 when Orrin Keepnews of Riverside Records, asked him to form a charanga for a recording. Keepnews was familiar with Barretto’s jazz work and the collaboration resulted in the album Pachanga With Barretto. This was followed by the Latin jam Latino in 1962, on which Barretto was joined by Jose “Chombo” Silva on the tenor sax and Alejandro “El Negro” Vivar on the trumpet.
In 1962, Barretto released the album Charanga Moderna. The track “El Watusi” reached the Top 20 pop chart in the United States in 1963 and went gold.
His next eight albums between 1963 and 1966 thrashed around in various directions and consistently eluded commercial success. The musical merit of some of his recorded work from this period was not appreciated until years later. His fortunes changed when he signed to Fania Records in 1967. He dropped violins for an all-brass frontline and made the R&B- and jazz-flavoured Acid, which won him major popularity among Latin audiences for the first time.