Barretto (his real name,”Barreto”, was misspelled on his birth certificate) was born in New York City. His parents moved to New York from Puerto Rico in the early 1920s, looking for a better life. He was raised in Spanish Harlem and at a young age was influenced by his mother’s love of music and by the jazz of Duke Ellington and Count Basie.
In 1946, when Barretto was 17 years old, he joined the Army. While stationed in Germany, he met Belgian vibraphonist Fats Sadi. However, it was when he heard Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca” with Gil Fuller and Chano Pozo that he realized his calling.