Not that many people know that Marlon Brando was a huge tropical latin music fan. Herman Leonard, the great jazz photographer knew that, and he and Brando became close because they were both passionate music lovers. Brando frequented the Palladium, The Village Gate, and other mambo palaces during the 1950s and 60s. I once saw him at a Hollywood Bowl Tropical Latin show with Celia Cruz and the Tito Puente Orchestra. This was in the 80’s, and by then he was a big man. I watched as he stood up to applaud a conga (or was it a timbales) solo. He didn’t bother to get out of his director’s chair and just stood up with the chair attached to his butt, the legs pointing backwards. A Brando moment.
But the story of his love for Latin music goes further. He invented a newer, easier way to tune conga drum heads. He took his idea to some of the bigger manufacturers, most likely Remo and LP Percussion, but the design wasn’t cost effective so Brando’s invention was never patented. Recently there was a story on NPR’s Sunday Weekend Edition that had Poncho Sanchez–himself a virtuoso conguero (conga player)—visit Brando’s collection of tunable congas. Here is the link to this interesting and little-known story, revealing yet another facet to the great actor’s career. The great Edward R. Murrow talks with Brando on his CBS TV show in the mid-50s.