Playing Until He Can’t Play Anymore: The Last Mambo King Orlando Marin

I didn’t think this would happen but when I saw him right in front of me, I was a bit shell-shocked. The Last Mambo King, Orlando Marin, was standing in front of me at Ginny's Supper Club in a traditional white guayabera and I was honestly star struck. Here was one of the founding fathers of the music we know today as Salsa, and I being born in Colombia, learned how to dance to Salsa as soon as I learned how to walk. So it was only natural to be in awe of one of the greats.

As I sat down and spoke with Mr. Marin, I was astounded at how personable he was; it was like I was sitting down for a chat with my grandfather. And just like a grandfather he began to recount his amazing stories of how music was back in the day, when Mambo first came about, how he started his first orchestras and how he was drafted to the Army during the Korean War. I sat and listened intently, watching his hands move around while he spoke with enthusiasm, and even gasped when I heard the big names of band leaders and artists he played with that are idolized in my culture. Names like Tito Puentes, Tito Rodriguez, and Eddie Palmieri are as familiar to him as “Mom” and “Dad” are to us.

So as the story goes, Orlando Marin grew up singing and dancing. At 2 and 3 years of age he learned how to sing and dance, starting at house parties and then theaters, and even at that young age he had the ability to remember lyrics and rhythms. “My mom was always the biggest encouragement,” he says, “and by the age of 9, I was singing in a 15-piece orchestra and tap dancing.” But she died when Orlando was 10 years old, so he lost interest in music and took to the street to play stickball. “I was so good at stickball that I’m in the stickball hall of fame!”

But at the age of 15, Mambo came out big in New York and every Boricua in the Bronx and in El Barrio was dancing to it. “So I fell in love with it and I told my friends that that music excited me…it stirred something in me. So I bought a cowbell and timbales (single-headed Cuban drums) and just started playing. And the logic of a child, I was 16, and I said to myself, ‘I don’t know how to play and nobody is going to hire me, so I’m going to make a band with the kids in my neighborhood.’ So I started as a band leader and I didn’t even know how to play… I just said I was going to do it, y lo hice (and I did it)!”

But it was no ordinary band, he found Eddie Palmieri (14 years old at the time, who is set to play next week on NYC’s SummerStage), Joe Quijano (15 years old who is also huge in the mambo and pachanga world) and other musicians in the Bronx that all grew up to be professional musicians. “I was very lucky that God gave me the gift of music and by the age of 18, I was already recording my music and playing in big dancehalls like the famous Palladium Ballroom and played in all the boroughs. We were the first band to come out of the Bronx, it was only us, Puentes, Machito, and Rodriguez that were playing Mambo.”

Mr. Marin then got drafted to the Army in 1958, and while he was doing his service, the other greats got famous. But Orlando also got a stab at fame when he won a talent show for the Army where he was then sent on tour all over Korea and then to the US, where he played on only the biggest show on TV at the time, The Ed Sullivan Show. When he returned from Korea, he recorded the great hits that we know today, El Timbalero and Se Te Quemo La Casa, that became famous all around the world and to this day is the last Mambo King (on the timbales) to still perform.

After having a great career, some might ask ‘Why not hang up the drumsticks and retire?’ As the Last Mambo King Orlando Marin eloquently puts it, “Tito Puentes played until he passed away, Tito Rodriguez played until he passed away, Machito played until he passed away, so I plan to do the same. I love music and when I play I feel like I did when I was 15 years old, I can’t explain it. I got into music to represent the Hispanic community and I want to bring joy to people. I’m celebrating this year 61 years as a band leader and I want to continue for as long as I can, y voy hasta el fin (and I’ll go until the end)!”

Photos: Cyndi Amaya