Music, Muscles & Martial Arts – The Tale of an All-Round Bodybuilder

By David F. Gentle, PC Historian & Author

Dr. Ken “Leo” Rosa in chest pose. ©History of Physical Culture

Dr. Ken ‘Leo’ Rosa has more sides to him than a Rubik cube. No ‘gym rat’ or ‘beach bum’ single mindedly seeking self-image importance, but a man who loves all facets of bodybuilding, music and life.

Regular supporter and often MC at the famed Association of Oldetime Barbell and Strongmen’s (AOBS) reunions, from the days of the founder, the late Vic Boff, to the current 21st meeting up in New Jersey, where Dr. Rosa introduced the guest of honour, Elmo Santiago – a very personal friend for decades in the Iron Game. Ken or ‘Leo’ as most people prefer to call him reports and writes on all aspects of physical culture and has done so for years, and yet little is written about him, so we hope to redress the balance.


To justify the title of Doctor, Leo Rosa is firstly and foremost an outstanding musician In New York he is known as ‘The Second Greatest Pianist in the World’.

He says, “You can choose whoever you like as the first, but I am the second!”

Dr. Leo Rosa
Dr. Ken Leo Rosa at the piano in the Chateau Madridnight club, New York in 1961. ©History of Physical Culture

His chiropractic medicine office in the Bronx in New York, (where he lived near Jake la Motta, aka ‘The Raging Bull’, is lined with a photo gallery of greats of both the music and muscle world.

Leo pictured in 1976 with one of the most revolutionary world famous athlete of the 20th century: The great Joe Louis, the ‘Brown Bomber’. ©History of Physical Culture

Among the pictures can be seen famous Latin American maestros, such as Tito Puente, singers like Frank Sinatra and boxers such as Mohammed Ali, (Cassius Clay) whom he knew well – in a friendship going back to 1963, or the frightening Sonny Liston Dr. Rosa, not only trained or played music with them, he also treated many for ailments which his chiropractic expertise helped cure.

Leo at Deer Park in 1974 with one of the greatest legends of all time, Muhammad Ali. ©History of Physical Culture

Dr. Rosa first met the 20 year-old Cassius Clay in 1963 in Miami Beach’s Fifth Street boxing gym. Rosa had been around boxers most of his young life, but had never seen anyone with the ability to move so quickly with such incredible speed. Rosa said Cassius noticed his ‘big muscles and as the weeks went by gradually conversed more and more. Rosa also knew Cassius’s brother Rudolf Valentino Clay, also a boxer. Their friendship has continued over the decades both visiting Rosa’s home in New York City.

Leo with Sammy Davis Jr. at the Hotel Fountainblu, Florida, 1963 ©History of Physical Culture

He was weaned on classical music, and in late 1951 made his pro debut at the Palladium Ballroom, playing piano with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Art Blakey. When he lived in Puerto Rico, he also accompanied the sensuous Puerto Rican vocalist Lucy Fabrey. Fame followed his musical talent and soon he was making recordings such as ‘Piano Magico’ and top billing at many resorts (he is still often a guest on top music shows).

The cover design for his record, ‘Piano Magico”. ©History of Physical Culture

Wherever he went there was music. He made records and had his own top radio shows i.e. New York City radio show, playing mainly Latin American, jazz or rag time. These were unique, not only for the music, but also as a social commentary on New York, and included health tips and disclosures of rip-offs which occurred in the Latin Music industry.

Leo pictured in 1977 with the great English Jazz pianist, George Shearing, now in his 80’s.
©History of Physical Culture

In fact, he caused such a stir that the record companies were put under pressure to have him removed. But no matter what adventures he undertook during his nomadic lifestyle he never remained far away from both the piano, still recording his exciting style of music on the Rosa ‘Latin Nostalgia’ show, or his barbells and weight training.

Regarding his diversity of interests Dr. Ken says, “We can still be interested in the muscle world, but we can also have interest in a lot of new things. We should be like kids. That’s how we can hold onto youth forever even if we don’t have the muscles we once had. That’s how we don’t become dinosaurs. And we should try to do things we like to do. There is nothing worse than being locked into a form of work that one hates.”


Rosa loves the marital art of Jiu Jitsu, or to be specific Gracie Jiu Jitsu. Taking classes in Canada with the two brothers Rorian and Royce Gracie, both legends in the martial arts world, they are now based in California, but travel to spread their knowledge.

Leo ready for combat with the incomparable Royce Gracie in 1997 ©History of Physical Culture

Dr. Rosa says. “The more one learns about this art the less violent one is inclined to want to be. It’s like chess. There are seemingly hundreds of moves and holds and countless counters for each move. And it’s real and practical.
It also enhances one’s perception of people and situations, and you don’t need to have 22-inch arms or weigh 280lb, to be effective. And I repeat it tends to make one want to shun violence because one becomes so aware of the fragility of the human body and the ugliness of violence becomes a stark reality.”

Dr. Leo Rosa
Leo picture in 1996 at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York with Cindy Morrison, one of the most glamorous and strongest women in the world. ©History of Physical Culture

Come to think of it, Dr. Rosa’s ability of being able, via martial arts skills. to dislocate most of your joints, then later, via chiropractor training put them back into better shape than before, must be quite useful, although personally I don’t believe in fixing anything unless its broke. Ken Rosa who is a doctor of chiropractic, was president of the Bronx Chapter of New York for six years and vice president for two. He also holds a Masters degree in nutrition and a Bachelor degree in Spanish literature

Ken also worked in a circus and for a brief period was a professional wrestler in Puerto Rico, introduced to the esoteric art by legendary mat man from Argentina and later New York, Antonio Rocca. At this period, when hanging around with a whole group of American professional wrestlers including Rocca, Savoldi, Montana, Karl Von Hess and others. At this time Ken met a guy called Rocky Johnson, who turned out to be the father of the now famous Duane Johnson, aka THE ROCK, soon to follow Arnold Schwarzenegger’s roles in the movies.


Leo as the cover man in 1961, with Vicky Villa.
©History of Physical Culture

We’ve had music and martial arts, now for the muscle. Always having a lust for travelling, working, living and learning in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Bermuda, Spain, Mexico, Sweden and England, Dr. Ken was motivated to visit Europe on the strength of seeing a French movie that included exquisite music. The movie was ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’ the year 1965. Inspired by comic book heroes like Doc Savage, Batman and Tarzan and first pictures in the American Strength and Health magazine. Ken had long trained regularly and intensely with weights and was in fantastic shape. The problem he had was, due to his music, he rarely had time to enter contests, most held during weekends when Ken was playing in top night clubs where people like Frank Sinatra, who told the owner of New York’s famous Chateau Madrid night club that “He liked the way he (Leo) played; Ava Gardner and Marilyn Monroe were also regulars.

Despite his condition he didn’t compete until the opportunity arose for him to enter the NABBA Mr. Universe in London. Ken Rosa had begun training for that contest when he lived in Madrid, Spain, followed by harder workouts when he moved on to Stockholm, Sweden. There he trained six days a week for eight hours a day. His diet consisted of high protein, a medium degree of fat and low carbohydrates. His old training buddy from the Bronx, Elmo Santiago, won the 1965 NABBA Mr. Universe title.

Leo in the front row sixth from left in the line-up for the 1965 Mr. Universe competition in London ©History of Physical Culture

Dr. Ken ‘Leo’ Rosa as he competed in the
1965 Mr. Universe competition in London.

Dr. Ken ‘Leo’ Rosa as he competed in the 1965 Mr. Universe competition in London.
©History of Physical Culture
Leo pictured in 1985 with the legendary Rachel McClish. In the background (wearing a tie) is Steve Reeves ©History of Physical Culture

Oscar Heidenstam, who treated Ken far better than his run-ins with the AAU and old York organisations, who put more emphasis on lifting ability than muscular definition, said of him, “He was impressive.” and published full page photos of his ‘lat’ spread in Health and Strength magazine. Later Dr. Rosa made cover man for the Spanish edition of Strength and Health, with a photo taken by Bob Delmontique in 1961.

As well as supporting the AOBS, Dr. Ken also continues to visit the UK, coming over regularly to the OHF awards. In the early years, one highlight of that event was Ken’s piano playing. In 1994 he was presented with an award for his ‘Special Services’ to the OHF. Today he continues to support both.
Ken says that anybody can be in shape in their 20s or 30s, but that credit should go to those who are in superb shape in their 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond, and this year (2004) the Association of Oldetime Barbell and Strongmen reunion celebrates the birthday of an incredible physical culturist who still works out. His name is Joe Rollino and he is 99 years of age.

Ken says, “A person can be healthy and in great shape, without having King Kong muscles.” And that, “Music and muscles can indeed go well together. There is no reason why a strong, muscular person cannot also be a sensitive, artistic human being.”

Currently Dr. Rosa tells me he is “Training as hard now as I ever did and I feel great. I revere working out with weights and like a muscular but not a bloated look. As far as bodybuilding is concerned I think Schwarzenegger is the smartest, most focused of ALL of them. I knew it as soon as I met him twenty years ago.”

Leo with Arnold outside Gold’s Gym Santa Monica in 1975.
©History of Physical Culture

Final comment from Dr. Kenneth ‘Leo’ Rosa. Instead of adulating others we should learn to like who we are. We should get to know ourselves better. We might just like very much who we really are. The spiritual is far more important than the physical.

©Music, Muscles & Martial Arts by David Gentle

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