Hot Platters: Bongo Joe

Track List: 

1.      I Wish I Could SIng 

2.      Innocent Little Doggie 

3.      Cool It 

4.      Listen At That Bull 

5.      Transistor Radio 

6.      Eloise 

7.      Dog Eat Dog

A couple of weeks ago, The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival celebrated its 50th Anniversary and I was immediately reminded of Bongo Joe.  Ah, Bongo Joe... the very name conjures up a deep well of memories for me. Otherwise known as George Coleman, Bongo Joe was an eccentric musician from San Antonio, Texas whose "act" consisted of playing empty oil drums while regaling folks with his off-the-wall lyrics.  This slab of vinyl is one of my all-time favorite record albums.

 

At one point in my life, during the 80's, Sweet Loretta and I would always go down to New Orleans to attend the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival. Every year, who would we see just outside the gates of the racetrack where the festival was held? Bongo Joe, of course! Pounding on his oil drums, his fez perched precariously on his bobbing head, eyes alive as he shouted out his free verse. It don't get much better than that folks! 

 

Here's the skinny on this unique musician, from Jame Lien's review in the CMJ New Music Report: "Born in Haines, Florida, in 1923, like many others he gravitated to Houston, Texas (known as `Baghdad On The Bayou' because of its booming oil business) as a young man. Somewhere in the late '40s, Coleman volunteered to fill the drummer's chair in a local band, improvising around his lack of a trap set by building his own kit out of empty oil drums and tin cans. Having to lug a 55-gallon Texaco Fire Chief barrel from gig to gig hindered his musical progress through normal professional channels, but he quickly turned to free-lancing on the streets, playing on popular tourist piers and heavily trafficked places like Seawall Boulevard in Galveston, working his way up to legendary gigs at the San Antonio World's Fair and later the New Orleans Jazz Fest. Whether draping his drums with an American flag or washing them in swirls of psychedelic green and red paint, there's something beyond the typical street-corner busker in Bongo Joe's persona festive, unbridled quality that isn't just musical, but draws on a tradition of pure entertainment, with elements from sideshows, comedy and even the circus. The approach is primal, but not primitive: Bongo Joe drums on his oil cans with a thunderous, tympani-like effect, while discoursing rambling, insightful and hilariously funny lyrics that are often times more stories than songs. As Joe himself put it, `I rap but not that bullshit they're putting down now. I play fundamental beat music.'"

 

"Coleman was engaged by the Detroit jazz scene, and began his career by accompanying local musicians on piano, including Sammy Davis Jr. In the 1940's, at Houston, he spent time in bands at a number of locales. Here, for the first time, he played an unconventional percussion instrument – unconventional in that he fabricated a makeshift drum kit out of 55-gallon oil drums. How he developed his drumming technique and tuning over the years resulted in a unique and novel sound.  Despite more lucrative offers by established venues, for 15 years, Coleman preferred playing on the streets of Galveston; another 15 years were spent in San Antonio where his nickname "Bongo Joe" was originated. The latter city was where Coleman recorded his only album, George Coleman: Bongo Joe, in 1968 with producer Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records; his work remains in print to this day.  A low-profile but well-respected musician, Coleman occasionally participated at more prominent events such as the Hemis Fair, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and Gerald Ford's presidential campaign in 1976. In 1991, he appeared on the PBS program Almost Live from the Liberty Bar.  Coleman's music career ended abruptly in the early 1990s when he was diagnosed with diabetes and kidney disease. He died on December 19, 1999, age 76."  (Revolvy.com)

 

Chris Strachwitz (Arhoolie Records)

Here's an excerpt from an interview with Chris Strachwitz, the owner of the Arhoolie Record label: "Mack McCormick played me these tapes that he had made and he actually issued one number under a label from England: 77 Records. It was an amazing song by this guy who banged away on an oil drum, and he sang about the mighty dollar.  I just happened to walk across the damn bridge in San Antonio, I believe it was in the Seventies, and he was playing right downtown. My little portable machine gave out, but a good friend of mine, Larry Skoog, lived in San Antonio with his family. He said, “Chris, come over to my house and we can record him there on your Magnecord machine.” I didn’t know any place to record him, you see. And at least there we had Larry’s children as an audience.  I think he calls himself “The Original Rapper.” I think I mention it in the notes. Anyway, I’m sure glad I recorded him. He was a really amazing improviser. He would comment on the world around him. That’s really what all these guys did, in a way. He would just put together simple phrases where others had these extraordinary stories to tell." (Oxford American magazine, Don Flemons, It's Got Ahold of Me)

 

 

 

 

 

FURTHER INVESTIGATION

BONGO JOE INTERVIEW (Arhoolie Records)

Purchase This Recording @ the Smithsonian Folkways site

 



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