A crazed, primal record, Bongo Joe is a deserved cult classic; beating wildly on oil drums, George Coleman delivers bizarre raps including "Innocent Little Doggie" and "Transistor Radio" -- hilarious, edgy stuff.
1. I Wish I Could Sing
2. Science Fiction
3. Innocent Little Doggie
4. Cool It Right
5. Listen At That Bull
6. Crazy With Love
8. Transistor Radio
10. Dog Eat Dog
“There can only be one Bongo Joe, and that is the incredible George Coleman, in his own way as much an American original as Johnny Cash or Bo Diddley. Beloved favorite for many years at the New Orleans Jazz And Heritage Festival (where he once jammed with Dizzy Gillespie) Bongo Joe is perhaps the world's only virtuoso player of the empty oil drum (we're not kidding, folks), a man so ingenious that he could even turn petroleum refuse into something musical and sublime.
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 Firechief 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.
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 rapbut not that bullshit they're putting down now. I play fundamental beat music.' And that it is`Almost 50 Minutes Of WORLD BEAT' the sleeve agreeably crows, and it's no mere idle copy. 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 personaa 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. One of the true treasures of the bountiful Arhoolie catalog, Bongo Joe is the kind of record that will immediately break up a typically drab radio day, lighting up the phone lines and waking listeners out of the lull of typical programming. Try `Science Fiction,' `Innocent Little Doggie' (if you think Joe was just a novelty act, listen closely to the poignant insightfulness of the lyrics), `Transistor Radio' (more wry commentary) and `Dog Eat Dog.'”
(James Lien — CMJ New Music Report)
“Coleman will tell you that he's known throughout the land as Bongo Joe, although everybody else just calls him George. He can be seen tooling around various Texas towns on his Moped with a 55 gallon oil drum strapped to his back. Once he finds a new street corner to perform on, he unhooks the oil drum, attaches his microphone to a portable amplifier, and starts to wail away with his mallets.
Although he has a few standard numbers, most of his satiric songs are improvised on the spot. His humor and world view come through in simple, pointed numbers like "I Wish I Could Sing" and "Transistor Radio." The phones at WFMU light up almost every time this is played.
Chris Strachwitz recorded Bongo Joe on the streets of San Antonio in 1968. A few extra cuts have been added to the CD since the earlier LP release of the same name.”
“Coleman's drum sound is unique and quite full, as if a small band were playing, with little resemblance to the Caribbean steel drum sounds one might imagine. The first tune is very honest in title, I Wish I Could Sing. Poor George really can't! Fortunately, we are spared his attempts at singing and listen only to his rapping, and what a satirical and social observer Bongo Joe is. In `Innocent Little Doggie' and `Dog Eat Dog' the ruthlessness and inhumanity of man to his fellow is captured by the observant eye, quick wit, and biting tongue of Mr. Coleman.”
(Marshall Miller — Broadside)
Following is a reprint of a cover story from the Tuesday, December 21, 1999 copy of the San Antonio Express-News.
Bongo Joe Obituary
Downtown fixture Bongo Joe dies
By Jacque Crouse and Jim Beal
Express-News Staff Writers
Legendary San Antonio street musician Bongo Joe has died at age 76.
The whistling, upbeat entertainer, who died Sunday, delighted downtown audiences with an almost-nightly percussion performance for more than 20 years. But he ceased public appearances in the early 1990s due to diabetes and kidney disease.
Born George Coleman in Haines City, Fla., on Nov. 28, 1923, Coleman made his way to San Antonio during HemisFair '68, the city's World's Fair. He had lived here ever since, continuing a musical career that began in the 1940s and included everything from gigs with Sammy Davis Jr. to playing on the beach in Galveston, the streets of San Antonio and at exclusive parties in private homes and country clubs.
Quint Davis. producer and director of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, said Coleman - who performed there nine times - was a great musician. "He was a real talent. He wasn't just a curiosity. Bongo Joe, George Coleman, had three things going, for him. First and foremost, he was a drummer," Davis said Monday. "He also had these metal pipes with various sizes of BB shot inside. They were taped onto his drum sticks, and he also had soft heads on his drum sticks. He could hit the drums, which were 55-gallon oil drums, and maintain a maraca rhythm with the pipes."
Coleman's friend and business manager, Helen Glau, said he played for President John F. Kennedy at the Cellar, a club in Fort Worth, the night before Kennedy was assassinated. President Gerald Ford sought him out to travel and perform in a 10-city sweep during Ford's 1976 presidential campaign.
Davis said Coleman played piano with Dizzy Gillespie one year at the New Orleans festival. "Since he was such an unusual character, I think people didn't realize how good a musician he really was. Dizzy Gillespie obviously did," Davis said "Bongo Joe had this incredible drumming, incredible social commentary and this weird whistling. It had a real quality and depth to it."
Bongo Joe's father was killed before his birth, and his mother died when he was 7, Glau said. After graduating from high school, he headed for Detroit to see an older sister. There, he was introduced to the Detroit jazz scene and began playing with, among others. Sammy Davis Jr., Glau said.
"Joe was even better on the piano than he was the drums, but he liked playing to what he called 'my people' on the streets," Glau said. "We were friends for 31 years, and I helped set up his performances, but , he once even told me that no one ,would ever come between him and his people. He said as long as there were people out there to listen, he would be there. "He would turn down (a betterpaying performance) to go play to people on the street. "Joe's quick wit and humor became a River Walk trademark. He rode a motorbike, towing his equipment: 55-gallon oil drums and a small public address system.
He even appeared in a television commercial with San Antonio Symphony Music Director Francois Huybrechts in 1978, promoting the upcoming symphony season.
Glau said Coleman played on the beach in Galveston for 15 years before he came to San Antonio. "Mohammad Ali once came to see him," Glau remembered. "He also played the San Antonio Country Club, the YO Ranch (near Kerrville) and for private parties in Alamo Heights and Terrell Hills."
In 1984, Coleman pleaded guilty to shooting a spectator he said he thought was going to hurt him as he played downtown on April 9 that year. He received five years probation and continued to play for the crowds.
Michael Mehl, a local photographer, artist and composer, worked with Bongo Joe in 1991 when Mehl produced three shows called "Almost Live from the Liberty Bar" that aired on KLRN, the PBS affiliate. "He was the pre-eminent performance artist. What strikes me as his legacy is how fiercely independent, how iconoclastic he was. He was also very, very insightful," Mehl said. "He was interested in philosophy, in electronic music. He was basically sampling when he was working, and that was many, many years ago. He was doing things musically that were years ahead of their time."
"It's people like him who are the soul of the city." San Antonio Police Detective Anton Michalec agreed. "He was a nice guy, a daily figure downtown for many years," Michalec said. "He was beautifully entertaining It's really too bad there isn't someone like him around now."
Chris Strachwitz, president of Arhoolie Records, recorded Bongo Joe's only album in 1968. The album, "George Coleman: Bongo Joe" still is in print. Catalog numbers are CD 1040 and CASS 1040.
"He was the original rapper.... I tried to record him in the street, with the crowd interaction, but my tape machine went out. I took him to a friend's house and recorded him there," Strachwitz said, adding: "He was an amazing drummer, too. I just saw him as a wonderful storyteller. He was an improvising genius. His songs are powerful little statements."
Coleman was to be cremated and a memorial service will be held after the holidays, Glau said.