While some may think of him only as a novelty, Bongo Joe (aka George Coleman) had a long, illustrious career, especially for a self-taught street musician who played mainly for free. Born George Coleman in Haines City, FL, on November 28, 1923, he had a rough life from the beginning. His father died before he was born and his mother passed away when he was seven, leaving siblings and neighbors to look after him. Upon graduation from high school, Coleman began a 30-year musical career that found him playing 15 years on Seawall Boulevard in Galveston and another 15 in San Antonio, occasionally traveling anywhere between. Coleman had played with numerous musicians, including Sammy Davis Jr. and Dizzy Gillespie, and played for Muhammad Ali, President John F. Kennedy in Fort Worth (the night before he was assassinated), and Gerald Ford during his 1976 presidential campaign. He also played private exclusive parties at homes and country clubs. While he was a proficient piano player, Coleman preferred percussion because it was easier to play on the streets, hence the moniker Bongo Joe. He rode a motorbike, towing his equipment: 55-gallon oil drums, mallets made of hammer handles, and a small public-address system. No matter where he was, Bongo Joe was a disciplined performer playing practically every night without fail. Coleman died on December 19, 1999, due to diabetes and kidney disease. Only one album by Bongo Joe was recorded and released by Arhoolie Records in 1968. It remains in print over 30 years later.
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