Cellar Star Bongo Joe Remembered

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Posted February 15, 2010 by Anthony Mariani in Blotch

bongo-joeEvery year, The Oxford American magazine puts out a music issue, a few hundred pages devoted mostly to obscure musicians from the south –– each issue comes with a compilation CD of select music. In the OA’s most recent iteration is a story on an outsider artist from Florida with a Fort Worth connection: George “Bongo Joe” Coleman.

Bongo Joe, according to the OA story by one-time Fort Worthian Joe Nick Patoski, spent his formative years in Detroit, ended up in Houston as a young man in the ’40s, and became a regular street performer on the Seawall in Galveston before landing in Fort Worth in the late 1950s. By the time he started playing The Cellar –– where Stevie Ray Vaughan, George Carlin, John Denver, and other soon-to-be Big Timers honed their chops –– Bongo Joe had fully formed his persona: He was a large African-American who wore a fez and super-brightly colored clothes and, while singing mostly made-up songs on the spot, played two empty 55-gallon oil barrels. Before leaving Fort Worth in 1964, right after The Cellar moved upstairs, Bongo Joe had a run-in of sorts with John F. Kennedy, who was in Fort Worth to deliver a speech outside The Texas Hotel –– before JFK took the dais, Bongo Joe got up first, intending to perform. He was promptly escorted away by the Secret Service.

Some of Bongo Joe’s “hits” include “Transistor Radio,” about a robber who sticks people up but wants neither cash nor jewelry, just the titular device, and also “Innocent Little Doggie,” about a stray mutt that, while strolling down the street one day, is struck and almost killed by a drunk driver. Bongo Joe indicates the tragic turn of events by muttering, “Uh-oh.” The doggie, though, proves to be not so innocent. After being rescued and nursed back to health by a loving family, the dog lands a job and then steals the host’s wife.

In the ’70s, “Innocent Little Doggie” –– recorded along with some other Bongo Joe originals by noted indie label Arhoolie in 1969 –– got some airplay across the country and here, on KFAD/94.9-FM, an independent radio station licensed to Cleburne and Arlington and where young Joe Nick did some dee-jaying.

Bongo Joe eventually found his way to San Antonio, where he lived until he passed away in relative obscurity from complications from diabetes and kidney disease in 1999. To hear “Transistor Radio,” “Innocent Little Doggie,” “I Wish I Could Sing,” and some of Bongo Joe’s other “hits,” go here.

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