Street performer, percussionist, and singer George Coleman, known as Bongo Joe, was born in Haines City, Florida, on November 28, 1923. Coleman's father died before he was born and his mother died when he was seven. After he graduated from high school he moved to Detroit to live with his older sister. There he was exposed to the local jazz scene and began his interest in musical performance with the piano. He played with many local musicians, and even with Sammy Davis Jr.
He moved to Houston by his late twenties and started his career as a percussionist with a local band. Rather than appearing onstage with a full drumset, which he did not own, he fabricated a makeshift kit out of empty fifty-five-gallon oil drums. This led to a unique percussive sound that he developed over the course of his career through specialized drumming techniques, tuning, and hand-made instruments. He also augmented his sound with his humorous and insightful lyrics.
Coleman started performing more on streets than on stages, hauling his oil drums around the cities of Texas, mounting them with a pick-up microphone and playing through a small amplifier. For fifteen years or so, he played at popular Houston-area tourist spots such as Seawall Boulevard in Galveston, and later moved to more prominent tourist attractions such as HemisFair '68 in San Antonio. He traveled through Mexico playing for tips, but settled in San Antonio. As he continued to travel the state of Texas and its immediate environs, taking his oil drums with him and playing on streetcorners, he acquired the affectionate nickname "Bongo Joe."
Bongo Joe was invited to participate in the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival nine times. There he played piano once with Dizzy Gillespie. In 1976 he played on a ten-city tour as part of Gerald Ford's presidential campaign. In 1991 he appeared on three television programs called "Almost Live from the Liberty Bar" that aired on the San Antonio PBS affiliate KLRN. His performances stopped in the early 1990s, when he was diagnosed with diabetes and kidney disease. He died in San Antonio on December 19, 1999.
Bongo Joe has been alternately viewed as inspired and as a novelty act. Whichever way he is interpreted, he was certainly a cult classic. He was recorded in San Antonio by Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records in 1968. These recordings led to an LP that, in combination with a few later sessions, turned into a CD re-release by Arhoolie entitled George Coleman--Bongo Joe. One selection from these original recordings, "Innocent Little Doggie ," was an underground classic on independent radio in Texas as well as in England. Associates of Coleman knew him to be an extremely talented musician who performed on the streets by choice, often turning down opportunities to play more respectable, and more lucrative, engagements in order to play for the general public.