Don the Bongo Man, circa 1970’s.
Let’s start in a small, Eastern Washington town: imagine you’re accustomed to hanging out at the run-down Happy Hour Tavern, among other dives, in the little desert town of Yakima, with your fellow country singers, several of whom moved there from even smaller Oklahoma or Michigan towns, or perhaps from Bakersfield, California. — Laid-back guys who basically want to play a little music, and make a little money, in order to buy beer and shoot pool. — Just down-home guys, living in the middle of nowhere.
And then, you’re part of a duo, playing your music on noisy, crowded First Avenue, and at Pike Place Market, in the big city of Seattle, Washington, with a tres’ intense New York dude who’s beating out rhythms on a huge conga drum. – This is culture shock of a very strange and (for a time) wonderful nature.
My great gal Yvonne and me at the Mayfair Tavern, early 70’s. Drinking beer out of fancy glasses. No, I don’t look like a country singer. But I was one.
As a young country singer, I did spend a lot of my ample free time hanging with those country pickers I mentioned. We were indeed a laid-back bunch. We’d sleep late, maybe arising at noon. Where was the hurry? Perhaps we had a gig that evening, which we’d eventually need to prepare for; or maybe we only played weekends. Back then, working even two nights a week could bring in enough money to pay for rent, groceries, beer and maybe a little weed. Plus, we all shared. If one guy was a little short, the rest would chip in and buy the beers and burgers.
The problem with playing music in Yakima was this: I played every venue several times over. Nothing ever changed. And, pay raises were never discussed. There were only so many people to play to, and only so many run-down clubs where you could play. And I repeat: everyone was so laid-back. Very few pickers felt a need to take their act to another level. But I did. I wanted to move forward in my career. And, I wanted to see and do more. I knew there was more to life than spending lazy afternoons in country bars, listening to Loretta Lynn on the jukebox, singing, “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ With Lovin’ On Your Mind”, while I attempted to sink the nine ball in the side pocket. So I decided I should move across the mountains to Seattle, where there were many more clubs, and many more people who went to those clubs.
And coincidentally: right around that time, my best friends, Karl and Karen Baker, drove over from Seattle to pay me a visit; and they made me a fabulous offer. I’m still not sure why. But they said they’d load my stuff up in their VW bus (I had no car), and move me to Seattle, where I could live in their basement until I got on my feet. I would simply find a band that needed a singer. I’d make a little dough; then, I’d be able to get my own place.
I jumped at the chance. In late March of 1974, I moved in with Karl and Karen, living in their picturesque, 1920’s vintage home in Seattle’s Greenlake neighborhood.
The first thing I noticed was the Seattle rain. It was raining when we pulled into Karl and Karen’s driveway; it rained every day, all day. I swear I kept looking around to see if Noah’s Ark was gonna float by at any moment. Where I came from, without the “miracle of irrigation”, it would have been the desert, plain and simple.
“Cowboy Pinkey”, in 1974. Too rock for country; too country for rock.
But: I found a band almost immediately – three guys who had been backing up a country singer named Jim-something placed an ad in the Seattle PI newspaper, expressing their need for a lead singer/guitarist. They were tired of working behind the guy, and they decided to strike out on their own. The fellows and I met in Karl and Karen’s living room, where we auditioned each other. Things went great. I joined. We rehearsed, and came up with what we thought was a dynamite list of songs. Before long, we lined up some gigs and started making money. And, I soon had my own little studio apartment. But: our band, Cowboy Pinkeye (named after my Dad) was “too country for the rock clubs, and too rock for the country clubs”. And, by November, due to lack of gigs, we fizzled out and broke up. (We were simply ahead of our time: we’d be labeled “alt-country” now, and we’d have plenty of bookings.) But we were done, and I needed to take action.
Well, when I first moved in with them, Karl and Karen had taken me to the Pike Place Market, where they gave me the tour. Coming from Yakima, I had never seen anything like it. The people alone were amazing. I saw Africans; I saw people from Central America. I saw people selling flowers, produce, arts and crafts. And, I encountered my first buskers — the folks who play music in public, for tips. I saw people singing and playing guitar; I watched while other people flung coins, or dropped bills into their tip jars or open guitar cases. I said, “I can do that!” So, to keep the money coming in, to keep my little apartment and put food on my table, I grabbed my guitar, hopped on the bus, and headed to the market, to become Randy Bowles, busker.
While I looked for a spot to set up and sing, I saw and heard so many interesting sights and sounds. I caught whiffs of food being cooked in the small market cafes. I saw a one-man band – a guy who played guitar and harmonica; and he thumped on a bass drum, which he played with a foot pedal. And, I saw a few men playing big hand drums, which I later learned were congas. I’d never seen or heard anything like them. It was very intriguing to hear the drummers making their poly-rhythmic sounds. I was enchanted by their music.
After a while, I found a spot in front of Left Bank Books, where no one was playing. I uncased my axe, strapped it on, started singing, and oh boy! Did the dough start rolling in. A lot of passersby shared some very kind comments regarding my musical talent. In fact, one of the conga players, a guy who appeared to be maybe fifteen or twenty years older than me, approached me and shared one heck of a compliment. He said he hadn’t heard a voice as good as mine since he’d heard Danny O’Keefe sing around town (Mr. O’Keefe wrote a great song: “Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues”).
Don is on your right.
The man introduced himself as Don the Bongo Man. (I recently learned his AKA was Bongo Don Gimbel). He asked if he could play along with me on a song or two, just for fun. Well, having never played with a conga player, and being an adventurous young man, used to jamming with other musicians, I said, “Sure”. And I launched into one of my favorite songs: the Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling”. This guy knew instinctively what to play to fit in with my guitar playing. I mean, he nailed it. It was obvious that Don knew his music.
After we played a couple more songs, it was time for me to pack it in for the day. Or so I thought. Don had other ideas. He said he knew a lot of taverns, bars and cafes around the market and on First Avenue, where we could play for tips. All we had to do was show up and start playing. No one would hassle us. He suggested we do that. Well, even though I’d already played for much of the day, I agreed to give it a shot. I needed to make money; it was obvious that our music was a natural blend; and I was intrigued by this wiry guy, with callused fingers, who may as well have dropped in from another world.
As we walked down what I would have called a very seedy First Avenue, toward our first stop, Don and I had our initial opportunity to become acquainted. Don said he was from New York, NY. I had already guessed that. One, he had the accent; and two, his energy level was way high. He talked fast, walked fast, thought fast. He wore horn-rimmed black glasses, swept-back dark hair, and an intense stare.
Here I was, walking down the street with this amazing conga drummer from New York, who had invited me to join him on a musical adventure, on a busy Seattle street, when only months prior to that, I was playing “The Green Green Grass Of Home” in a Yakima dive bar. I felt like I was in a movie. I guess very loose comparisons to Midnight Cowboy could be made. — Very loose: young country boy moves to the big city, where he teams up with an older, street-smart New Yorker, to make their fame and fortune. – And that’s where the comparison ends!
Don and I walked into a crowded joint on First Avenue; and after Don got the manager’s “OK”, we started performing, right in the middle of everything. And things went really well. The captive audience was appreciative. We made a bunch of good music; we made a bunch of dough. After about twenty minutes, Don said it was time to stop – leave ‘em wanting more, and all that. I said I was getting hungry, and I needed to get some food. He asked me what I was hungry for. I said I wanted a hamburger. He said, “Oh, man, I’m a vegetarian. You shouldn’t be eating that meat. But I guess if you need a burger, then we’ll go get you a burger.” So Don led me to another café, where we sat at the counter near the cash register, and Don ordered my burger. (A pattern was started here. Don took the lead. He said where we would play. He said when it was time to stop. And eventually, he started calling the tunes. But at this point, things were still new and fresh.)
When my burger came, and I launched into hungrily eating it, Don launched into a diatribe about how he converted to vegetarianism. He described how, after he stopped eating meat, he had to change his bed linen, because it was so soiled and stained by all of the bad stuff that oozed out of his pores due to his cutting out the meat. This was not the most pleasant dinner conversation possible. In fact, it just about made me ill. But later that night, when I went home and was unwinding from the eventful day, I thought about what Don had said. During my last year of living in Yakima, I had actually given serious thought to becoming a vegetarian. For some reason, meat had become repulsive to me. But in Yakima, circa 1973, there was no vegetarian culture to tap into. I tried for a few days to eschew meat; but I had to go it alone. I failed. But Don’s talk had an effect on me. Because within a couple of months after our talk, I actually converted. And I haven’t looked back. (How it happened: I moved to a different studio apartment, and by chance, my new next-door neighbors were vegetarians. I told them I was quite interested in the subject. They told me how to go meatless, and I did it!)
I’m active on Facebook, and here’s a tidbit about Don which was shared with me on a group page: it seems that every day, Don ordered an onion sandwich on a bagel from Three Girls Bakery, a popular Pike Market business, with lots and lots of onion. When he came into the attendant booth at the Heliparker (he actually lived in a parking stall deep in the bowels of the old garage on First and Union), his breath “could be deadly”. — Well, I don’t remember that. But yeah: Don planted the seeds of vegetarianism in my brain.
Over the next couple of weeks, Don led me into a number of Seattle eateries and “drinkeries”, mostly low-brow, but some pretty nice joints, where we put on our show, and added to our growing collection of silver and paper money. But Don and I were way different, and our differences began to wear on me. I had been steeped in that laid-back country atmosphere of Yakima; Don was New York Type “A”, all the way. An intense dude, he became more gruff, outspoken. And he became more controlling. Even though I did the singing, Don chose every song we played. While I had a large, varied repertoire, Don boiled-down our set list to the songs which seemed to garner the most tips. We played fewer and fewer songs all the time; but we played those few, over and over again. We must have done “Peaceful Easy Feeling” about 200 times in a couple of weeks. I was becoming sick of one of my favorite songs! And I wasn’t having any fun. I was making money; but I’ve never been the type who measures my happiness by my income. I wanted things to be fun again.
The guy writing this story is a pretty darned old man. At this point, I can be cantankerous; I can want my way, I can be stubborn. Musically, people often defer to me, perhaps due to my experience and age. In the drumming world, there is often a more formal relationship between more, and less-experienced players. I’m sure that Don was accustomed to being in the lead in that world. — Because he was so expert at his craft. He had the experience, skills and knowledge to be a leader. Were I to have met him at a different stage in my life, I’m sure we could have worked out a more successful relationship. Don was just being himself; I was still learning how to deal with other musicians. I don’t blame him at all. But in 1974, I was a green kid, and I needed a change.
Mike “Sixball” Stengle, with a little bit of me in the background, from 1974. At Pike Place Market.
I had met another market musician named Mike “Sixball” Stengel, a fellow guitarist blessed with a voice not unlike that of the great delta bluesman, Blind Willie McTell. We jammed a few times at the market; and I found myself really enjoying making music again. Mike didn’t need to be all in charge. He was naturally cooperative. And it was fun trading off on lead vocals with him. When he sang, I’d play lead guitar behind him; when I sang, he’d do the same for me. — Don the Bongo Man was the very first person I played with at the Market. After playing a little with Mike, I saw there were other opportunities for me.
One day, after spending a sleepless night mulling things over, I decided to call it quits with Don. The next day, when we met up at the market, I told him I was going to go my own way. He was not happy. Looking back, I’d say he was hurt. He raised his voice at me, saying that I was abandoning him. I stuck to my guns, and told him that I had enjoyed playing with him, but I was through. And that was that. We never played together again.
A few months later, when “Sixball” and I were playing right under the market clock (to this day, the primo spot to play at the market), Don and one or two of his drumming partners set up very close to us and started playing. I couldn’t hear myself, and I couldn’t hear my partner. The way we market musicians were able to co-exist so well back in the day, was by following certain conventions – in other words, we had informal rules of etiquette. Don’s drumming crew was one of the louder market acts. They had definitely set up way too close to us. I stopped playing and walked over to Don. I asked him if he could please move a little further away, because my buddy and I were having trouble playing. He yelled at me and reminded me how I had abandoned him, after he had taken me under his wing. I just laughed and walked back over to Mike, where we did the best we could.
Don and I never spoke again; and not long after that, as far as I can recall, he stopped showing up at the market. Or he at least came much less frequently. I’ve made inquiries; no one knows what happened to him.
But he was a great drummer. He was able to take his beats, and fit them into a groove with a young country singer from a small, desert town. Together, we made a fusion of country, folk and Afro-Cuban music. Don introduced me to the magical sound of the big hand drum. He got me playing out of the box. Prior to jamming with him, I’d played with electric guitarists, steel guitarists, bass players, trap-drum players, fiddlers, a few horn men, some keyboard players – but no percussionists. Don instilled a love of percussion in me that to this day, is very strong. (Growing up, I wanted to be a drummer; my parents wanted a guitar player. They won!) Each spring, I attend the World Rhythm Festival, which happens at Seattle Center.
This is Gordy Onayemi Ryan, another transplanted New York drummer. I’ll wager he knew Don.
This year, I even took a little, wooden egg shaker to the rhythm festival, and participated in my very first drum circle, led by a master, Arthur Hull. So, yeah: I go every year, where I become steeped in the sound of the big drum. And I always keep an eye out for Don the Bongo Man.
It seems that no one else has written Don’s story, at least not on the internet. I didn’t want him to languish in the archives. This will have to suffice for now.
My thanks to my fellow group members of the Facebook Page, Helix Redux. I offer a warm thanks to Nick Jahn, who not only takes great photographs; he saves them. The two photos of Don were taken by Nick. And, Loren Drebin shared the onion sandwich info.
I’ve heard Don was known to others as Bongo Don. (I wonder why they didn’t call him Conga Don? I never, ever saw him play the bongos.) But I always knew him as Don the Bongo Man.
I learned from Roger Wheeling that Don often played with another great Seattle drummer, Jerry Weeden. Jerry was leader of the first reggae band I ever heard in person, Seattle’s own Sundance.
2016 World Rhythm Festival, Seattle Center. Closing ceremony drum circle. I’m not in the photo, because I took the photo.