Preston Epps, the Bongo King

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Introduction to Preston Epps

Preston Epps is an American percussionist whose #14 Billboard single “Bongo Rock” in 1959 had virtually made him a one-hit wonder. Born in Oakland, Californa in 1931, Epps recorded “Bongo Rock” which eventually became a considerable success commercially and on the Billboard charts in 1959. But his subsequent “bongo”-flavored singles, such as “Bongo In The Congo,” “Bongo Rocket” and “Flamenco Bongo,” among others, failed to make further impression on the listeners. He returned with his bongos in 1969 in the film crime/drama movieGirl in Gold Boots. Epps has also been a session player, including his work for Gypsy’s first album on an independent label, and is still actively performing in various clubs in Southern California.

Birth and early life and career

Percussionist and one-hit wonder Preston Epps was born in Oakland, California, in 1931. The accuracy of his birthdate may be unclear, however, as some sources say that he was born on July 20, 1930. He may be the only artist to have had a Top 20 hit solely based on his bongo drum playing.

Epps learned to play a variety of percussion instruments, particularly the bongo drums, while he was a soldier stationed in Osaka, Japan, during the Korean War. After his duties ended, Epps moved from Northern California to Southern California, and started to eke out a living by doing odd jobs as a waiter, club manager and employee at the gas station. In them midst of his various jobs, he started playing bongos at coffee shops around Los Angeles and some areas in SoCal, thriving himself around the beatnik, hippie environment around him. Audience began to notice and appreciate his talent.

“Bongo Rock” — Epps’ only major hit

A local disc jockey, TV host and promoter named Arthur Laboe (who would later christen himself with the songwriting pseudonym Arthur Egnoian and eventually write material with Epps) discovered Epps at some laidback coffee house. Laboe then signed him to his newly-formed label Original Sound Records

An infectious track called “Bongo Rock” was created together by Epps and Laboe, and eventually released as a single in 1959. “Bongo Rock” went to #14 on the Billboard Hot 100 that same year. It wasn’t only Epps’ first hit, but also the first hit for Original Sound label.

A one-hit wonder

However, it would be Epps’ only major charting single. Other “Bongo Rock” derivatives such as “Bongo, Bongo, Bongo,” “Bongo in the Congo,” “Bootlace Bongo,” “Bongo Rocket,” “Bongo Boogie,” “Flamenco Bongo,” “Mr. Bongo,” and “Bongo Shuffle” failed to duplicate the success of the first single, although “Bongo, Bongo, Bongo” became a minor hit at #78 in 1960. Despite that, Epps would go down to history as a one-hit wonder.

Later life and career

Continuing to wield his instrument, Epps played bongos in the film Girl in Gold Boots, which came out in 1969. Aside from that, Epps did a lot of session work in the 1960s and the 1970s; one of his collaborations is with the Gypsy on their debut LP (released on an independent label Metromedia Records). As a tribute to Epps, the group The Incredible Bongo Band (also known as Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band) covered and released “Bongo Rock.”

Epps is still active performing up to the present, playing in various clubs in Southern California.

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