1963 Mongo Santamaria – Watermelon Man
Mongo Santamaria grew up playing bongo and conga drums on the streets of Havana and worked his way up to playing in nightclubs. After joining a band and performing on a tour of Mexico, he moved to New York City in 1950. He played in a series of bands before recording his own solo album in 1959. The album included the song Afro Blue.
Mongo returned to Cuba and played on two Willie Bobo albums in 1960. When he returned to New York, he formed his own band and began playing regularly in clubs there.
In May 1962 Herbie Hancock’s released his debut album, Takin’ Off. One song on the jazz album was a seven-minute bluesy instrumental, Watermelon Man.
Mongo’s band included piano player Chick Corea, who had announced he would leave the group. Mongo hired Herbie to cover for Chick for some weekend shows in the Bronx. Donald Byrd, a jazz trumpet player, attended the show. At an intermission, he talked with Mongo about the ongoing fusion of African-Cuban and African-American jazz music. Donald asked Herbie to play Watermelon Man on the piano, Mongo joined in and began playing on his conga drums, the bass player added some bass, and the audience got up and danced.
Mongo later asked permission to record the song, and in December his band recorded their version of Watermelon Man. That version wasn’t exactly an instrumental, since a group of singers kept chanting and singing the title over and over. The single peaked at #10 on the Hot 100 in the early Spring of 1963.
Ray Barretto released another fusion single in 1963. The Orlons had a #2 hit with Wah-Watusi in 1962, and Ray’s group recorded the Latin-flavored El Watusi and the single reached #17 on the Hot 100 at the same time that Mongo’s hit was popular. The song was primarily an instrumental, but somebody (probably Ray) kept speaking Spanish over the music. The two songs marked the beginnings of boogaloo music, a genre that proved to be very popular through the rest of the sixties.
While both groups recorded successful albums that contained mixes of rhythm and blues and mambo, neither group reached the top forty again.
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