All Hail the King of Rhythm and Rhyme!
The Rev. Carlton "King" Coleman, 71 years old, is wide awake at 3:00 a.m. and halfway through his Nothing But Love! show on Miami Beach gospel station WMBM-AM (1490). The phones light up. "Look at that!" he thunders, reaching for line one. "They never stop!"
"WMBM, we rolling!" he bellows into the receiver, his deep voice crackling with excitement. "Yeah, we can play that! What's your name? Marlene? Where you from, Marlene? What? You won't tell me?" A playful grin stretches his gray goatee. "Now, Marlene, you the queen! Why you have to be so mean? ... You're from Miami? Okay, I got ya!" In a flash he cues up a Hezekiah Walker tune and dedicates it to "Marlene the Queen."
Coleman removes his headset and marvels at his situation. "I'm so blessed that I don't have to stick to any format," he says. Indeed this freewheeling set ranges from choir-heavy chestnuts by the Winans family to newer, funkier tracks by A.J. Wright. And when folks want to hear a song they've caught in the middle, he backs it up and starts it over. "I play what the listeners want," he explains. "That's why I'm number one in my time slot."
It's similar to the brand of radio Coleman practiced in this very studio from 1957 to 1959, back when WMBM played rhythm and blues and he rhymed his way through the station's popular drive-time morning show. ("Put your left foot on the floor -- get out the front door. Rush, rush, rush -- get on that bus! If you wasn't on your heels -- you could be driving a brand-new automobile!") "Rock and roll was at its peak then, and I noticed no one was playing the blues," he recalls. "Remember BJ the DJ in Tampa? I took his format. I played T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, Guitar Slim. Overnight I was a hit, playing the blues!"
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As Coleman reminisces, he leans over to punch up commercials on a digital recorder. "There's a lot less work these days," he says. "I used to spend half my day rewinding tape. Things are meant to get better." He plays a station ID, then follows it up with a CD containing one of his signature raps: "Like an alley cat chasing a rat across a railroad track ... stay tuned, I will be right back." He nods in appreciation. "Look at that! I ain't gotta say nothing!"
And he doesn't have to say -- or do -- a thing to cement his place in music history, either. That happened back in 1959, when a contract dispute between James Brown and his record label paved the way for Coleman to take Brown's lead-vocals slot on "(Do the) Mashed Potatoes," a number-eight Billboard R&B hit by Nat Kendrick and the Swans (a pseudonym for Brown's band). A follow-the-bouncing-ball blues shuffle with a cappella "potato" shouts (Mashed potatoes, yeah! French-fried potatoes, yeah!) every twelve bars, "(Do The) Mashed Potatoes" spawned an international dance sensation that compelled millions of fans around the world to mash imaginary potatoes with their heels, moving pigeon-toed to the beat. From then on, no matter what he did onstage, King Coleman was the "Mashed Potato Man."
Yet his most enduring musical legacy is as the grandfather of Miami rap. Coleman's DJ rhymes, show-stealing emcee gigs, and dance-party singles ("The Boo Boo Song") influenced the young Clarence Reid, whose career took off in the early Seventies via his "Blowfly" persona, a caped and masked funky superhero who specialized in sex raps and filthy parody tunes ("What a Difference a Lay Makes"). While Blowfly's first recorded raps appeared on 1974's Weird World of Blowfly, his 1980 single, "Rapp Dirty," is acknowledged by music historians to be one of the first rap records; some maintain that Reid invented the genre. But the King Coleman-Blowfly lineage is unarguably responsible for Miami's indigenous rap subgenre, Miami bass.
Coleman dropped his first rhyme, "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust -- Hit 'em in the head with a cornbread crust," in 1936, when he was only four years old. "My mother gave me the gift of rhyme," he says. "My daddy and brothers went hunting and fishing. I didn't like that. I didn't like getting dirty. I never liked killing things. I ain't never liked the outdoors. My momma and grandma rhymed everything, that's how rhyming became part of my heritage. They'd tell me, 'Your brain is your thang, but muscle ain't your hustle!'" And hustling was the game in his Tampa neighborhood. "The house of prostitution was across the street," he says, "and they sold moonshine next door. Minnie Coon sold the moonshine. Maddy Foys had the whorehouse."
As a teen, Coleman played drums with a local dance band until the day he turned on the radio and heard Billy Eckstine's haunting baritone. "It was all over after that!" he declares. Closing his eyes, he grabs his suspenders and croons, "Toooniiiiiight you find meeee ..." in the deep-velvet vibrato Eckstine was famous for. In the tenth grade he won a Tampa talent show sponsored by the Charles Taylor Bronze Mannequin Revue, a Long Island-based song-and-dance show that traveled by train with carnival attractions in the summer and played theaters in the winter. The winner was guaranteed a spot in the show, and Coleman dropped out of school to claim it. "Geography class messed me up!" he says. "I wanted to see it, not read about it!" He was just fifteen at the time, and at a handsome six-foot-four, the revue's featured vocalist.
"That's when show business was show business!" he continues. "When Charles Taylor learned I could dance and play the drums, I did three parts. That's what it is on a stage show. You become fluent in all parts of the show. That's how you move up and become the star." It's something, he contends, "these artists today don't know nothing about."
After four years with the revue, Coleman returned home to headline the clubs on Tampa's Central Avenue. Two local military bases kept the smoke-filled joints stocked with drunken brawlers, but they were pussycats compared with the Cubans. "With the Cubans in Tampa, it was a gangster town," he recalls. "Tampa was worse than Chicago. There wasn't no security in these places. People were being cut with razors. Someone would get shot in the club, and no one would see it! You'd better learn how to duck. You'd know to hit the floor! Louis Jordan made that song 'Let the Good Times Roll.' That was black folks' lifestyle -- let the good times roll, man. It wasn't a 'wait until you die and pie in the sky' thing -- it was having our cake and eating it too!"
A few months later Coleman was on the road again, touring with the Griffin Brothers Orchestra, a Virginia-based R&B outfit whose singer had been drafted just as the group's single "Weeping and Crying" broke. Coleman instantly made the song his own. He created a show-stopping routine in which he would burst into tears and wave a handkerchief while belting out "I woke up this morning/I was all alone/Because I discovered my woman had packed up and gone."
Coleman was weeping and waving that hanky through his last night at Philadelphia's Showboat Theater -- the Griffin Brothers could no longer afford both a male and female singer, and were letting him go -- when Gladys Hampton, wife of jazz great Lionel Hampton, came backstage to ask if he'd like to work with her husband's orchestra. "He was across town at the Earl Theater," Coleman says. "Hamp had heard of me weeping and crying in Texas! He had me come over and do that number, and I did it and stopped the show. He hired me on the spot!" In Hampton's band, Coleman worked with a who's who of jazz greats, including a young Quincy Jones. But fate intervened and Coleman was drafted in 1952, before he could record with the orchestra. After a two-year stint with the Army in Japan, he again went home to Tampa, where he resumed club work and took up tailoring on the side. He was such a natural with the needle and thread that he landed on the Florida Sentinel's 1956 list of "Tampa's Ten Best-Dressed Men." He was ready to become a full-time tailor when Tampa radio station WTMP approached him with an offer: Would he consider becoming a disc jockey? He laughs. "I said, 'Y'all don't make enough money for me!'"
Two hundred dollars later, Coleman hit the airwaves and the rhyming learned at his mother's knee made him an immediate sensation. "Put your flappers on the floor -- head out that front door. " WTMP's station manager, however, thought "Carlton Coleman" was too classy a name for his morning-drive DJ and sponsored a listener contest that, after a month, still yielded no winner. "No name was suitable for my character," Coleman remembers. "Finally my pastor said, 'Call him King, 'cause he acts like one!'"
The name stuck, but Tampa didn't. Half a year into his WTMP gig, Miami R&B station WFEC-AM (Florida East Coast Railroad) lured him away. Once again the rhymes brought him instant celebrity. "I didn't make an impression," he recounts. "I made a hole."
"He made everything rhyme!" says Clarence Reid, who first heard Coleman on WFEC. "Today the rappers call that freestyling. But the way they do it, there's no time to it. King would get up there and he would have time to it. It's got to rhyme -- it's a crime if it don't rhyme! King would rhyme upside down and speedaddles!"
In 1957 rival R&B station WMBM hired Coleman away and gave him a morning show that was the place to break hits locally, according to Miami music mogul Henry Stone, who then ran both Tone Distributors and Dade Records. "I was a Veejay distributor," Stone recalls, "and they gave me a Jerry Butler record, 'For Your Precious Love.' I gave it to King and he must've played it every fifteen minutes. In between spins he announced the number of times he'd played it! That broke the record completely. I'll never forget it."
"He was so aggressive!" says Reid. "King had this voice that just made you pay attention. If he had something to say, he'd say it to your face. You never worried about him calling you a motherfucker behind your back, because he'd say anything to your face. That's why it meant something when he played a song three times in a row."
The following year, Coleman took a second job as the emcee at the Palms in Hallandale. An outdoor band shell that charged patrons by the carload, the Palms was a mecca for R&B greats like James Brown, with whom Coleman had a memorable run-in. "I was dating a schoolteacher," he explains, "and James had this tacky woman, and the schoolteacher was making fun of her tacky clothes. I was changing after the show, and instead of confronting the girls, he confronted me. He slapped me and they had to hold me back!" Instead of beating the much smaller Godfather of Soul, Coleman found another means of revenge. "I kicked all the glass out of his brand-new Fleetwood Cadillac! And that's how he and I became good friends! He was supposed to be a little old boxer. He was supposed to be bad. But I liked to fight, too. Listen, boy, you do something to me, I'm gonna getcha!"
In the end it was Brown who helped make Coleman a star. "We had a situation where James wanted to cut his band," relates Stone while holding court at his Grove Isle penthouse before a wall lined with gold records, "and Sid Nathan [the owner of King Records, which held Brown's contract] didn't want to hear about it. Sid just wanted to cut James." The night before, Brown had been trying out "(Do the) Mashed Potatoes" at the Palms, and Stone suggested that the band record it. "It came off fantastic. But James was singing, 'Mashed potatoes, one more time!' [in violation of his contract], so I said, 'James, you can't do that! I can't use your voice on this record 'cause Nathan'll be on our ass!' He said, 'All right, take my voice off it.' So I called King and he did it."
The hit generated numerous knockoffs, including Dee Dee Sharp's 1962 hit "It's Mashed Potato Time," but none equaled Coleman's excitement or showmanship. "I don't know anyone who could beat him in 'Mashed Potatoes'!" Reid says. "Chubby Checker said he could, but he was full of shit!"
Coleman released one more dance-party single for Stone's Dade Records ("Loo-Key Doo-Key"), then quit WMBM and went on the road for six months, opening for B.B. King. After winding up the tour in New York, he stayed for a week-long dual engagement, emceeing and opening for Jackie Wilson at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater. "I did 'Mashed Potatoes' and stopped the first show cold! Jackie Wilson couldn't go on! He was able to do the second show, but the word got out that there was a bald-headed man that was killing Jackie Wilson!"
The dual engagement -- part opening emcee, part performer -- became Coleman's trademark. "I revolutionized the role of emcee for big shows!" he declares. "Most comedians emceeing killed the show because people didn't come for that -- they came to hear the recording artists. But I had no dead air, and the energy level stayed high. It's like being the ringmaster in the circus. If someone falls off the high wire, they need an act in the wings ready to go on." And he delivered with both barrels.
"That bitch could entertain!" says Reid. "If he brought ten acts, he'd change his clothes every time. He would perform. He would dance. Some people would go to the show to see the acts. I would go to see King Coleman emcee!"
When he wasn't on the road, he was cutting singles. His rhythmic shouting on sax-heavy, rump-shaking R&B romps like "Alley Rat" ("There's songs about this, and songs about that -- There's songs about people, big and fat!") carved a revolutionary moment in music history. "Rock and roll and R&B were colliding, and he was in the middle of it," explains Florida music historian Jeff Lemlich, who last year hooked up with Norton Records to compile It's Dance Time, a 22-hit Coleman retrospective released this past February. "What King did wasn't what we would call rap today, but it's the closest thing to it from that era."
Coleman elaborates over a prime-rib dinner on the patio of a friend's Coral Gables home. "My thing has always been rhythm," he says. "Not the real funk, but a beat that people could dance to. It's my style. I'm not imitatin' nobody. The fact of the matter -- as a white man labeled it back then -- it was in the groove! It was groovy, and it was enjoyed by whites as well as blacks."
Between 1960 and 1967, he toured with gusto, emceeing and performing in both national and international tour packages, including a 1962 run with the most prestigious tour package in the industry: Irving Feld's Super Show. An annual, star-studded summer spectacular that featured the likes of Smokey Robinson and the Supremes, the Super Show played arenas that were barely large enough to contain some of the performers' egos. "Wilson Pickett was crazy!" Coleman says as he rises from the table to demonstrate. "We were in Texas and everyone on the bus bought guns 'cause they were easy to buy there. We were traveling on the bus and Wilson Pickett -- so big and bad -- he went and fired his gun through the air!" Coleman makes a gun with his fingers and pantomimes his response. "Me and someone else went to him and put our guns to his face, and said, 'Tell everyone you're sorry, and you'll pay for the bus.' And he did. And we became friends after that!"
But by the summer of 1963, the naturally good-natured Coleman had become a man consumed by rage. That June NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers was murdered outside his house in Mississippi. In August, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and barely two weeks later four little girls were killed in Birmingham, Alabama, while attending Sunday services at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
"I became a militant," says Coleman, his brow furrowing. "I was anti-everybody!" His voice bristles as he relates an incident in New York shortly after the Alabama violence: "I was backstage at the Apollo and a couple DJs were ribbing [Apollo owner] Bobby Schiffman. He thought I was gonna side with him, but I said I wasn't going to side with no white man after that bombing -- 'cause he could've been one of them!"
Coleman was subsequently barred from the Apollo for a year. "I was labeled 'emotional,'" he shrugs. "No one had seen that part of me before -- I'd never uttered any emotion. But I find it good to be emotional. If I wasn't, I couldn't cry. But I just had to learn to look on the bright side and to keep my personal views from my promoters and sponsors. It just don't pay to get involved in controversial things."
He spent his summers through the early Sixties producing, emceeing, and performing in the overseas Manhattan Parade tour. The show kicked off in Sweden, then traveled through India before returning for more engagements in Europe. Coleman remembers Manhattan Parade as a fiery show that blew the roof off, no matter where it played. "When we got to Stockholm, we told them we wouldn't give any interviews until after the performance at the Tivoli Gardens. It was a 30-minute show. They stopped the park for 30 minutes! They stopped the rides. They'd never seen such energy! Black entertainers are respected all over the world, except here in America."
But Coleman again grew road-weary in 1965 and returned to the radio waves via an overnight shift at WWRL on Long Island. After several months at the station and gigging at Brooklyn's Paramount club, however, the restlessness returned, so he took his nightclub act on the road in a Cadillac, accompanied by his valet, Oliver Williams, a full wardrobe, and a stack of sheet music. On a 1966 return trip to New York from Miami -- where he'd gone with Williams to trade in his year-old Cadillac for the new model -- Coleman survived a terrible car crash and had a religious awakening. "We drove from New York to Miami in 24 hours, bought the car, and drove straight back," he remembers. "We were nothing but fools. We had to be back and work that weekend. We stopped at Myrtle Beach for breakfast. Oliver was a good driver, and he normally did the driving. But I said, 'Man, get in the back! This is my car.'
"I'm thinking about what people are going to say when they see me in my brand-new hog," he continues. "And instead of keeping my eyes on the road, I hit the shoulder, hit the gas, turned back round, hit a telephone pole, split it in half, and the car flipped over backward. It threw Oliver out the back window, and I'm in the rear seat. I salvaged the car for $400. Oliver's vertebrae were all screwed up, but I didn't get a scratch! God spared my life! Anyone else would have been done for! Right there, I told God that at 35, I'd retire. It was a telltale sign that God was preparing me for something."
Coleman kept his promise and retired onstage at the Apollo the following year. After giving away his jewelry and show business mementos, he enrolled in Harlem's Convent Bible School. "I wasn't out to make a lifetime of 'mashing potatoes' and emceeing and things," he says. "After being saved from death and stupidity, one has to look to a higher power for making that all possible.
"After horses have made their owners millions of dollars, they put them out to pasture," he adds. "But most entertainers who've retired end up in oblivion. By the grace of God, I was chosen into the ministry, and it took me to another level. You see, when I became a minister [he was ordained in 1974], it was to be concerned with the have-nots. Respect everyone's position, work together to make it better, and share it. That was my whole format, you understand me? Because everybody on the face of the earth has three things in common -- heart, flesh, and blood -- and if anybody thinks they're better than me, they're a sack of mud!"
Reverend-in-training Coleman turned his attention to civil rights. He worked as a spokesman for the New York-based anti-drug organization Operation Helping Hand, and on occasion he traveled around the country to confront reactionaries. "I was the black Henry Kissinger!" he proclaims. "I could get along with anybody."
By 1977 Coleman had grown tired of New York's racial politics. He moved to Los Angeles, where he met his third wife and settled into a comfortable life in the Hollywood hills. Over the next eight years he preached at area churches, ran a security business, and dabbled in acting -- most notably landing a brief stint as Freddy Washington's dad on Welcome Back Kotter. He also reconnected with the oldest of his ten children, Tony, who was drumming for B.B. King and Bobby "Blue" Bland, two of his father's contemporaries.
But as Coleman describes himself even then, "Papa was a rolling stone." He divorced and returned to Miami in 1985. The omens were good upon his arrival. He met his fifth and current wife, Willie Mae, within weeks and found a job as the head of security at the now-bulldozed Bakery Center in South Miami, where he worked until retiring after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
While he was settling back into Miami, the music he'd helped create was exploding. Its new incarnation, Miami bass (a.k.a. booty music), combined the shouting and dance-party themes of his records with brazen sexuality, a mix that was nuked over booming, uptempo, drum machine beats. Save for the instrumentation, the similarities between Coleman's Sixties material and Eighties Miami bass were striking. King's "Shimmy! Shimmy!" shout was echoed by Disco Rick & the Dogs' "Wiggle! Wiggle! Wiggle!" The rapped dance instructions on Gucci Crew II's "The Cabbage Patch" evoked those found on Coleman's "(Do the) Hully Gully."
"I don't think anyone could have foreseen booty music back then," says Jeff Lemlich. "But when you know 'Loo-key Doo-key' is about a girl, it gets you thinking. They definitely share the same genealogy."
Coleman, who is writing a memoir titled Down in the Hood ("It's like they said about Jesus: 'Can anything good come out of Nazareth?'"), remains proud of his rapper descendants. "The hip-hoppers and the rappers today are mainly emphasizing the triple beat on the bass drum," he notes. "They've added to what we did, taking it to another level. That's what evolution does. It's like what others were doing before me -- I took it to another level. That's why I think it's good that they keep on taking it. Rhythm is always going to sell."
On July 13, 1995, King Coleman did the "Mashed Potatoes" one last time at Cheers, a now-defunct Miami punk club. The 250 punks and mall rats expecting the whoa-whoa power-pop stylings of Quit never knew what hit them. "God bless you all!" Coleman pronounced as he grabbed the mike. "I want to let you know that the last time I was onstage was in 1967 at the Apollo Theater. One, two, three: Mashed potatoes, yeah!" The crowd went crazy as Coleman, dressed in an elegant suit, mashed potatoes, shotgunned, and twisted with abandon, high-kicking above his ear. "Hash brown potatoes, yeah!" The punk show turned into a sock hop, and time-warped kids busted out moves from American Bandstand reruns. The crowd screamed with approval: "Mashed potatoes, yeah, yeah, yeah!" A roar went up as Coleman danced off the stage and left the building.
As he put his performing career to rest, Coleman's broadcasting career took off again. In 1995 Bishop Victor Curry's New Birth Broadcasting Corporation bought WMBM-AM and turned it into a gospel station, and the opportunity was too great for Coleman to resist. "Don't you know how thankful I am to have come along in the old rhythm-and-blues days and still be employed to this day in a gospel radio station?" he asks. "My audience knows me. That's why I'm popular. It's because of the work I did as King Coleman, and the work I've done as Reverend Coleman."
He sees a bright future for the young gospel artists he spins on WMBM. "It's going to another dimension!" he predicts. "So many new artists are putting their language and their culture to gospel. That's why the church has stagnated. It's the same hymns, the same thing, and thus the young people are not in the church like they were in the old days." He turns up the studio monitors and blasts "Oh, How Wondrous" by John P. Kee.
"This is very creative," Coleman shouts. "He ain't imitating nobody. He's got the groove!"
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