The Associated Press reported that legendary R&B singer/Emcee/DJ / Reverend Carlton "King" Coleman passed away this past Saturday. While he was best known for providing the vocals on the 1959 James Nat Kendrick & The Swans (A pseudonym for James Brown's Famous Flames) smash hit "(Do The)Mashed Potatoes" - Coleman's tremendous influence and outsized persona stretched for miles beyond that.
As a young man in the early 1950s, Coleman's stint as the lead vocalist with the Griffin Brothers Orchestra made "Weeping & Crying" one of the bedrocks of Rock &Roll. His Rhyming DJ patter on Miami R&B stations WFEC and WMBM in the late 1950s broke a whole "southern style" rhyming DJ which influenced Jamaican Toasters and the earliest rappers. His primitive R&B tunes were instant dance classics, which are still played at R&B parties across the globe. His Emcee work at the Apollo Theater in Harlem defined the profession for years. He exported R&B revues across North America, Europe and India in the mid 1960s. That he did all of this before the age of 36 is remarkable. That he managed to become an ordained minister after that and keep his vitality for 42 more years is incredible.
In 1995, I had the privilege of hiring King to mash potatoes at a now-defunct, small punk rock joint named "Cheers." I was hipped to his story by the liner notes in the James Brown "Star Time" box set. Florida music historian Jeff Lemlich has tracked down King's number for me, and I phoned King, not quite knowing what I was getting myself into.
"Toooommmm!" King boomed. "Tell me about yourself"
After a few minutes of chit chat, King asked "How much does it pay?"
"Well it's just one song." I said. "How about 60 dollars?"
King chuckled."Tom, it is a blessing to be remembered when you are still alive. Most people are only remembered when they are dead. I will take your 60 dollars. I will see you at the Cheers.
Six weeks later on the day of the show I arrived early to find the 6'4, sharp dressed King waiting for me andthe band I had assembled. After one run-through, that wasn't gritty enough for him, he got behind my drumset.
"Drums are my instrument!" King exclaimed. He then proceeded to tear up the traps for a few minutes. After schooling me, he dropped the sticks, smiled and said "That's how you mash the potatoes!"
A couple hours later, the club filled up with a collection of punk rock kids and hipsters primed for one of the most magical moments this city has ever produced onstage. After a rousing introduction, King got on the microphone and said "God bless you all. The last time I was onstage was in 1967 at the Apollo Theater."
The audience audibly gasped.
King tapped his foot four time. I missed the cue, he stomped his heel four times,harder, willing us to turn back the clock like Cab Calloway in "The Blues Brothers."
"Mashed Potato Yeah!"
The song started and stopped with each potato preparation. Driving the kids nuts. Every old cotillion school dance was trotted out. 19 year olds were twisting like their grandparents. King raised his arms over his head like Moses parting the red sea.
"Hash Brown Potato, Yeah!"
King drank it all in, his classic R&B persona blowing away in 3 minutes everything that had ever happened in that space. Cheers is a Quiznos sub shop now. But I'll bet if you put your ear to the back door, you can still hear King screaming about potatoes.
"Mashed Potatoes, YEAH,YEAH YEAH!.'
King danced offstage and out of the building. He couldn't be lured onstage for an encore. Because there was no need for it. He had stopped the show cold.
I met King outside in the parking lot. He took my 60 dollars and gave me a personalized 8x10 publicity photo. "To my man Tom. Thank you for everything. Here's To The beginning of a beautiful friendship."
Between 2000-2005, we would run into each other with musical, literary and (often) hilarious results. There was no one quite like the King.
I am proud to have been his friend, even if my wife will never let me forget he mispronounced her name two dozen times while officiating our wedding ceremony. Those malaprops resulted in one nudge to my ribs right before the "I dos" and culminated with King doing a hip swivel while chanting: "now you got that ring / So you can do that thing!"
Some people might think that was inappropriate. But it was just King being King.
Long Live The King. It's Dance Time In Heaven.