Watermelon Man

An Afro-Cuban conga man named Ramon had a career that kept him busy from the '40s through the '90s. This gifted guru of guaracha crossed paths with so many other legends of jazz that it was like an all-star event every time he performed...Perez Prado, Tito Puente, Cal Tjader, Vince Guaraldi, Chick Corea, Ray Barretto, Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillsepie...the fun-loving Ramon hobnobbed with some heavy dudes! He was, in fact, well regarded among his peers and fans of exuberant Latin rhythms. The thing is, everyone knows him by a different name, one that best be shouted out with enthusiasm: Mongo Santamaria!

Born Ramon Santamaria Rodriguez in Havana, he was given the "Mongo" nickname by his father, though it's unsure whether either of them were Flash Gordon fans (if so, they must have been more fascinated by the evil Ming of the planet Mongo than Alex Raymond's golden-tressed hero). The teenaged Santamaria showed a preference for percussion, incessantly pounding on drums, bongos, congas and any other hard surface available. By the early 1940s he had played with several local bands and was hired for a short time as a conga player at Havana's Tropicana Club. In the mid-'40s he crossed paths with Perez Prado (nearly a decade before the pianist and bandleader's mambo-ignited success of the mid-'50s) and was a member of his band when he moved from Cuba to Mexico City in 1948. Prado began recording for RCA Victor about this time, setting up shop in New York City in 1950; Santamaria's congo playing was featured on many of his early recordings.

Mongo and New York-born Willie Bobo became close friends when Bobo was hired as a translator for the Cuban skin-pounder; Willie helped him with his English and Mongo in return gave him tips on mastering percussion instruments. Puerto Rican bandleader Tito Puente was having success with Afro-Cuban rhythms in the early 1950s and giving Prado a run for his money; Mongo, and later Bobo, joined Puente's band and spent several years with him. In 1957 they were both hired by San Francisco-based jazz vibraphonist Cal Tjader, serving a few years in his percussion section along with Mongo's longtime friend from childhood, Armando Peraza.

Mongo Santamaria

Tjader approved of his musicians forming their own combos on the side; Santamaria did just that and his first album, with his own charanga band, came out on Fantasy Records in 1958. The following year he recorded his composition "Afro Blue," a musical piece akin to the highlight of a master's thesis on Latin percussion. He left Tjader around 1961 (Bobo remained a few more years, contributing to Cal's best-known hit, "Soul Sauce," in 1965) and, returning to New York, signed a contract with the hot Riverside jazz label. Sometime in late '62 he was performing in a nightclub with 22-year-old Herbie Hancock (a Blue Note Records artist who'd debuted that year with his own album) filling in on piano. Hancock's "Watermelon Man," with Santamaria improvising his own rhythms, packed the dance floor, prompting exuberant whoops and hollers from the patrons, ramped up to full party mode from the extended, impromptu jam...and, perhaps, a few small doses of alcoholic beverage.

Mongo positively had to make a recording of the song, and did so while attempting to recreate the joy-filled atmosphere of the live date. The instrumental, complete with screams and an off-the-cuff "water-mel-on man!' singalong, was released on the Battle label (a Riverside subsidiary) in early '63. The single landed on the charts in March and hit the top ten the following month. Blue Note released Herbie Hancock's original version, but Santamaria had seized the momentum; in the end, everyone came out a winner (lyrics were added in 1965, with a sensual subtext, by Hancock and Gloria Lynne; her version made the song popular all over again).

Santamaria followed the unexpected smash with a track from his Watermelon Man album, "Yeh-Yeh!," written by Rodgers Grant (his band's piano player) and Pat Patrick (his saxophonist). Screams and senseless spoken comments were added to the track (which was strictly instrumental on the album) so there would be no doubt as to the artist; even the most casual listener could identify it as "that Watermelon Man guy." Foreshadowing Lynne's lyrical addition to the earlier hit, Jon Hendricks of vocalese jazz trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross added words to "Yeh-Yeh!" that gave it a storyline. While the original Santamaria track was a marginal hit, a remake by Britain's Georgie Fame and his Blue Flames, with the lyrics, was a top seller in early 1965, not long after Santamaria had signed a prestigious contract with Columbia Records.

He kicked off his five year stand at Columbia with "El Pussy Cat," written by another of his band members, saxophonist Bobby Capers. A brass-heavy track featuring loud meows and scratching sounds (cat fight!), it briefly returned him to the singles charts in the spring of '65. Apart from the gimmicky tunes with sound effects, Mongo made many critically well-received (and solid selling) albums for Columbia over the next few years. "Cloud Nine," a hot instrumental cover of The Temptations' 1968 hit, put him back in the top 40 in March 1969. "We Got Latin Soul," a guaracha variation on the Dyke and the Blazers hit "We Got More Soul," made some noise later in the year.

Mongo and his men made a move to Atlantic Records later in 1969 and put one last instrumental single on the charts, "Feelin' Alright," a Dave Mason song that had already helped Joe Cocker stake his claim on stardom a few months earlier. Over the next few decades, Mongo Santamaria recorded for several labels, picking up six Grammy nominations along the way. He won the award in 1977 for his recording of Jose Gallardo's "Dawn (Amanecer)," a graceful, very un-"Watermelon Man"-like piece of music.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Watermelon Man