PRESTON EPPS

Born 20 July 1930, Oakland, California

This time, brothers and sisters, you get two for the price of one : this bio is as much about Art Laboe as it is about bongo player Preston Epps. In the late 1950s, one of the men who made things happen in Los Angeles was DJ (at KPOP), TV show host and promoter Art Laboe who put on shows starring all the big names who came through town as well as numerous locally popular acts. In 1958, Laboe expanded his interests to include two record labels, Starla and Original. Starla quickly fell by the wayside, but Original came to the fore with two consecutive instrumental hits in the summer of 1959 : "Bongo Rock" by Preston Epps and "Teen Beat" by Sandy Nelson, both co-written by Laboe under his songwriting pseudonym, Arthur Egnoian. Sandy Nelson had previously recorded for Laboe as a member of Kip Tyler and the Flips on Starla. Original was soon renamed Original Sound.

Preston Epps learned how to play the bongos while stationed in Okinawa during the Korean War. He soon became adept at other percussive instruments as well. After leaving the service he worked as a waiter, club manager, and at a gas station. At night, he played in Hollywood coffeehouses. It was while he was playing at one of these establishments that Epps was spotted by Art Laboe, who wasted no time getting him into the studio. Together they wrote the very infectious "Bongo Rock", which captured the imagination of the nation's kids enough to take it to # 14 on the Billboard charts. But if there is one instrument that offers very limited possibilities for musical variety, it is the bongo. Once you've heard one bongo solo, you've heard them all. Laboe tried to solve this problem by dressing up his productions with flutes, strings, jungle sounds and such, but only "Bongo Bongo Bongo" managed to make any chart noise (# 78 in August 1960). The song was co-written by Laboe (as Egnoian) and a young Jack Nitzsche, who also co-wrote (with Epps) "Call of the Jungle", which - clocking in at 12:38 - made up the entire second side of Preston's first LP, "Bongo Bongo Bongo".

Other LP's followed, "Bongola" (on Top Rank) in 1961 and "Surfin' Bongos" in 1962, but the public had lost interest. After the success of "Walk Don't Run '64", "Raunchy '65" and "Teen Beat '65", Epps decided to give it one more go with "Bongo Rock '65", but all to no avail. However, a remake of "Bongo Rock" by The Incredible Bongo Band (a studio band assembled in Canada by producer Michael Viner) went to # 57 in 1973, on MGM. Preston Epps was the master of a narrow field. In the early seventies he toured and recorded with Johnny Otis. He was still active in the late nineties, performing in clubs in Southern California and the Southwest region of the United States.

CD: Bongo Rock (Collectables). Released in 1999.

Sources used:
Wayne Jancik, Billboard book of one-hit wonders, 2nd ed 1998, page 78.
Rob Finnis, Liner notes for "Golden Age of American Rock 'n' Roll, Vol. 1" (Ace 289).
All Music Guide.

 
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