Confessions of a Preteen Beatnik
Maynard G. Krebs, "Little Stevie" Wonder, and Bongo Drums
The TV character I most identified with growing up was Maynard G. Krebs. Maynard was a beatnik, possibly the first representative of an alternative culture on a popular network TV sitcom. From 1959-1963, in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Maynard, played by Bob Denver, (later of Gilligan's Island fame), was best friend and wingman to Dobie Gillis (Dwayne Hickman). Dobie was perpetually befuddled by girls, social class, and the staunch blue collar pride of small grocery owner Herbert T. Gillis (character actor Frank Faylen). A proud veteran, dad thought if his apron and broom were good enough for him, they should have been good enough for Dobie, despite his dreams of upward mobility.
Shulman's characters often acted out this class struggle. Maynard and Dobie's arch-frenemy was Chatsworth Osborne Jr., a name redolent of inherited wealth, played by Stephen Franken. There was another privileged character, Milton Armitage, played by Warren Beatty, who in early seasons often stood between Dobie and his materialistic dream girl, Thalia Meninger (Tuesday Weld).
Maynard G. Krebs played the bongos. He wore a filthy sweatshirt to school, and had a signature line: "Work?!" as a repulsed reaction to the idea of employment. His idol was jazz pianist Thelonius Monk, a name dropped in many episodes. Maynard talked in scat, was scared of girls, and was, in broad strokes, a bridge between the Beat Generation, the prime time TV mainstream, and preteen me.
Bob Denver as Maynard, Frank Faylen as Herbert T. Gillis, Dobie’s square Daddy-o
The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis was published in 1951, a humorous series of stories by Max Shulman. In 1953, a movie version starred Bobby Van as Dobie: The same Bobby Van whose namesake Bridgehampton, N.Y., saloon was the 1970s watering hole for journalists, artists, and writers who could still afford to hang out in the Hamptons. Bobby Van's joint was for the louche, before the conquest of the douche. The Hamptons are no place for an aging beatnik.
But I identified so strongly with Maynard that I got good reviews in our fifth or sixth grade Halloween costume parade when I went as Krebs. It was easy: gray sweatshirt rubbed in some grease and dirt; ratty jeans; a goatee applied by my mother's mascara pencil; and under my right arm, a bongo drum, that I'd beat at, scat nonsense Although as an adult I often had a very full beard, I never had a goatee. I didn’t know that drinking espresso and smoking reefer were all part of the beatnik credo. And that ground zero for beatnik life at the time was Greenwich Village, though my parents forbade me from taking the subway to West Fourth Street station and hunting for beatniks on my own. I was 11 or 12, and that day, they were paying attention.
I've always liked the resonance and rhythm of Maynard's two-piece bongos and other hand drums, especially congas. A conga is one big drum, the mainstay of Latin percussion: think Ray Barretto and Mongo Santamaria, although mighty Mongo started on bongos as well. On You Tube, percussionist Kevin Zahner has an easy lesson about the distinction between bongos and congas. The bongos consist of two drums connected to each other: the smaller bongo is the macho, connected to the larger hembra.
I'm going to stay away from congas and my fondness for Latin and Latin-dance music, which developed around the same time as the Jimi Hendrix Experience entered our lives. I made a playlist on Spotify of songs about or featuring bongos, a notion that occurred to me about a month ago when considering another boyhood hero of my own age, Stevie Wonder.
Stevie Wonder's "Fingertips (Pt.2)" sustained me during the difficult summer of 1963, when my parents had announced on rather short notice that we would be moving from my kid-centric social life of Franklin Square and Valley Stream North to a new school. Very few kids from my circle went to sleepaway camp; we mostly played stickball on the street and softball in the school yard. But after eighth grade, the herd was culled. My neighborhood friends tended to be a little older, and Jeff and Marc, in tenth grade and ninth grade, respectively, had started a lawn mowing business; Kenny Jacobi, across the street, was old enough to get a job at Valley Poultry, down the street on Franklin Avenue, where it still stands, the one business that remains intact from the old neighborhood.
“Fingertips”: Three Versions
What I had was a transistor radio, and spend all day listening to the radio, waiting for "Fingertips Pt. 2." It was never a long wait, as there were at least three AM radio top 40 stations, and “Fingertips” got played every hour on one of them. So "Little" Stevie Wonder was never far away.
Stevie was Motown's "12-year-old genius," blind as Ray Charles and with similar skills. Stevie was first presented as a prodigy multi-instrumentalist, those instruments being the harmonica, and the bongo drums. At the beginning of "Fingertips (Pt. 2)” Wonder opens the "B-side" with a shout of "Let me hear you say yeah!," and keeps repeating it, one of those moments with the excitement of Ray Charles grunting erotically in "What'd I Say" or the Isley Brothers leaving the chuch behind in "Shout!" (parts one and two).
In 1962, Motown had released Stevie Wonder's instrumental album called The Jazz Soul of Stevie Wonder. After that release, Motown released Tribute to Uncle Ray, recorded when Wonder was just 11, trying to position Stevie as the second coming of Mr. Charles.
The Jazz Soul of Stevie Wonder contained the original three minute instrumental "Fingertips," written by Motown staffers Clarence Paul and Henry Cosby, with Stevie on bongos. Instead of harmonica, the lead instrument is flute, played by a Motown session regular.
Nothing was happening commercially for Stevie, but he was recorded in a live concert in 1963 at the Regal Theater in Chicago, featuring a rotation of Motown artists. Marvin Gaye was the band drummer.
At the end of "Fingertips," the original instrumental, God sends a lightning bolt that seizes Little Stevie Wonder as he's being walked off the stage and some musicians switch off to set up for Mary Wells. Stevie decides he's not finished, sort of a spiritual re-creation of James Brown doffing his cape for "Please Please Please," then going back to the mic. In the chaos, after Stevie shouts, "Let me hear you say yeah," clapping his hands, the audience gets involved, improvising lyrics and syllables, going wild on harmonica, bringing the crowd with him. He calms things down momentarily by playing some "Mary Had a Little Lamb" during his harmonica riffing.
That was "Fingertips Pt. 2" on the Tamla label, and Motown's second No. 1 hit, after the Marvelettes' "Please Mr. Postman." From then on, Motown figured that Little Stevie Wonder could also sing.
Between Stevie Wonder and Maynard G. Krebs, bongos were happening in the early 1960s. There were hits like "Bongo Stomp" by Little Joey and the Flips, and
"Bongo Rock," an instrumental, by Preston Epps. The 1959 British beatnik movie drama, "Expresso Bongo," starring Laurence Harvey, featured an explosive scene in a club, Cliff Richard playing bongos on the dance floor while his band, the Shadows, plays surf music on stage. Though Richard released an Expresso Bongo EP in the U.K., the only version I could find on Spotify was on a Shadows collection, and it seems like the bongos had been deleted from the tape.
Bongos were a cool instrument with which to listen to the newly popular stereophonic recording mode: different sounds from two speakers, daddy-o! Hence the inclusion on our playlist of Count Basie's "One O'Clock Jump" from the album Bongos & Brass by Hugo Montenegro.
"Bongo Rock and Soul" is the public playlist I created on Spotify. I'll try to include playlists more frequently for paid subscribers only. Let me know if you like this sort of thing as an added value to your subscriptions.
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