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Preston Epps, a percussionist whose 1959 instrumental hit “Bongo Rock” helped introduce bongos and conga drums to mainstream pop, has died. He was 88.
Epps died May 9 of natural causes in Los Angeles, his daughter Kathy Epps-Powels told The Hollywood Reporter.
After playing a lengthy bongo solo that had the audience in a Hollywood coffeehouse in a “trance,” Epps was approached by disc jockey Art Laboe to make a single, he recalled in a 2013 interview.
“You play pretty good, but you’re going to have to cut that 15-minute solo to a minute and a half,” he said Laboe told him. “I said, ‘You’re out of your mind! You’ve got to be kidding!'” Epps, though, said he whittled it to about two minutes.
He and Barney Kessel, Rene Hall, Earl Palmer, Red Callender and Ernie Freeman recorded “Bongo Rock” at Sunset Sound in Hollywood in April 1959. It became the first hit for Laboe’s Original Sound label, spending 13 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, getting as high as No. 14 and going gold.
Epps followed with other tunes like “Bongo Bongo Bongo,” “Bongo in the Congo,” “Bongo Rocket” and “Bongo Boogie.”
Preston Eugene Epps was born on July 19, 1930, in Mangum, Oklahoma. He attended grade school in Tulsa and moved as a teenager to Oakland, where he attended junior high and high school. He served in the Air Force in Okinawa during the Korean War.
Epps became fascinated with the drums in the early ’50s when he visited a San Francisco jazz spot called Bop City. He started as a percussionist but took to the bongos after he saw an African group perform in the City of Hope and they gave him his first drum.
Epps was the main percussionist on “Earth Angel,” first recorded by the Penguins in 1954.
He also played calypso music for Maya Angelou, and that led him to tour and perform with such artists as Ray Charles, Jackie Wilson, Little Richard, Johnny Otis, Sam Cooke, Jewel Akens, Robert “Bumps” Blackwell and Clifton “Fou Fou” Eddie. He also appeared as a headliner in Las Vegas.
Epps manned the bongos in the films Calypso Heat Wave (1957) and Girl in Gold Boots (1968) — the latter set in the world of go-go dancing — and appeared on American Bandstand and other dance shows.
Epps also helped to establish and manage the West Hollywood nightclub Pandora’s Box, where he discovered Lou Rawls. In the early ’60s, he signed with Majesty Records.
Epps performed until he was 85, with his final gig coming in 2014 at the Tiki Oasis in San Diego before more than 3,000 people.
In addition to his daughter Kathy, survivors include children Kevin, Preston III, Jon, Cheri, Rae and DeMeishah; grandchildren Steven, Camille, Preston IV, Gary, Zarai, Sidney, DeVaughn, Brittenum, Kiley, Christian, Valin, Eric Jr., Jessi and Eric Rodney; and 24 great-grandchildren.
A celebration of his life will take place at 11 a.m. on May 31 at Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Los Angeles.
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