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At half past midnight in early December at club I/O in Overtown, the Rev. Carleton "King" Coleman, the baldheaded provider of lightning and thunder, was emceeing his first show since he retired on-stage at New York's famous Apollo Theater in 1967. Even though he was a month shy of his 72nd birthday, the six-foot-four, goateed Coleman cut an imposing figure in his tailored blue suit as he addressed the crowd assembled for X-rated rapper Blowfly's comeback show.
"Thank you! Thank you! It's a joy to be here! If you don't dig it, don't knock it! Somebody else might wanna rock it!" The 250 boomers and 20-somethings roared their approval as Coleman busted out in the trademark, rhymed patter that gave birth to Miami rap. "I might be old, but I got more dick than an old man's got soul! Now, we're happy to be here at IOU. We're here to give you a sho' that you've never seen befo'. So fasten your motherfuckin' seat belts, because we're going to take you high up to the motherfuckin' sky! And when you come down -- you wanna say, 'Baby, baby, baby, I like the way you fuck me crazy!'"
Yes, King Coleman is back. And it's all New Times' fault. On September 11, 2003 -- the day Miami New Timespublished a profile on his career -- Coleman resigned from gospel station WMBM-AM (1490), where he was long ago employed as the morning-show host and, for the past five years, as the overnight DJ. "This has taken me to another level!" he explains excitedly and not without cause.
On December 27, three weeks after the I/O show, Coleman was back on-stage in Brooklyn for his first singing engagement since 1967, as part of Norton Records' (which last February released It's Dance Time, a compilation of Coleman's 1960s R&B singles) "Soul Shake Spectacular."
Heady stuff for a man who doesn't have to do anything to cement his place in music history. That happened in 1959, when due to a contractual squabble between James Brown and Coleman's then-label, King Records, the South Floridian sang on "(Do the) Mashed Potatoes," a number eight Billboard R&B hit by Nat Kendrick and the Swans. A follow-the-bouncing-ball blues shuffle with a capella potato shouts ("Mashed Potatoes, Yeah! French Fried Potatoes, Yeah!") every 12 bars, "(Do the) Mashed Potatoes" spawned an international dance sensation that compelled masses of otherwise sane people to mash imaginary potatoes by standing pigeon-toed and stomping their heels. From then on, no matter what he did on-stage, King Coleman was the "Mashed Potato Man."
Not that he minded. After winding up his first Mashed Potato tour in New York in 1960, he stayed for a weeklong dual engagement, emceeing and opening for Jackie Wilson at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater. "I did 'Mashed Potatoes' and stopped the first show cold!" he recalls. "Jackie Wilson couldn't go on! The doctor came and gave him a shot so he was able to do the second show, but the word got out that there was a baldheaded man that was killing Jackie Wilson!"
The dual engagement became Coleman's trademark. Between 1960 and 1967, he hit the road with gusto, emceeing and performing in countless tour packages. "I revolutionized the role of the emcee for big shows," he maintains. "Most comedians emceeing killed the show because people didn't come for that -- they came to hear the recording artists. Promoters hired me because the stagehands worked by the hour and if the show went over the time limit, they had to pay them double. I had no dead air, and the energy level stayed high. It's like being the ringmaster in the circus. If somebody falls off the high wire, they need an act in the wings ready to go on!"
And he delivered with both barrels. "That bitch could entertain!" says Clarence Reid, a.k.a. Blowfly. "If he brought ten acts, he'd change his clothes every time. He would perform. He would dance. Some people would go to the show to see the acts. Iwould go to see King Coleman emcee!"
When Coleman wasn't performing, he was busy cutting singles. His shouting on sax-heavy, rump-shaking R&B romps like "Alley Rat" ("There's songs about this, and songs about that/There's songs about people, big and fat!")was the apex of that era, according to Florida music historian and Savage Lostauthor Jeff Lemlich: "Rock 'n' Roll and R&B were colliding, and he was in the middle of it. What King did wasn't what we would call rap today, but it's the closest thing to it from that era."
Coleman elaborates over bites of prime rib on the patio of a friend's Coral Gables waterfront home. "My thing has alwaysbeen rhythm," he says. "Not the real funk but a beat that people could dance to. It's my style. I'm not imitating nobody. The fact of the matter -- as a white man labeled it back then -- it was in the groove! It was groovy, and it was enjoyed by whites as well as blacks."
In 1962, Coleman's wide appeal landed him the most prestigious package tour in the industry: "Irving Feld's Super Show," an annual, star-studded, summer spectacular that featured the likes of Smokey Robinson and the Supremes. The Super Show played arenas that were barely large enough to contain some of the performers' egos. "Wilson Pickett was crazy!" Coleman exclaims, as he stands up from the table to demonstrate. "We were in Texas, and everyone on the bus bought guns, 'cause they were easy to buy there. We were traveling on the bus, and Wilson Pickett -- so big and bad -- he gonna take and fire the gun through the air!" Coleman makes a gun with his fingers to demonstrate. "Me and someone else went to him and put our guns to his face and said: 'Tell everyone you're sorry and you'll pay for the bus.' And he did. We became friends after that."