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 Times published 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.
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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. I would 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 Lost author 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 always been 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."
Coleman's friendship skills helped take the Mashed Potatoes worldwide. He spent the next five summers producing, emceeing, and performing in the overseas "Manhattan Parade" tour. The show kicked off in Sweden and spent a month traveling through India and Europe. Coleman remembers Manhattan Parade as a fiery show that blew the roof off, no matter where it played. "When we got to Stockholm, we told them we wouldn't give any interviews until after the performance at the Tivoli Gardens. It was a 30-minute show. They stopped the park for 30 minutes! They stopped the rides. They'd never seen such energy! Black entertainers are respected all over the world, except here in America."
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That lack of respect, along with a vicious car wreck (from which he emerged unscathed), convinced Coleman to hang it up in 1967. He enrolled in Harlem's Convent Bible school to study the ministry. "I wasn't out to make a lifetime of 'mashing potatoes' and emceeing and things," he says. "After being saved from death and stupidity, one has to look to a higher power for making that all possible. After horses have made their owners millions of dollars, they put them out to pasture," he continues. "However, most entertainers who've retired from show business end up in oblivion. But by the grace of God, I was chosen into the ministry. It took me to another level. You see, when I became a minister [he was ordained in 1974], it was to be concerned with the have-nots. Respect everyone's position, work together to make it better, and share it. That was my whole format, you understand me? Because everybody on the face of the earth has three things in common -- heart, flesh, and blood -- and if anybody thinks they're better than me, they're a sack of mud!"
You can take the Mashed Potato Man out of show business, but you can't take the show business out of the Mashed Potato Man. When the advance team for the James Earl Jones film Claudine hit Harlem in 1973 without consulting anyone in the neighborhood, a livid Coleman went down to give them a piece of his mind. He impressed the producers enough to get cast -- as a rabble-rousing preacher. Over the next 12 years, Coleman acted in a number of roles -- including a recurring part as Freddy Washington's dad in Welcome Back Kotter.
In 1985, Coleman returned to Miami and discovered that the music he'd helped create was exploding. Its new incarnation, Miami bass (a.k.a. booty music), combined the shouting and dance-party themes of his records with lurid swaggers, a mix that was nuked over booming, uptempo, drum-machine beats. Save for the instrumentation, the similarities between Coleman's '60s material and '80s Miami bass were striking. King's "Shimmy! Shimmy!" shout was echoed by Disco Rick & the Dogs' "Wiggle! Wiggle! Wiggle!" The rapped dance instructions on Gucci Crew II's "The Cabbage Patch" evoked those found on Coleman's "(Do the) Hully Gully."
"I don't think anyone could have foreseen booty music back then," Lemlich says. "But when you know 'Loo-key Doo-key' is about a girl, it gets you thinking. They definitely share the same genealogy." Coleman is proud of his rapper descendants. "The hip-hoppers and the rappers today are mainly emphasizing the triple beat on the bass drum. They've added to what we did, taking it to another level. That's what evolution does. It's like what others were doing before me -- I took it to another level. That's why I think it's good that they keep on taking it. Rhythm is always going to sell!"