Graded on a Curve:
Mr. Bongo,
Learn, Play Bongos
with “Mr. Bongo”

Becoming a beatnik isn’t as easy as it looks. You have to wear a beret, master the patois, put out for a goatee–and learn how to play the bongos. That’s where Mr. Bongo comes in.

Mr. Bongo’s real name is Jack Costanzo, and his 1961 Liberty Record release Learn, Play Bongos with “Mr. Bongo” will have you playing “Peanut Vendor” in no time. And you won’t be learning from some bongo nobody—the Master of the Membranophone’s résumé reads like The Collected Works of Jack Kerouac.

Costanzo toured with Stan Kenton, spent four years as the “phantom fourth” in the Nat King Cole Trio, and released a slew of solo albums with titles like Bongo Fever and Mr. Bongo Plays Hi-Fi Cha Cha. He made guest appearances on the Art Linkletter, Ed Sullivan, Edward R. Murrow, and Dinah Shore shows, and was no stranger to the motion pictures; that’s Jack playing the bongo-beating Middle Eastern slave Julna in the 1965 Elvis Presley musical comedy Harum Scarum.

But Mr. Bongo was a consummate educator as well. And I’m not talking Bongos 101 at Beatnik High. Costanzo mentored some of the biggest names in Tinseltown, including Marlon Brando, James Dean, Betty Grable, Gary Cooper, Rita Moreno, and Tony Curtis. It’s rumored he coached the famed Nazi bongo beater Josef Goebbels as well, but you won’t the Nazi Propaganda Minister’s name on Costanzo’s CV.

With the help of Mr. Bongo–and the invaluable assistance of narrator Ira “One of Los Angeles’ leading personality disk jockeys!” Cook, you’ll be savaging the skins in no time.”Hear that?” asks Cook at album’s start. “It’s one of the most exciting sounds in the world. Everyone’s doing it. Ouch! Well, everybody’s trying to do it.”

Why risk the blisters you ask? Because your mad skills will make you the center of the universe. As it says right on the album’s back jacket, bongos are “great fun at the beach, at parties, or forming your own orchestra.” Haven’t you always wanted your own orchestra?

Speaking of orchestras, Mr. Bongo has placed his very own orchestra (that’s “ork” in the Bongoese on the album’s back cover) at your disposal, giving you the opportunity to bong-bong-bongo along with tunes like “El Diabilito,” “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon,” and (who says Costanzo wasn’t a rock ’n’ roller?) Eddie Cochran’s “Somethin’ Else.” Pity this baby hit the record store shelves before “Anarchy in the U.K.” And if you’re one of those snobbish Mozart types who can actually read sheet music, the LP’s insert offers Mantillo and Afro-Cuban variations on my favorite song of all time, “Dickey Dickey Dickey Dockey.”

I figured learning to play the bongos would take years of callus-forming practice, but now that I’ve home tutored myself with this ground-breaking contribution to ethnomusicology, I’m a world class bongosero. Why, just last night I found myself in one of those basement coffeehouses in the East Village where everybody sips espressos looking bored out of their black turtleneck sweaters.

Hardly what you’d call an enthusiastic crowd, that is until I took the stage and laid into the knee skins like a pissed-off father speed-spanking his fat-bottomed kid. Within seconds every hep cat in Cool City dropped their espressos cups shouting “Dig!” and “Go cat go!!” Even the dour existentialist in the back pretending to read Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind joined in on the finger-snapping.

And if that’s not endorsement enough, take a look at the Nelson Family types going bongo berserk on the album cover. Dad’s an obvious spree killer, Junior looks like he’s just unwrapped a Christmas present to discover a pair of tits, and Mom, well, Mom’s stoned out of her gourd.

Have I mentioned that Costanza appeared in the 1960 sci-fi comedy Visit to a Small Planet, which stars the immortal Jerry Lewis as Kreton? At the end of the film, Kreton, who develops human emotions and finds them an alien pain in the ass, returns to his home planet X-47. But you can be sure he took his bongos with him.

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