Ordinary Guy: A Professor, music and poverty scholar with a "degree in streetology"--Joe Bataan
Monday, April 21, 2008;
I don't drive beautiful cars
And I don't own an elegant home
Don't have thousands to spend
All chits I got is for the weekend
I'm just an ordinary, ordinary guy
Afro-Filipino, ordinary guy
That's what I am
The ordinary man
You left behind
Sometimes an artist touches you in a personal way with their work--be it a painting, a song or a piece of writing. It is magic when an artist's work says: I created this with you, and only you, in mind. Such is the genius and artistry of Joe Bataan, the King of Latin Soul. He truly defines what POOR magazine calls a music and poverty scholar.
I first heard Joe Bataan's music when I was a teenager. My uncle Anthony had owned about 10 thousand record albums, 33's and 45's. His room was filled with thick green plants and the walls were covered with African masks, Filipino bolo knives and a map of the Philippines. On a shelf sat his record player and one album would always be out, Joe Bataan's Afro Filipino. My uncle would tease me and say I looked like Joe Bataan. I was part Filipino and part black, a mestizo too like Joe Bataan and my uncle would walk up to me and sing the song, complete with the gesturing hands and fancy footwork.
Afro Filipino, ordinary guy, that's what I am, an ordinary guy.
This would embarrass me but what sweet embarrassment. I would look at the album cover. Truth be told, I did see a slight resemblance between myself and Joe Bataan. Then the record would play.
He is known as Mr. New York, the king of Latin Soul, the man who combined the music styles of Boogaloo, rhythm and blues, salsa and disco. Some credit him for recording the very first rap record. The question everbody asks is, "What didn't Joe Bataan sing?ï¿½ Joe Bataan is truly a living legend but who is this Afro Filipino and how did he become the king of Latin Soul?
Young Gifted and Brown
Joe Bataan was born Bataan Nitollano on a Rainy Sunday morning in 1942 to a Filipino father and African-American mother in East Harlem, New York. Like many in El Barrio, he sang doo wop on the street corner and, like many, was involved in street gangs. At age 15 he spent time in prison for driving a stolen vehicle. It was during his incarceration that he discovered music. 6 months later he began recording. He had a vision of creating something different, combining Latin music with Rhythm and Blues. A self-taught musician, Joe Bataan formed his first band in 1965. His first single was a successful cover of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions hit, "Gypsy Woman" in 1967 on the legendary and groundbreaking Fania Records. He followed up with the smash hit and among my favorites-- 'Ordinary Guy"--a haunting Latin Soul ballad about a lover left behind. His merging of Latin music with R & B tunes in the 60ï¿½s made for the birth of Latin Soul, and its creator was Joe Bataan.
The thing that's so seductive about Joe Bataan's music for me is the honesty of the lyric. His experience on the streets of Harlem informs so much of his music, songs such as "What Good is a castle," "Subway Joe," "Poor Boy" and "Under the Street lamp" take us to the working class world of Joe Bataan. The song, "Unwed Mother" brings to mind the struggle so eloquently voiced by Tupac's "Keep ya head up."
Young, fresh and wild
Unwed with a child
She grew up in the slums of the city
At 16 she was young and pretty
A sad little mother with holes in her shoes
Alone, lost and feeling very blue
What can she do?
She's got to make it through
When Joe talks about many of his compadres of the past, a hint of sadness enters his voice. Many fell victim to the streets. He grew up in El Barrio on 104th Street in Spanish Harlem. He recalls the neighborhood as mixed, Latinos, blacks and some whites. He was the only mestizo in the neighborhood. In the pre-civil rights era he contends that he identified more with his gang then his race. Disagreements were settled with "our hands" in fair fights. When not engaging in disputes over turf, Bataan and his friends would sing Doo Wop harmonies in a place called Love Hall. Bataan recalls the echo chamber that existed in Love Hall. He and his friends would practice their music often, making percussion instruments out of tin cans, garbage cans and beer bottles. Growing up in the neighborhood, I guess there were two avenues one could take to escape our environment in El Barrio, sports or music.
As the 60s transitioned into the 70s, Joe Bataan wore many hats, singer, producer, promoter and record label owner. He produced songs for Ghetto Records and in 1975 he released "Afro Filipino" on the Salsoul label. David Sanborn and one of the Brecker brothers worked on the album that included a version of Gil Scott Heron's "The Bottle."
By the mid 70s Latin soul began to fade. In 1979 Joe had a hit with "Rap-O-Clap-O."The song did not chart in the US but it was a top 10 hit in Europe and is credited as the first rap song in Europe. He even battled Kurtis Blow to a rap duel over the air on a European radio station. Unbeknownst to Blow, Joe had a newspaper and was reading it for inspiration. He laughs when he recalls the incident.
Joe Bataan dropped from public view in the mid 80s. What happened to the pivotal force in so many genres of music? He became a counselor for juveniles, visiting correctional facilities, sharing his experiences with crime, including his conviction at age 15.
In 1995 Joe Bataan returned to the stage after a 20-year hiatus from the music industry. I had the privilege of seeing him perform a couple years back at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco. The audience was comprised of old timers and new fans. He celebrates a new album and CD. He has teamed up the rapper Mr. Capone in a reprise of his hit "Ordinary Guy" and is touring again. It's good to have him back, Joe Bataan, a music and poverty scholar, an extraordinary guy.
For more information about Joe Bataan, check out his website: www.joebataan.net.