Bongo Billy: The King of Random Music and His 50-Year Reign
“Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness.”
– Allen Ginsburg
It’s 11:30PM on a Monday. A man in sunglasses and a full white beard approaches the stage of a small club wielding a large chili-pot and its lid. Seemingly from the ether, he produces a set of wind chimes, which he hands off to someone from the audience, then does the same for his bongos. As a noisy, yet coherent, rhythm is unearthed, he begins calmly delivering a poem about his appetite for music. This rises into a crescendo where he leads all present in shouting “DINNERTIME!!!” at the top of their lungs in anarchic glee, instantly destroying all boredom, alienation and despair within earshot. We are all made young.
Who is this bright-eyed, old prankster-wizard of joyous liberation? He is best known to Philadelphia’ music world as Bongo Billy.
Born Bill Clancy in Port Richmond on August 11, 1959, Baby Boy Bongo was an unpredictable, hyper-active child. As he put it, “I was a rambunctious child, always getting into things, doing things and tapping on tables. I was one of those kids, corner kids, ‘Get in the corner!’”
Against the grain of his being, the musician inside this four-year old promised to behave in begging his parents to let him stay up late on February 9, 1964 to see his favorite band, The Beatles, on The Ed Sullivan Show, their first U.S. appearance. As they played “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” to a literally hysterical audience, some switch was flipping in that young brain. “I said ‘That’s what I wanna be.’ I swear to this very day, I said, ‘That’s what I wanna be, a musician.’ Ever since that moment, it never stopped.”
What he didn’t know at the time was that another life-changing moment was hiding in the shadows, stalking it’s prey. “I fell down a flight of steps when I was a kid, months after [the Ed Sullivan performance]. I fell down and lost my hearing for a while. For years I had wax build-up. My mother would say ‘pop your ears’ and write in on the paper so I could read it. She would grab my nose and she would [holds my nose and puffs out cheeks]. I was going nuts without my hearing. All I could remember was the Beatles songs in my head.”
With wax in his ears and The Beatles in his head, little Billy was enrolled into Ebensburgh, a sort of cross between hospital program and boarding school, where he would learn sign-language and, as he slowly regained hearing, would help staff members and deaf clients work together and communicate. More relevantly though, it was here that he joined the choir and the marching band. His first official musical performance was at their 1966 Christmas play in which he sang “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” and hit the drums for “Little Drummer Boy”. By the time he left, at the age of nine, he was in his first rock ‘n’ roll group, One Band United, with other clients.
After spending his teenage years in various cover bands, Billy said another shift in his journey revealed itself in 1982, when “I saw [Herb Murray] perform solo at a talent show and said ‘I gotta jam with this guy.’” So jam with that guy he did. That jam became by far Billy’s longest running band, The Work Addicts, playing for fourteen years until 1996.
As the band began to dissolve, Billy found musical collaboration in another area of his life when he began living with Helen Way. “She had a beautiful voice. She was blind; I lived in her house and helped her out, made her food, guided her places, stuff like that, and I lived with her for 21 years. She was up there in age, but if you talked to her on the phone, you would think she was a young woman. She had a beautiful voice, man.”
That beautiful voice lived, danced, and breathed atop Billy’s bongo-playing for the whole of those twenty-one years, with the group they formed playing parties they would host at their home. It was a rhythm they would hold until 2014, when life pulled the rug out from underneath their feet. “She died three days before Herbie did, back-to-back. When Helen passed away I was devastated; when Herbie passed away, I was devastated.”
Just before Herb’s death, Bill had been preparing to go play with Herb at The Fire’s open mic, where Herb had been playing every Monday since 2006. Instead, what he arrived for was the Herb Murray Tribute Show, their first open-mic without him. “I found out he was getting sick and ill and everything. He got diabetes and went blind and passed on. They helped him on stage and he wanted to play one more time. I never had a chance to play with him at The Fire. To this very day, that’s gonna haunt my ass.”
Rather than falling prey to the inaction of despair, as many would have done in his shoes, Billy kept bringing his antics to the table, Monday after Monday, just as Herb did before him. “When I first started at The Fire, I didn’t have bongos for the first three months. I was just playing pots and pans, cans, the tom-tom. When I got the bongos, that put my name right in place: Bongo Billy.”
Not long after, he would add the Connie’s Ric Rac open-mic on Wednesdays in the Italian Market to his regular itinerary. On Sundays, Billy also plays with the band at Cross Tabernacle Baptist Church, a black gospel church made up mostly of Herb’s extended family, who became Billy’s god-family not long after losing Herb. A man of faith, he still goes every Sunday not just to play music and not just to see what has become his family, but to give thanks for his ability to play and share his songs with others.
Among those songs are “Ghetto Ghost Town” and “Dope Zombie”, slices of life taken from the streets of K&A and Port Richmond as he’s seen them from before, during, and after the crack epidemic of the early ‘80s. Other topics include holidays, being picked on, and the power of music.
Throughout his journey of becoming the open-mic legend he is today, he has stepped into all sorts of pies, working as a disc jockey for parties in the late ‘80s, voicing “Philly Billy”, a regular call-in personality for local sports radio, dancing at neighborood block parties and sporting events, inhabiting the persona of “Seamus O’Reilly, the crazy Irishman” for a wrestling trivia night, interviewing Harry Kalas, acting in plays and music videos (most recently for Molly Rhythm), and lending his drums and dances to rappers, poets and guitarists alike.
The two-song sets of Bongo Billy’s rejuvenating madness can be experienced any given Monday (The Fire) or Wednesday (Connie’s Ric Rac). In recent years, he has taken to calling himself The King of Random Music, and in his kingdom, all are fed. It’s dinnertime, y’all. •