Jorge Bermudez has seen the world from behind his conga drum set, working with musicians from Pete Escovedo and Shirley Bassey to Crowded House, though offstage his passion, apart from music and his family, is the ball club that made him a fan for life.
“In the ‘60s The San Francisco Giants were the Latino pride of the major leagues,” said Bermudez. No other team at the time had as many Latino players on their roster, all of them stars: Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda, Jose Pagan and the Alous — Felipe, Matty and Jesus — “the first all-brother outfield in the National League,” said Bermudez.
It was the era of other Giants greats like Willie McCovey and Willie Mays — and he learned the basics of the sport from his stepdad. But for Nicaraguan American Bermudez, growing up in the inner and outer Mission District, the Spanish-speaking players were his guys. San Francisco being a small town then and now, he often found himself in close proximity to the team: Tito Fuentes lived next door to his aunt.
“They all had their shoes shined at the Ultra Modern Barbershop and played pool a few doors down,” said Bermudez, the youngest of six. His older brother Ron was a barber there and he got the kid a job shining shoes.
“It was pretty exciting for a 9-year-old who adored the Giants and was in total bliss seeing his baseball heroes regularly. Shining their shoes, well, that was another matter,” said Bermudez, who made his share of mistakes on the job. As he compiles his memoirs of a Mission childhood, the chapter titled “The Shoeshine Boy” tells the story of pinching Marichal’s home phone number from the shop’s appointment log and giving the pitcher an impromptu call.
“Hi Juan, it’s Jorge”
“Jorge, the shoeshine boy from the barbershop.”
“I was sleeping,” Marichal groaned and hung up.
Later that day, the pitcher lost his start on the mound and young Jorge felt personally responsible, though the story isn’t done: Marichal called the barber and Bermudez was benched, though he hadn’t yet turned 10.
“We lived in a two-story house near Army and Mission,” he said. “I’d climb on the roof and look out over The City, wondering what my life would be like,” he said. Music had not yet revealed itself to be s calling, but he was lured by the beat of the drums.
“I got exposed to tropical music very young,” he said. Again it was thanks to his older brother Ron, a Latin DJ who let him tag along to dances sponsored by the radio stations KOFY and later KBRG.
“I saw Armando Peraza play a bongo solo when I was 9 years old, everyone was yelling as he went off on the drums,” he said, referring to the world-famous Latin jazz percussionist originally from Cuba who made his home in San Francisco.
“He was like my dad in the last 20 years of his life,” said Bermudez. “We went to over 100 Giants games together.”
Bermudez’s mother fled Nicaragua in 1955 with six children to escape an abusive situation and join her four sisters in San Francisco.
“He was an alcoholic lunatic,” said Bermudez of the father he met on a trip to Managua when he was a teenager. “He was the equivalent of a councilman in his region, I met him for first time in life and he took me to Palacio Nacional to meet this creep,” he said, referring to the country’s dictator, President Anastasio Somoza. It is a story best left to Bermudez’s memoir, but let’s just say his teenage rock ’n’ roll attitude served him well defending himself.
Back home, he’d learned the guitar at Community Music Center on Capp Street, but he didn’t take to it. By 13, he was playing congas in a Santana cover band, touring local Catholic high schools, and at 17, he was yanked out of class at Balboa to play on the second album by Chicano rockers, Malo.
“And that’s how it began,” he said, of a career that’s spanned 50 years and several styles of music. And the Bay Area has remained home through the decades, whether he was back at school, studying at Cañada College and San Jose State, or working with Top 40 hitmakers Pablo Cruise or superstar-producer Narada Michael Walden in sessions in LA.
In the early days of tech, “someone from the Silicon Valley underwrote me and bought a state-of-the-art studio in San Bruno,” he said of a period in which he created music cues for software. He’s since written for TV: “Desperate Housewives,” “Jane the Virgin” and “Dexter,” and also played on a reality show: “I guess something a lot of people would know is the fast bongos at the top of Judge Wapner’s ‘The People’s Court,’” he said.
His project the Bermudez Triangle cut the recording “Bongoland,” a dance floor tribute to Desi Arnaz, the Cuban bandleader, actor and “I Love Lucy” co-creator who popularized the conga line in U.S. nightclubs. Bermudez did his own rounds on the club circuit, working with Swedish-born song and dance woman Ann-Margret (“best boss I ever had”) and Puerto Rican singer-songwriter-guitarist José Feliciano. He remembers the night they performed at John Ascuaga’s Nugget in Reno, his mother in the house. “I could see her aura of happiness from the stage,” he said.
He’s currently working on a composition he calls “the ultimate Mission District song” for the return of “Nash Bridges.”
In recent years, Bermudez survived 14 rounds of chemo and cancer and several surgeries to his back and to his hands, correcting injuries from slapping the drums. In 2018, he appeared at the Mission’s annual Carnaval festival with Latin R&B band Tierra, and celebrated his comeback with his children, grandchildren and friends from the neighborhood where he got his start. (Bermudez is among the musicians portrayed on the Latin Rock House mural on the corner of 25th and York streets). However, a couple of months ago, he was sidelined again: Feeling unwell, he drove himself along the El Camino from San Mateo to Stanford Hospital, where open heart surgery was performed.
“At some point I realized, I should’ve called an ambulance,” he said.
On doctor’s orders, he spends a couple of hours a day exercising by working as a crossing guard, “stepping up and down off the curb, an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon,” he said.
“They’re little ones and everyone is really grateful to have a crossing guard. The only tough part is, I haven’t had to be up that early since my kids were little and that was 25 years ago,” he added.
He’s never stopped rooting for the Giants, even when he lived in hostile Dodger territory. “Yeah, that can be dangerous,” he said.
While his recovery from heart surgery has limited his attendance at Oracle Park a bit, he has made it to five games and is glad we’re in postseason: “It’s the only thing I did during the pandemic,” he said. He’s held on to his good luck hat from the 2012 World Series, its faded fabric serving as a mask. “Fingers crossed,” he said. ¡Go Gigantes!
Denise Sullivan, an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions,” can be reached at denisesullivan.com and @4DeniseSullivan. SF Lives/Live Talks are live streamed at 10 a.m. on the second Sunday of the month from birdbeckett.com. The Oct. 10 guest is Jennifer Beach of Prison Radio.