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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Post-Caribana Miscellany

Posted by Michael Eldridge on July 30, 2016

As I start this, the Caribbean Carnival grand parade will be wining down Toronto’s Lake Shore Boulevard for a couple more hours yet, and the Caribana revels continue through tomorrow (Sunday, July 31), so the “post-” in this post’s title is decidedly premature. But I’ve been away for many weeks, seeing exotic sights and enjoying the company of old friends, and now I’ve returned home to stare down the end of summer and face the impending doom of a new academic year. So I’m having a hard time living in the moment.

But it’s a beautiful day in northern coastal California, and I’m furiously procrastinating the things I really ought to be doing. This seems as good a moment as any, then, to catch up on a bunch of random items I’ve been collecting. And actually, the first item is apropos: while I was on the road, Dave De Castro, The Bandit, Caribana’s first kaiso king, finally got a proper obituary—and a good one, at that—from George Haim in The Star.

Another culture-bearer passed while I was away—a true literary giant: Bajan-born Canadian writer Austin Clarke, whose early work imagined the lives of West Indian domestics (and other working-class immigrants) in 1950s Toronto with poignant humor, and whose 2002 novel The Polished Hoe justly won the Commonwealth Writers Prize. (His memoir Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack, a devastatingly hilarious indictment of colonial education, surely carries one of the all-time best titles in literature.) Clarke’s death was noted by The StarThe New York Times, and Pride, among others, while ArtsEtc (Barbados) reprinted a 1998 interview, “Sail On, Prince of Tides.”

Thankfully, many of the elders are still with us, and it’s good to see them going strong—and getting recognition. For instance:

With support from Torontonian Drew Gonsalves (and his band Kobo Town), five-time T&T calypso monarch Calypso Rose has just released a new album, Far From Home, that’s garnering plenty of attention. (See, e.g., this feature story in the London Guardian.)  Accompanied by Kobo Town, the Queen will close this year’s WOMEX World Music Expo in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where she will also receive the WOMEX Award. Here’s Rose’s take on Lord Executor’s “They Say I Reign Too Long”:

And 90-year-old pianist Randy Weston, whose West Indian heritage was reflected in early recordings like “Fire Down There” (immortalized a year later as “St. Thomas” by his label-mate Sonny Rollins) and “Little Niles,” was just inducted into DownBeat magazine’s hall of fame. He’s the subject of the August issue’s cover story, and he’s getting ready to go out on tour. NPR’s Jazz Night In America caught him at the 2016 Panama Jazz Festival.

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Other miscellany:

  • Old calypso, exhumed and restored: Lovey’s Band, “Oh, Mr. Brown” at Excavated Shellac
  • Old calypso, sampled and re-animated: Australian band The Avalanches build their new single, “Frankie Sinatra,” on Houdini’s “Bobby Sox Idol” (Thanks very much to an alert reader for this tip! But what is it with Houdini Down Under?—cf. C. W. Stoneking’s “Brave Son of America“)
  • Old calypso, mashed up: “Pimped-up Calypso: Case Studies” (I’ve been meaning for ages to give a shout-out to the excellent new blog by “Lord Investor,” who is on a mission to explain “to the world what’s so good about calypso.” In a distantly related vein, see Carrie Battan’s New Yorker piece about Mixpak Records, “Rhythm Revival“)

 

Posted in "Bandit" DeCastro, Calypso, Calypso Rose, Canada, Kobo Town, Randy Weston, Toronto | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Bandit’s Last Carnival

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 25, 2016

Dave De Castro—The Bandit—passed away earlier this month.  A proud Trinidadian who began performing in Canada in the mid-1950s, Bandit was named that country’s first Calypso Monarch at the inaugural Caribana calypso competition in 1969.

He was a lovely, big-hearted man and a natural raconteur, funny, gracious, and generous with his time and his memories. He loved life and loved his family, and to the end he was fervently devoted the art of calypso. My sympathies to all his friends and loved ones.

Kaiso, Bandit!

Posted in "Bandit" DeCastro, Calypso, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Anniversary LXXX

Posted by Michael Eldridge on February 14, 2016

This blog has been dormant for a long time. Not deliberately; it’s just—well, you know. Connect the dots. Fill in the blank.

Anyway, reading about the 50th anniversary of the legendary Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (originally the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, the group has held a regular Monday night gig at the Village Vanguard since February 7, 1966) got me thinking about an unkept promise from last May, when I noted that three institutions who played big roles in promoting calypso in North America were all celebrating milestone anniversaries in the same year. (I only ever got around to writing about one of the three.)

The VJO doesn’t haven’t an especially close connection to calypso, of course. Okay: there’s Jim McNeely’s “305,” named for his former street address in…Crown Heights? Flatbush?…anyway, he claimed the tune’s West Indian feel came from rhythms he’d heard in his old Brooklyn ‘hood. (He eventually recorded it with the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra.) And Bob Mintzer’s “Antigua,” a samba-flavored calypso included on the VJO’s 2002 release, Can I Persuade You:

But that’s about all I can dig up, calypso-wise, in the band’s five-decades-long songbook.

The Vanguard itself is an altogether different matter. Among Max Gordon’s most successful early bookings were the “Calypso Recorders,” a cabaret-style revue built around Gerald Clark’s Caribbean Serenaders and vocalist the Duke of Iron, with accompaniment by Bill Matons, a lefty modern dancer whose small troupe interpreted the Duke’s calypsos with pantomimed masked dramas. (Popular Front types had lately begun adopting New York-based calypsonians as fellow travelers, thereby imbuing calypso with a certain bohemian cachet: Clark, for instance, had already been tapped to provide music for The New Masses annual ball later that year, while Wilmoth Houdini had recently concluded a run at Barney Josephson’s forward-thinking Cafe Society.)

New_Masses_Duke_Ball

The Vanguard show—which started in late August 1939, at a moment when calypso 78s were flying off the shelves of mid-Manhattan music shops (Clark’s was the backing band on most of them; hence his insistence on being billed as the Recorders)—ran three times nightly, and it was such a hit, with enthusiastic notices in BillboardVariety, and all the New York dailies, that at the end of ten weeks, Gordon signed Clark for another ten months. He continued to book calypso periodically all the way through the 1950s.

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My lack of follow-through on this post was due in part to sheer peevishness. A year ago I spoke on the phone with what journalists would call a “high-ranking official” at the Vanguard, who told me that business records and other ephemera from the old days were scarce, but warmly offered to let me peruse the club’s booking “bible”—containing names and dates of headlining artists—and suggested, tantalizingly, that there might be other “ledgers” I could look at too. But when I followed up a few months later, in preparation for a summer visit to the city, I got the cold shoulder.

No matter. The Village Vanguard’s own website features several great pieces of calypso ephemera, including the above handbill. I’m writing about some of the reviews as part of a chapter on calypso’s embrace by the American left in the 1940s. In the meantime, here’s a photo of Matons, a/k/a The Calypso Kid (he later made a career as “Calypso Joe”), performing the pantomime to “Edward VIII” that he introduced at the Vanguard in 1939:

NYJA_Trinidad_Calypso_003_crop

Bill Matons, publicity shot for an engagement at New York’s Pago Pago Club, January 1941. (New York Journal-American photo morgue, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin)

Posted in Calypso, Duke of Iron, Gerald Clark, New York City, New York Nightclubs, village vanguard | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Vale, Juneberry

Posted by Michael Eldridge on June 28, 2015

A few weeks ago, I was reading two of the better installments of the NPR Music series Streaming at the Tipping Point—”Digital Underground: Who Will Make Sure the Internet’s Vast Digital Archive Doesn’t Disappear?” (a subject over which I too have wrung my hands) and “12 Essential Archives for Internet-Era Music Historians“—both of which take stock, among other things, of how utterly changed the work of music research is nowadays, thanks to the Internet, compared to even a decade ago.  On that subject, at least, you’ll find me in the Amen Corner.  (About some other aspects of streaming culture and the Wild West that is music on the ‘net, I’m more equivocal.)

A passing comment by Barry Mazor in the latter piece led me to the sad discovery that Tom Norm Morrison, the founder of Juneberry78s.com, died early last month.  Years before other collectors began peppering YouTube with vintage calypsos, Tom was posting them (along with scads of other “roots” music) on his site, which is where I first heard at least half a dozen rare sides from the 1930s and 40s that had not yet been reissued anywhere.

Thank you for your devotion to the music, Tom, and thanks to your family for keeping your labor of love up and running.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Anniversary XC

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 18, 2015

By strange coincidence, three institutions that played important parts in the spread of calypso in North America are marking big anniversaries this year—every one a good round multiple of ten: The New Yorker is 90, the Village Vanguard 80, and Radio Canada International 70. I hope to post about all three before the year is out, and today I start with the eldest.


For calypso researchers, The New Yorker is famous for one thing: “Houdini’s Picnic,” a profile of Wilmoth Houdini, the self-crowned king of New York calypsonians, that appeared in the issue of May 6, 1939. Its author, the legendary Joseph Mitchell, had recently joined The New Yorker as a staff writer after a star turn at the World-Telegram; “Houdini’s Picnic” was one of his earliest pieces for the smart-set weekly.  It’s a classic of its type: part character sketch, part urban chronicle—a type that, as it happens, Mitchell practically invented. “He was drawn to people on the margins,” comments Charles McGrath, reviewing a new biography of Mitchell: “bearded ladies, Gypsies, street preachers, Bowery bums, Mohawk steelworkers, the fishmongers at the Fulton Market.” But his tone is mostly curious and sympathetic. A “great noticer” and a “careful listener” with a superb ear for dialogue, Mitchell was a sociologist at heart, “genuinely interested in his subjects as human beings, remarkable because they so vividly demonstrate that one way or another we are all a little weird.” There is “no kitsch in his portraits,” adds current New Yorker editor David Remnick, introducing Up in the Old Hotel, the definitive collection of Mitchell’s writing for the magazine. By contrast, the Journal-American‘s H. Allen Smith, like many of Mitchell’s rivals and imitators, saw people “as ‘characters,’ and mined them for their colorfulness” (McGrath again). Smith’s portrait of Houdini, “Hot Dogs Made Their Name,” which appeared a year later (and was collected in Low Man on a Totem Pole), is arch and condescending. Where Mitchell is deadpan, Smith is jokey. Mitchell’s Houdini is rough-edged and well-spoken. Smith’s is a buffoon.

Joseph Mitchell wasn’t the only one of Harold Ross’s staff writers to cast an interested eye upon New York’s West Indian community.  As early as 1928, “The Talk of the Town” took an excursion to Van Cortland Park in Riverdale—er, the Bronx—to look in on the “group of West Indian Negroes” who congregated there on Sunday afternoons to play “an unusually beautiful game of cricket” (and speak an equally “beautiful brand of English”).  (J.M. Flagler would return in 1954 to write a long profile of West Indian cricketers in New York, “Well Caught, Mr. Holder“; Edith M. Agar and Brendan Dealy checked in once more in 1988.)  In the course of keeping up with “Exotic Harlem,” meanwhile, Pauline Emmet in 1930 schooled herself on West Indian-American cuisine: “The West Indian Negro…will scarcely look at a chicken,” she pronounced. “What he likes are yams, yucas, papayas, and things like that.”

And music? As I mentioned last month, it’s a safe bet that the Renaissance Ballroom’s house band, led by Vernon Andrade, wasn’t only supplying swing tunes for the 5000 masquerading Lindy Hoppers and Suzy-Q’ers at the West Indian “Coronation Ball” that Earl Brown visited in 1937. By December 1938 the magazine’s anonymous popular record reviewer, always abreast of emerging trends, was recommending “selected West Indian discs” as a last-minute Christmas gift for “friends who will be diverted by the curious rhythmic outbreaks in dialect from the Calypso singers.”  He began with a representative five, but as Decca had already issued “almost a hundred of these native naïvetés,” some of which seemed “shrewdly manufactured for the tourist trade,” he referred “Calypso collectors”—they were a thing—to midtown’s Liberty Music Shop for “[e]xpert first aid.”  By the following year, Steinway & Sons Record Shop, also in midtown, was advertising its own recommendations…

Ad for Steinway & Sons Record Shop, New Yorker 2 December 1939

Ad for Steinway & Sons Record Shop, New Yorker 2 December 1939

…and Houdini was back on the radar of the magazine’s unnamed reviewer, who led off his December 30th column with a notice for the album advertised above, Houdini’s—and calypso’s—first. (Heretofore, he explained, “Calypso songs, by which the natives of Trinidad comment informally on whatever events of the moment strike their fancy…have been casually released on single discs.” But they have “caught on so successfully during the brief time they’ve been available in this country that now Decca has come out with a three-record set.”)

When calypso began to be featured at Cafe Society and the Village Vanguard in the summer of 1939, it naturally showed up in “Goings On About Town,” and eventually the Vanguard even took out small ads:

The New Yorker 11 May 1940

The New Yorker 11 May 1940

In 1941, Robert A. Simon was amused by the calypso that Belle Rosette (Beryl McBurnie), who had debuted at the Vanguard in December 1940, sang at one of Louise Crane’s high-concept “Coffee Concerts” at MOMA—a “South American Panorama” that also featured Elsie Houston, the Grupo Incaico, and a Haitian “Rada” group.  (“Some of the visitors may have expected terribly primitive revelations,” quipped Simon, “but the event was no more aboriginal than a good floor show.”) Belle Rosette’s offering “began with international topicality and ended with something about Bach and Toscanini discussing Calypso music.” If that report seems a tad flip, then Simon at least conceded, after a lame attempt of his own, that “manufacturing Calypso lyrics isn’t so simple as one might expect.”

Houdini’s swan song for The New Yorker was in 1944, when he made an uncredited cameo in an ad for Bell Telephone, which had begun overseas long distance service to Trinidad earlier that year (and nicked the image in the lower lefthand corner from the cover of Houdini’s above-mentioned album for Decca). Note the nod to the “Good Neighbor” policy.

New Yorker, 14 October 1944

New Yorker, 14 October 1944

The last New Yorker writer to engage with New York’s West Indians in a spirit akin to Mitchell’s was J.M. Flagler, who twice in the mid-50s called upon cricketer, Con Ed clerk, and amateur composer Joseph Willoughby as his native informant: once to comment on the West Indian Day Parade, then held on 7th Avenue in Harlem, and again to weigh in on the 1957 Calypso Craze. On the latter occasion Willoughby, who with his partner, Harlem M.D. Walter Merrick, wrote “Run, Joe,” a 1947 hit for Louis Jordan, was equivocal: “On the one hand, I stand to profit personally,” he conceded, as his songwriting services were once again in demand and three recordings of his older calypsos had been reissued. “On the other hand, I fear that the cause of calypso is not being well served artistically.” Make that cricketer, clerk, composer…and diplomat.

In more recent years, the keen and versatile Hilton Als, who joined The New Yorker in 1994, and who, in the words of Coco Fusco, was reared in Brooklyn “by uppity Caribbean matriarchs,” can be counted on periodically to shed light on things West Indian and West Indian-American (“Notes on My Mother,” excerpted from his memoir, The Women, is an early example)—although it was Ian Frazier who wrote on the Brooklyn Labor Day j’ouvert parade back in 2010.

newyorker-90th-int-2

Kadir Nelson’s cover—one of nine—for the 90th Anniversary issue of the New Yorker (via the It’s Nice That blog). Any chance Eustace has some classic calypso loaded on that smartphone?

 

 

Posted in Calypso, Calypsonians, Harlem, New York City, New York Nightclubs, The New Yorker, Wilmouth Houdini | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Hello Americans: Orson Welles and Calypso, Pan-American Style

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 5, 2015

May 6th marks the Orson Welles centenary, and NPR had a story this past Sunday on the famous film director’s work for radio. Everyone knows about Welles’s notorious radio drama of The War of the Worlds; fewer remember that it was an episode of The Mercury Theatre on the Air (see also the Digital Deli and Kim Scarborough’s tribute site), a weekly series for which Welles and his regular company of stage talents—John Houseman, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins, et al.—adapted scores of literary works.

More obscure still: Hello Americans, Welles’s short-lived CBS radio series that plumped for FDR’s “Good Neighbor” policy, combating U.S. provincialism and fostering cross-cultural understanding. That was the theory, anyway. Underwritten by Nelson Rockefeller’s Office of Inter-American Affairs, the series ran for a mere twelve weeks in late 1942 and early 1943 before it was cancelled. (Typically, Welles was…let’s say “stretched too thin” to supervise it properly.)

Orson Welles in Rio, 1942

These days, your average grad student in the humanities could pick all sorts of ideological holes in Hello Americans. But that’s no reason to doubt Welles’s good faith. A vocal anti-racist and a supporter of African-American writers, actors and artists, the wunderkind was hailed in the Black press as a “friend of the Negro.”  And even if the cynics contend that “Good Neighbor” was finally just a warm and fuzzy cover for an earlier Roosevelt’s Big Stick (or worse, the foundation for an imminent American imperium), nevertheless the New Deal internationalism that Welles peddled—sincerely—was essentially a Popular Front knockoff. Progressives of all stripes believed that the war against fascism must lead to the end of colonialism abroad and Jim Crow at home and to a radical realignment in the relations of power between the nations of North and South. “Good Neighbor”—a “shift in representation towards a more lateral and dialogic notion of adjacency, positioning U.S. and Latin American culture on the same plane,” as Tom McEnaney puts it in a brilliant reading of Hello Americanswas a hemispheric head start on “One World.”

By 1942 you didn’t need to be Melville Herskovitz or Katherine Dunham to see African retentions forming the backbone of Pan-American culture, especially in the realms of music and dance. Plenty of people—artists, especially—were fascinated by what linked rumba and samba, calypso and “voodoo,” with spirituals, jazz, and blues. A year earlier, even Ed Sullivan, then an influential entertainment columnist for the New York Daily News, had taken his syndicated “Little Old New York” on a Pan-American junket, temporarily renaming it “Little Old New York In South America,” to find out for himself.

Calypsonians had been celebrating their own spanning of the hemisphere for some time already (see Lord Caresser’s “My Luxurious Life” and “Exploiting,” for example, or Lion and Atilla’s “Guests of Rudy Vallee“), and both Sullivan’s and Welles’s tours of the Americas included literal or figurative stops in Trinidad. Welles’s radio series visited twice, in fact, and on both occasions he was “met” by Lancelot Pinard, known professionally as Sir Lancelot.

Pinard’s résumé as a calypsonian wasn’t long, however. He came from a privileged background in Trinidad and was sent to New York to pursue medicine. But Pinard quit his studies after bandleader Gerald Clark heard him sing at a private party (he’d had classical vocal training) and invited Pinard to join his calypso revue at the Village Vanguard. At the same time, Pinard recorded two sides with Clark for Varsity, one of which, “G-Man Hoover,” became a novelty hit. When the Vanguard gig ended (wildly popular, it was extended for ten months), Pinard went on a nationwide tour and wound up in Hollywood. That location, along with his refined elocution, gave him some singular advantages in the U.S. market. When he appeared on Hello Americans, he was awaiting the release of his (and calypso’s) screen debut, the Mary Martin-Dick Powell comedy Happy Go Lucky.

Afro-American, 17 October 1942

Afro-American, 17 October 1942

Pinard was also a genteel radical. A member of the leftwing music collective People’s Songs, he recorded for Eric Bernay’s Keynote label (home of the Almanac Singers), famously set Henry Wallace’s “Century of the Common Man” speech to music, and campaigned for Wallace in 1948. In a 1941 profile by Ollie Stewart for the Afro-American, Pinard agreed that “there is a definite kinship between…the calypso of Trinidad, the tango of the Argentine, the rhumba of Cuba, the samba and conga of Brazil and jazz of the United States”—all of them rooted in the “rhythms of Africa…all contributed to their respective countries by ex-slave groups.”  “However,” Pinard continued,

calypsos have one distinction that sets them apart from other folk music, particularly that contributed by the American colored man. The white man has not (yet) muscled in and commercialized calypsos, to the exclusion of its originators, as he has done with American dance music and folk tunes. Trinidadians have refused to teach the calypso technique to white musicians.

That would change, soon enough. In the meantime, Sir Lancelot might demonstrate calypso for the ofay prince of Hollywood (“Ofays Slow to Grasp,” read the final subhead of Stewart’s piece), but no matter how sympathetic his politics, he wouldn’t show the Pan-American mediator, ventriloquist, and potential appropriator how to do it.

His first offering (from “The Alphabet: C to S,” 13 December 1942) starts out as an anodyne tourist-board ad, then transforms into a manifesto of Pan-American solidarity against fascist “men of tyranny” (move the slider to 2:18):


Next time, with Mexican singer Tito Guízar filling in for an indisposed Welles (“Ritmos de las Americas,” 3 January 1943), Lancelot called the “Sons of America” to arms to avenge the attack on Pearl Harbor and fight for “the right to live in dignity, justice, and liberty” (move the slider to 5:40):


Lancelot would make his own tour of South America in 1946, by the way, and he would come home with a few interesting things to say. (He also offered a musical take on Pan-Americanism.)

____________________________________

Further reading:

  • Hello Americans (Wikipedia)
  • Hello Americans: all twelve episodes at The Internet Archive, source of the above streams
  • Life Goes to Rio Party: Orson Welles frolics at Famous Mardi Gras” (Life 18 May 1942)
  • Joao Perdigao, “Citizen Samba
  • Tom McEnaney, “Hello, Americans: Orson Welles, Latin America, and the Sounds of the ‘Good Neighbor'” (Sound Studies August 2013)
  • And, of course, the second volume of Simon Callow’s biography of Welles, also entitled Hello Americans

Posted in 1940s, Calypso, Good Neighbor Policy, Orson Welles, Pan-Americanism, Sir Lancelot | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Harlem’s Calypso Renaissance

Posted by Michael Eldridge on April 20, 2015

Another landmark gone. The New York Times recently reported that Harlem’s Renaissance Casino and Ballroom, which for years was literally a shell of its former opulent self, is now rubble. (Last December, the Times covered local preservationists’ last-ditch efforts to stop the demolition. A more hopeful story appeared back in 2007.)

Together with its neighboring Theater, the Casino and Ballroom took up an entire block of 7th Avenue between 137th and 138th Streets, on the edge of Strivers Row. Built in stages between 1921 and 1923, the “Renny” touted itself in its grand opening announcement as having been been “built by Colored capital, and owned and managed by Colored people.” Paul Robeson sang there; Oscar Micheaux’s films debuted there; Armstrong, Henderson, Ellington, Basie, and Calloway played there; and Joe Louis fought there. It was also the home of legendary basketballers the Harlem Rens.

Renaissance Casino & Ballroom, 7th Avenue at 138th Street (looking north), Harlem, ca. 1930

From DigitalHarlem.org

Screenshot from DigitalHarlem.org

But the Renny wasn’t just a Harlem cultural mecca, it was a West Indian Harlem cultural mecca. Its founding partners were three businessmen from Antigua and Montserrat, Garveyites who believed in Black self-sufficiency. The Rens basketball team owner was from St. Kitts. For years the Casino’s house band was the Vernon Andrade orchestra, remembered now as a “Latin” band (when it’s remembered at all). But like many Harlem dance bands of the day, Andrade’s played a variety of styles: hot jazz, swing, rumba, mambo…and calypso. Andrade himself, as I learned from Lara Putnam’s Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age, was a Panamanian born to West Indian parents. According to his trombonist Clyde Bernhardt, “[h]alf of Andrade’s band was West Indian,” and Bernhardt’s uncle derided the bandleader as a “monkey-chaser.” In 1937, the New Yorker mentioned Andrade providing the music for a massive “Coronation Ball” at Rockland Palace, and it seems unlikely that the 5000 attendees, “most of them West Indians and loyal Britons,” would have marked George VI’s accession to the throne with non-stop rumbas. Indeed, Andrade, “one of the few [bandleaders] from the Islands who has solved the riddle American swing,” in the opinion of the New York Amsterdam News, played “Sly Mongoose” “as a regular part of his repertoire” in 1939. (A footnote: Lara Putnam also writes that in the mid-1930s, a full decade before she covered Wilmoth Houdini’s “Stone Cold Dead in the Market,” a teenage Ella Fitzgerald sang with Andrade’s band at the Renny two or three nights a week.)

For two decades, at least—possibly longer; my newspaper searches haven’t been exhaustive—the Renaissance was also the venue of choice for Trini expat Gerald Clark, the preeminent West Indian bandleader in New York, and his protégés, the Duke of Iron and Macbeth the Great. While the three also headlined nightclubs, concert halls, and private parties in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx throughout the 1940s and 50s, and while they naturally made the rounds of other Harlem ballrooms (Rockland Palace, Park Palace, the Savoy, the Audubon, the Congress, the Golden Gate), they kept coming back to the Renny. The first of Clark’s annual “Dame Lorraine” costume balls actually took place at the Lido Ballroom in January 1934, but just a month later his Caribbean Serenaders performed at a Washington’s Birthday Ball at the Renaissance, and from then on it was Clark’s “go-to” venue. His dances drew hundreds, often thousands, of patrons. Saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who as a young child lived on 137th Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues, remembers going with his mother “to a lot of calypso dances,” very likely right around the corner.

New York Amsterdam News, 21 February 1934 (courtesy Ray Funk)

New York Amsterdam News, 21 February 1934 (courtesy Ray Funk)

New York Amsterdam News, 2 March 1946

New York Amsterdam News, 2 March 1946

“The Renny hosted events for island benevolent societies,” says Putnam, as well as

West Indies–wide reform groups, and race-based organizations, like the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, that counted both Afro-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans among their members. British Caribbean migrants in interwar New York routinely belonged to organizations across all these categories: and the Renny was their place. Events included a mass rally in support of the jailed Marcus Garvey in 1923; a “monster mass meeting” of the West Indian Reform Association in 1924 to commemorate the ninetieth anniversary of (West Indian) emancipation and discuss “vital issues affecting the islands”; and an invitation-only 1930 gala to welcome a Jamaican cricket team brought north “to improve the game in New York.”

In July 1947, Wilmoth Houdini chose the Renaissance for a Harlem edition of the Calypso “Pop” Concerts that had sold out Carnegie Hall in May and June. A marquee event previewed by all the Black papers nationwide, its teaser was a calypso monarch competition featuring Lord Invader, Macbeth the Great, the Duke of Iron, and the Count of Monte Cristo (the Duke’s brother). As I’ve mentioned before, it’s not known who won or even who judged the contest, but winning probably wasn’t the point anyway. The advance publicity was apparently enough to draw jazz writer and photographer William Gottlieb, who shot a series of striking photos now at the Library of Congress. (I’m speculating somewhat, but the stage and balcony visible in Gottlieb’s photos seem to jibe with interior shots of the ruins of the ballroom that I’ve seen online.)

1947 07-12 Afr-Am Houdini et al Ren Cas

Afro-American (National Edition) 12 July 1947

The last Renaissance Ballroom clipping currently in my collection is for a Labor Day Carnival dance September 7, 1953, with music by Macbeth and his Rhythm Boys. What more logical place to retire to after a parade down 7th Avenue? Macbeth celebrated all the holidays there, it seems:

Poster for an all-night Christmas Eve

Poster for an all-night Christmas Eve “Breakfast Dance,” 1949

IMG_0426 (corrected)

Poster for Bastille Day Ball, 1950

Closed in 1979, the Renny sat empty and derelict for decades, although its social and cultural significance made it a prime candidate for landmark preservation status. Unfortunately, that designation would have made things difficult for powerful real-estate developers, to which detractors accuse the property’s owners and nominal caretakers, the neighboring Abyssinian Baptist Church, of selling out. (In 2010, the ABC demolished another neighbor of equal historical importance and greater architectural distinction, the “annex” of the 137th Street YWCA, where in April 1945 the Duke of Iron produced the first large-scale, sit-down calypso concert in New York, possibly with visitors from Trinidad including Lord Beginner, King Radio, Tiger, Lion, Atilla, and/or Lord Invader.)

More on the Renaissance Theater, Ballroom and Casino:

Posted in Calypso, Duke of Iron, Gerald Clark, Harlem, MacBeth the Great, New York City, Sonny Rollins, Wilmouth Houdini | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

R.I.P. Stan Freberg

Posted by Michael Eldridge on April 8, 2015

Posted in Calypso, Calypso Craze | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Real Sam Charters

Posted by Michael Eldridge on March 21, 2015

The New York Times rightly eulogized Samuel Charters this week as a “foundational scholar of the blues.” Other obituaries emphasized his “discovery” of Bahamian guitar wizard Joseph Spence in 1958. But enthusiasts of Golden Age calypso will remember Charters as the compiler and annotater of The Real Calypso: 1927-1946 and The Real Calypso, Vol. 2 (variously subtitled Send Your Children to the Orphan Home and Out the Fire: Calypso Songs of Social Commentary and Love Troubles), which rescued forgotten classics like Caresser’s “Edward the VIII” and Tiger’s “Money Is King” from oblivion and paved the way for a golden age of calypso reissues. (Rounder’s collections of the 1990s and Bear Family’s magisterial West Indian Rhythm [2006] all have Samuel Charters in their DNA. And maybe the Charters lineage hasn’t run out: it’s rumored that another big box gathering the rest of the prewar Decca and ARC sides is in the works. Yes please!)

The author and ethnomusicologist was a lifelong devotee of music from across the black diaspora, so he came by his interest in calypso honestly. (In fact, I’ve read that Charters happened upon Spence when, as a song collector and field recorder for Moe Asch‘s Folkways Records, he was traveling the Caribbean in search of local musical styles “uncorrupted” by the influence of Trinidadian calypso.) But he wasn’t necessarily a scholar—or even a discographer—of calypso. The bulk of his “annotations” on Volume 1 consists of a multi-paragraph quote from J.D. Elder‘s calypso primer for Sing Out! magazine, and when Charters flew solo on Volume 2, it was clear that his own expertise didn’t match his, uh, elder’s. (On basic points of information, moreover, he was factually incorrect: the majority of tunes on the album were not recorded in Trinidad, for instance, but in New York.) Still, the strength of both discs is in their selection, not their documentation.

In his biography of Asch, Making People’s Music, Peter Goldsmith noted that “[l]ike Harry Smith’s Anthology [of American Folk Music] and Fred Ramsey’s History of Jazz series” (Ramsey, whom Charters knew, was another calypso fan and annotater, by the way), The Country Blues and many subsequent records on Charters’s Folkways subsidiary label RBF—Records, Books and Film, including both volumes of The Real Calypso, “consisted of reissued recordings from the twenties and thirties, usually appropriated without any arrangements with the original labels. . . . Charters made the dubious claim that ‘the American copyright laws permit the reissue of any of these older performances, the only restriction being that the name of the company not be used in any notes or advertising'” (269).

In the case of calypso, at least, I’m glad he made that claim. For one thing, the aptly named Universal, heir/engulfer/devourer of the Decca label, has more than enough money already, even in the twilight of the record industry. Besides, Decca paid the calypso singers and musicians peanuts to begin with, as “artists-for-hire.” And none of the succession of Decca’s corporate foster parents over the past half-century has ever been what you could call a steward of this important cultural patrimony. Plus, Capitalism Is (still) Killing Music, not to mention scholarship. So there. Anyway, let’s call what Samuel Charters did “liberation,” not appropriation. Whatever it was, it wasn’t dubious: his lifelong work for black music history was as real as it gets.

More on Sam Charters:

Posted in Calypso, Folkways Recoreds, Moe Asch, Samuel Charters | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Horn-Tooting

Posted by Michael Eldridge on January 1, 2015

My family and I spent part of New Year’s morning watching the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade on TV—largely because we have dear friends who help build some of the floats. (Go, Sierra Madre! Huzzah, Paradiso! In years past, we’ve been recruited to glue a flower or two, ourselves.) Sixty-two years ago today, the Rose Parade featured a float bedecked with Trinidadian dancers and singers who’d won a contest to represent the float’s sponsor, The March of Dimes, as ambassadors of its worldwide campaign to fight polio.  On the DVD contained in our Calypso Craze box set, Ray Funk and I included a short film documenting the group’s trip (the singers were known for decades afterwards as the March of Dimes quartet), and this morning I was reminded that I’d meant to post some supplemental materials to the set’s “Extra-Illustrated” website.

Here, for example, are eight seconds of home-movie video of the March of Dimes float (don’t blink!):

Next, courtesy of the New York Public Radio archives, you can hear the Trinidadians performing five days later on the steps of Manhattan’s city hall as part of a longer program broadcast on municipal station WNYC. (WordPress still won’t let you embed many audio players, unfortunately, but you can navigate to WNYC’s site via the link above and stream the entire program there.)

And finally, a grainy photograph and newspaper story from the Trinidad Guardian marking the performers triumphant return (thanks to Ray Funk):

modguardian1953

Speaking of Calypso Craze: the set has been out since August, and although we couldn’t organize a New York event in time for Brooklyn carnival, Ray will be down in Trinidad doing a carnival launch there in a few weeks. Meanwhile, New Year’s Day seems as good a time as any to toot our own horns.  Here are some of the reviews and features available online.

Web:

Radio:

  • Planet Fruit (Johannes Paetzold, Radio Eins)
  • WDR5 (Klaus Walter)
  • Stefan Maelck includes Calypso Craze (along with my hero Jeff Tweedy!) in the week’s “Take 5,” a selection of five notable new releases, on MDR Figaro (audio)

Print:

And (added February 23, 2015)

We appreciate the attention and the kind words.  Happy New Year!

Posted in Calypso Craze, March of Dimes, New York City, Rose Parade, WNYC | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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