Caresser in Canada
Posted by Michael Eldridge on November 11, 2009
Lord Caresser (Rufus Callender, 1910-1976) was part of an elite group of Trinidadian calypsonians who in the mid-1930s were selected (by A&R man Ralph Perez, along with Trinidadian retailer and entrepreneur Eduardo Sa Gomes) to make annual trips to the U.S. to wax sides for Decca Records. In 1937, singing at the fashionable Ruban Bleu in Manhattan, he had a breakout hit with “Edward VIII,” a dirge-like composition on the December 1936 abdication of the British monarch (“It was love, love alone / That caused King Edward to leave the throne”). His recording of the tune went on to become an international sensation, the top-selling calypso of the year outside of Trinidad. (See “Calypso Boom,” Time August 29, 1938.)
Although his success ensured that Caresser would be invited to record again for Decca over the next three years, his output on disc was not quite as prolific as that of some of his contemporaries. And the Virgin Islands Daily News was probably burnishing his resume a bit when it claimed in November 1945, on the occasion of his stopover there en route to New York to “fill engagements on stage and radio during the winter,” that Caresser had “been entertaining crowds in New York and California night clubs every winter since 1936.” (During that year’s carnival season, according to Eddy Grant, he had sung at the House of Lords tent with Lady Iere, Lord Ziegfield, and a very young Lord Kitchener.)
Just the same, Caresser traveled early and often in pursuit of his art, and the cosmopolitan persona he assumed in his calypsos was no mere fabrication. What precisely led him on a long sojourn in Montreal, however, is a matter of some speculation. The town certainly had a lively nightclub scene, centered around a neighborhood sometimes known as “Montreal’s ‘Harlem’” (today’s St. Antoine or “Little Burgundy” district), a regular stop on the North American circuit for black and white entertainers alike, especially jazz musicians. It also had a significant Caribbean presence: by World War II, according to one source, West Indians represented some 40% of Montreal’s black population, which numbered in the low thousands.
A somewhat fanciful autobiographical calypso that Caresser wrote in Montreal tells of his unrealized ambition to matriculate at McGill University and study psychology. In a 1948 story in the Afro-American, he claims to have been “inspired to visit Canada in an endeavor to broaden the calypsos [sic] field and increase its sphere of influence on the Continent.” What made him stay, however, seems to have been a commission from Kenneth Brown, producer for West Indian programs at the CBC’s fledgling International Service, to host a radio program that wound up being broadcast not just to the West Indies, but to much of the rest of the anglophone world, as well. (Caresser was heard domestically on the CBC’s flagship Trans-Canada network, in the West Indies on CBC International, and by relay on the BBC, the ABC, New Zealand broadcasting, and occasionally the SABC.) Although it moved around from night to night and even spent a brief spell on CBC’s “Dominion” network (which would eventually become Radio 2), the “Lord Caresser Show” ran nearly every week from May 1946 through June 1948, and Caresser made occasional appearances on children’s and folk music programs on the CBC as late as 1952. While he sometimes performed solo, he was often accompanied by the “Tamboo Bamboo Boys” (West Indian Students at McGill) or, later in the show’s run, by other backup singers from the islands.
Ray Funk relates that in his 1951 calypso “Tribute to Kitchener,” Lord Melody ribbed Caresser (along with several other expatriate calypsonians), suggesting that it might be time to come back home to refresh his repertoire:
Caresser should take a rest
And fly back to the city of Port-of-Spain.
We waiting so come by plane
We don’t want to hear them old songs again
When I turn on me radio Saturday night
Caresser singing, myself and me girl in fight
She like it but I don’t like it at all
and as if he does hear we and start to bawl:
(mute ) I’m the Lord Caresser the king of hearts
And I’m living among the aristocrats
And all those people over there
All they studying is obeah
So the more they try to do me bad, etc.
Melody’s chorus quotes from Caresser’s radio theme song, adapted from his 1938 signature tune, “The More They Try to Do Me Bad,” in which the cosmopolitan calypsonian, um, lords it over his homebound compatriots. But in Canada he was also writing sheafs of new material, much of which—tunes like an “Ode” to Canadian Olympic figure skater Barbara Ann Scott, for example, or homilies on Thanksgiving and the Santa Claus Parade—addressed local themes. He surely needed a thick songbook once he became a fixture in Montreal’s nightclubs, most notably during a three-year run (May 1949 through April 1952) in the downstairs bar at the renowned Rockhead’s Paradise, owned and operated by Jamaican-born Rufus Rockhead since 1931.
Caresser never headlined in the main room and he got photo billing in the club’s newspaper advertisements only at the beginning and end of his run. But he had a loyal following nevertheless, as Weekend Magazine‘s caption, left, and the ad, below right, would suggest. Rufus Rockhead, moreover, was famously exacting with respect to the talent he booked, and the sheer length of Caresser’s stay—almost three solid years of nightly performances—implies an extraordinary degree of confidence and devotion on the part of his demanding employer.
While Rockhead’s itself didn’t publicly mark Caresser’s eventual departure, the Montreal Gazette’s entertainment page ran a photo, two weeks after his disappearance, of his successor in the downstairs bar, one “Orlando, singer, pianist, and harpist,” apparently finding it newsworthy that (as the caption announced) he was “Replacing Lord Caresser.”
Where Caresser went after April 1952 is somewhat unclear: the indefinitely postponed trip to Paris (see ad, right)—a honeymoon trip—doubtless accounted for part of the time, and he returned to Europe at least once more in the 50s, as well. (He’d made an earlier trip in 1948 and 49, appearing on the BBC and recording two unreleased sides for the Swedish jazz label Sonora.) But by mid-1955 at the latest he was back in Montreal, serving as the advance guard of the imminent North American Calypso Craze.
After a gig at the Down Beat in 1955, he began a long run with his trio (later augmented by the addition of “The Lady Venus,” a dancer) at the De Milo Room of the Venus Restaurant sometime in the forepart of 1956, and he stayed there through the end of the year. By January 1957, the Virgin Islands singer Lloyd Thomas, just in from New York’s Jamaican Room, had taken over at the De Milo (now proudly billing itself as “Montreal’s First Calypso Room” and/or “Montreal’s Home of Calypso”), and Trinidadian King Caribe & His Steel Bandits and a trio led by the English comedian Lance Percival (performing as “Lord Lance”) had finished a double bill at El Morocco. Caresser moved on, first to the Clover Lounge (“You’ve Heard the Rest! Now Hear the Best!” crowed the Clover’s ads) and then in mid-May to the Continental Lounge, having done a one-off performance at that venue’s “Ballroom” back in February.
Thomas, Caribe, and Caresser, along with one latecomer, the Trini-born, Jamaica-based Lord Creator, were Montreal’s calypso mainstays for the duration of the craze, which more or less ran its course by the end of July. They made the rounds of the Montreal clubs, playing variously at the Clover Lounge, the De Milo Room, El Morocco’s Casbah Room, and the “Penthouse” of the Windsor Steak House. (Lord Lance returned for a week at the Casbah in March, while Montreal-based acts such as The Magnetones were also pressed into service at the peak of the fad.) As the boom turned bust and the more established rooms began to abandon the calypso format, other venues such as Dagwood’s and the Manor House Barn belatedly jumped on the bandwagon, often with locally manufactured talent.
Caresser’s life after this period is generally not well documented. His contemporary Atilla the Hun (Raymond Quevedo, one of the towering figures in calypso’s history), writing in 1958, claimed in passing that he was—once again—in Paris. Even so, the Montreal city directory puts him at home in La Belle Ville, where he had married and started a family, every year through 1965—listing him for the last five of those years as an employee of the Industrial Acceptance Corporation, a finance company. I’ll update this post as I find out more.
After 1962, when Canada’s overtly racist immigration laws were reformed, greater and greater numbers of West Indians settled in the country, most notably in Toronto, and calypso too established an indigenous Canadian presence. That’s a story which, along with its broader contexts, I’m content to leave to others.
More on calypso in pre-1960s Canada in future posts.