Working for the Yankee Dollar

Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

  • Recently Minted

  • Spent Dollars

  • Search the Treasury:

  • Denominations

  • Creative Commons

Caresser in Canada

Posted by Michael Eldridge on November 11, 2009

Caresser, Atilla, Lion, and Executor in New York, 1937

L-R: Lord Caresser, Atilla the Hun, The Lion, and Lord Executor in a publicity shot for their New York visit, 1937

Label for "Edward the VIII"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.)

Virgin Island Daily News

Virgin Island Daily News, 14 November 1945 (p. 2)

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.

CBC Logo 1940sA 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.

Lord Caresser at Rockhead's Paradise, 1951

Montreal Standard's Weekend Magazine (April 28, 1951). Caption: “Montreal night life. Montreal's Harlem has two outstanding clubs, Rockhead's and Cafe St Michel. At downstairs bar of Rockhead's, famed calypso singer Lord Caresser visits jam-packed tables fitting his impromptu songs to the mood of the customers.” (Source: Library & Archives Canada)

Rockhead's Paradise Ads

Ads for Rockhead's Paradise in the Montreal Gazette, October 4th (L) and November 28th (R), 1951

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.

Lord Caresser - Montreal Publicity Photo

Lord Caresser Publicity Photo, Montreal ca. late 1940s (Courtesy Ray Funk)

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.

Caresser at the Venus de Milo Room, September 1956

Montreal Gazette, 19 September 1956

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.

15 Responses to “Caresser in Canada”

  1. […] Caresser in Canada […]

  2. […] the great Lord Melody’s “Canada So Cold” out of my head.  I’ve written before about how Melody razzed Caresser for hiding away in Montreal, but apparently in 1957 he came up […]

  3. […] months away.  Really, the only West Indian of note to have established a beachhead in Canada was Lord Caresser, and in 1954, his days on the CBC and at Rockhead’s Paradise both past, he was off on a tour […]

  4. […] the clubs in the other end of town: I’ve seen pictures of Caresser playing at Rockhead’s Paradise in the late 40s and early 50s and all of the people there in the cocktail bar are white […]

  5. […] when I was researching the history of Lord Caresser (Rufus Callender) in Canada (see “Caresser in Canada,” “My Visit to Ottawa,” and “Canada So Cold“), extended to […]

  6. […] Lord Caresser (Rufus Callender) wasn’t exactly a model family man: he sired children in several countries, and eventually, an increasingly disturbed soul, he walked away from his wife and sons in Montreal.  It seems that he, too, was haunted by the specter of his father—in his case, a father he barely knew.  Born in Venezuela, he was raised, like plenty of West Indians, by strong women.  His mother reportedly died when he was four years old, at which point he was shipped back to Trinidad to live with a grandmother and, later, an aunt.  But his dad remained an enigma, a blank figure whose anonymity Caresser explored in an uncharacteristically autobiographical calypso from the mid-1940s: Lord Caresser, “I Ain’t Got No Papa” (ca. 1945).  Library and Archives Canada: George Robertson Fonds, Container 24, File 12 […]

  7. Hi. I’ve really enjoyed several of the kaiso by Caresser, so delighted to know he spent some time in my city – Montreal. Hope to keep track of your work and hear about people with similar fascinations. I lived in Trinidad in the late ’70s and wrote my Ph.D. diss. on the ‘Butler Riots’.

    Best of wishes, SC

  8. […] the end of a three-year tenure as the star of his own weekly radio show on the CBC.  (See “Caresser in Canada” and “Student Calypsonians in Canada.”)  He had probably composed his “Ode […]

  9. There is definately a lot to find out about this subject.
    I really like all of the points you’ve made.

  10. […] and music fads, with calypso covers by pop vocalists like the Andrews Sisters. Lord Caresser (aka Rufus Callender), a Trinidadian calypso singer, proved to be so popular in the Montreal nightclub scene of the […]

  11. […] disclosure: I first learned of Plummer’s articles when he linked to my first piece on Lord Caresser.  So as long as I’m back-handedly blowing my own horn (ouch!), I’ll just mention my […]

  12. […] Many of the Canadian jazz musicians who gigged at Rockhead’s and other local spots during Little Burgundy’s heyday—pianist “Steep” Wade, for instance—were themselves West Indian by birth.  But Rockhead’s most celebrated Caribbean entertainer wasn’t a jazz musician at all: for three solid years, from 1949 to 1952, the calypsonian Lord Caresser was a fixture in the downstairs bar.  (See my “Caresser in Canada.”) […]

  13. […] it’s not a topical number on a Canadian subject, so it doesn’t necessarily come from his time in Montreal.  It may not even be Caresser’s own work, for all I know, and I’d be glad for anyone […]

  14. Marti Maher said

    Such interesting reading on the history of calypso. I worked in the VD Room in the late 60’s during the residency of Lord Flying Fish. A truly marvelous performer and a very kind and generous man. The other band there at the time was Eddie and the Sunsets. I have been trying to find a photo of them with no luck. Any knowledge of what happened to them?dd

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: