Edmundo Ros, Centenarian
Posted by Michael Eldridge on December 12, 2010
At the risk of turning this into the Belated Birthday Blog, let me just mark the centenary, five days ago (December 7), of Trini-born bandleader Edmundo Ros. Before the Windrush, before Kitch and Beginner, before The Lonely Londonders, it was Ros who introduced Great Britain to calypso. BBC Caribbean has a quick remembrance, while Wikipedia has a lengthier bio. (Clare Teal also aired a one-hour tribute on BBC 2.) And here’s Ray Funk, from a forthcoming Bear Family “Calypso Craze” set (please note: this is draft text only–not for attribution):
Groups led by West Indian expatriates like Cyril Blake, Leslie Thompson, and Leslie “Jiver” Hutchinson were among the leading [British] jazz dance bands of the 1930s and 40s. The most famous Trinidadian musician in England in the 1940s, however, was Latin bandleader Edmundo Ros. Born in Trinidad, son of a Scottish father and a Venezuelan mother, he moved to England in 1937 to study classical music at London’s Royal Academy—though he never completed his studies, turning to popular music instead as world war seemed imminent. He worked first as a jazz drummer and was even chosen to accompany Fats Waller on a visit in 1938, but he’d also begun playing with various Latin bands. By the end of the war, Ros had formed his own “Cuban” band, whose members dressed in white trousers and frilled shirts in the style of the popular Lecuona Cuban Boys. Soon he was all the rage, appearing frequently on the BBC and releasing literally hundreds of records, making a name for himself by rendering Broadway musical numbers in Latin arrangements. Ros’s repertoire covered all styles of Latin American popular music from cha-cha-chas to rhumbas to tangos. He recorded a few genuine calypsos but also many pop calypsos, and many Britons’ first exposure to calypso was through his numerous radio appearances.
(Ros also reportedly taught Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret how to dance. Who knew? That Liz could cut a rug, I mean.)
I wanted to say that the first Ros record I ever heard, courtesy of the estimable Barry Thorpe (who’s been spinning old 78s Wednesday nights on KHSU for umpteen years), was a cover of the Harry Warren-Al Dubin novelty, “Latin from Manhattan,” originally sung by Al Jolson in the 1935 Warner Bros. picture, Go Into Your Dance. (It went to #1, #4, and #15 in the pop charts that year, in covers by the Victor Young, Johnny Green, and Ozzie Nelson orchestras, respectively.) Sadly, I misremembered: the cover that Barry played me was by Ros’s contemporary, English bandleader Benjamin Baruch “Bert” Ambrose. Still, I’d be surprised if “Latin from Manhattan” didn’t appear somewhere in Ros’s extensive discography, too. Evidently, in the midst of the 1930s rumba craze, many dark-haired American beauties suddenly discovered their “Latin” roots in order to find work on the stage and in the dancehalls. The last few lines of Dubin’s chorus blow one such faux-Latina’s cover:
Though she does the rhumba for us
And she calls herself Dolores
She was in a Broadway chorus
Known as Suzy Donahue
With a few minor changes, the tune could have been revived during the Calypso Craze, when nightclub owners faced a scarcity of “genuine” calypso talent, and (as Variety told it) “a lot of Harlemese have hidden their origins, accented the wrong syllables and are now passing themselves off as being from the islands” (“Could Calypso Go Into Collapso By Too Rapid Rise in Salaries?” Variety February 6, 1957). Ros, always a canny businessman, wasn’t afraid to capitalize on the Craze himself, and he released (or re-released) several calypso records that year—though with a bit more authenticity. Stateside, they appeared on Decca’s “London” label.
Here’s his orchestra performing Blakie’s “Sing a Simple Calypso” in 1969: