Working for the Yankee Dollar

Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

  • Recently Minted

  • Spent Dollars

  • Search the Treasury:

  • Denominations

  • Creative Commons

Archive for February, 2011

I’m ready for my (YouTube) close-up, Mr. De Castro

Posted by Michael Eldridge on February 25, 2011

1969 Canadian Calypso King Dave “Bandit” De Castro’s YouTube debut earlier this week (see below) inspired me to dig out the telephone interview I had with him back in December 2009, when I was living in Ontario.

There may not be much here that isn’t already in De Castro’s memoir, Stories, self-published earlier in 2009 from his home in Florida.  But “Bandit” is a delightful storyteller and a gregarious interviewee, and his recollections of the early history of calypso in Canada in the 1950s and 60s, in particular, deserve a wider audience.  And so here is more or less the entire interview, a brief excerpt of which appeared in a previous post:

Let me get you to start at the beginning, at least in terms of Canada.  Remind me—I think you told me this once before—when did you come to Canada?

I came to Canada in 1955, April of 1955.

And did you land in Montreal, or somewhere else?

Yes, we landed in Montreal.  We came to New York first, and then came to Montreal.

What brought you here, exactly?

A friend of mine told me that there was a lot of exciting things going on in Canada, and I was very restless in Trinidad, and he wanted a buddy to go with him, and I said “Okay, you make the arrangements, and I’ll go.”

So did you come on a tourist visa, or…?

No, no, no: we applied—in those days it was very easy [for white residents of the Commonwealth] to get citizenship in Canada.  We applied for citizenship, and it came back within six months, and because I worked for a shipping company in Trinidad, we were able to book a passage on the S.S. Argentina to New York, and then from New York we took a Greyhound to Montreal.  In those days, we had no problems coming to Canada at all.

Were you a musician in Trinidad?

No, I was not.  I graduated from Mount St. Benedict, one of the colleges in Trinidad, it was a boarding school, and then after that…well my father, my stepfather, as a matter of fact, was a cricketer for the West Indies, and I saw a lot of pictures of him playing in England and Australia and that kind of stuff.  So I always had a little bit of a bug to travel, growing up.  I figured, “I want to see these places.”  So when the first opportunity came along, I sold my motorbike, gave up my job, and away we went.

So how did you get started playing and singing?

Well, how the band started, actually, is:  because we were a little lonely, of course—I was one of the first guys in the old days to go to Canada; they didn’t have too many other West Indians then—so eventually, some other West Indians moved into the area and we found out that they were living [there] and that some of the boys were going to the University of Montreal [and McGill].  So we started to make [music] with West Indian guys—there was a little place on Milton Street, a guy had a little apartment, and we would meet there and have a few drinks and play music and beat bottle and spoon and, you know, just fool around.  And then a guy from Trinidad, a guy called Ken Duval came up—these guys just kept arriving and they ended up at my door for some reason, they would say “Go see Dave, go see Dave,” I don’t know why, I never knew that—so Ken comes and I say, “What are you doing here?” and he says, “Well, I’m from Trinidad,” and I say “What’s that got to do with me?”  “They send me to see you!”

It sounds like The Lonely Londoners!

King Caribe at the El Morocco

Montreal Gazette, 19 December 1956

Right, yes, I read that book!  Exact same situation.  And this guy Ken Duval, he could play the cuatro.  So he started playing the cuatro and we started beating bottles and spoons and that kind of stuff, and then a guy, his brother-in-law, could play a little bit of guitar, a guy called Alan de Montbrun.  So he joined up, too, and before you know it, there was another guy called Eddy Edgehill, he could play a little bit of a conga drum, and I was very good at the maracas and the congo and the bottle and spoon, and that kind of stuff, and so we started this little band.  Calypso was unknown at that time, really, but it was something different.  And then we added to it a little steelband section, with one steel pan, a little four-note bass drum and a thirteen-note guitar pan…when I talk about a four-note bass drum, you have to realize now that a bass section in Trinidad right now is about fifteen different drums with about 32 notes.  So it’s a whole different ballgame.  And we were doing all this thing and a guy saw us and he said, “this guy have an agent, a friend of mine, and maybe he might be interested in you guys,” and we said “right,” and he came, and he saw potential, and he said, “You guys—yeah, I can make some money with you guys.  I can dress you up, put you in shirts, frilly shirts to look like Desi Arnaz—I can make some money with you guys.”  And he did!  The first place he booked us into was the El Morocco, which was one of the top nightclubs in Montreal at that time.  We got into a little room upstairs; they had a little cocktail lounge, and we stayed there for months!

Had the calypso craze in the US already started by that time?  Was that where he saw the potential?

No, it was just before that craze, and of course the craze really became big when Belafonte came out. A lot of people don’t like Belafonte—Trinidadians, I should say—do not like to give a lot of credit to Belafonte.  But you have to give a lot of credit to Belafonte because he is the one who really brought it the forefront when he made his first album with “Day-O” and “Jamaica Farewell” and that kind of thing.

He raised the profile.

He raised the bar real high.  What became a sort of a downplay from Belafonte, which a lot of people didn’t like and I still up to today don’t like it:  because he realized—and truthfully so—that he was not in truth a calypso singer; he said he was a folk singer…you see, a lot of people still don’t understand, to be a calypso singer, it doesn’t mean that you sing calypso.   It means that you write your own songs and you sing your songs.  Anybody can sing a song, you know, Dean Martin can sing anybody’s song, and so can anybody else sing anybody else song.

Or Robert Mitchum

Right!  He made Island in the Sun down in Trinidad & Tobago.  He got a good cut-arse, in case you don’t know, in a bar in the islands.  He thought he was so tough, and he decided to fool around with a guy, and the guy beat the hell out of him!

Probably wasn’t the first time Robert Mitchum got beat up…

Right, yes—he was a rough-and-tumble kind of guy!  And in those days what happened is, our band, because…the guy at the agency was called Eldon, Eldon Associates, it was a Jewish agency, and he was very good.  And he realized that the steeldrum was an unknown factor, so he called it “The Steel Bandits.”

So that was his idea for the name?

Yes.  He said, no, this calypso is not good enough, put it as The Steel Bandits.  And the singer, this boy Duval, he gave him a stage name also: he gave him the name of “King Caribe.”  Because in those days, every calypsonian had a name, like Lord Caresser, the Mighty Terror, the Duke of Iron, and Barracuda, and so on and so on.  So he gave him a name too.  So Ken became King Caribe, and the band became the Steel Bandits.

And when did you become “The Bandit”?

King Caribe "Calypso"

L-R: Dave de Castro, Allan de Montbrun, Ken Duval, Eddy Edgehill

Well, here’s what happened—this is a funny story.  Ken’s father was a councilman, he was in the legislative council, the government, and when he first found out that his son was playing calypso in Canada…don’t forget: in the islands, it was not [accepted] that white fellows, or fellows of any class should be playing calypso in steelbands…the stigma was a terrible stigma, both for calypso and steeldrums guys.  That is why a lot of the white guys that played steelband music were ostracized from their family completely.  And a lot of them still made it—fellows like Sello Gomes and Oscar Fusca and a lot of them—you were considered low class.  A steelband man and a calypsonian, they were figured, these were the dregs of the society.  These were the guys that went out having fun, drinking, running women, doing all of the terrible things that one should not do.

Even in the fifties they still had that reputation?

Oh yes.  So when this councilman found out that his son, his lovely son, was in Canada playing calypso music, he told him, “You get home right away!  Get outta there, you come home now!”  So Ken came and said, “Listen, Daddy wants me home.”  So I said, “You’re a big man!”  And he said, “Yeah, but I can’t tell Daddy no.”

And so you took over?

Yeah, so he left!  He had to go, he says, “Daddy says, Come home now,” he says, “what am I gonna do?”  I says, “Tell Daddy forget it!”  And he says, “No, I gotta go.”  Well, he left!

You’re two thousand miles away!

This is what I mean!  And you know, up to this day he regrets it, would you believe that?  I still see him every time I go to Trinidad, and he says to me, the best year he ever had in his entire life was that year he did that.  It was a lot of fun.

So he’s around, too—he’s back in Trinidad?

Yeah, he’s still alive and well in Trinidad.  And then when he left, his brother-in-law, who’s married to his sister, says if he’s leaving, you have to leave the band, too.  So in a week’s time, I was able—we had a contract, we were at work, so I kept the contract going.  And then the brother-in-law comes to me, and he says, hey Dave, my wife says I gotta leave, too.  I say, “What the hell is wrong with you guys?!  Your father tells you you gotta leave, now your wife tells you you gotta leave, is that’s what’s going on here?”  So he leaves.  Then I replaced him with a guitarist, and the same boy Eddy that used to hang around with us, he then came into the band with us.  So we formed a different size band: we called it the Calypso Bandits, later the Fabulous Calypso Bandits, and it stayed that way for many years.

And what year was that?

That was…King Caribe and the Steel Bandits went from about the beginning of 55 to about the end of 56, somewhere around there.  57 is when I really came into the picture.  I mean I was there all the time, but…

And the really good times lasted through 57 or so?

No, no, it lasted for a long time.  We played all over Canada and the United States for many years.  It lasted till…68.   Then, with Caresser—the reason that I met these guys afterward is because that same cocktail lounge at the El Morocco became very, very popular.  And they kept bringing different artists.  They brought Caresser in at that time, that’s the first time I’d met Caresser.  They also brought Lloyd Thomas, the Mighty Lloyd Thomas.  I don’t know if you know anything about him?—but at that time there was a woman called Christine Jorgensen, she was the first man to become a woman.

Thomas wrote that calypso? [I imagined De Castro was alluding to “Is She Is, Or Is She Ain’t?,” penned by Louis Walcott, later Farrakhan. But he was actually referring to another tune inspired by the Jorgensen case, “Sex Changin’,” recorded by Thomas and claimed both by him and by Lord Christo.]

Lloyd Thomas at the Venus de Milo

Montreal Gazette 2 January 1957

Well, I’ll tell you a story:  [Jorgensen] was performing, you see, at the El Morocco—in the downstairs lounge was a big nightclub, and in the upstairs was the cocktail lounge.  So downstairs they would have these different artists, they would have Jackie Gleason, Frankie Lee, and all these big boys.  And Christine Jorgensen was there—they brought her in, she was a novelty act; she just sort of came and did a little bit of a strip, then walked around, and that kind of stuff.  And she came up one night into the cocktail lounge.  And unknowingly, well not unknowingly or knowingly, Lloyd Thomas did not realize that it was a sensitive situation, so he sang that song.  And they nearly fired him for it.  He says, “Well, I didn’t know; what the hell do I know?—it’s just a song.”  That was terrible!  [laughs]…[Anyway,] I remember when Lloyd used to sing that.  On my days off I would go up into the cocktail lounge; we would hang out a lot there.  Then too, of course, at that time, that’s when they had the “clash”—the steelband clash like I told you about, between Rudy [King and us] at the Apollo Theater.

That was a great story! [In one of his “Steel Band Clashes,” promoter Art D’Lugoff pitted Rudy King’s 18-piece orchestra against the white “Bandits”–at Harlem’s Apollo. When King’s bandsmen laid eyes on their pale, skinny opponents backstage, they roared with derisive laughter.  But the joke was on them: according to De Castro, King’s band died, while the Bandits killed.]

And the first TV show that ever came out of New York was with this Johnny Barracuda [who also took part in the Apollo show], the Duke of Iron, and us.  I think that was the very first TV calypso show from out of Trinidad—out of New York.  [The program was ABC-TV’s “All About Music,” which aired on April 7, 1957.  Not the first appearance of calypso or steelband on American national television, but a significant broadcast, just the same.  The Steel Bandits also appeared on the CBC’s “Music Hall” in April 1957.]

You were mainly playing in Montreal, through.

No, also in Quebec.  You see, I had different agents.  In other words, I got a lot of agents.  I had a guy and then sort of drifted away and as I started to go around I didn’t want to give him exclusive and I found out I could get many other agents.  I had a lot of agents: I had some in Montreal, some in Quebec City, down in the Caribbean, all over the place, up in Noranda, Rouyn, all these little towns: La Gap, Labelle, all these little places outside of Montreal, all the way up into the mountains, all over.  So we worked constantly, but we were constantly moving.  Then I had agents in the States that would book me into Boston and New York, we played the small hall in Carnegie Hall, and different places.  So I would get a lot of jobs, and then I was fortunate enough to get the Venus de Milo, which then became a home base.  So we played the Venus about three, four months a year, and then travelled for the other months, and then come back to the Venus.

All the way through the 60s?

Yes, all through the 60s.

In the US, were you playing the East Coast, mainly, or did you go down to Miami…?

Most of the time we ended up in Miami, and in the Florida area: Sarasota, Miami, Coco Beach, down south.  And then we used to go to Boston, and into Falmouth…and on my CD [“‘The Calypso Bandit’ Sings Again” (2001)], there’s a write-up by a guy called Kenn Shah, I don’t know if you ever heard his name.  Kenn Shah was very big in the development of the Caribana in Toronto, and he did a write-up for me (he was a friend of mine, I knew him very well), and on the inside of the cover explains that whole story that I’m telling you, where I came from and the different places we played and all that.

So you didn’t get out to Chicago or Los Angeles, say…

No, the furthest place we went was into Columbus, Ohio and into Lorraine.  I remember in Columbus, Ohio, the Columbus Plaza Hotel advertised us as the “boys making music on garbage cans.”

That was the hook!

That was the hook, yeah.

Well, what did you guys think about what you were doing:  were you just having fun and making a living, or were you filling a demand, or educating people about Trinidadian music, or…?

No, to be quite honest with you: we just felt that we were having a good time and we were promoting—because of the love for the culture that we all had—that we were promoting our culture, and we were having a good time with it, and having fun really.  We never did get more serious at making a living and travelling…and in those days the money wasn’t big.  So by the time you travelled and you paid your expenses and all—and we all had families, had to send money back home to our families and that kind of thing—we never made any money.  As a matter of fact, even in my songwriting, I never made any money with my songwriting, although the Merry Men used a lot of my songs, Byron Lee used my songs. […] One of the things that people know me for is the love of the culture that I have, and I’m still the same way.  I mean, I am basically known as a calypso artist.  I play calypso music every day of life, I mean I don’t miss a day.  I listen to it in my car…one guy told me recently, he says, “You know your problem, Bandit? You’re very prejudiced.”  I say, “What do you mean by that?”  He say, “You’re prejudiced about your music,” he said, “that’s all you listen to.  Why don’t you listen to something else?”  [laughs]

And do you listen to a lot of current stuff, too?

No, I don’t.  I like a lot of Spanish stuff, though. I speak some Spanish, although it’s very hard to understand when they sing…but I like a lot of Spanish music. Unfortunately, the calypsonian is a dying breed, for the simple reason that now soca is in, and soca is high energy, and the young people like it.  So the calypso is basically dying.  In other words, a lot of the young generation don’t know anything about it and don’t care, anyhow.  Even the Trinidadians, too, they seem to have gone on to the reggae—they like the reggae stuff.  So basically, it’s a dying breed: we know it, fellas my age know it.  And some of them are still around, but they’re dying off.  The younger ones are more like…the big boy now is Machel Montano, and he is good, but he is strictly high-energy soca, that’s all he puts out, and that’s what the young generation wants.

Maybe it’ll come around again.

[Laughs] By that time I’ll be dead and gone, so it doesn’t matter!  [Laughs]

So what did you think of the calypso craze when you were in the middle of it?  Did you have any problems with how you were being “packaged”?

We loved it, we followed what came up from the islands, and because we travelled so much, to us it was basically party time every night.  When I think back on it, I tell my wife, “As soon as you die, Honey, I’m going back into to it again, I don’t care!”  [Laughs]  My first wife, after 15 years, couldn’t take it any more, of course, cause I was in the music business and running all over the place.  She couldn’t take it any more, and that finished that.  And I got married a second time, and in the second time, luckily, the band had just broken up about a year [before], I was working, I was a marketing manager in a company, I was doing well, and my second wife told me, “You’re not getting back in this.”  [Laughs]

You moved down to Toronto in the 60s?

Yeah, it was 68.

And that’s when you got the job in marketing.

Yes, I started to become “respectable.”  And luckily, a friend of mine who played with me from time to time had a company, a big company, and he was able to hire me.  And that’s how I ended up in Toronto.  And then the Caribana was in the early years.  And they decided to put on, in the first time in the Caribana movement, the calypso competition.  So then I entered the calypso competition, and then I won the Calypso King that year, that was 69.  So I won it in 69, then they didn’t have it again after that at all—those competitions, they didn’t have them again until somewhere back in the 80s, it became popular again, and a guy called “Smokey” came on it in the 80s, so there was quite a controversy of Who was the first calypso king of Canada—was it the guy that won in the 80s, or was it the guy that won in 69?  And of course, obviously, 69 comes before 80, so… [Laughs]  Of course, Smokey was most upset, because…they didn’t know about it!  They didn’t even know that in the old days they had…there’s a lot of that old history of when Caribana started at first that nobody has written about, that’s coming out now piece by piece by piece.

CANEWA's Calypso Carnival

Toronto Star 5 November 1955

The novelist Lawrence Hill wrote a historical booklet for the Canadian Negro Women’s Association (CANEWA), which was active back in the 50s.  And they started what they called a “Calypso Carnival” in Toronto in 55 or 56, and held it annually for several years—it was basically just a big dance, they would rent a hall and all the West Indians in Toronto would get together and have a party.  And that, he says, morphed into Caribana:  it disappeared for a couple of years in the early 60s and then some of the same people who had been involved with this Calypso Carnival came back and kind of laid the foundation for Caribana.

Well I hate to tell you: nobody knows that story, cause I’ve never heard that story before.  I’m around these kind of conversations…[and] this the first time I’ve heard about that.  Because when anybody talks about Caribana, they talk about Caribana starting in 1967.

This other thing started in 55 or 56 and it went through, I want to say, 63 or 64.  [Hill dates it to 1956, though the ad at right suggests that the same “carnival,” sponsored by CANEWA, goes back to at least 1955.]

That’s interesting:  nobody knows that…Lennox Borrell is a[nother] guy that goes way back also into the days of Montreal with me.  Because he had a little band at that time also, and he ended up as a university professor in one of the big universities in Toronto, and … he is still so involved in the Caribana movement that he has been a judge for the competition for the last, oh, how many years, I don’t know.  So he’s been very entrenched with it also, from in the early days.

And he started in Montreal too?

He started in Montreal, too, yes.  He had a little steelband there, and he travelled, too, cause the way to get some money was to get a move on with different agents.  He didn’t travel half as much as us—he had a band, it was a bigger band, and it was basically a steel band.

So how much did you mix with the other West Indians in Montreal?

Well, the reason we mixed a lot with them is because they knew we were the only band in town, so they came to us, rather than we going to them.  Because especially the Venus de Milo—the beauty in those days is that these clubs were cocktail lounges, where you sat down and you listened to the entertainment; there was no dancing and monkey business like you have today.  You sat—it was a show: you went there, you had a drink, you sat down, you listened to the show, you left, you came back, whatever the story is.  That atmosphere was always there.  That lasted for many years.  Of course, then the Go-Go dancers came in, and then that was it, brother.  That basically killed us.  Everybody was flocking to see these little girls shake-up and their breasts movement and all that.

I’m sure that sort of entertainment has its charms, too!

[Laughs]  Yes, I’m sure it does!  But because it was such a novelty in those days, seeing a woman’s breast exposed in a club was a novelty, in those days that wasn’t commonplace at all, when this came along every little girl got involved in this thing, it was an easy way for them to make money.  Because even the bands started to put them into the bands and all that kind of stuff.  So there was a lot of things going on at that time, and of course the novelty of the calypso started to fade, because the folk singing now became a big thing—Peter, Paul, and Mary and all these folks.  There was a guy called Marvin Burke [who] became very popular singing folk songs.  And he took over our home base, really:  so it used to be, he would get into the club for a couple of months, then we would get it back for a couple of months, and it would shift back and forth.  Cause you always need a home base where you can stay at least for a couple of months, and then move on again.

So after calypso it was folk music and then it was rock and roll.

Yes, and then the rock and roll came in.  And I’m sorry to see the rock and roll go because at least rock and roll had some dancing to it: there was camaderie, and you could get in front of a girl and move around.  But like they say, life changes and that’s it. […] Then, too, they had of course, the University of Montreal, a lot of West Indians, especially Trinidadians went there too.  And that’s where Stokely Carmichael came out from, if you remember that…

I know that the students there–and at McGill and Sir George Williams–formed an association, and they used to have a carnival, too.

They would put on a big dance.  As a matter of fact, we played for some of their dances, because it was strictly calypso music, so everybody could dance to it.  Every year they had that, until the last year, when we played, a big fight broke out, and they said they don’t want us again.  [Laughs]

Like it was your fault!

[Laughs]  Some white fellows came from Verdun and started some trouble and before you know it, they ended up fighting with our band, and we were in the fight so they figured it was our fault, and they said we don’t ever want to see you again—go back, get out.  That might have been 58?  Somewhere around 58, 59 maybe, I really can’t remember.

How well did you get to know any of the other West Indian entertainers who were based in or came through Montreal?  Did you get to know Caresser at all, or Lloyd Thomas?

No, I just met up with Caresser because he played at the same place.  No, at that time, a lot of entertainers weren’t really passing through Montreal.  There were very few musicians in Montreal; a lot of little bands like mine started coming up.  There was another guy called Ralph Egard, he started a little band, too.  The only other guy I met in those days that passed through Montreal was Nello, Lord Nelson.  And then, too, a lot of times I was out of town even if they did pass through.  But there was not a big influx of calypso singers here; they did that mostly in England, I understand—they got Kitchener and different people; there was quite a movement—but in Montreal they didn’t have too much of that.  And of course at that time, too, there was a big Haitian influence.  Because in Haiti they speak French and the French people like that, so a lot of Haitian bands came up and were playing a lot of Haitian music.  They like the beat of the Haitian music, the French people.  And eventually, that is why there are a lot of Haitians in Montreal, because the government, when they changed the law of the land to French, Haiti was allowed to send their people there because they speak French.  So they would take preference over the Haitian rather than the Jamaican or the Trinidadian or anybody else.

So Thomas and Creator and those guys—you didn’t really know them much.

No, I met with them.  But I never hung around them, because they didn’t stay long: they came, they gave a gig or two, and they went.  Lloyd Thomas, he worked out of New York.  Same thing with Barracuda, he was in New York, too.  Duke of Iron, too.  These boys all were coming out of New York. […] Later on, when Caribana started in 67—67, 68, 69—after about 69, they realized that the Caribana could do very well by importing the acts out of…putting on big shows and bringing them from Trinidad.  And up till today, that is still very prominent…Now of course, every year, they all come up.  Whether it’s Roy Cape, Melody, Sparrow, Baron, a lot of—David Rudder lives there.

Not long after I got here I was in a barber shop, and another guy waiting for a cut turned out to be a retired immigration official from Niagara Falls.  And he was regaling me with stories about how on the Amtrak train, entire trainloads full of West Indians from New York would come up for Caribana: they would take over the train, he said, and it was just one big party.

Don’t forget, the Caribana has been going for about 44, 45 years.  It’s been a long time.  I suppose they’ve had their troubles…but one of the unfortunate things that happens with these things is you always hear about the misappropriation of moneys, they imply that money has been stolen…but what they don’t tell you is the misappropriation of moneys is a very, very small percentage of how much it costs to put this damn thing on.  And a lot of the cost is borne by the volunteers who don’t get paid, so they get a drink of beer here and there, but all his labor is free, all the workers for the bands—all that’s free money.

I can’t imagine anyone’s getting rich putting on carnival.

[Laughs]  Yeah, and this is one of the fallacies—that is why these organizations are falling apart, both in Florida, in Orlando and all over the place, they’re dying, because they always think there’s money: they start it up, and then somebody else jumps in and thinks there’s money and before you know it it’s broke up into three parts, and the one part can’t [inaudible]…so even carnivals in the different cities across the United States, the government is getting tired of it, they’re not helping promote it, because they don’t see it as a viable entity for their constituents or their people to partake of it, and they put them in some backroads and the thing becomes a mess.

The carnival I’m most familiar with is Brooklyn, and I know to this day the New York politicians will come out and march at the head of the parade for a few blocks, just to get their picture in the paper, but the city isn’t giving those guys any money—it’s mainly segregated onto Eastern Parkway; they’re allowed to have their day and that’s about it.

The whole idea is Get On and Get Out.  Even in Toronto: Toronto is very fortunate—the government has helped them out but it has taken years for the government to get involved.  And when the government gives them the thing…it’s a pittance.  It’s only now that they’re really starting to realize how much this thing makes and how much it costs and therefore give them a little more.  But the money does not flow like water like people [inaudible].  But the average person in the street, who’s not involved in it, thinks “Well the government gave them $100,000.”  Yeah, it gave $100,000 and it cost $300,000 to put it on.

Were you sort of a novelty because of your light skin?

Yes, definitely.  Definitely.  That was a big [advantage] too.  We were able to get into a lot of doors that other people couldn’t get into.  Doors opened up very easily for us.

So when people heard “Trinidad” they were expecting to see black guys.

They were expecting to see black people, and they were shocked.  They would say, “Are you sure you’re from Trinidad?”  But they liked the music, and for the club owner, in the bigger clubs, he felt more comfortable with us, obviously.  And most of the clubs we played in, we played to white people, we didn’t play to West Indians.  Cause there was no money playing to the West Indians.

Even 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 folks.

Well, this is it.  Now, you have to know the story about Rockhead’s:  we played at Rockhead’s many times, too.  Rockhead was a black Jamaican man who opened up this club.  But he brought in all his acts out of New York, he wanted high-class entertainers:  Benny King, B.B. King…groups out of Chicago and New York and that kind of stuff.  And then he had a little cocktail lounge downstairs, and in the cocktail lounge we would play or Caresser would play.  And you would find out that one of Rockhead’s things is, he really enjoys the white people to come to his club, because as you walked through the door, he would hand every lady a rose, every night he would stand there, and he would hand them a rose.  So he created a clientele of…even some of the blacks that came were of a higher class. Because the drinks were more expensive, it was not a cheap club by any means, so you had to have some money to go see those shows.

So he was running a high-class joint.

He was running a high-class joint, yes.  And then he had the little cocktail lounge downstairs which could take anything you want.  You could pick up whatever money you could pick up downstairs.  But [even the cocktail lounge] was not cheap.  And then he had another place called the 99 around the corner from him that was predominantly a little black place where there was cheap liquor.

He covered all the bases.

Yeah.  Well, he didn’t own the 99, actually; the 99 was owned by somebody else that competed against him.  It was a little dive, and his was a high-class club.  I mean, you would walk into Rockhead’s Paradise, and he had a bouncer there, and he would tolerate absolutely no nonsense in that club, especially if you interfered with his white clientele, let me tell you.

Apparently Rockhead feuded with the city fathers, though.

Yes.  He had problems with them because they knew that there was a percentage of prostitution going on from there.  And there were batty men there, too—it was a big club.

From everything I read about Montreal in the 30s and 40s and early 50s—that just seems like it’s par for the course.

[Laughs]  Yes—that’s why it was great!  I mean, I would go and see…B.B. King at 4 o’clock in the morning.  It was wide open.

No other city in Canada like that.

No, no—the others closed up tight.  The only other city I saw that could match that was two cities, Noranda and in Rouyn.  Those places—they closed the doors at 5 o’clock in the morning and people were still coming in drinking.  Unbelievable.  And the places packed.  Small towns, but they were mining towns, okay?  That was a different animal up there.  And up in Sept-Iles and these places, the law didn’t bother these places, they let them go till 2, 3; and once they closed the doors—the whole idea was, close the doors, but then you let your friends in, or whatever they want to do inside.

I’ve got a feeling you’ve got endless stories, if I could keep you on the line forever…

Well, I’ll send you my book and you can read a couple of them in the book.  You’ll read stories about fights and that kind of stuff, there’s a lot of those.

It’s great talking to you—you’re very kind to take so much time.

I always have the time.  The way I live my life, I don’t live like other people: I eat when I’m hungry, I sleep when I’m sleepy, time means absolutely nothing to me because it doesn’t control me, I control it.  So I’m very, very fortunate.  I’m not regimented: my wife eats at 6:00, I eat at 9:00.  I’m very contented.

Dave De Castro “The Calypso Bandit” still writes songs and emcees for calypso shows in Florida.  You can hear his latest compositions at Tunecore ( or on MySpace.

Posted in "Bandit" DeCastro, Canada, Montreal, Rockhead's Paradise | Tagged: , , , | 7 Comments »

Helan Går Dey

Posted by Michael Eldridge on February 12, 2011

I’m hoping somebody can help me out here.  Sonny Rollins is on record (so to speak) as having first heard the melody of his signature tune “St. Thomas” on “his mother’s knee.”

A Wikipedian characterizes the tune as “a traditional nursery song from the Virgin Islands,” although Rollins himself, while acknowledging that the song went by various names in the islands, infers (in Erik Nisenson’s Open Sky) that it originated as “a Scandinavian folk song.”  He seems to have reached that conclusion in part because of the Virgin Islands’ Danish colonial history–and in part because a tune he “heard sung by [Danish operatic tenor] Lauritz Melchior in an old Hollywood movie” triggered a sort of Proustian memory of Mom.

Now, for a while I concluded that Rollins must be referring to the old Swedish drinking song “Helan Går” (“Bottoms Up”), which Melchior performed, uncredited, in 1948’s Luxury Liner, a “Latin” romp with George Brent and Jane Powell (and Xavier Cugat).   Melchior also recorded the tune around the same time–as did the Belafonte Folk Singers, a decade later.  Have a listen:

Okay, so … the connection is faint, or strained, or something.  I’m no musicologist.  Still: making allowances for poetic license and jazz improvisation, it works, sort of.  But then I heard Christopher Lydon’s interview with Rollins for Radio Open Source, where it emerges that it wasn’t a “Scandinavian” tune he’d had in mind at all, but a different drinking song, “Vive la Compagnie” (“Vive l’Amour,” probably English in origin), which Melchior sang in his film debut Thrill of a Romance (1945)–and which became part of his concert and nightclub repertoire (!) in the early and mid-1950s.  (It’s also included on the LP The Lighter Side of Lauritz Melchior. I didn’t take the time to do a mash-up for this one, but in case you’ve forgotten the melody of “Vive l’Amour,” here’s a hammy, late-career Melchior on YouTube:)

Fair enough: the melody and structure are much closer.  I get how “St. Thomas” could be construed as an “interpretation” of “Vive l’Amour” (which is how Rollins describes it in the Lydon interview).

The Charmer

And yet…is there any reason to think that the song to which young Sonny’s mother dandled him on her knee has anything to do with either the Swedish or the English drinking song, or even some strange cocktail of the two?  After all, Louis Walcott, later Louis Farrakhan, a/k/a “The Charmer,” had recorded the tune (as “Fire Down There,” pronounced “Fyah Doung Dey”) for Monogram  in 1953 or 54, with the McCleverty Brothers–also from the Virgin Islands–as his backup band.  (I’m no prude, but I’ve gotta say that “Fire Down There” seems scarcely more age-appropriate for young children than “Bottoms Up” or “Vive l’Amour,” even if its lyrics purport to proffer some motherly advice:)

Duke of Iron, "Fire Down There"The Duke of Iron, a favorite calypsonian of Rollins and something of a hero in the Virgin Islands, also recorded “Fire Down There” for Monogram in the early 1950s.  (The Duke’s version of “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” another famous Rollins calypso, became the theme song for VI’s nearly-rained-out carnival in 1952.  Although Lord Invader was the first to record that tune [for Decca in 1939], the Duke waxed it for Moe Asch in 1944 and performed it with Invader at Carnegie Hall in 1946.)  And pianist (and Rollins’s labelmate) Randy Weston, whose Jamaican-Panamanian father hosted friends from all over the West Indies at the family’s house in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn–and frequently took his son to Harlem to hear calypso–had already done a jazz rendition for his album Get Happy, released earlier in 1956:

So what’s the deal?  These are all remarkably similar “interpretations.”  Is Sonny just misremembering, or did Rollins, Weston, The Duke of Iron and the McClevertys all have the same obscure Anglo-Viking forebear?  Virgin Islanders, ethnomusicologists: what’s the answer?  Skol! (And tak!)


P.S.: Melchior’s filmography is at the Lauritz Melchior Web.

Posted in Calypso, Jazz | Tagged: , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

%d bloggers like this: