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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Go-Go Calypso

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 21, 2012

It’s been a while—well, a semester (where do all those other academic bloggers find the time?)—but spring grades are posted, loose ends are tied, and I’m already wondering how, in the next 80 days, I’ll ever manage to get around the world of 3R (readin’, ritin’, and research) I’ve been deferring for ages.  I’ll post some odds and ends I’ve been saving soon.  But first:

Chuck Brown on NPR's World Cafe

Chuck Brown, photographed by John Shore (NPR’s “World Cafe”)

Last week the African diaspora lost two musical giants: disco diva Donna Summer and “Godfather of Go-Go” Chuck Brown. Best known outside of Washington, D.C for his 1979 chart-topper “Bustin’ Loose,” Brown forged the non-stop, funky, mid-tempo beat that propelled the Chocolate City for more than three decades.  (Like his music, the 75-year-old Brown and his band, the Soul Searchers, just kept going and going.)  Wound-up D.C. clubgoers could name all of Brown’s tunes—and start shouting their call-and-response liturgies—within a few notes.  One of them: “Run Joe,” the 1947 Louis Jordan hit composed by Trinidadian emigrés Joseph Willoughby and Dr. Walter Merrick.

Walter Merrick

Dr. Walter Merrick

Merrick was a noted physician in Harlem and head of Harlem Hospital’s department of physical medicine.  He’d been composing since his college years at Howard University and his songs had been recorded as far back as 1920.[1] Willoughby, meanwhile, was twice called upon by The New Yorker in the mid-1950s as an elder statesman of Harlem’s West Indian community, first to interpret its quaint customs for the well-heeled and later to judge the authenticity of “Calypso Craze” hits.  John Cowley has concluded that “Run Joe,” like many other such tunes, must have been adapted from a traditional source, as Merrick had in 1921 recorded an unissued piano solo called “Come Quick, The Man at the Door,” subtitled “a Grenadian Paseo.”[2]

Here’s a classic 1987 performance of “Run Joe” by Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers:


A more recent rendition—from 2010, with better production values—is on NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concert.”  (Move the slider to 19:00.  Or better yet, watch the whole concert.)  Last Labor Day, DC’s National Symphony Orchestra arranged “Run, Joe” and other tunes associated with Brown as part of a pops tribute concert to “Legends of Washington Music.”  (The Godfather was in good company: the other “legends” were John Philip Sousa and Duke Ellington.)

Brown and the Soul Searchers also regularly funked up Irving Burgie and Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O”:



[1]Medic Composes Hit Songs.” Jet, June 5, 1952.  pp. 64-65

[2] John Cowley, “West Indies Blues: An Historical Overview, 1920s-1950s—Blues and Music from the English-speaking West Indies.”  Robert Springer, ed.  Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From: Lyrics and History.  Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006.  p. 252

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