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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Premice Back in Print

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 15, 2013

premiceMost of what I know about Josephine Premice, you could find on Wikipedia.  (The rest, I stole from Ray Funk.)  Born in Brooklyn to wealthy Haitian-émigré parents, she studied dance with Martha Graham and Katherine Dunham and made her Broadway debut in 1945 in Dunham’s Blue Holiday.  (Like both her teacher and her contemporary Pearl Primus, Premice, too, studied anthropology in college.)  Just weeks earlier, she had appeared in Sierra Leonean choreographer Asadata Dafora’s second “African Dances and Modern Rhythms” recital at Carnegie Hall, a diasporic extravaganza with tap dance legend Bill Robinson, jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, and calypsonian the Duke of Iron. (She had also been in Dafora’s inaugural African Dance Festival in 1943.)  At the end of the year she joined Beryl McBurnie, the Caribbean Club Dancers, MacBeth the Great, and Gerald Clark and his Caribbean Serenaders for a gala at the Park Palace Ballroom, and in May 1946, for the third year in a row, she was part of the annual United Nations Folk Festival (as an “interpreter of Haitian songs and dances”) at the Golden Gate Ballroom, an event put on by the George Washington Carver Community School to observe “I Am an American Day.” Late that year, she embarked on a thirty-state concert tour with folksinger Josh White, a fellow cast member from Blue Holiday; the trip is described in some detail in Elijah Wald’s excellent Josh White: Society Blues.  Roger Kovach gives a firsthand account of a People’s Songs fundraising party that White and Premice attended while passing through Chicago—a Who’s Who gathering documented with a photo spread in Down Beat. In the wee hours, says Kovach, with the twenty or so remaining guests crowded into the host’s kitchen, White and Leadbelly began a vocal cutting contest:

Josephine was stretched across the kitchen table, signing an autograph for one of the guests. White looked down at her rear end and started singing “Backwater Blues” (“Hello, baby, I had to call you on the phone,” the refrain goes; “Jelly jelly, jelly’s all on my mind, Jelly roll killed my papa and made my mama blind”…)

White and Premice get a berth

Josh and the Haitian dancer Josephine Premice take ship for Europe, seen off by Josh’s wife, Carol, and his children Beverly and Josh Jr., c.1951. | Elijah Wald

Put this anecdote together with White’s reputation as a ladykiller and a contact sheet of unused photos from Wald’s biography showing White and Premice about to embark on a steamship on their way to a European tour, and you can’t help wondering whether Premice’s relationship with White was more than just professional.

Premice at the Vanguard

Portrait of Josephine Premice, Village Vanguard, N.Y., ca. July 1947 | From the William P. Gottlieb Collection of Jazz Photos, Library of Congress

Upon her return to New York, Premice began to emphasize singing over dancing, starting a run at the Village Vanguard in January 1947 that eventually extended to seven months.  (She later sang at Vanguard owner Max Gordon’s swankier East Side club, the Blue Angel, and at Greenwich Village’s forward-thinking Cafe Society.)  According to Billboard, her act included the Haitian air “Chouconne” and “Tongue-Tied Baby,” a version of Lord Kitchener’s recent carnival hit “Tie Tongue Mopsy.”

By June, Premice was part of the “enlarged cast” of an encore performance at Carnegie Hall of “The Calypso Carnival,” originally conceived as a one-off showcase for all of the calypsonians then resident in New York—Houdini, the Duke of Iron, the Great MacBeth, and Lord Invader.  (See “Ol’ Time Calypso Come Back Again, Part 3.”  The Afro-American reported that “more than 5,000 devotees of Caribbean folk lore” had missed the initial sell-out show in May and characterized Premice as “the darling of Broadway stage and smart night clubs.”)  In December, she was a featured vocalist behind the Duke of Iron in the Broadway flop Caribbean Carnival, with choreography by  Primus and McBurnie.  The New York Post’s Richard Watts, who gave the revue one of its few comparatively kind write-ups, noted that the show had some good points—among them “Josephine Premice…a fine, tall, delightful girl, who sings amusingly, engagingly and with distinction.

Ppremice_dunesremice then returned to nightclubs, sometimes sharing a bill with Josh White (the two were in fact lifelong friends), and she made the jump to concert halls in May 1948 with her debut at the Apollo Theater, which played her up as “Broadway’s Haitian Born Star.”  She broke into recording with a single for Decca in August 1949; backed by the “Calypso Rhythm Boys,” she sang “Sweetie Joe” and “I Go Siesta,” both tunes penned by expat Trinidadian bandleader and impresario Sam Manning.

Like other folk and nightclub singers of the 40s and 50s—especially ones with Caribbean connections—Premice routinely included calypso in her repertoire, and by the early 1950s she was known both here and in Europe as a “calypso specialist.”  No surprise, then, in 1954, to find her in the cast for the out-of-town previews of Harold Arlen and Truman Capote’s West Indian fantasy House of Flowers.  (She left the show before it reached Broadway, though she had a starring role in the 1968 revival.)  For the similarly exoticist Jamaica, Arlen’s 1957 collaboration with Yip Harburg, Premice was given two of the  three numbers with the strongest calypso flavor: “Yankee Dollar,” whose title and theme recall the tag line of Lord Invader’s “Rum and Coca Cola,” and “Leave de Atom Alone.”   (The third, the humorous “Push de Button,” went to headliner Lena Horne.  New York Times dance critic Jennifer Dunning saw Premice as the “hot flame to Horne’s cool fire.”)

Earlier in 1957, during the height of the Calypso Craze, Premice had released two albums: Caribe: Josephine Premice Sings Calypso for Verve and Calypso for GNP. Caribe‘s liner notes award her some rather exaggerated credentials, declaring her “the first American to sing calypso in this country,” then embellish her talents further with the aid of hackneyed racist tropes: “But even more than just being able to sing calypso in an authentic manner…she brings an electric excitement to every song along with a primitive, bestial kind of passion and a dramatic mood.” (When she appeared in Las Vegas at the Dunes in January 1957 with “her company of Afro-Cuban [sic] Calypsonians,” an ad in the local paper featured a bust of Premice with sensuous lips and downcast eyes framed by her own sinuously beckoning fingers, promising that the show would be “Wild! Savage! Electric! Pagan! Primitive! Passionate!”)

premice_caribepremice_calypsoWith the recent reissue of Caribe on CD (paired on a single disc with Calypso, which is also available separately as a digital download or a CD-on-demand), the entirety of Premice’s “calypso” output is back in print.  The Caribe/Calypso disc has also been pirated by the shadowy “Vintage Masters” label, with an anachronistic cover photo from the Smithsonian’s William P. Gottlieb collection.  The Jamaica original cast album, meanwhile, was re-released a decade ago on the Collectables specialty label, on a double CD with the Lena Horne/Harry Belafonte Porgy and Bess.

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2 Responses to “Premice Back in Print”

  1. […] Premice Back in Print […]

  2. […] from 1940s New York that’s scattered across the web.  I’ve already used one or two items from the huge trove that Down Beat writer/photographer William P. Gottlieb bequeathed to […]

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