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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Archive for May, 2014

Re-Post: Miss Calypso Speaks

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 28, 2014

News this morning that Maya Angelou has died, age 86. (See also Angelou’s most recent conversation with Oprah Winfrey, a two-minute trailer for Calypso Heat Wave, and a striking still from that film.) Last fall, Nichelle Gainer’s Vintage Black Glamour Tumblr featured a gorgeous photo of Angelou relaxing in her dressing room at the Village Vanguard, probably in 1957, taken by Ebony staff photographer G. Marshall Wilson. Today VBG had a moving tribute.


 

Maya Angelou

"Miss Calypso" reviewed in Billboard

“Miss Calypso” reviewed in Billboard, May 13, 1957

News from the blogosphere:  among fans of “Exotica” and students of the Calypso Craze, it’s well known that poet Maya Angelou’s early days as a dancer and lounge singer included a flirtation with calypso.  But it’s just as well known that the author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings hasn’t been especially keen to discuss that period of her career.  Until now, apparently.  Atlanta-based syndicated radio host Paul Leslie recently spoke with Angelou for his weekly Paul Leslie Hour, where the poet and memoirist obligingly held forth on (among other things) her start in calypso, her respect for the genre as a folk form, and her love of the music of Kitch, Lord Flea, and Irving Burgie.  Listen to a podcast of the program, “Calypso and Poetry: A Celebration of Maya Angelou” on Leslie’s weblog, and read a transcript of the interview here.

 

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In Memoriam: Herb Jeffries

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 27, 2014

When Allied Artists recruited Herb Jeffries for Calypso Joe, its rush-release entry in the summer 1957 Calypso Craze derby, the former Ellington Orchestra crooner had no experience with the genre. But plenty of other would-be calypso stars had managed to surmount that obstacle, and besides, once Harry Belafonte refused to sign on to the project, how many other light-skinned African-American singers with sultry good looks were left?  (Granted, the forty-something Jeffries was already a bit long in the tooth, and his sex appeal was more Rat-Pack than racy, but he could still strike a soulful pose and pull off a plunging neckline.)

Calypso Joe Still

As it turned out, the film wasn’t awful (by the standards of Calypso Craze films, anyway).  It had a young Angie Dickinson, for one thing, and Jeffries brought a certain élan to his performance as a devil-may-care bandleader who helps his bland leading-man buddy pursue ex-girlfriend Dickinson to Trinidad in order to foil her impending marriage to a Latin lothario.  (See the trailer at HistoricFilms.com.) Jeffries was pleased enough with his own vaguely Latin material to gather it onto an LP, puzzlingly titled Jamaica, that opened with the super-heated “Devil Is a Woman”:

 

His attenuated ethnicity may have been an asset in the studio’s eyes, but from his first film roles as the “Bronze Buckaroo,” black America’s answer to Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, in the 1930s, the multi-racial Jeffries proudly identified with African Americans, even if he didn’t always identify as an African American.  Active—and in good voice—well into old age, Jeffries still performed regularly as a nonagenarian and recorded his last album at age 95.  He died yesterday at “about a hundred” (as Terry Gross delicately put it) in suburban Los Angeles.  You can read accounts of his life in the Times (New York or Los Angeles).

 

 

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Sun Ra Centennial

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 22, 2014

Put the words “calypso” and “Sonny” together in a sentence, and everybody knows who you’re talking about. The son of Virgin Islanders, saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins grew up in New York revering The Duke of Iron, “Harlem calypso specialist” (as Life‘s notice of the Duke’s first appearance at the Village Vanguard dubbed him). Rollins’s latest album, Road Shows Vol. 3, includes a new cover of an old Duke standby, “Don’t Stop the Carnival”:

 

But there’s another Sonny in the jazz cosmos we should be remembering: Herman “Sonny” Blount, better known as Sun Ra, the bandleader, composer, avant-gardist and Afro-Futurist (and impossibly prolific recording artist) who arrived on the planet 100 years ago today.

Okay, so Sun Ra’s kaiso connection isn’t as clear as that other Sonny’s. Like Thelonious Monk, though (and other jazz greats such as Art Blakey, Cecil Payne, and Fats Navarro, who all split gigs with MacBeth the Great’s orchestra in the late 1940s), Sun Ra did share the marquee with calypso. Thanks to Robert L. Campbell, Christopher Trent, and Robert Pruter’s exhaustive and meticulous “From Sonny Blount to Sun Ra: The Chicago Years,” we know that for at least a couple of weeks in 1956, “Calypso Dancer” Mari Macks and “Ramona, The Girl From Trinidad” were part of the floor show at the Arkestra’s first steady gig in Chicago, at Cadillac Bob’s Birdland (later “Budland”) in the Pershing Hotel, Woodlawn:

Newspaper ad, Chicago Defender, January 1956

 

As for Sun Ra’s music, some claim to hear echoes of calypso in the moody “A Call For All Demons” (from 1956’s Sun Songs):

Others cite the Latin-flavored charts on 1959’s Tonal View of Times Tomorrow. Michael Shore points out the “Matilda” riff in 1958’s “Great Balls of Fire,” which he characterizes as a “strolling calypso instrumental.” And as the Zilner T. Randolph Combo, members of Sun Ra’s band (trumpeter Lucius Randolph and drummer Jim Herndon, joined by bassist and AACM stalwart Malachi Favors and guitarist Ellis Hunter) would put the calypso “Centipede”—possibly a cover of The Duke of Iron’s “Man Centipede“—on the B-side of their 45 rpm single “Too Late,” released on Chicago-based Edwards Calypso Records.

All of those compositions date from Sun Ra’s Chicago years, which encompassed both the nationwide crazes for mambo and calypso and the heyday of Jean Fardulli‘s Blue Angel, the Rush Street cabaret that showcased calypso from 1953 onward.

blue_angel_postcard

Still, as far as anyone knows, the Arkestra was not jamming out regularly on “Hold ‘Em Joe” or “Fire Down There” at any point in its long travels across the spaceways.

If you pushed me, though, I might even count the loopy 1982 anti-nuke antiphon “Nuclear War” as a distant calypso cousin:

Call it “interplanetary calypso.” Sun Ra is probably playing it on Saturn right now, gazing back at planet Earth as we foolish terrestrials incinerate ourselves, not in the atomic holocaust he imagined but in a long, slow, carbon-fueled burn.


Sun Ra, Carnival King?

Sun Ra, Carnival King?

More on Sun Ra:

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Calypso Couture

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 22, 2014

With Memorial Day—the unofficial start of summer—creeping up on us here in the States, I figure it’s time to thaw out the piece on “Calypso Fashion” that I put on ice last fall.

In the spring and summer of 1957, when calypso was in vogue, calypso was…well, maybe not in Vogue, but nearly everywhere else.  In a March story about the coming flood, the United Press reported that “U.S. designers, going along with the calypso craze, are turning out everything from sports to jewelry in the styles and hot colors of the Caribbean.”1 American and Canadian department stores, especially, lost no time in promoting seasonal lines of “calypso” clothing.  Their efforts often amounted to little more than dressing up pedal-pushers, espadrilles and Bermuda shorts in new names: “Slim-Jim” trousers would now be known as “Trinidadians,” revealed the UP, while so-called “Jamaica” shorts were “longer than briefs, shorter than Bermudas.” Generically “tropical” fabrics and motifs—khaki and seersucker, stripes and frills—prevailed.  The tone of an INS wire story was more jaded, less gee-whiz: “‘Calypso’ looks pretty much like ‘Rhumba,’ ‘Matador,’ and other south-of-the-border fashion trends,” it shrugged.

For instance, a “calypso” outfit has to include a ruffled shirt, like last year’s popular matador shirts. Instead of a buttoned-up collar, however, “calypso” is worn lazily open. Sleeves are three-quarter length instead of wrist-length, and the ruffles are droopier.

“Calypso” ruffles can go any which way, not just up and down. You can stitch them to a scoop neckline or let them slide down the shoulder seam. The only requirement is that you have lots of them, preferably all over.2

Detail from the New York Times Sunday Magazine, 5 May 1942.  "The swirling folds of a calypso dancer's frock are echoed in the red and white striped glazed chintz."

Detail from the New York Times Magazine, 5 May 1942, p. 21. “The swirling folds of a calypso dancer’s frock are echoed in the red and white striped glazed chintz.”

1957-07-12 Desert News A5 Calypso LipstickWhile you wouldn’t know it from their hackneyed ad-copy (full of awful “calypso-ese” rhymes and blather about  gay colors and carefree living), the fashion industry had actually done one or two dry runs before ’57.  As early as 1942, in fact, in the wake of the first New York City calypso “boom,” the New York Times Sunday magazine ran a two-page pictorial surveying the work of New York designers who had turned the “vibrant tones that mingle on the Latin American palette” and the “richly imaginative native art and costumes of Mexico and Guatemala” into “a genuine source of fashion material” for North American women.  As for the Caribbean in particular: it obligingly “sends us its lush colors. From the dancers whose feet patter in ceaseless rhythm we have taken the drape of skirts that sway to sinuous movements.”3 Keep in mind that this was a full two years before the invention of Chiquita Banana—though not before the “invention” of Carmen Miranda, obviously.  The garish outfit supposedly available at Bonwit Teller (see photo at left) surely owed at least a small debt to the Brazilian Bombshell, although the more immediate inspiration may have been Judy Garland’s get-up in the previous year’s Ziegfield Follies, where, crowned with a bizarre phallic headdress, Garland sang the corny cautionary tale of Calypso Joe and “Minnie from Trinidad.”

The clichés about tropical tones and sinuous frills persisted.  In April 1945, as “Rum and Coca Cola” dominated the Hit Parade, Brooklyn’s Russek’s department store presented “Carry On at the Country Club in Calypso Casuals” as part of its “Suddenly Summer” fashion show at the Hotel St. Regis. (The “‘take it easy’ shirts and skirt dresses, influenced by the romantic costumes of the famous singers of Trinidad, were shown in Caribbean canary….”) The Seamprufe company, as I mentioned last fall (“Giving Calypso the Slip“), was already trying to get its “calypso colors” into women’s frilly things—er, intimate apparel—in 1949. SoCal’s “The Broadway” department stores reprised that campaign eight years on, with stockings that promised a “rich, riotous loot [sic] of sun and fun in color influenced by the Calypso craze.”  “We borrow these happy tones from the West Indies,” Broadway’s admen explained, “and bring them to the sheer realm of hosiery.” In the realm of cosmetics, Max Factor hyped its new “CaLYPso Beat” lipstick as a “laughing color” of “happy character”: “It sways to a rhythm that’s excitingly sweet / Dances on your lips in Calypso Beat.”  And while it concerned itself with curls, not frills, the Antoine Salon in Toronto, advertising its “Calypso Permanent” (“You’ll beat the drums for it”), promised a “magic Voodoo to the way our haircutters scissor this new cut that gives you the native loveliness of an Island beauty.”

Seamprufe’s visual motif of the barefoot, straw-hatted (and, need I point out? dark-skinned) troubadors serenading the elegant white lady from a safe distance also survived.  It appears, for instance, in a 1955 ad for Saks Fifth Avenue (“Calypso Nights,” below), touting casual evening dresses by the Bermudian designer Polly Hornburg, a former fashion model and colonial culture-vulture who made her name selling “tropical” couture to the international jet-set out of her chain of  “Calypso” shops in Bermuda and Jamaica.  The daughter of one of the island’s top (Anglo) hoteliers, Hornburg set up her flagship boutique in 200-year-old slave quarters in the colonial capital of Hamilton. To quote Jamaica Kincaid: There’s a world of something in this, but I don’t have time to go into it right now….

Detail from New York Herald Tribune, 30 November 1955.

Detail from New York Herald Tribune, 30 November 1955.

Two years later, in the midst of the Craze, those same stylized figures, all white teeth against dark skin, were beating out the “rhythm of summer” for Simpson’s department store in Toronto.  (“Imagine the startling clarity of black and white,” the ad read, “…in staccato squares and gay polka-dots, against your suntanned summer skin…”)

(Toronto) Globe and Mail, 7 May 1957.

(Toronto) Globe and Mail, 7 May 1957.

But well-heeled (white) women weren’t the only target audience for calypso-themed fashion.  By 1957, it was mostly middle-class suburbanites who were being invited to enjoy—symbolically, anyway—the “light-hearted abandon” that typified the Islands, to answer their “irresistible invitation to lazy living” by donning a Marianne Blouse or a Calypso Sway Skirt.  The call included black burghers, too, although their pitch had a slightly earthier spin: in a two-page “Modern Living” spread, Chicago’s Jet magazine, known nationally as “the Negro bible,” featured its cover girl modeling examples of the “calypso blouse, which has captured the fun, excitement and romance of a full-blown Caribbean carnival.”  Its “frothy ruffles,” bare midriffs, and “air-cooled lacy necklines,” Jet glossed, were “all so typical of the carefree calypso life.”

Jet, May 1957

Jet, 16 May 1957

Meanwhile, an ad in the teen-oriented Dig magazine tried desperately to appeal to young males with a figure that looked as if Ricky Nelson were torn between joining a barbershop quartet and the Lecuona Cuban Boys. “Hey, Mr. Tally-Man,” it suavely exhorted young hipsters, “don’ be a bu-bu. When daily-lite [sic] come down by the sea-side, be sure you’re siftin’ sand in the new A-1 Beachers” (the jean company’s latest clam-diggers).  As for Dig-readers’ dads: a January 1958 full-page ad for Simpson’s encouraged male snowbirds “Going South” to buy Enid Mosier’s Hi-Fi Calypso LP and stock up on madras shirts, Dacron dinner jackets, and sport coats and Bermuda shorts in linen and space-age “Terylene.”

Children were thought to be especially susceptible to calypso’s call: even in 1955, “Calypso” playclothes were meant to satisfy the pre-teen’s demand for “copies of big sister’s styles,” while young boys in 1957, it was imagined, would find “Calypso” clothes “Crazy, man, crazy!”

Detail from Buffalo Courier-Express, 2 June 1957.

Detail from Buffalo Courier-Express, 2 June 1957.

(Toronto) Globe and Mail, 1 March 1955.

(Toronto) Globe and Mail, 1 March 1955.

Where were the calypsonians in all this?  The Duke of Iron, of course, had already sung about ladies’ lingerie. MacBeth the Great’s band had been hired occasionally to play for society fashion shows over the preceding decade; so had Duke’s. But while both men had plenty of sartorial flair, neither is known to have plugged “calypso” sportswear, say, or to have registered any opinion whatsoever about calypso-branded fashion.

Another natty dresser who dabbled in calypso did.  Fred Astaire, who at the height of the Craze recorded the dismissively ironic “Calypso Hooray,” was interviewed by Richard Hublar for a profile in GQ, “The Astute Astaire: “Asked about the so-called Calypso influence in sportswear, Astaire replied cheerily: ‘I sincerely trust that there is none whatsoever.’”

You can view more examples of Calypso Craze Fashion, including a full-color ad for Max Factor’s “CaLYPso Beat” and the ad described above for A-1 Manufacturing Co.’s “Beachers” pants, in the online preview for Bear Family’s Calypso Craze box set.


References:

1 Gay Pauley, “Caribbean Colors, Calypso Styles Form Latest Trend.” Schenectady Gazette 28 March 1957: 32.  An abbreviated version of the story appeared on the Women’s page (“The Distaff Side”) of the Toronto Star (20 March 1957: 31) as “Calypso Craze Hits Fashion Designers.”

2 “Calypso Beat Is Taking Over In Styles As Well As Music.”  Toronto Star 18 March 1957: 25.

3 Virginia Pope, “From Exotic Climes.” New York Times Magazine 5 May 1942: 20-2.

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Calypso Craze: Soon Come

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 9, 2014

Earlier this week, Bear Family Records announced the imminent (July 25) release of Calypso Craze: 1956-57 and Beyond, a 6-CD + 1-DVD + 170-odd-page-book box set, compiled and written by Ray Funk and yours truly, with pristine transfers by Christian Zwarg and truly snazzy design by Mychael Gerstenberger of Malbuch Berlin.  It’s got some well-worn tracks, together with scads of rarities and obscurities, plus the first-ever issue (that we know of) of the delightfully cheesy Calypso Joe, starring Herb Jeffries and Angie Dickinson.

You can pre-order from Bear Family (for the princely sum of €162142—worth every cent!), and you can also preview the first ten pages of the lavishly illustrated coffee-table-style book.  Oh—and we’ve started up a supplemental website, too.

In case you were wondering: the economics of this sort of project are such that Ray and I don’t stand to see a penny from it. But we certainly hope enough folks will shell out for the set to ensure that Bear Family recoup their production costs.

Go on: go crazy!

Calypso Packaging

 

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Chenk’s Calypso: The Duke of Iron on the Air

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 7, 2014

The Duke of Iron (Cecil Anderson).  PM, 27 June 1940.

The Duke of Iron (Cecil Anderson). PM (New York), 27 June 1940.

When I first wrote about Oscar Brand’s patronage of calypso back in November 2013, I hadn’t yet visited the New York Public Radio Archives, whose pleasantly cluttered offices take up the back corner of one floor of NYPR’s new (well, comparatively new) headquarters on Varick Street in SoHo.  On a trip there in January, I discovered—with a huge assist from Director Andy Lanset and Senior Archivist Marcos Suiero Bal—that Brand wasn’t the first at WNYC to help boost calypso’s fortunes.  Before the war, a progressive young producer named Henrietta Yurchenco (“Chenk”) showcased the Duke of Iron on at least a half-dozen installments of Adventures in Music before giving him his own show, Calypso, over the fall and winter of 1940-41.

Andy came up with a notebook containing about 20 scripts for Calypso that Yurchenco left to the station—she died in 2007—while Marcos, with help from Andy and the Smithsonian’s Jeff Place, tracked down a broadcast transcription of one of the shows.  (It was made by Moe Asch, who regularly set up his Presto in front of the radio and recorded off the air onto acetate discs.  Over several decades, he amassed a few thousand hours’ worth of such recordings.) I penned a few paragraphs contextualizing the program, and WNYC posted the whole package to their blog on April 25th.  The indispensable Repeating Islands kindly picked it up a few days later.

The free version of WordPress still won’t let you embed most audio players, and I don’t want to steal WNYC’s thunder anyway.  So, first:

There’s lots more calypso-related material in the Archives, and with Marcos and Andy’s indulgence, I’ll be contributing two more posts about it to the WNYC blog.  In the meantime, since I can afford to be a bit more reckless with graphics (and more profligate with words) than they can, here are some additional supporting materials for the first post.

Gerald Clark and His Calypso Orchestra, with vocals by the Duke of Iron, "Walter Winchell."  The charismatic columnist and radio commentator ("Flash!") was a favorite with calypsonians.  The admiration was mutual: Winchell sometimes plugged the singers in his columns.

Gerald Clark and His Calypso Orchestra; vocal by the Duke of Iron, “Walter Winchell” (Varsity 8130, 1940). The charismatic columnist and radio commentator (“Flash!”) was a favorite with calypsonians. The admiration was mutual: Winchell plugged the singers in his columns.  This tune and three others were recorded in December 1939, at the end of the Calypso Recorders’ initial ten-week run at the Village Vanguard. You can “watch” it on YouTube.

The first page of Paul Kresh's draft script for "Adventures in Music," June 27, 1940

The first page of Paul Kresh’s draft script for “Adventures in Music,” June 27, 1940

PM (New York), 30 July 1940. The figure behind the mask is probably Bill Matons, a/k/a “The Calypso Kid” (later “Calypso Joe”), a Wisconsinite who abandoned a career in modern dance for his own brand of interpretive “calypso” dance, and who led a small troupe that accompanied Gerald Clark and the Calypso Recorders at the Vanguard shows.  A pantomime performed to Atilla the Hun’s famous “Roosevelt in Trinidad” was one of his staples. Matons also claimed to have coached the calypsonians in dramatic technique, and he may have served as the entire group’s business manager as well. For WNYC’s “Calypso” he was a sort of liaison, taking listener requests and suggestions.

The Duke of Iron (center) and his Trinidad Calypso Troubadors, preparing for an engagement at the Pago Pago Club, New York, January 1941. The "Calypso Kid" (Bill Matons; see above) and his dancers joined the Duke for this engagement.  Credit: New York Journal-American Photo Morgue, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin. Special thanks to Linda Briscoe Myers.

The Duke of Iron (center) and his Trinidad Calypso Troubadors, preparing for an engagement at the Pago Pago Club, New York, January 1941. The “Calypso Kid” (Bill Matons; see above) and his dancers joined the Duke on this engagement. Credit: New York Journal-American Photo Morgue, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin. Special thanks to Linda Briscoe Myers.

Finally, see an article in the April 8, 1940 issue of Life magazine entitled “Old Calypso Songs from Trinidad Are Now Becoming a U.S. Fad,” which includes a photo of the Duke of Iron with clarinetist Gregory Felix and an unidentified figure, possibly at the Village Vanguard.

Sources and acknowledgments:

The quotes in the opening paragraph of the WNYC blog piece come mainly from Henrietta Yurchenko’s 2002 memoir Around the World in 80 Years, though the “microphone from a monkey wrench” crack is taken from a 1999 interview with Emily Botein on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday.  Additional biographical details were gleaned from obituaries in the New York Times and the London Guardian.

Other factual information in my account is drawn from archival research and contemporary periodicals, though like every calypso researcher I’m deeply indebted to the pioneering work of Don Hill, in particular his 1993 book Calypso Callaloo and his 1998 essay “‘I Am Happy Just to Be in This Sweet Land of Liberty’: The New York City Calypso Craze of the 1930s and 1940s,” and to the meticulous research of John Cowley, especially his 2006 essay “West Indies Blues.”

Big thanks once again to Andy Lanset and Marcos Sueiro Bal at the NYPR/WNYC Archives for their generous hospitality (and, to Marcos, for his deft editing).  Thanks, too, to Jeff Place at Smithsonian Folkways and to the staff of the New York Public Library, especially those at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the research collections of the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

Posted in Duke of Iron, Moe Asch, WNYC | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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