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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Archive for the ‘Calypso’ Category

Harlem’s Calypso Renaissance

Posted by Michael Eldridge on April 20, 2015

Another landmark gone. The New York Times recently reported that Harlem’s Renaissance Casino and Ballroom, which for years was literally a shell of its former opulent self, is now rubble. (Last December, the Times covered local preservationists’ last-ditch efforts to stop the demolition. A more hopeful story appeared back in 2007.)

Together with its neighboring Theater, the Casino and Ballroom took up an entire block of 7th Avenue between 137th and 138th Streets, on the edge of Strivers Row. Built in stages between 1921 and 1923, the “Renny” touted itself in its grand opening announcement as having been been “built by Colored capital, and owned and managed by Colored people.” Paul Robeson sang there; Oscar Micheaux’s films debuted there; Armstrong, Henderson, Ellington, Basie, and Calloway played there; and Joe Louis fought there. It was also the home of legendary basketballers the Harlem Rens.

Renaissance Casino & Ballroom, 7th Avenue at 138th Street (looking north), Harlem, ca. 1930

From DigitalHarlem.org

Screenshot from DigitalHarlem.org

But the Renny wasn’t just a Harlem cultural mecca, it was a West Indian Harlem cultural mecca. Its founding partners were three businessmen from Antigua and Montserrat, Garveyites who believed in Black self-sufficiency. The Rens basketball team owner was from St. Kitts. For years the Casino’s house band was the Vernon Andrade orchestra, remembered now as a “Latin” band (when it’s remembered at all). But like many Harlem dance bands of the day, Andrade’s played a variety of styles: hot jazz, swing, rumba, mambo…and calypso. Andrade himself, as I learned from Lara Putnam’s Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age, was a Panamanian born to West Indian parents. According to his trombonist Clyde Bernhardt, “[h]alf of Andrade’s band was West Indian,” and Bernhardt’s uncle derided the bandleader as a “monkey-chaser.” In 1937, the New Yorker mentioned Andrade providing the music for a massive “Coronation Ball” at Rockland Palace, and it seems unlikely that the 5000 attendees, “most of them West Indians and loyal Britons,” would have marked George VI’s accession to the throne with non-stop rumbas. Indeed, Andrade, “one of the few [bandleaders] from the Islands who has solved the riddle American swing,” in the opinion of the New York Amsterdam News, played “Sly Mongoose” “as a regular part of his repertoire” in 1939. (A footnote: Lara Putnam also writes that in the mid-1930s, a full decade before she covered Wilmoth Houdini’s “Stone Cold Dead in the Market,” a teenage Ella Fitzgerald sang with Andrade’s band at the Renny two or three nights a week.)

For two decades, at least—possibly longer; my newspaper searches haven’t been exhaustive—the Renaissance was also the venue of choice for Trini expat Gerald Clark, the preeminent West Indian bandleader in New York, and his protégés, the Duke of Iron and Macbeth the Great. While the three also headlined nightclubs, concert halls, and private parties in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx throughout the 1940s and 50s, and while they naturally made the rounds of other Harlem ballrooms (Rockland Palace, Park Palace, the Savoy, the Audubon, the Congress, the Golden Gate), they kept coming back to the Renny. The first of Clark’s annual “Dame Lorraine” costume balls actually took place at the Lido Ballroom in January 1934, but just a month later his Caribbean Serenaders performed at a Washington’s Birthday Ball at the Renaissance, and from then on it was Clark’s “go-to” venue. His dances drew hundreds, often thousands, of patrons. Saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who as a young child lived on 137th Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues, remembers going with his mother “to a lot of calypso dances,” very likely right around the corner.

New York Amsterdam News, 21 February 1934 (courtesy Ray Funk)

New York Amsterdam News, 21 February 1934 (courtesy Ray Funk)

New York Amsterdam News, 2 March 1946

New York Amsterdam News, 2 March 1946

“The Renny hosted events for island benevolent societies,” says Putnam, as well as

West Indies–wide reform groups, and race-based organizations, like the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, that counted both Afro-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans among their members. British Caribbean migrants in interwar New York routinely belonged to organizations across all these categories: and the Renny was their place. Events included a mass rally in support of the jailed Marcus Garvey in 1923; a “monster mass meeting” of the West Indian Reform Association in 1924 to commemorate the ninetieth anniversary of (West Indian) emancipation and discuss “vital issues affecting the islands”; and an invitation-only 1930 gala to welcome a Jamaican cricket team brought north “to improve the game in New York.”

In July 1947, Wilmoth Houdini chose the Renaissance for a Harlem edition of the Calypso “Pop” Concerts that had sold out Carnegie Hall in May and June. A marquee event previewed by all the Black papers nationwide, its teaser was a calypso monarch competition featuring Lord Invader, Macbeth the Great, the Duke of Iron, and the Count of Monte Cristo (the Duke’s brother). As I’ve mentioned before, it’s not known who won or even who judged the contest, but winning probably wasn’t the point anyway. The advance publicity was apparently enough to draw jazz writer and photographer William Gottlieb, who shot a series of striking photos now at the Library of Congress. (I’m speculating somewhat, but the stage and balcony visible in Gottlieb’s photos seem to jibe with interior shots of the ruins of the ballroom that I’ve seen online.)

1947 07-12 Afr-Am Houdini et al Ren Cas

Afro-American (National Edition) 12 July 1947

The last Renaissance Ballroom clipping currently in my collection is for a Labor Day Carnival dance September 7, 1953, with music by Macbeth and his Rhythm Boys. What more logical place to retire to after a parade down 7th Avenue? Macbeth celebrated all the holidays there, it seems:

Poster for an all-night Christmas Eve

Poster for an all-night Christmas Eve “Breakfast Dance,” 1949

IMG_0426 (corrected)

Poster for Bastille Day Ball, 1950

Closed in 1979, the Renny sat empty and derelict for decades, although its social and cultural significance made it a prime candidate for landmark preservation status. Unfortunately, that designation would have made things difficult for powerful real-estate developers, to which detractors accuse the property’s owners and nominal caretakers, the neighboring Abyssinian Baptist Church, of selling out. (In 2010, the ABC demolished another neighbor of equal historical importance and greater architectural distinction, the “annex” of the 137th Street YWCA, where in April 1945 the Duke of Iron produced the first large-scale, sit-down calypso concert in New York, possibly with visitors from Trinidad including Lord Beginner, King Radio, Tiger, Lion, Atilla, and/or Lord Invader.)

More on the Renaissance Theater, Ballroom and Casino:

Posted in Calypso, Duke of Iron, Gerald Clark, Harlem, MacBeth the Great, New York City, Sonny Rollins, Wilmouth Houdini | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

R.I.P. Stan Freberg

Posted by Michael Eldridge on April 8, 2015

Posted in Calypso, Calypso Craze | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Real Sam Charters

Posted by Michael Eldridge on March 21, 2015

The New York Times rightly eulogized Samuel Charters this week as a “foundational scholar of the blues.” Other obituaries emphasized his “discovery” of Bahamian guitar wizard Joseph Spence in 1958. But enthusiasts of Golden Age calypso will remember Charters as the compiler and annotater of The Real Calypso: 1927-1946 and The Real Calypso, Vol. 2 (variously subtitled Send Your Children to the Orphan Home and Out the Fire: Calypso Songs of Social Commentary and Love Troubles), which rescued forgotten classics like Caresser’s “Edward the VIII” and Tiger’s “Money Is King” from oblivion and paved the way for a golden age of calypso reissues. (Rounder’s collections of the 1990s and Bear Family’s magisterial West Indian Rhythm [2006] all have Samuel Charters in their DNA. And maybe the Charters lineage hasn’t run out: it’s rumored that another big box gathering the rest of the prewar Decca and ARC sides is in the works. Yes please!)

The author and ethnomusicologist was a lifelong devotee of music from across the black diaspora, so he came by his interest in calypso honestly. (In fact, I’ve read that Charters happened upon Spence when, as a song collector and field recorder for Moe Asch‘s Folkways Records, he was traveling the Caribbean in search of local musical styles “uncorrupted” by the influence of Trinidadian calypso.) But he wasn’t necessarily a scholar—or even a discographer—of calypso. The bulk of his “annotations” on Volume 1 consists of a multi-paragraph quote from J.D. Elder‘s calypso primer for Sing Out! magazine, and when Charters flew solo on Volume 2, it was clear that his own expertise didn’t match his, uh, elder’s. (On basic points of information, moreover, he was factually incorrect: the majority of tunes on the album were not recorded in Trinidad, for instance, but in New York.) Still, the strength of both discs is in their selection, not their documentation.

In his biography of Asch, Making People’s Music, Peter Goldsmith noted that “[l]ike Harry Smith’s Anthology [of American Folk Music] and Fred Ramsey’s History of Jazz series” (Ramsey, whom Charters knew, was another calypso fan and annotater, by the way), The Country Blues and many subsequent records on Charters’s Folkways subsidiary label RBF—Records, Books and Film, including both volumes of The Real Calypso, “consisted of reissued recordings from the twenties and thirties, usually appropriated without any arrangements with the original labels. . . . Charters made the dubious claim that ‘the American copyright laws permit the reissue of any of these older performances, the only restriction being that the name of the company not be used in any notes or advertising'” (269).

In the case of calypso, at least, I’m glad he made that claim. For one thing, the aptly named Universal, heir/engulfer/devourer of the Decca label, has more than enough money already, even in the twilight of the record industry. Besides, Decca paid the calypso singers and musicians peanuts to begin with, as “artists-for-hire.” And none of the succession of Decca’s corporate foster parents over the past half-century has ever been what you could call a steward of this important cultural patrimony. Plus, Capitalism Is (still) Killing Music, not to mention scholarship. So there. Anyway, let’s call what Samuel Charters did “liberation,” not appropriation. Whatever it was, it wasn’t dubious: his lifelong work for black music history was as real as it gets.

More on Sam Charters:

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Calypso on the Columbia

Posted by Michael Eldridge on August 13, 2014

Well, closer to the Willamette, actually, by a hair. But the relevant riverain name here, strangely, is Mississippi—as in the historically African-American district of north Portland, Oregon, one of a series of neighborhoods of color to be colonized by the ubiquitous (and overwhelmingly pale-skinned) hipsters lampooned on the IFC series Portlandia.

Mississippi Records was there when the gentrification began. The tiny, much revered shop—vinyl only, and no credit cards or computerized inventory, thank you—opened on Mississippi and Shaver in 2003. (A couple of years ago it moved a few blocks north, to the corner of Albina and Alberta.)  Its namesake label has issued dozens of LPs emphasizing forgotten gospel, blues, cajun, and “hillbilly” music of the 20s and 30s, some of it, like the label’s vinyl reissue of Harry Smith’s landmark Anthology of American Folk Music, licensed from Smithsonian Folkways. There’s also a reissue program focusing on assorted “world,” “ethnic,” and immigrant music, and three of the latest catalog numbers bring long-lost early Staple Singers albums back into print. Discogs.com has a reasonably complete discography.

Two other recent releases are hand-picked compilations of classic calypso, My Intention Is War (MRP-079) and Seven Skeletons Found in the Yard (MPR-080), named after compositions by Lord Invader and Lord Executor, respectively.

The discs suffer from some of the weaknesses of the gray-market, digital-only releases of recent years: no liner notes, no discographical details, no personnel or session listings. And no obvious organizing principle behind the selections: the compiler seems to have included whatever struck his ears and/or whatever he happened to have at hand. He had a fair number of sides by The Lion, evidently, and almost as many by Lionel Belasco; both are generously represented on the two albums. And in spite of their subtitles, which advertise twenty-year spans beginning in 1928, the collections also favor material recorded by Decca in Trinidad between 1938 and 1940. (The entirety of that output was collected on the Bear Family box set West Indian Rhythm, released in 2006.) But what saves this project is the obvious sincerity and the DIY ethic that animated it: even if the people behind the project don’t necessarily know a ton about golden-age calypso, they know what they like, and they know it sounds cool.

What’s also cool (again) is vinyl, and the clerk at Mississippi assured me that the compiler tried to find calypsos that had never been reissued in flat-black-and-circular form. Apart from a couple of cuts that showed up on the LP versions of early Rounder anthologies like Calypso Breakaway and Calypso Carnival (and of Lion’s Sacred 78s on Ice Records), he succeeded: most of the tracks on these two LPs have only ever resurfaced on CD—though some more than once. (Tunes like Atilla’s “Jimpy’s Ingratitude” and Invader’s “My Intention Is War,” however, are unique to West Indian Rhythm, and not everyone has several hundred dollars to spend on that magnificent set.)  And as near as I can tell, one of the “Spanish” instrumentals on these discs hasn’t seen the light of day in any format whatsoever since its original release by Decca in 1940: Luis Daniel’s “La Vieja Mia.”

If the label’s licensing deal with Smithsonian Folkways extends to side projects like this, then I guess we know where Invader’s “When You Hear I Die” and “My Intention Is War”—unissued tracks previously available only on Calypso In New York (SFW4054, 2000)—came from.  But one other unissued side, Atilla’s “Inequality of Life,” made its debut on West Indian Rhythm as far as I know, so I’m not quite sure from what other source that track could have been mastered.

Because I’m on the road and away from my turntable, I can’t yet comment on the quality of the mastering or the source material at all. But whatever other production details you might quibble over (the absence of liner notes, etc.), you have to admire Justin Cronin’s design work. The cover of My Intention, for example, is an obvious homage to Wilmoth Houdini’s 1939 album for Decca:

 

—while the label itself appropriates that of the shortlived Kiskedee calypso series manufactured by Oriole Records (UK) in the late 40s:

mrp-079  kiskedee5007

Nice touches. Mysteriously, there are no Kiskedee releases included on either disc—which suggests, perhaps, that there are hidden depths to Mississippi’s calypso archives. One can only hope: the Kiskedees really are rarities, and it would be fantastic to see them reissued in any form at all.

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Re-Post (Sort of): Hip Hooray for the Bulldog’s Daughter

Posted by Michael Eldridge on June 6, 2014

Mary Churchill keeping pace with father Winston at the Potsdam Conference, 1945. National Archives/Truman Library, via Wikipedia

I’ve said it before: sometimes it seems as if this is turning into the faintly-connected-to-calypso obit blog. But deaths of famous people tend to come in threes, so after Herb Jeffries and Maya Angelou, I was holding my breath. And then, this morning, in the Times: “Mary Soames, Daughter of Churchill and Chronicler of History, Dies at 91.”  (For a native perspective, see the London Guardian.)

Granted, Mary Churchill was no Princess Margaret. But on a tour of Auxiliary Territorial Service training camps, she did at least profess to enjoy calypso once. Let me recycle part of an earlier post, itself excerpted from my essay “Calypso’s Cosmopolitan Strategy” (the context: a discussion of Canadians’ determination to see West Indians as happy, loyal subjects of the Empire):

"Subaltern" Mary Churchill

Globe and Mail, 21 August 1943

But it was a front-page, above-the-fold photo in the Globe and Mail in the summer of 1943 that truly spotlighted West Indians’ devotion to their martial Mother Country. A teaser for a two-column story on the paper’s Women’s page, the picture illustrated a visit to Canada by servicewoman Mary Churchill (daughter of Winston), and featured a smiling, down-to-earth Churchill “[singing] calypso songs” amidst a group of dark-skinned Barbadian volunteers at the Auxiliary Territorial Services basic training camp in Kitchener, Ontario. The photo-op with the West Indians, who accounted for precisely forty-seven of the camp’s 1000 trainees, was framed as the centerpiece of the story, which climaxed with the “girls” (including “Subaltern” [!] Churchill) in an impromptu performance of one of their “native” songs, clear evidence of their childlike trust in the Great White Mother:

There was a moment of shyness on the part of [the] girls from the British West Indies…when Miss Churchill appeared on the scene. But when she sat on the grass, gathering them around her and chattering as naturally as if she knew each one, they were soon laughing hard and telling her all about themselves….

When Ptc. M. K. Evelyn from the Barbados sang a native calypso, Miss Churchill joined in the chorus heartily. “It’s simply marvelous!” she said, clapping her hands. “I wish we could have had a recording of it!”[1]

The Globe and Mail‘s focus wasn’t unique. A Canadian Press story (“Mary Churchill Helps CWACS With Singsong”) made it out as if the “[t]awny-haired, blue-eyed” Churchill might even have inspired the melodic outbreak through sheer force of personality: “Within 15 minutes of her arrival,” the story led off, the twenty-year-old Churchill had the “girls…from the West Indies at their ease and a calypso sing-song rolling.” The wire service even mentioned by name the calypsos on which she joined in: Lord Invader’s “Small Island” (“So, Small Island: go back where you really come from!”) and something called “One Sunday Morning.” The latter must have been Atilla the Hun’s grandiloquent “Graf Zeppelin,” which begins: “One Sunday morning, I chanced to hear / A rumbling and a tumbling in the atmosphere”—as if their illustrious visitor from that small island off the coast of Europe were being compared to a stately blimp descending from out of the blue. Maybe Ptc. Evelyn’s choices were innocent. (The CP specified that Elaine de Gannes of Trinidad also took part in the selection.) But if not, then those West Indian “girls” really did have something to laugh hard about.


[1] Tupper, Jan. “Keeping Pace With Father Easy, Says Mary Churchill.” Globe and Mail 21 August 1943: 10.

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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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Clear the Way for Caresser’s J’ouvert

Posted by Michael Eldridge on March 2, 2014

rockheads-caresser-cropLord Caresser isn’t known for his carnival tunes.  Sure, there’s “Carnival Is We Bacchanal” and “Clear the Way When the Bamboo Play,” and maybe even “Hold Your Hand, Madame Khan”—fine tunes, all of them, though as road marches go, they don’t have the legs of a “Matilda” or a “Mary Ann” or a “Don’t Stop the Carnival.”  And that’s okay: Caresser’s strong suit, after all, is the playboy boast.  (Besides, anybody who pens a classic like “Edward the VIII” has a secure spot in the kaiso pantheon.)  But when you’re looking for a leggo, you go to King Radio, not the King of Hearts.

Still, there’s one other carnival calypso buried in the trove of Caresser typescripts at Library and Archives Canada that’s worth a listen.  (Well, a look, technically; there’s no lead sheet, so we have to imagine the melody.)  And as it’s Carnival Weekend—even now, I’m struggling to watch Panorama finals in 15-second bursts over CarnivalTV.net’s hammered servers—I thought I’d share it.

It exists in two versions, with two different choruses and two different titles—”Carnival at Maraval” and “Jour Ouvert Morning”—and there are no clues as to its date of composition, although an apparent allusion to pan implies postwar.  (Unlike many others in the collection, which came from George Robertson, Caresser’s producer at the CBC in the late 1940s, it’s not a topical number on a Canadian subject, so it doesn’t necessarily derive from Caresser’s time in Montreal.  It may not even be his own work, for all I know, and I’d be glad for anyone who can set me straight on that point.)  As the first title would suggest, the tune is about the singer’s visit to Maraval for carnival—Christmas Day or Boxing Day, respectively, not Shrovetide—where it turns out those creole bumpkins really know how to play mas!  The city-slicker’s enthusiastic impressions fall back on a number of hackneyed tropes: music that drives you mad, old ladies who exclaim in patois, colorful locals with eccentric names.  But they also include some genuinely striking evocations of the procession’s rustic charms:

The drums and the tin-pan
Beat back any modern string band
The greeter [sic] and the dust-bin
Ten times sweeter than a violin
The pieces of iron nearly made me groan
Making more notes than a saxaphone

Even the chauvinistic wink that rounds off the lyric (those Maraval girls…am I right?) is built around an original juxtaposition of refined and rude: “The City girls they are full of bliss/But the Country girls got the stupidness.”  

Anyway, as visions of bacchanalian oblivion go, this one is almost pastoral.  Makes me want to join that fête.  

Revelers: on J’ouvert morning, I’m sure you won’t need Caresser’s “Martiniquan woman” from Maraval to remind you that “wee, ebien wee, jourdwee say fete.”  But maybe you can find a melody for his chorus:

Mama mama
If you hear me die, don’t cry
Don’t cry, but let the anthem swing
Clear the way on Jour Ouvert Morning

xmasday1908

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Burgundy Jazz (and Calypso)

Posted by Michael Eldridge on February 28, 2014

Just a quick shout-out on this last day of February to the CBC, which (in honor of Black History Month) put together a fantastic web documentary called “Burgundy Jazz: Life and Music in Little Burgundy.”  In 13 short segments, it surveys an important aspect of the social and cultural history of Montreal, one of the outstanding centers of jazz in the 20th century.  The website features brilliant design: high-definition video is front and center, but for each segment you can open (as an opaque pop-up) a photo gallery, a supplemental audio file or two, and a video extra.  (For inhabitants of the Apple-verse, there’s also a companion iBook and iPhone app.)  Luckily, the snazzy form is all about foregrounding the spectacular content: “Burgundy Jazz” features pithy history, smart interviews, and fantastic archival photos and film footage.

CBC Music’s blog links to the series Intro.  It’s worth watching all thirteen episodes from start to finish; they clock in at between 3 and 10 minutes each.  But if you’re in a hurry, start with Chapter 1, “Trains and Porters,” about the rise of Montreal’s St. Antoine neighborhood (a/k/a “Little Burgundy”), which in the early decades of the 20th century became home to the city’s tight-knit black community.  Many—most?—of that population’s early members were of West Indian origin, including Jamaican-born Rufus Rockhead, a former railroad porter and bootlegger who as proprietor of Montreal’s first black-owned nightclub grew to be one of Little Burgundy’s legendary figures.  Rockhead and his club are the subject of Chapter 9, “Rockhead’s Paradise.”

Many of the Canadian jazz musicians who gigged at Rockhead’s and other local spots during Little Burgundy’s heyday—pianist “Steep” Wade, for instance—were themselves West Indian by birth; others, like Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones, had West Indian parents.  But Rockhead’s most celebrated Caribbean entertainer wasn’t a jazz musician at all: for three solid years, from 1949 to 1952, the calypsonian Lord Caresser was a fixture in the downstairs bar.  (See my “Caresser in Canada.”)

A screenshot from Episode 9 of "Burgundy Jazz," featuring Louis Jaques's iconic 1951 photo from the Montreal Evening Standard of Lord Caresser performing at Rockheads Paradise

A screenshot from Episode 9 of “Burgundy Jazz,” featuring Louis Jaques’s iconic 1951 photo from the Montreal Evening Standard of Lord Caresser performing at Rockhead’s Paradise

I happen to know that CBC Radio has a number of other items locked away in its Toronto archives—including an episode of Lord Caresser’s radio show (which ran on the service’s national and international networks between 1946 and 1948)—that shed light on mid-century Black Canada.

  • “Another Man’s Country,” a 1959 documentary written and hosted by lawyer and activist Violet King, interviews participants in the West Indian “Domestic Scheme” about their experiences in Canada.
  • A “Wednesday Night” broadcast from 1958 is given over to discussion, readings, and performances by West Indian writers Jan Carew, Errol John, Sylvia Wynter, George Lamming, Edgar Mittelholzer, V.S. Naipaul and Sam Selvon.  (A 45-minute roundtable discussion among the seven is moderated by a young Stuart Hall.)
  • Various segments of “Assignment” from 1957-1960 note the rise (and fall) of the Calypso Craze, report on music and dance traditions from Trinidad (with help, in one instance, from Dot Evans and the March of Dimes quartet), speak with a Jamaican social-work graduate in Toronto, drop in on the Beryl McBurnie dance troupe’s visit to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, and interview Eric Armstrong, owner of Toronto’s “Calypso Club.”

It’s great stuff, and it ought to be heard.  Let’s hope that “Burgundy Jazz” signals the start of an effort to dust off some of the many other resources related to Black Canadian history that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has in its vaults.  If not, well…independent researchers might have to exploit the fact that most of this material was produced under Crown copyright.  And Crown copyright, unlike the infinitely extended copyrights that are damaging the public sphere in the U.S. (and now Europe), quite sensibly expires after 50 years.  So all of the programs I mentioned above, for instance, are in the public domain.  Kudos on “Burgundy Jazz,” CBC.  Next?

Posted in Calypso, CBC, Jazz, Lord Caresser, Rockhead's Paradise, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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