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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Archive for the ‘Duke of Iron’ Category

Re-Blog: Lip-Syncing in 1948

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 10, 2018

I meant to pass along this great tip from Lord Investor well before now.  (His blog, by the way, is well worth your investment—far more profitable, to my mind, than…I donno…Bitcoin or Facebook or Blockchain or whatever other Newspeak-y thing is on everyone’s lips these days.)  It’s a 1948 “soundie“—ancestor of the music video—of the Duke of Iron, voice and cuatro, with Gregory Felix on clarinet (and possibly Modesto Calderon on bass and Victor Pacheco, percussion), miming to their own recorded performance of “Wild Indian.”  Why the lip-syncing, I don’t know, as the recording they’re singing along to is clearly not the one they made for Moe Asch in 1945. Perhaps because even though six sides from that recording session came out on Stinson in 1946, “Wild Indian” only saw the light of day when the album, Jungle Calypso, was re-released in 1953, with “bonus tracks,” as a 10-inch LP.


The “Soundies” era was mostly over by 1947, although old soundies were repackaged for television in the first decade of that medium, which probably explains the “Sterling Television Release” credit at the end of this particular video.  (The  film’s producer, Video Varieties Corporation, seems to have been in business at least through the early 50s.  In recent years, an outfit called “Soundies Central” has repackaged a bunch of these old films for the web and DVD.)

Because they didn’t last—and, presumably, because they were only ever intended as a “throwaway” medium to begin with—not many have survived, so it’s really something when one turns up.  (Kudos to Chris Lawson and Meloware Media for rescuing this one!)  For our Calypso Craze set, Ray Funk got his hands on two from 1943 by Beryl McBurnie and Sam Manning, and Bear Family oversaw their restoration.  One of these, “Quarry Road,” has since found its way to YouTube in a lo-res version.

I’ve heard of other calypso-related soundies.  As I mentioned to his Lordship: when I was perusing old issues of Billboard some years ago, I came across a review of the Duke of Iron’s act at Manhattan’s Pago Pago Club in early 1941. The reviewer was annoyed by the fact that on the night he attended, the performance was interrupted by cameramen shooting movies of the entire troupe (which included Bill Matons, a/k/a The Calypso Kid, and his dancers, who had earlier done a record-breaking run with the Duke and Gerald Clark at the Village Vanguard). Elsewhere in the same issue, it emerged that two soundies of Matons, undoubtedly including the Duke, would soon be released by Spotlight Productions.  Would love to see those.  Almost five years later, when DownBeat ran a story about Lord Invader (who was in New York to pursue a lawsuit against Morey Amsterdam and the Andrews Sisters for stealing “Rum and Coca-Cola”), it mentioned that a short, “Yankee Dollar in Trinidad”—possibly a soundie of “Yankee Dollar,” which Invader was about to cut for Asch’s new label, Disc Records—would be released in early 1946.  Never seen that one, either.

And of course the holy grail of calypso on celluloid: Lord Invader with MacBeth’s band in the 1946 Pigmeat Markham vehicle, House-Rent Party.  You can see Gregory Felix, clarinet bell in the air, on the left side of the frame in that “proscenium” photo below.  And to his left, behind the drummer: is that the Duke of Iron on cuatro? Another thought: maybe the “Yankee Dollar” short was just an edit from the feature film?


Anyway, “Wild Indian.”  It’s possible the Duke himself wrote this, although like other resident calypsonians in New York, he wasn’t always scrupulous about attributing authorship. Today’s “Fancy Indian” carnival masqueraders are said to have evolved out of the “Wild” or “Red” Indians, which are among the oldest of Trini mas bands.  (Cousins of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians, no doubt, the Trinidadian versions are supposedly inspired by the Warao people of neighboring Venezuela, which is why the mas characters are sometimes known as “Guarahoon,” a word you’ll hear in the “nonsense” chorus of the song.) To the extent that Duke’s tune describes, enacts, and comments on carnival traditions—and implicitly, in this case almost proleptically, mourns their passing—it belongs to a genre that is the calypso equivalent of ole mas.

Posted in 1940s, Duke of Iron, Lord Invader, Moe Asch, New York City, New York Nightclubs, Soundies | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Anniversary LXXX

Posted by Michael Eldridge on February 14, 2016

This blog has been dormant for a long time. Not deliberately; it’s just—well, you know. Connect the dots. Fill in the blank.

Anyway, reading about the 50th anniversary of the legendary Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (originally the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, the group has held a regular Monday night gig at the Village Vanguard since February 7, 1966) got me thinking about an unkept promise from last May, when I noted that three institutions who played big roles in promoting calypso in North America were all celebrating milestone anniversaries in the same year. (I only ever got around to writing about one of the three.)

The VJO doesn’t haven’t an especially close connection to calypso, of course. Okay: there’s Jim McNeely’s “305,” named for his former street address in…Crown Heights? Flatbush?…anyway, he claimed the tune’s West Indian feel came from rhythms he’d heard in his old Brooklyn ‘hood. (He eventually recorded it with the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra.) And Bob Mintzer’s “Antigua,” a samba-flavored calypso included on the VJO’s 2002 release, Can I Persuade You:

But that’s about all I can dig up, calypso-wise, in the band’s five-decades-long songbook.

The Vanguard itself is an altogether different matter. Among Max Gordon’s most successful early bookings were the “Calypso Recorders,” a cabaret-style revue built around Gerald Clark’s Caribbean Serenaders and vocalist the Duke of Iron, with accompaniment by Bill Matons, a lefty modern dancer whose small troupe interpreted the Duke’s calypsos with pantomimed masked dramas. (Popular Front types had lately begun adopting New York-based calypsonians as fellow travelers, thereby imbuing calypso with a certain bohemian cachet: Clark, for instance, had already been tapped to provide music for The New Masses annual ball later that year, while Wilmoth Houdini had recently concluded a run at Barney Josephson’s forward-thinking Cafe Society.)


The Vanguard show—which started in late August 1939, at a moment when calypso 78s were flying off the shelves of mid-Manhattan music shops (Clark’s was the backing band on most of them; hence his insistence on being billed as the Recorders)—ran three times nightly, and it was such a hit, with enthusiastic notices in BillboardVariety, and all the New York dailies, that at the end of ten weeks, Gordon signed Clark for another ten months. He continued to book calypso periodically all the way through the 1950s.


My lack of follow-through on this post was due in part to sheer peevishness. A year ago I spoke on the phone with what journalists would call a “high-ranking official” at the Vanguard, who told me that business records and other ephemera from the old days were scarce, but warmly offered to let me peruse the club’s booking “bible”—containing names and dates of headlining artists—and suggested, tantalizingly, that there might be other “ledgers” I could look at too. But when I followed up a few months later, in preparation for a summer visit to the city, I got the cold shoulder.

No matter. The Village Vanguard’s own website features several great pieces of calypso ephemera, including the above handbill. I’m writing about some of the reviews as part of a chapter on calypso’s embrace by the American left in the 1940s. In the meantime, here’s a photo of Matons, a/k/a The Calypso Kid (he later made a career as “Calypso Joe”), performing the pantomime to “Edward VIII” that he introduced at the Vanguard in 1939:


Bill Matons, publicity shot for an engagement at New York’s Pago Pago Club, January 1941. (New York Journal-American photo morgue, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin)

Posted in Calypso, Duke of Iron, Gerald Clark, New York City, New York Nightclubs, village vanguard | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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


Screenshot from

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 »

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 »

Brand-Name Calypso

Posted by Michael Eldridge on November 14, 2013

Oscar Brand (WNYC Archives | ©WNYC)

Things have a way of hiding out on the Internet.  Case in point: these three-year-old YouTube posts of excerpts from a 1959 episode of Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festival.  The legendary lefty/balladeer/recording artist/author/producer’s program has aired weekly on WNYC since December 1945 (!)—which makes Brand a legendary broadcaster above all, I guess.  (And did I mention “nonagenarian“? Go ahead: think of anybody—anybody—in North American folk music over the past 70 years.  They’ve almost certainly been on Folksong Festival.)

Like his 1940s fellow travelers in “People’s Songs,” an organization to which, like all groups, he belonged only ambivalently, Brand has always taken a broad view of folk music, which means that he has occasionally showcased calypso on his program.  (He even wrote and sang one—”Small Boat Calypso”—for his 1960 album Boating Songs and All That Bilge.  I confess I haven’t heard it, though given Brand’s weakness for comic and bawdy songs, I wouldn’t want to vouch for its authenticity.)

The Duke of Iron’s first appearances on WNYC precede Brand by more than half a decade, and in his sophomore date on June 27th, 1940 (as reported by the left-leaning daily PM), the Harlem-based calypsonian unveiled an ode to the public station and its patron saint, Hizzoner:

P.M. (New York), 27 June 1940

P.M. (New York), 27 June 1940

Station WNYC
Yes, WNYC, it is owned by the people of N. Y. C.


You have heard of that great little fighter
And I mean our Mayor LaGuardia
Who for days and nights of much deliberation
Fought for the existence of his pet station.
We look up to him as the godfather
For without his aid we couldn’t get so far.
Through his efforts you would be glad to hear
We’ll be on the air for another year.

Still, given the Duke’s pre-eminence on the New York scene, not to mention his own occasional involvement with the People’s Songsters, it’s a safe bet that he eventually took part in Brand’s Festival, too.  [Update, April 2014: he did indeed—and more, besides.  Stay tuned.]

L-R: Josh White, Oscar Brand, Lord Burgess, ca. 1954 (WNYC Archives | ©WNYC)

At left is Brand with folksinger Josh White and calypsonian Lord Burgess, né Irving Burgie, the man behind Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song” and dozens of other Caribbe-ish tunes.  (The photo probably dates from around 1954, after Burgie had made an LP for Stinson Records and was playing a six-week date at the Village Vanguard.)  And below are the excerpts from that undated 1959 show, when MacBeth the Great was two years dead but his namesake Orchestra lived on, under the leadership of brother Pelham Fritz, who went on to a long career as a New York City Parks & Recreation official.  (Bandmember Claude “Fats” Greene would later take the helm before striking out on his own.)

The first tune is a cover of Sparrow’s prize-winning, animal-rights-oriented take on the Sputnik panic, “Russian Satellite.”  In the second, the band is joined by Lord Invader, who skewers segregationist Governor Orville Faubus in his original composition, “Crisis in Arkansas.”


You can find “legitimate” archival audio from Folksong Festival at WNYC’s website.

Several items from Fats Greene’s discography on Cab & Camille records are also floating around on YouTube, and they’re all well worth a listen: “Justina,” “Senorita,” “Calypsorama,” and “Shake ‘M Up.”

Posted in Calypso, Duke of Iron, Lord Burgess, Lord Invader, MacBeth the Great, Oscar Brand, Uncategorized, WNYC | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Halloween Edition: Get Back, Jo Jo

Posted by Michael Eldridge on October 31, 2013

The popularity of the Walking Dead franchise ensures that hoary old stereotypes about “voodoo” won’t be going to their grave any time soon—even if, these days, “the zombie” has been abstracted into a generic horror figure of unspecified origin and no fixed address.

Still, in the wake of Laurent Dubois’s Times Op-Ed piece on reparations (“Paying the Price of Caribbean Slavery“), I’m even warier than usual of perpetuating pernicious stereotypes about vodun.  Truly ridding the world of the legacy of slavery, Dubois affirms, would of course involve owning up to colonial history and committing to deep structural changes in global economics.  But it would also mean “ending the continuing mistreatment and stereotyping of Haitians, who were the pioneers in the overthrow of slavery and have been paying for it ever since.” And “[in] Europe and the United States, it would mean abandoning condescending visions of the Caribbean” in general (along with “building policies on aid, trade and immigration based on an acceptance of common and connected histories”).

When it comes to portraying African religion in the New World without disdain, calypsonians’ record isn’t exactly spotless.  Sir Lancelot’s participation in Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie 1 can perhaps be excused by invoking Bhabhian “ambivalence” and construing the film as a story of colonial chickens coming home to roost.  Still—notwithstanding a few  faithful performances of “Shango” chants scattered throughout the Decca catalogue—the roster of Golden Age calypsos ridiculing Shango, obeah, “voodoo,” and so on is long enough to constitute a significant subgenre, and the ubiquitous “Zombie Jamboree” (debuted by Lord Intruder in 1953) is probably the least malign item on the list.2

Here, in spite of my misgivings, is another entry, a little-known number by the Duke of Iron (Cecil Anderson), the Trinidadian émigré active in the U.S. between the 1930s and the 1960s. Unlike the Duke’s many recordings for Decca, Disc/Stinson, and Monogram (he also waxed sides for Varsity, Apollo, RCA Victor, and Prestige, among others), this one, “Jo Jo Zombie (The Voodoo Man),” is a rarity, released by the Titan Music Publishing Co. of Montclair, New Jersey—and it’s also not so much a calypso as a primitivist novelty song.  I haven’t been able to turn up the slightest trace of Titan on the web, so  I’m going to assume for the moment that this is an “orphaned” recording.  None of the nice folks at the Montclair Public Library or the Newark Public Library’s New Jersey Information Center can find a listing for the company in the Montclair city directory before 1953 or after 1957.  If any collectors or discographers out there have further clues, I’d be happy to receive them.  (And if anyone can present a credible claim to copyright, I’ll gladly take this down.)



  1. A sensationalist trailer for the film and Lancelot’s performance of the “Fort Holland Calypso Song” are both available on YouTube.
  2. Ade Ofunniyin provides a patient introduction to the southern U.S. incarnation of vodun, “conjure,” in the Charleston Chronicle, “A Telling Tale of a Conjurer’s Travesty,” reblogged on Repeating Islands.

Posted in Calypso, Duke of Iron, Halloween, Vodun, Zombies | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Giving Calypso the Slip

Posted by Michael Eldridge on September 15, 2013

Earlier this year I was gathering materials for a post about “Calypso Couture”:  calypso-themed summerwear and vacation togs—sundresses, bermuda shorts, and the like—that North American department stores and clothing manufacturers were hawking in the mid-1950s.   Now that Labor Day has come and gone, I’ll have to pack those items away (with my white shoes) and haul them out again next Easter.

There is one item I’ll put on display right now, though, and I’ll let the Duke of Iron introduce it:

“The History of Seamprufe” might look to be one of the odder items in the Duke’s long discography.  Still, by the mid-1950s (when the record appeared), calypsonians had been composing commercial jingles for decades.  Even a usually high-minded figure like Atilla the Hun could offer an earnest paean to Eduardo Sa Gomes’ radio and record emporiums, and in the late 1940s and 50s, Sir Lancelot was renowned in Hollywood for his pseudo-spontaneous ditties for Ford, Philco, and a host of other local and national concerns.  (Two episodes of Dinah Shore’s “Ford Show,” one with Carmen Miranda and another with Johnny Mercer, featuring his singing ads circulate widely on the Internet.)  And so the idea of the Duke—who’d lately been favoring racy tunes like “Parakeets,” “I Left Her Behind For You,” and “The Big Bamboo“—writing an encomium to a ladies’ lingerie company maybe isn’t so odd after all.

(I should pause to note that Gordon Rohlehr, Ray Funk, and Kim Johnson have all written knowledgeably about the history of calypso in advertising.  And I’m long overdue in giving a shout-out to Iconoscope1850, one of several stalwarts who have brought scads of classic—and sometimes quite rare—calypso records to the web via YouTube over the past couple of years.  TheRealDJGIBS is another; be sure to check his “Calypso Classics” and “Jamaican Mento” playlists.  Also: generalbuttnaked1—really[!]—collects calypso and mento from all over the YouTube universe.)

What’s more remarkable is that this wasn’t the first time Seamprufe had enlisted calypso to sell underwear.  The Aronson-Caplin Company trademarked the “Seamprufe” brand in 1931, letting it lapse only when the firm apparently went out of business in 1978.  In its heyday in the 40s and 50s, however, Seamprufe was one of the major names in women’s intimate apparel, having moved from humble origins in New York’s garment district to offices first on lower Broadway, catty-corner from the present-day Zuccotti Park, then on Madison Avenue, with a high-profile showroom on Fifth Avenue.

A late 1956 campaign in Mademoiselle showed no inkling of the nascent Calypso Craze, adopting a vaguely Iberian theme instead (though one suspects the guitar of the young girl in the foreground is meant to evoke rock and roll rather than, say, flamenco).

But a decade earlier, in 1947, Seamprufe was already promoting its “captivating Calypso Colors” (Caribbean Blue, White Coral, Oleander Pink), supposedly having “tak[en] color inspiration from the Indies.”  There were no similarly inspired graphics, though, until 1949, by which time the “calypso” palette had expanded to eight colors (including “Trinidad tan”) and the ad copy had gotten goosed, too:

Calypso Slips

Ladies Home Journal, April 1949

The same ad ran more than once in The New Yorker during the late winter of that year—tropical getaway season for the smart set.

Just how much calypso music was actually “in the air” in the U.S. in 1949 is subject to debate: I generally regard this period as a lull in calypso’s Stateside fortunes, the trough between the peaks of the mid-40s “Rum-and-Coca-Cola/Stone Cold Dead” phase and the full-on Craze of a decade later.  Even Monogram Records wouldn’t initiate its cavalcade of calypso releases for few more years.  (Things may have looked different from New York City, where calypso continued to occupy niches both uptown and downtown throughout the late 40s and early 50s.)  At any rate, Seamprufe was apparently hedging its bets, as anecdotal evidence suggests that it was actually putting more resources into a somewhat different brand of exoticism.  Search the web for Seamprufe in 1949 and what turns up more often than calypso is the “Shades of Scheherezade” campaign (for “Harem Colors,” including “Bagdad Blue”).

A footnote: better, perhaps, to dream of being an oriental dancing girl than to be a garment worker.  Those “faithful employees” the Duke sang about—the ones cranking out all those “lovely slips”?  Maybe the benevolent Messrs. Caplin really did treat them well in the “underworld of feminine fashion.”  But they emphatically didn’t want the women who wore their undergarments to look for the union label, as they repeatedly discouraged postwar efforts by the ILGWU to organize workers at their plants.


I was grateful to refer the following web resources while writing this post:

Posted in Calypso, Duke of Iron | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Merengue and Coca-Cola (Jean-Léon Destiné, Patty Andrews)

Posted by Michael Eldridge on February 2, 2013

Late January saw the passing of two figures, both aged 94, who in very different ways helped raise the profile of Caribbean culture in the United States.

Jean-Léon Destiné

First was Haitian émigré Jean-Léon Destiné, part of a close-knit circle of influential dancer-choreographers including Asadata Dafora, Katherine Dunham, and Pearl Primus, who in the 1940s put African and Caribbean dances on the Broadway stage—and the stages of other prominent venues such as Carnegie Hall, the 92d Street “Y,” and the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.  Destiné himself never danced anything that he called a “calypso,” as far as I know, although in Katherine Dunham’s 1946 Bal Nègre he sang a Carnival merengue, “Apollon“—and in 1957, the year of the Calypso Craze, he toured Japan with what was described as a “calypso troupe,” then set up a company of his own, the “Jean-Léon Destiné Carib-Creole Carnival,” that toured 22 cities in the eastern U.S. and Canada with The Duke of Iron, Lord Nelson, the Magnets steel band, and others.  (Update, January 2014: on a recent visit to the Schomburg to view the Cecil [Duke of Iron] Anderson papers, I learned that the Duke had taken part in Destiné’s productions as far back as 1949, both in New York and on the road—once, at least, as far west as Denver.)

The Andrews Sisters: Maxene, Patty and LaVerne

Eight days later it was Patty Andrews, youngest and last surviving member of the legendary Andrews Sisters.  As the opening music cue of NPR’s obituary implied, the sister act will be forever linked to their bumpity, bowdlerized rendition of Lord Invader’s “Rum and Coca-Cola,” which topped the charts for many weeks in 1944 and ’45 (despite being banned from radio), on its way to becoming the world’s most famous calypso.  (Kevin Burke tells the story of the song’s theft—and its afterlife—at The Rum and Coca-Cola Reader.)  In spite of the tune’s popularity, the Andrews Sisters never took on another bona fide calypso, though they did do the calypso-esque “Money Is the Root of All Evil” later in 1945 and gamely dusted off their “native” accents two years later for both the casually racist “Civilization (Bongo Bongo Bongo)” (with Danny Kaye) and a cover of Stan Kenton & June Christy’s “His Feet Too Big For de Bed.”

Posted in Andrews Sisters, Duke of Iron, Jean-Léon Destiné, Lord Invader, Rum and Coca-Cola | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

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