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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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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:

Posted in Calypso, Folkways Recoreds, Moe Asch, Samuel Charters | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Horn-Tooting

Posted by Michael Eldridge on January 1, 2015

My family and I spent part of New Year’s morning watching the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade on TV—largely because we have dear friends who help build some of the floats. (Go, Sierra Madre! Huzzah, Paradiso! In years past, we’ve been recruited to glue a flower or two, ourselves.) Sixty-two years ago today, the Rose Parade featured a float bedecked with Trinidadian dancers and singers who’d won a contest to represent the float’s sponsor, The March of Dimes, as ambassadors of its worldwide campaign to fight polio.  On the DVD contained in our Calypso Craze box set, Ray Funk and I included a short film documenting the group’s trip (the singers were known for decades afterwards as the March of Dimes quartet), and this morning I was reminded that I’d meant to post some supplemental materials to the set’s “Extra-Illustrated” website.

Here, for example, are eight seconds of home-movie video of the March of Dimes float (don’t blink!):

Next, courtesy of the New York Public Radio archives, you can hear the Trinidadians performing five days later on the steps of Manhattan’s city hall as part of a longer program broadcast on municipal station WNYC. (WordPress still won’t let you embed many audio players, unfortunately, but you can navigate to WNYC’s site via the link above and stream the entire program there.)

And finally, a grainy photograph and newspaper story from the Trinidad Guardian marking the performers triumphant return (thanks to Ray Funk):

modguardian1953

Speaking of Calypso Craze: the set has been out since August, and although we couldn’t organize a New York event in time for Brooklyn carnival, Ray will be down in Trinidad doing a carnival launch there in a few weeks. Meanwhile, New Year’s Day seems as good a time as any to toot our own horns.  Here are some of the reviews and features available online.

Web:

Radio:

  • Planet Fruit (Johannes Paetzold, Radio Eins)
  • WDR5 (Klaus Walter)
  • Stefan Maelck includes Calypso Craze (along with my hero Jeff Tweedy!) in the week’s “Take 5,” a selection of five notable new releases, on MDR Figaro (audio)

Print:

And (added February 23, 2015)

We appreciate the attention and the kind words.  Happy New Year!

Posted in Calypso Craze, March of Dimes, New York City, Rose Parade, WNYC | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Geoffrey Holder, 1930-2014

Posted by Michael Eldridge on October 17, 2014

Geoffrey Holder outside Loew's Metropolitan Theater, Brooklyn, New York, April 1957

Geoffrey Holder outside Loew’s Metropolitan Theater, Brooklyn, New York, April 1957

Dancer, choreographer, painter, actor, bon vivant…I’m hardly the first to remark that Geoffrey Holder was a towering figure—literally and figuratively—in Trinidadian and American culture.  A year after coming to New York in 1953 with help from Agnes DeMille, Holder shot to Broadway fame as Baron Samedi in Harold Arlen’s House of Flowers, and soon he was the toast of the town’s smart set, the poster boy for an urbane, cosmopolitan version of Caribbean culture.

Holder danced in Aida at the Met and acted in an all-black production of Waiting for Godot, but some of his other projects, even in those early days, were more schtick than sophistiqué. During the Calypso Craze of 1957, for example, he played the title role in a TV adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Bottle Imp”; promotional tie-ins included a Glamour magazine photo spread and a 45 rpm single.  Somewhat more respectably, he let his name be attached to a New York Times Sunday Magazine piece that weighed in on “Manhattan Calypso” and its attendant craze (“That Fad From Trinidad,” 21 April 1957). At the same moment, he was doing his best to help producer Michael Myerberg cash in on the Calypso Craze, headlining “Geoffrey Holder’s Caribbean Calypso Festival” at Loew’s Metropolitan Theater in Brooklyn. The revue certainly looked good on paper: its cast of 60-plus included Maya Angelou, Lord Flea, Lord Kitchener (flown over specially from London), and a house band led by Tito Puente. It must have looked great in person, too. But pitted as a publicity stunt against a Jocko Henderson Rock ‘n’ Roll show at Loew’s State in Manhattan, it flopped badly, an early indicator that the calypso fad was fizzling. Once the show ended its run, Holder had nothing more to do with the commercialization of calypso.

The Carl Van Vechten Collection at Marquette University Library contains some two dozen portraits of Geoffrey Holder (alone and with other dancers) dating from the mid-1950s. The photos may be viewed online and downloaded, but they may not be reproduced without permission.

I interviewed Holder (badly) back in 1998 but have never transcribed our talk. One day I may swallow my pride and post some excerpts here. In the meantime I’ll remember him as he appears in son Leo’s account of his last hours, dancing his way into the afterlife.

holderpgmbklt

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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.

Posted in Calypso, Mississippi Records, Portland | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Ron y Coca-Cola

Posted by Michael Eldridge on June 22, 2014

I can’t imagine I’d have much to say about Lord Invader’s “Rum and Coca-Cola” that Kevin Burke hasn’t already covered in his superb Rum and Coca-Cola Reader.  Revisiting Burke’s website has got me thinking, though: not to put too fine a point on it, but what happens when the creator of a brilliant and indispensable resource like this…well…dies?  Or even just gets ill, or grows weary, or can no longer afford to renew the domain name?  Does this part of his life’s work just vaporize?  It happened, tragically, and prematurely, with the late Jim Zwick’s Anti-Imperialism in American Life and Sentenaryo/Centennial. Heck, I myself could get hit by a bus tomorrow and Working for the Yankee Dollar would disappear, too. After a while anyway, one presumes. Don’t get me wrong: even as I slink further into middle age, I don’t make a habit of being morbid, and I sincerely hope that Kevin has many, many healthy, prosperous, and active years ahead of him. Me, too, for that matter.  But what happens then?  I really want to know.  One hates to think of something so valuable being so ephemeral.

Anyway, as I was saying: about the pilfering of Invader’s calypso, I’ve nothing to add.  But it’s the first day of summer, which has me thinking about hot-weather refreshment. So what about the song’s namesake drink?

Even if you weren’t especially sophisticated about cultural politics or imperial history, I suppose you could read the Rum and Coke as an emblem of Trini-American “hybridity.”  Never mind the fact that it was Yankee imperialists bringing their world-dominating soft drink to the tropics and mixing it up with the local spirit, itself a product of slavery and colonialism. And never mind how the Andrews Sisters softened Invader’s stinging (albeit sexist) critique of American hegemony with their saccharine fizz.  By Invader’s own account, all those encounters between Trinidadian women and G.I. Joes—which yielded a bumper crop of blue-eyed, curly-haired offspring, to hear the calypsonians tell it—were facilitated by a peculiar sexual lubricant: a certain caramel-colored highball.

For a short while, Rum and Coca-Cola and “Rum and Coca-Cola” enjoyed considerable synergy: the hit song supposedly spiked sales of the mixed drink.  (One of the ostensible reasons for the song’s banning from American radio, in fact, was that it constituted free advertising for the Coca-Cola Company.)  Musically speaking, it’s now customary to trace the family tree of American pseudo-calypso from the Calypso Craze back to the Andrews Sisters’ bumpity bowdlerization.  But genealogy is a complicated business: in 1945, Invader also came north in pursuit of copyright justice and spent much of the next sixteen years in the States, floating freely between the worlds of jazz, blues, pop, and folk, borrowing promiscuously from all four.  In Britain, the West Indies, and America, his contemporaries were doing likewise.  It was a period of extraordinary stylistic development in calypso.

One of Invader’s last albums for Folkways Records, the aptly named Calypso Travels, includes the philosophical “As Long As It Born In My House, Is Mine.” (“It is said the child resemble Lieutenant Joe,” the lyrics begin; “Even [if] it is so, well, Honey, I don’t want to know.”)

Less than two decades after the Andrews Sisters and the American “invasion” of Trinidad, all trace of wounded male pride has vanished, and Invader is content to claim paternity for the bastard issue of wartime betrayal. Just months before his death in 1961, in fact, Invader would be pressed into service for a bizarre final episode of the celebrated TV newsmagazine Omnibus, where he appeared as a sort of wandering minstrel in the service of U.S. hegemony. Introducing—in calypso—a series of fusty academics prognosticating on the state of the Western hemisphere ten years hence, the former fiery tribune of civil rights and independence seemed to be shilling for the Pax Americana. More about this in a future post, perhaps.

But Lord Invader’s sorties and reversals make up just one chapter of a tangled tale of imperial love and theft. Before cola with rum was Rum and Coke, it was the “Cuba Libre.” And the Cuba Libre—as the Americans would have it, anyway—was supposedly a drink concocted by U.S. soldiers in Cuba, in tribute to the fighting spirit of the country they had “liberated” in the Spanish-American war.

Last year, Bacardi, which makes the top-selling rum in the U.S. (and which is controlled by the descendents-in-exile of the company’s Cuban founder), acknowledged the presumptuousness of this self-serving myth—sort of.  In a television ad timed to coincide with “Cuban Independence Day,” a holiday not observed in Cuba itself, where the 1902 anniversary marked by the date is viewed as the start of a half-century of neo-colonial subservience, a sultry independendista rebuffs a patronizing overture from one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, who impulsively offers her the glistening bottle of cola he has just plucked from the ice-bucket beside the desk in Teddy’s tent.  (He narrates the episode in an inarticulate, aw-shucks style reminiscent of George Bush.)

More screenshots at iSpot.tv. Watch the ad in its entirety on YouTube below. High-resolution versions available on Vimeo and brightcove (click the fullscreen icon).

In one swift motion, she rips the bottle from his hand, flips off its crown with the long knife with which she’s been whittling lazily between her parted legs, and dumps half its contents on the ground, spiking the remainder with a liberal splash from a flask she pulls from her garter, and whose cork she clenches savagely in her teeth.  “Cuba Libre!” she says, harshly, as she slaps the bottle back into his hand, then turns and sashays off into the jungle, casting back a withering glance at the dazzled, guileless hick.

Or is it a come-hither look?  Bacardi wants it both ways.  In spite of the tongue-in-cheek vignette where the rebel, not the soldier, is the agent of her own liberation (and her own mixology), the ending leaves open the possibility that the dusky maiden really might like to engage in a little mestizaje with the bandana’d blue-eyed hunk. (Unlike her Trinidadian counterpart, though, she won’t do it for money, or stockings, or chewing-gum, let alone Coca-Cola.)  And even if Bacardi manages to debunk a myth with one hand, it reinscribes it with the other. Touting the campaign, Tony Whitmoyer, Bacardi’s VP for marketing, was quoted in Advertising Age to the effect that “[m]illennial consumers are ‘really looking for brands that have authenticity and a heritage and a story…Bacardi has been incredibly successful as a business, but we really haven’t taken the time to tell consumers the real story behind the brand.’”  Meanwhile, a promotional website set up by Bacardi USA’s parent company, Bacardi Limited, simply rehearsed uncritically the old saw that gives credit for the drink to a U.S. Army Signal Corps captain in the “American Bar” in Havana.  (In an utterly incongruous gesture, in conjunction with the launch of the “historically-minded” ads, the company celebrated Cuban Independence Day in New York City by throwing a free concert at Roseland Ballroom featuring white hip-hop duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis.)

With Trinidadian self-rule and the departure of American troops in 1956, an upstart Sparrow—in many ways Invader’s stylistic successor—could gloat that with “No more Yankees to spoil the fete / Dorothy have to take what she get.”  “The Yankees gone,” he crowed; “Sparrow take over now.”  Henceforth, Trinidadians would call the shots and set the price. It must have seemed an empowering notion. But as Earl Lovelace’s doubtful title has it: Is Just a Movie. True, the U.S. finally closed its naval base at Chaguaramas in 1967, five years after full Trinidadian independence. But Coke is still bottled in T&T. By contrast, in a final irony, after the 1959 revolution which freed Cuba at last from American domination, both Bacardi and Coca-Cola left that country, never to return. So you might say it’s Cuba libre, not Trinidad, which has been “free” of the Yanqui for the last half-century.  Free of Rum-and-Coca-Colonization, at least.

cuba-libre-tee


Posted in Andrews Sisters, Lord Invader, Rum and Coca-Cola | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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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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?

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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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