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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Posts Tagged ‘Bear Family’


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):


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.



  • 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)


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 »

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.


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.

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

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


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

2013: The Year in Calypso Reissues

Posted by Michael Eldridge on February 17, 2014

Periodically I find myself pining for the days when you could rely on Rounder to bring out some great new—which is to say, old—calypso anthology every other year or so.  But that race is run.  One fears that even a distance runner like Bear Family, who used to think nothing of producing lavish ten-disc box sets for obsessives and completists, must be on its last legs.  (One hopes such fears are unfounded; I hear rumors of great things in the works.  Still: there are only so many obsessives and completists in the world.)

In 2013, a lot of lesser outfits carried the calypso baton.  First, the gray-market stuff.  A while back, I surveyed some of the early entrants in the online race.  Now there’s yet another untraceable digital-download “label” (this one calling itself “Mondotone”) that specializes in tossing together loosely themed collections of vintage tracks, some well-worn, others relatively untrodden.  From the Caribbean corner of the mondo, they offer Calypso Kingdom: Lions and Tigers from Trinidad y Tobago, 1934-1957, which mixes up classic 1930s Deccas with small-label sides from the 40s and postwar issues from Melodisc and Parlophone; Treasure Isles: Music from Barbados, Bahamas & Virgin Islands, 1939-1958 (generous helpings of Blind Blake, George Symonette, and Lloyd Thomas, among others); and Mento Mania! The Origins of Ska and Reggae music in Jamaica, 1953-1955.  Each one is optimistically numbered “Vol. 1.”  We’ll see.  They feature enough good and/or or rare tunes to make all of them worth buying, but I can’t find anyone selling them with PDF booklets, so I assume there are none.  You want historical context and/or discographical details?  You’re on your own.

Or you turn to Frémeaux & Associés, who in 2010 inaugurated a series of double-disc sets devoted to various corners of the mid-century Anglophone Caribbean with Jamaica – Mento 1953-1958.  In 2011 they visited the Bahamas (Goombay 1951-1959) and Trinidad (Calypso 1939-1959), with a single-volume side trip focusing on the “internationalization” of calypso in the 1940s and 50s (Calypso 1944-1958).  In 2012 they sailed north to Bermuda (Gombey & Calypso 1953-1960).  This past year’s port of call: the Virgin Islands (Quelbe & Calypso 1956-1960).  You’ve got to admire the scope and ambition of the undertaking: compiler/producer/musicologist/musician Bruno Blum has clearly been working overtime to churn out these serial labors of love.  The packaging is nothing special—bulky quad jewel cases, hollowed out to make room for bilingual booklets—though the “retro” tourist graphics are very attractive.  And even if the notes are sometimes a bit dodgy, at least there are notes.  Above all, it’s great to see these tracks being cleaned up, documented, and circulated.

Fantastic Voyage Music adopts the “travel” trope more literally—well, nominally—although Jamaica is really its only stop in the Caribbean so far.  The latest:  Mento, Not Calypso!: The Original Sound of Jamaica, a two-disc set whose theme is in its title.  It contains a thoughtful selection of rare vintage tunes, many of which have not appeared on other, earlier collections.  And yes: even compiler Phil Etgart concedes (in his erudite notes) that back in the day, not all mento artists were particular about generic distinctions.  As a canny Lord Flea told an American fanzine during the 1957 Calypso Craze:

[I]n Jamaica, we call our music “mento” until very recently. Today, calypso is beginning to be used for all kinds of West Indian music. This is because it’s become so commercialized there. Some people like to think of West Indians as carefree natives who work and sing and play and laugh their lives away. But this isn’t so. Most of the people there are hard working folks, and many of them are smart business men. If the tourists want “calypso,” that’s what we sell them.

Fantastic Voyage is a British company, and the UK seems to be where most of the reissue action is at these days.  Case in point: Stuart Baker‘s Soul Jazz Records, which has put out its share of classic Jamaican music in the last 20 years, thanks to a licensing agreement with Clement Dodd’s Studio One.  Its latest release, however, is a collaboration with British Pathé that takes a more Pan-Caribbean view—keeping in mind the fact that the UK itself became the second most populous West Indian island some time ago.  Which is another way of saying that the organizing principle of Mirror to the Soul: Music, Culture and Identity in the Caribbean 1920-72 is loose.  One disc, “Caribbean Jump-Up, Mambo & Calypso Beat 1954-1977,” is broad-minded enough to encompass Irakere, Peanuts Taylor, Edmundo Ros, the Fabulous McClevertys, and the Duke of Iron.  The other, “Afro-Caribbean Music Up From the Roots 1994-2013,” emphasizes folkloric music from the francophone Caribbean—mostly.  (Cuba, Colombia, and Belize are represented, too.)  In some ways, though, the CDs are an afterthought: the centerpiece of the set is a DVD of the film from which the entire package takes its name, Mirror to the Soul: A Documentary film about British Pathé in the West Indies 1920-72.  It contains some truly fantastic footage, including not just the obligatory clip of Kitch at Tilbury Docks but also patrons and performers at London’s Caribbean Club in 1947, Boscoe Holder’s dance troupe in London in 1956 (and daily life in Brixton that same year), and the Talbot Brothers in Bermuda in 1959 and 1962.  The title is a misnomer, though: the film isn’t a documentary “about” British Pathé, but rather fifty-odd fragments of newsreels with no framing or commentary, save Baker’s smart essay in the accompanying booklet.  Baker emphasizes how Pathé, a private company, nevertheless reflected the paternalistic prerogatives of Empire in its representations of the Caribbean, even as it “chart[ed] Britain’s changing relationship towards its colonies” over the course of the 20th century.  “We are here because you were there,” goes the anti-anti-immigration slogan that began as a London graffito at the start of the modern black British civil rights movement.  Mirror to the Soul shows Pathé—and West Indians—both “here” and “there.”  (You can preview the audio on Soundcloud and the video on Vimeo.)

Two other compilations focus exclusively on Britain.  The first, Calypsos, Boogies, Rockers, Ballads, & Bluebeat: The Rise of Black Music in Britain, is of interest less for its smattering of 1950s calypsos, none of them new to CD, than for the diverse context of black genres—jazz, pop, R&B, rock, ska, bluebeat—in which they’re set.  It’s a worthy project, but a low-budget one, and consequently notes are scant and discographical info absent, even on the label’s website.  I’m surprised to have similar complaints about what is nevertheless the cream of last year’s crop, namely, the latest installment in Honest Jon’s indispensable series London Is The Place For Me.  Or rather, installments, plural, as Afro-Cubism, Calypso, Highlife, Mento, Jazz comprises volumes 5 & 6 (unless you’re buying it on vinyl). This set also puts calypso in context, though the backdrop here is the very worldly jazz and highlife that Denis Preston and Melodisc were also recording in the early 1950s, often in the same studios and with many of the same musicians.  Notes to the set are breezily informative but somewhat piecemeal, and apart from a few label scans there are no dates, no catalog numbers, no session details.  The gorgeous packaging, replete as usual with evocative photos from the Val Wilmer collection, almost makes up for those flaws.  Almost.

Inattention to detail is one thing you never have to worry about with Steve Shapiro or John Cowley—or with Bear Family, whose production values are unstintingly high.  No surprise, then, to find first-rate research, commentary, sound restoration, and design in Calypso Dawn: 1912, an album marking the centenary of the historic New York recordings of Lovey’s Band, the twelve-piece string band from Trinidad led by George “Lovey” Baillie.  The one-disc Digipak—released in late 2012, it didn’t hit the States till 2013—collects nearly all of the group’s sides for Columbia and three for Victor, including many “paseos,” two-step instrumental versions of popular calypso melodies of the day.  (Several will be familiar to afficionados of classic vocal calypsos recorded in the 20s and 30s.)  Between them, Shapiro and Cowley are responsible for a gaggle of those nostalgia-inducing compilations from Rounder (and Matchbox, and Smithsonian Folkways, and…) that I alluded to at the top of this post.  Moreover, Cowley’s Carnival, Canboulay and Calypso is one of the starting points for anyone doing research in Caribbean culture, and he was chief cat-herder of the “Classic Calypso Collective,” which produced Bear Family’s monumental West Indian Rhythm in 2006.  So this is a welcome addition to the canon.  And if the big box set really has run its course, then I hope this type of “one-off” charts a way forward.

Posted in Calypso, Great Britain, Lovey's Band, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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