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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Posts Tagged ‘Muriel Gaines’

Mehr deutsche Calypso (oder, Die Mädchen aus der Mambo-Bar)

Posted by Michael Eldridge on June 25, 2012

Mona Baptiste, Es liegt was in der Luft

Even though I’m supposedly working on a Bear Family Records project myself, the members of that family (like so many others) don’t necessarily communicate so well.  So it was from a post on Berlin record collector Andreas Michalke’s blog, Berlin Beatet Bestes, that I first heard about Es liegt was in der Luft,  the German label’s collection of Mona Baptiste‘s mid-1950s Deutsches sides.

Mona Baptiste in The Mail

The Mail (Adelaide, Australia), 2 June 1951

Along with passengers destined for somewhat greater fame such as Lords Kitchener and Beginner (and, as it happens, the well-established transatlantic activist and culture-vulture Nancy Cunard), the Trini-born Baptiste emigrated to London in 1948 on the S.S. Empire Windrush and found some modest success singing with Black British bandleader Cab Caye and others.  In the early 50s she waxed a handful of sides for Melodisc with Freddy Grant’s Caribbean Rhythm Band, among them a cover of Nat King Cole’s “Calypso Blues”—a tune Baptiste reprised on a 1957 return visit to Trinidad for Emory Cook’s Beauty and the Brute Force.  (The Melodisc version appears on Volume 2 of the excellent Honest Jon’s series London Is the Place for Me.)

Europe's Calypso Queen

Muriel Gaines on the cover of Jet Magazine, 29 May 1952

The liner notes for Beauty tout Baptiste as “famous in Europe among patrons of radio, TV and nightclubs,” and by 1957 her celebrity had indeed crossed the Channel—and the North Sea.  Michalke recounts that Baptiste signed her first contract with the German branch of Polydor in 1953 and sang in seven German films before the decade was out, including 1959’s classic Die Mädchen für die Mambo-Bar.  Around the same time, according to The Beat columnist Dave Hucker, she was a repeat guest on the influential English pop show “Oh Boy.”  Presumably she had by this point dethroned Harlem’s Muriel Gaines (right) as “Europe’s Queen of Calypso.”  (On Gaines, see also the companion site to Irwin Chusid’s long-running radio program Muriel’s Treasure, as well as the Vocal Harmony Group website.  You can listen to Baptiste sing “Die Mädchen aus der Mambo-Bar” and “Boy, komm und küß mich,” both from 1959—and both in delightfully cheesy arrangements, at Michalke’s blog.)

The Germans’ infatuation with Baptiste wasn’t just a one-off.  Two years ago I blogged about Andy Narell and Lord Relator’s collaboration with the WDR Big Band (Narell has since released recordings of that splendid concert and others on DVD, by the way), but several dots connect die Mädchen mit der Panman.  Baptiste’s “Es liegt was in der Luft” (“There’s Something in the Air”), for example, also appeared on a recent collection of 50s Wirtschaftswunder-Hits with Greek emigre Leo Leandros’ Calypso Craze cover of “The Banana Boat Song,” “Komm Mr. Tallimann” (performed with his group “die Original Calypso-Stars”).

In 1975, the Globe Unity Orchestra, the large ensemble led by saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach and featuring a collection of German, Dutch, English and American “out” jazz all-stars, recorded the slightly loopy “Bavarian Calypso”:

(The original single and its B-side, together with an alternate take and several more tunes from the same period, have just been collected on the album FMP S 6…plus, released digitally by the good people behind the “mp-free jazz blog” Destination: Out.  A rather more boisterous version of the tune appears on Globe Unity – 40 Years, recorded in 2006.)

Meanwhile, the website T&T in Germany (“conceived during the historic campaign of the Soca Warriors, Trinidad and Tobago’s national football team, to their debut appearance at the 2006 World Cup in Germany”) offers a near-exhaustive selection, most of it streamable, of “Calypso and Soca music by German artists, with German language or featuring Germany.”  The list includes not just old chestnuts like the Duke of Iron’s cover of “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” Invader’s “My Experience on the Reeperbahn,” and Lloyd Thomas’s “German Calypso,” but such forgotten gems as Max Woiski und Seine Band’s “Nescafé Calypso.”

It also includes various tunes by Christian Habekost, a/k/a “Chako,” a German academic who’s been writing about—and, um, performing—dub poetry and calypso since the 1980s.  T&T in G was too early, however, for the rather campier Lord Mouse and the Kalypso Katz, the Berlin-based band who have been active only since 2008 (MySpace | ReverbNation).

Posted in Calypso, Germany, Mona Baptiste | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Bop Guy Goes Calypso

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 11, 2010

In last weekend’s Saturday link dump, NPR’s A Blog Supreme pointed to a Brilliant Corners post by Matt Lavelle, who managed jazz sales at the old Tower Records on 4th and Broadway in New York during its final years.  Like a few thousand other people, I’ve got fond memories of that place.  The staff in the jazz department, which for ages took up half of the third floor, were wry, knowledgeable, and hip, and a number of them were working, if underemployed, musicians.  My favorite fixture, though, was an older gent named Garl Jefferson, who came out of retirement to take the job and stayed for well over ten years.

I only got to know him after about a decade’s worth of semi-annual pilgrimages.  Tower’s international section was for a while adjacent to jazz, and when I came to the counter in the summer of 2000 with a question about some obscure calypso disc that I hadn’t managed to find, the clerk referred me to Garl.  I was glad he did.

Happy Go Lucky Presskit Detail

Detail from a page of the “Happy Go Lucky” presskit (1942, rel. 1943)

Jefferson was born in Harlem in 1932.  Charlie (Congressman Charles) Rangel was in his brother’s class.  He met Sidney Poitier at the Red Rooster in the 1950s.  His high school basketball coach once wangled him an after-school job as Langston Hughes’s gofer.  And Jefferson was eager to tell me about how calypso, along with bebop and mambo, was a staple in Harlem during and after World War II.  (And even later: when he came back from the Korean War in 1954, he said, “there were still [calypso] bands and dances going on”).  He knew—and so did everyone else he knew—Houdini and the Great MacBeth and the Duke of Iron and Lord Invader and the Gerald Clark band.  He recalled seeing Sir Lancelot in “I Walked With a Zombie” and “Happy Go Lucky,” and he sang from memory a verse and chorus of Lion’s “Ugly Woman,” which Lancelot performed in the latter film.  Even Charlie Parker kept some West Indian music in his bag, he noted, citing not only Bird’s own “Barbados”—“one of the things that [eventually] got my wife closer to me, because she’s second-generation Bajan”—but also a cover of “Sly Mongoose.” (It’s included in the 1952 Live at the Rockland Palace concert; Jefferson remembered it being in Parker’s late 40s repertoire.)

Calypso Ball at the Golden Gate Ballroom (Amsterdam News, 1 February 1947)

As a teenager, Jefferson said, he heard all kinds of music in Harlem, and he leaned strongly towards bop.  But he often went to calypso dances with his best friends, many of whose parents were West Indian, at places like the Park Palace, the Renaissance Casino, and the Audubon Ballroom, as well as at smaller halls rented for the night by a West Indian social club or benevolent association.  Most any weekend, he said, you could count on hearing calypso somewhere or other.  Even at legendary jazz spots like Murrain’s and Small’s Paradise, he remembered attending “calypso dances…as well as jazz sessions.”  (He may have been too young to get into Boxil Jackson’s Caribbean Club on 7th Avenue.)  Usually there would be just one band—vocals, sax, trumpet, guitar, bass, conga, maracas—on the evening’s bill, he said, sometimes two or more at larger halls like the Park Palace.

At the time, Jefferson wasn’t aware whether any of these acts had a reputation outside of Harlem, but it wouldn’t have mattered: for him and his friends, the calypsonians’ cool factor didn’t depend upon their success downtown or out of town.  He could go to school the following Monday and say, “Man, we were at a dance [on Saturday] and MacBeth was burnin!” and he wouldn’t have to explain or defend his judgment.

West Indian Day Parade

West Indian Day Parade, 6 September 1948 (W. Smith, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs & Prints Division)

He was emphatic that a broad social spectrum—middle-class and working-class, West Indian and African-American—was represented at these events.  “For a kid my age, at the time, in the late 40s, [a calypso dance] was a social function that you counted on being at.”  The venue might only have accommodated a hundred people or even fewer, “but it was a happening!” The same went for the West Indian Day Parade, originally held on Lenox Avenue in Harlem: “For me, that was a big deal.  It meant a lot to me and the rest of the kids in my generation.”

Even if you weren’t an habitué of the dances, though, calypso was in the air: “On the jukebox, you would hear eighty per cent jazz, and all of a sudden here comes Louis Jordan.”  (Here he broke out in song again.)  “‘Run Joe!’ And ‘Stone Cold Dead.’  And that’s what I’m alluding to: you’re gonna hear this whether you want to or not.  So that’s why I’m saying, it wasn’t a matter of me going seeking it out, it was there for me to pick up on.”

Socially speaking, Jefferson said, calypso in Harlem was “primarily dance music”: at the clubs, “the accent was on dancing, and everybody’d be bumping hips.”  But his friends had plenty of records at home, too.  And when you heard calypso on disc or on the radio, “you listened to hear the words” as well as the music.  “Doris, darling I am feeling blue,” he sang, quoting a variant of Growler’s “I Don’t Want No Calaloo”: “I believe what the neighbors tell me is true / Just gimme de royal codfish / And not de green ting inside de dish / My darling I can’t call you / Cau’ I don’t want no more callaloo.”

What Jefferson particularly recollected, though, were tunes with social and political relevance, including one about Axis leaders and the cult of personality, whose title he remembered as “You Got to Have Power” (“Hitler had power, power; Mussolini had power, power; Hirohito had power, power”), as well as another uptempo tune that mentioned Pakistani Prime Minister Ali Khan: “This is really true / I dream one day I was really a Hindu (2x) / All the Indians from Hyderabad / Come to see me because I was feeling so sad.”  “Now at my age,” said Jefferson, “if I can still remember some of the words to these things, you’ll understand what an impression it made.  It wasn’t fleeting.”

Another tune he recalled was “Fire Down Dey”: “The first place we heard that was in the old Park Palace,” he said; “just about all [the] bands would play it.”  And that’s why, he said, when Sonny Rollins recorded the same melody a decade later, “it wasn’t nothing new to me—but he called it ‘St. Thomas.’”

Intriguingly, when I first chatted with Jefferson at the register in Tower, he thought he remembered a friend of his father’s, a sideman with Rollins, who was reputed to be the Duke of Iron’s uncle.  When we sat down to talk at length a few days later, though, on a lunch break at the Astor Place Starbuck’s, he told a different story, about a tenor player with MacBeth the Great, a big man—physically not unlike Rollins—who had a particular talent for energizing the dancers.

“Knowledge, experiences, aren’t here to be kept to yourself,” Jefferson told me as we were packing up and saying our goodbyes.  “You gotta share it, otherwise you don’t really have any knowledge.”  You’ve got it, Garl.  I hope you’re still kicking.  Thanks for sharing.


Addendum, January 2014: I’ve since confirmed that the tune Jefferson recalled above was indeed Muriel Gaines singing “You Got to Have Power” (National 8001B, 1945), backed by Sam Manning’s Serenaders.

Posted in Calypso, Garl Jefferson, Harlem, Jazz, New York Nightclubs | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

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