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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Posts Tagged ‘village vanguard’

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 »

Premice Back in Print

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 15, 2013

premiceMost of what I know about Josephine Premice, you could find on Wikipedia.  (The rest, I stole from Ray Funk.)  Born in Brooklyn to wealthy Haitian-émigré parents, she studied dance with Martha Graham and Katherine Dunham and made her Broadway debut in 1945 in Dunham’s Blue Holiday.  (Like both her teacher and her contemporary Pearl Primus, Premice, too, studied anthropology in college.)  Just weeks earlier, she had appeared in Sierra Leonean choreographer Asadata Dafora’s second “African Dances and Modern Rhythms” recital at Carnegie Hall, a diasporic extravaganza with tap dance legend Bill Robinson, jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, and calypsonian the Duke of Iron. (She had also been in Dafora’s inaugural African Dance Festival in 1943.)  At the end of the year she joined Beryl McBurnie, the Caribbean Club Dancers, MacBeth the Great, and Gerald Clark and his Caribbean Serenaders for a gala at the Park Palace Ballroom, and in May 1946, for the third year in a row, she was part of the annual United Nations Folk Festival (as an “interpreter of Haitian songs and dances”) at the Golden Gate Ballroom, an event put on by the George Washington Carver Community School to observe “I Am an American Day.” Late that year, she embarked on a thirty-state concert tour with folksinger Josh White, a fellow cast member from Blue Holiday; the trip is described in some detail in Elijah Wald’s excellent Josh White: Society Blues.  Roger Kovach gives a firsthand account of a People’s Songs fundraising party that White and Premice attended while passing through Chicago—a Who’s Who gathering documented with a photo spread in Down Beat. In the wee hours, says Kovach, with the twenty or so remaining guests crowded into the host’s kitchen, White and Leadbelly began a vocal cutting contest:

Josephine was stretched across the kitchen table, signing an autograph for one of the guests. White looked down at her rear end and started singing “Backwater Blues” (“Hello, baby, I had to call you on the phone,” the refrain goes; “Jelly jelly, jelly’s all on my mind, Jelly roll killed my papa and made my mama blind”…)

White and Premice get a berth

Josh and the Haitian dancer Josephine Premice take ship for Europe, seen off by Josh’s wife, Carol, and his children Beverly and Josh Jr., c.1951. | Elijah Wald

Put this anecdote together with White’s reputation as a ladykiller and a contact sheet of unused photos from Wald’s biography showing White and Premice about to embark on a steamship on their way to a European tour, and you can’t help wondering whether Premice’s relationship with White was more than just professional.

Premice at the Vanguard

Portrait of Josephine Premice, Village Vanguard, N.Y., ca. July 1947 | From the William P. Gottlieb Collection of Jazz Photos, Library of Congress

Upon her return to New York, Premice began to emphasize singing over dancing, starting a run at the Village Vanguard in January 1947 that eventually extended to seven months.  (She later sang at Vanguard owner Max Gordon’s swankier East Side club, the Blue Angel, and at Greenwich Village’s forward-thinking Cafe Society.)  According to Billboard, her act included the Haitian air “Chouconne” and “Tongue-Tied Baby,” a version of Lord Kitchener’s recent carnival hit “Tie Tongue Mopsy.”

By June, Premice was part of the “enlarged cast” of an encore performance at Carnegie Hall of “The Calypso Carnival,” originally conceived as a one-off showcase for all of the calypsonians then resident in New York—Houdini, the Duke of Iron, the Great MacBeth, and Lord Invader.  (See “Ol’ Time Calypso Come Back Again, Part 3.”  The Afro-American reported that “more than 5,000 devotees of Caribbean folk lore” had missed the initial sell-out show in May and characterized Premice as “the darling of Broadway stage and smart night clubs.”)  In December, she was a featured vocalist behind the Duke of Iron in the Broadway flop Caribbean Carnival, with choreography by  Primus and McBurnie.  The New York Post’s Richard Watts, who gave the revue one of its few comparatively kind write-ups, noted that the show had some good points—among them “Josephine Premice…a fine, tall, delightful girl, who sings amusingly, engagingly and with distinction.

Ppremice_dunesremice then returned to nightclubs, sometimes sharing a bill with Josh White (the two were in fact lifelong friends), and she made the jump to concert halls in May 1948 with her debut at the Apollo Theater, which played her up as “Broadway’s Haitian Born Star.”  She broke into recording with a single for Decca in August 1949; backed by the “Calypso Rhythm Boys,” she sang “Sweetie Joe” and “I Go Siesta,” both tunes penned by expat Trinidadian bandleader and impresario Sam Manning.

Like other folk and nightclub singers of the 40s and 50s—especially ones with Caribbean connections—Premice routinely included calypso in her repertoire, and by the early 1950s she was known both here and in Europe as a “calypso specialist.”  No surprise, then, in 1954, to find her in the cast for the out-of-town previews of Harold Arlen and Truman Capote’s West Indian fantasy House of Flowers.  (She left the show before it reached Broadway, though she had a starring role in the 1968 revival.)  For the similarly exoticist Jamaica, Arlen’s 1957 collaboration with Yip Harburg, Premice was given two of the  three numbers with the strongest calypso flavor: “Yankee Dollar,” whose title and theme recall the tag line of Lord Invader’s “Rum and Coca Cola,” and “Leave de Atom Alone.”   (The third, the humorous “Push de Button,” went to headliner Lena Horne.  New York Times dance critic Jennifer Dunning saw Premice as the “hot flame to Horne’s cool fire.”)

Earlier in 1957, during the height of the Calypso Craze, Premice had released two albums: Caribe: Josephine Premice Sings Calypso for Verve and Calypso for GNP. Caribe‘s liner notes award her some rather exaggerated credentials, declaring her “the first American to sing calypso in this country,” then embellish her talents further with the aid of hackneyed racist tropes: “But even more than just being able to sing calypso in an authentic manner…she brings an electric excitement to every song along with a primitive, bestial kind of passion and a dramatic mood.” (When she appeared in Las Vegas at the Dunes in January 1957 with “her company of Afro-Cuban [sic] Calypsonians,” an ad in the local paper featured a bust of Premice with sensuous lips and downcast eyes framed by her own sinuously beckoning fingers, promising that the show would be “Wild! Savage! Electric! Pagan! Primitive! Passionate!”)

premice_caribepremice_calypsoWith the recent reissue of Caribe on CD (paired on a single disc with Calypso, which is also available separately as a digital download or a CD-on-demand), the entirety of Premice’s “calypso” output is back in print.  The Caribe/Calypso disc has also been pirated by the shadowy “Vintage Masters” label, with an anachronistic cover photo from the Smithsonian’s William P. Gottlieb collection.  The Jamaica original cast album, meanwhile, was re-released a decade ago on the Collectables specialty label, on a double CD with the Lena Horne/Harry Belafonte Porgy and Bess.

Posted in Beryl McBurnie, Calypso, Josephine Premice, Lena Horne, New York City, New York Nightclubs | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

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