Artists: Various; produced by Ray Funk and Michael Eldridge
Label: Bear Family
Format: Box set (6 CDs, 1 DVD, 175 page hardcover book)
Release date: September 9, 2014
A true labor of love for Trinidadian music scholars Ray Funk and Michael Eldridge, Calypso Craze tells the remarkable story leading up to the year in American pop music history when calypso briefly eclipsed the rise of rock ‘n’ roll. By 1957, every major pop star had jumped on the bandwagon. Not only did calypso pervade the airwaves, television and movie theaters—as Funk and Eldridge reveal through their lavishly illustrated book—but also emanated from nightclubs, dance floors, student unions and glee clubs, and was featured extensively in the press. Not to mention the “merch” galore, including clothing lines, straw hats, tropical accessories and décor. In what the authors/producers call “the strangest tale in modern popular music,” they trace the “slow rise, heady prominence, and precipitous fall” of calypso over the course of 6 CDs and 1 DVD.
The opening chapter, “Calypso Comes to American” (Disc 1), features 30 tracks spanning a period of 23 years. An obvious starting point was Hubert ‘The Lion’ Charles’s 1934 release, “Ugly Women,” since it marks the first recording in New York by a Trinidadian calypso singer and reflects the growing influence of American pop and swing music on the genre. Other early songs demonstrate the shift away from local topics to global events, such as Atilla’s “Roosevelt in Trinidad” (1937), Caresser’s “Edward the VIII” (1937), and Lord Invader’s “Jackie Robinson” (1947). Soon the U.S.-based ex-pats adapted their styles to appeal to American audiences, including the Duke of Iron (“Calypso Invasion” and “Prisoner Arise”) and Sir Lancelot (“Scandal in the Family,” “Century of the Common Man” and “Old Lady With a Rolling Pin). Much of the remainder of the disc focuses on early covers of calypso songs by the Andrew Sisters (“Rum and Coca Cola”), Ella Fitzgerald, Eartha Kitt, Stan Kenton, and Nat King Cole.
Of course no project of this scope could ignore Harry Belafonte, whose 1947 album Calypso became the first million-selling LP and lit a match to the craze with the hit song “Day-O.” Thus the entirety of Disc 2 is devoted to “The Reluctant King of Calypso.” The 27 tracks include Belafonte’s most popular hits based on traditional West Indian music such as “Man Smart, Woman Smarter,” “Brown Skin Girl” and “Man Piaba,” as well as a cover of the perpetually popular “Hold Him Joe.” As the commercialization of the music became a bit too crass, Belafonte tried to distance himself from the calypso craze, but he did appear in the movie Island in the Sun and released several more calypso albums over the next decade, all represented here through select tracks.
At the height of the craze, the authors note “there were hundreds of nightclub singers around the country performing calypso (or something they called calypso, anyway), and during a frenzied six months or so, many of those singers were emboldened to make records.” Which brings us to Disc 3, “Calypso is Everywhere.” Focusing on the appropriation of calypso by musicians in various genres, we hear the music filtered through the lens of pop (Rosemary Clooney), rhythm and blues (Amos Milburn), country (Hank Snow), folk (Stan Wilson), jazz (Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Hazel Scott), and rock ‘n’ roll (e.g., Chubby Checker’s “Limbo Rock”), among others. Though some were mere novelties penned by Brill Building songwriters, other songs made a more lasting impact, such as Norman Luboff’s “Yellow Bird” that’s been performed by countless steel bands, mento and reggae artists over the decades
Discs 4 provides an overview of calypso music in movies (including Calypso Heat Wave with Maya Angelou), television (I Love Lucy), and on Broadway (the short-lived Caribbean Carnival, the House of Flowers with Geoffrey Holder, and Jamaica with Lena Horne). Moving “Across the Pond,” Disc 5 details the craze in England, fueled by the flood of immigrants from Trinidad, Jamaica, and other West Indies colonies. Noteworthy musicians in this chapter include Edmundo Ross, Edric Connor, Lord Kitchener, Roaring Lion, Lord Beginner, and Young Kitchener, whose songs touched upon themes ranging from the Royal family to diasporic anti-colonial solidarity and independence. Moving even further afield, Disc 6 traces the global expansion of the genre throughout the Caribbean, south to Venezuela, north to Canada, and farther across the pond to Europe and, to a lesser extent, Asia.
Accompanying the box set is a DVD featuring “the rarest of the three films to emerge from the Calypso Craze—Calypso Joe (1957)—featuring the late Herb Jeffries as a singer-bandleader, and Angie Dickinson and Edward Kemmer as the romantic leads, with appearances by Lord Iron and Lord Flea. Rounding out the disc are four obscure shorts, two of which are “soundies” starring the famous Trinidadian dancers Beryl and Frieda McBurnie.
As the authors note, the country’s infatuation with calypso came to an abrupt conclusion by the summer of 1957, leaving many additional albums and movie projects incomplete. After living vicariously in a topical paradise full of lilting rhythms and light hearted songs, the populace came crashing back to reality. Now, 57 years later, we can relive the Calypso Craze through the significant efforts of Ray Funk, Michael Eldridge, and Bear Family Records.
Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss