Lord Charmer–Louis Farrakhan

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Though it is not new news, it was still new to me, to discover that the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, whose mosque I frequently pass on Stony Island in Chicago, was once Lord Charmer the calypso singer. Even the Nation of Islam website itself states this. “Popularly known as ‘The Charmer,’ he achieved fame in Boston as a vocalist, calypso singer, dancer and violinist.”
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Louis Farrakhan was born Louis Eugene Wolcott in the Bronx, though his parents were Caribbean. His mother was from St. Kitts and Nevis and his father was Jamaican, though he never met him. He lived with his mother and his stepfather who was from Barbados though he died when Louis was three so his mother moved to the Bronx and then to Boston. While in Boston, Louis developed his love for music and he took violin lessons, growing proficient on the instrument. He performed with the Boston College Orchestra at age 13 and he won a number of competitions for his skill. In 1950 he performed as Lord Charmer, a calypso singer, touring as well as recording a number of songs, including the classic folk tune “Jumbie Jamboree” which he recorded as “Back to Back, Belly to Belly” with the Johnny McCleverty Calypso Boys in 1954. The Kingston Trio recorded their version, “Zombie Jamboree,” four years later and Harry Belafonte recorded his cover in 1962 before Peter Tosh and the Wailers in 1965 and The Jolly Boys in 1989.
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Though I’d love to have a copy of this album, or even the CD, they go for hundreds and thousands of dollars! So have a listen to this classic “chune” here.
Below is an article on Louis Farrakhan’s calypso career that appeared in the Washington Post in 1995.
Louis Farrakhan, Calypso Charmer
Washington Post
October 14, 1995
She knew him as “The Charmer,” and he certainly was that. A lean and handsome young man, with a hint of island breeze in his patter, he’d drop by Daisy’s desk at the neighborhood newspaper every so often with a new publicity photo, hoping to plug one of his upcoming calypso shows.

“Oh, honey, he was gorgeous,” remembers Daisy Voigt, who in those days wrote a teen column under the name Dizzy Dame Daisy. “He was as fine as new wine. We were all half in love with him. We thought he was as good as Harry Belafonte.”

It was lower Roxbury, Boston, the mid-1950s. Belafonte’s Caribbean sound was breaking big-time, but in the neighborhood, Voigt said, The Charmer held sway. Everybody also knew him as Gene Walcott, the musical pride of the West Indian immigrant community served by the Boston Graphic weekly newspaper. In coming years, he would make news under another name: Louis Farrakhan.

The calypso period isn’t a part of the Honorable Minister’s resume that’s eagerly promoted by the Nation of Islam, but those early years help to illuminate his personality. Louis Farrakhan (born Louis Eugene Walcott) always wanted to be a musician. The man has been drawing — and pleasing — crowds since the age of 16, as both a calypso singer and a classical violinist.

“Music, like truth, is the essence of my life,” the minister says in a recent Nation of Islam video — yes, a music video — that documents his talents as a violinist. “People really don’t know Farrakhan, they don’t fully know the soul of a man — and I think that can be expressed through music.”

He’s been in the spotlight since playing the violin as a teenager on television’s “Ted Mack Amateur Hour” in 1949. He’s expert at arranging music and words to move the mind, the body and the soul: His calypso-tinged tune “A White Man’s Heaven Is a Black Man’s Hell,” released in the late 1950s, became a standard for the Nation of Islam. He wrote and starred in two musical plays. He even released a lively recording in the ’80s that represented a reaffirmation of his calypso roots.

From his earliest years, Farrakhan, 62, has been drawn to both the classical and calypso genres, which share a certain power and passion. His mother, who immigrated to the United States from the British Caribbean colony of St. Kitts, was an Episcopalian and supported her son’s violin training. She was somewhat chagrined to see her son performing as The Charmer at age 16 in nightclubs — “a child in a Gomorrah of marijuana, loose sex and double-entendres,” according to “Prophet of Rage,” a forthcoming biography of the Nation of Islam leader.

“Some of them were songs with double meanings,” Farrakhan explains in the book, written by Arthur Magida, a former writer for the Baltimore Jewish Times. “On the surface, it was one thing, but underneath it was kind of filthy. {My mother} would register some of her disapproval of my gyrations in my dance and some of the songs that I sang.”

Like today’s rappers, calypsonians hail from an African tradition that places the singer’s wordplay and message in the forefront. “It’s much more of an oral tradition that values extemporaneous speaking and singing; musically it’s not a very rigorous form,” says Jeffrey Thomas, a calypso scholar and steel band percussionist in Chicago. “Words are used to sway people and get their attention, so I find it revealing that Farrakhan came out of that tradition.”

Those who heard the musical stylings of young Walcott — who sometimes went by the nickname Calypso Gene — were impressed. “He was good, there was no question about it,” says Voigt, who now lives in Washington. “My theory is that if there hadn’t been a Harry Belafonte, there would have been a Gene Walcott. But in that historical moment there could only be one — it was what society would tolerate.”

Even then, his message was political. As a student in the early ’50s at the Winston-Salem State Teachers College — where he was known to serenade classmates on guitar and ukulele with his calypso trio — Walcott titled one of his songs “Why America Is No Democracy.”

Recordings of Farrakhan’s pre-Nation of Islam work are exceedingly rare, if they exist at all. Nation of Islam officials in Chicago said this week that they were unable to locate any calypso material to make available to the press. “The minister may have some of that,” said Sister Safia Muhammad, Farrakhan’s personal assistant. “I don’t know if he will release any of his personal collection at this point.”

Publicity stills of the singer are also hard to find. Magida has been unable to obtain one for his biography of Farrakhan, which is due to be published in February.

Farrakhan has not authorized the biography, but he has facilitated Magida’s research in some ways, inviting the author to dinner and encouraging old friends to talk. This opens up Farrakhan’s little-known calypsonian past, when the singer was earning up to $500 a week by touring the Northeast and Midwest. When Farrakhan married at age 20, he listed his occupation as “musician.”

After he joined the Nation of Islam in 1955, Farrakhan continued touring and singing, staging his plays “Orgena” (“A Negro” spelled backward) and “The Trial.” His best-known song was “A White Man’s Heaven,” a favorite on jukeboxes at Nation of Islam snack shops in the ’60s.

The lilting tune, which features guitar, bongos and piano, backs a fiery excoriation of white oppression of African Americans throughout history, especially during slavery. Sings Farrakhan, then known as Louis X:

“Though you are pregnant, black woman, you pull the plow/ Like a horse, like a mule, sweat from your brow

“He filled your womb with his wicked seed/ His half-white children you were made to breed. Ah, my friends, it’s easy to tell: White man heaven is black man hell.”

Writer and music critic Nat Hentoff once characterized Farrakhan’s singing voice as “high, flexible, attractive.” “Entertaining and inspirational” is how Washington writer and Nation member Askia Muhammad describes Farrakhan’s style. He recalls hearing “White Man’s Heaven” in the ’60s along with another jukebox number, “Look at My Chains,” that had “a real West Indian flavor.”

“Obviously, it’s not very commercial, but it’s not meant to be,” says Skippy White, a former Boston deejay who has one of the rare copies of the original “White Man’s Heaven” 45. “It was meant to deliver a message and that’s exactly what it did.”

Despite his popularity as a performer, Farrakhan dropped his musical efforts in the early 1960s, reportedly at the urging of Elijah Muhammad, founder and leader of the Nation of Islam. “Do you want to be a song and dance man or do you want to be my minister?” Elijah Muhammad asked his acolyte, according to Magida’s book.

“When I gave up my music and became totally focused on the plight of black people, I became somewhat nationalistic and narrow in my focus,” Farrakhan reflects on the music video. But he eventually returned to recording — updating “White Man’s Heaven” in 1979 with a flourish of flute and funky bass, and releasing a 12-inch record with two tunes, “Let Us Unite” and “Benefit of Unity,” in 1984.

“Let Us Unite” calls for an end to the kind of racial and religious strife that many critics say Farrakhan is guilty of fomenting:

“Well, I’m talking to you: Muslim, Christian and Hebrew/ It’s the thing to do/ We’ve got to unite or else we are through,” Farrakhan sings in a crisp Caribbean accent.

On the video, Farrakhan puts it another way. “Music is a universal language,” he says. “There is healing in music.”

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