Hortense Sings the Blues

hortense photo

Okay, so maybe this blog title is clickbait, but it’s only done to bring attention to the challenges that women in early Jamaican music, like Hortense Ellis, experienced in the 1960s and beyond. This is a topic I have addressed in my book, Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music, and Hortense Ellis was an artist who was perhaps most vocal about being treated unwell. Over the years we have heard plenty about artists not feeling that they were paid their due, but Hortense Ellis was frequently not paid at all! And she had nine children and so her work, her labors and talent, were of even more importance. Her recordings put food on her table, so she had to fight for what was hers.

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One of my good friends recently shared this Star Newspaper article with me. He knew I had long championed the career of Hortense Ellis and was further frustrated this past February when attending the Trenchtown Music Festival after hearing Alton Ellis’s son, Christopher Ellis, give a roll call of the musicians who came from Trenchtown, yet he omitted his own aunt!

I have previously written about Hortense Ellis HERE so you can have a read.

But here is the text transcribed from that Star Newspaper article from September 2, 1966:

Singing in the bath tub usually leads to nothing but shouts of protest from the neighbours or starts the dog howling in the backyard. But for Hortense Ellis, it has led to a very successful singing career. Now known as Jamaica’s first lady of song, Hortense has gone just about as far as a girl can in local entertainment circles and now she wants to go abroad.

Brother Alton Ellis, himself a popular vocalist, was the one who first got Hortense into the show business world ,by introducing her to the ten popular Vere Johns Opportunity Hour Shows.”

I pause here to note that though she may have been introduced to the talent show by her brother, animosity was created in the family when she beat him! That’s right, in the grand championships, Hortense took first place and Alton took second! And her oldest daughter told me that this rivalry continued throughout her life. Alton never seemed to get over it, according to her daughter. That story is in Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaica Music.

Back to the article:

“And it was through these shows that bandleader Byron Lee heard her sing and signed her up for some stage shows that really got her career going. The stage show fans really took to Hortense and when she recorded ‘I’ll Come Softly’ it was at the top of the hit parade for a month.

Since then, Hortense has been on nearly every local stage show and has been among the supporting artistes at shows starring the most famous names in show business–names like Ben E. King, Doris Troy, Patty [sic] LaBelle and the Blue Bells, Mamie Harvey, Solomon Burke and Dionne Warwick.

Patty [sic] LaBelle had for a long time been a favourite of Hortense and when Patti heard her sing, she gave her considerable encouragement. But Solomon Burke was even more enthusiastic about Hortense’s talent. He said that she only needed a little more experience to be a big hit. He advised her to go to the United States and ‘try to make the big time.’

‘But I’m weak to help myself,’ she confesses sadly. ‘I need a manager to help me.’ Hortense loves show business. But hates the way the artistes are often treated by some of the promoters.

‘I have a special love for my fans,’ she told me. ‘And I love the excitement of stage shows. I usually have to have six songs ready when I go on because they always want an encore. So although I want to leave Jamaica now to get some experience I would never leave here forever.’

I asked her if she thought she could make a living here without having to go abroad.

Don’t want to pay

You can make a living here, but we are not treated fairly by some of the promoters. They don’t want to pay us. We see a full house at a show and then they tell us that they didn’t make enough at the gate to meet expenses. They say that most of the people crashed the gate and got in free. Maybe the Government could do something for us instead of letting us suffer under local promoters.’

I reminded her of the Tops in Local show, which was put on by the artistes and backed by a loan from the Ministry of Development and Welfare.

‘Yes,’ said the young vocalist, ‘but we had to pay back the money and there wasn’t anything left. They should have helped us with more shows.’

Promptness at rehearsals was something promoters were always claiming the artistes ignored, and I asked Hortense about this.

‘When you are not paid for a job and not given a proper contract and no one seems interested in you, you don’t have any impetus to turn up.’

And this is why Hortense is now looking for someone to help her as a manager or promoter.

Speaking for herself and her fellow artistes she said: ‘If we know there is someone interested in us, we will be prompt and turn up for every rehearsal and do anything he wants, as long as we get a fair deal. What they are giving us now is not even taxi fare. We are being trampled.’

 

Pop-a-Top Part Deux

Derrick Morgan in Chicago, May 2013. Photo by Heather Augustyn.

Derrick Morgan in Chicago, May 2013. Photo by Heather Augustyn.

Back in 2014 I blogged about the “pop-a-top” style after Derrick Morgan told me about his foray into this rhythm, and there was much debate about the validity of this music–whether or not it was a proper genre, if it was simply a rhythm, or if it was even something less than that. You can read the original post HERE. There was was decent discussion that took place in the comment section after the blog post, though the debate occurred mainly on the Pama Forum.

I had read David Katz’s interview with Lynford Anderson in Solid Foundation on this topic. Katz states, “The wacky ‘Pop A Top’ voiced by Anderson under the alias I did ‘Pop A Top,’ the first talking record in Jamaica, was another early quirky deejay disc. On this one Anderson attempted to mimic the bubbling sound featured on an advertisement for Canada Dry ginger ale over an adaptation of a popular New Orleans R&B number. As he explains: ‘I did Pop-A-Top, the first talking record in Jamaica–you can put that in any book. I heard the commercial–the guy said “Pop A Top.” Then I had this rhythm, “South Parkway Mambo,” a very old song by Dave Bartholomew. The instrumental version I was trying to re-create didn’t work, so we didn’t touch that tape for years. Once I got it out, Lloyd Charmers stated playing “pup pup pup pup pup pup” [on the organ], so I said: “Oh, Pop A Top!” That’s how the song came about. The tune became a big hit, so eventually we had about 13 different versions of it.'”

Derrick Morgan, Chicago, May 2013. Photo by Heather Augustyn.

Derrick Morgan, Chicago, May 2013. Photo by Heather Augustyn.

 

I had the opportunity to talk to Derrick Morgan again on March 17, 2017 via phone, I decided to inquire again about pop-a-top, and below is our conversation on this subject.

Heather: Could you talk to me about pop-a-top, what is it and how was it created?

Derrick: Pop-a-top was created by Lynford Anderson. I did the song Fat Man in that rhythm for him. Then he got Ansel Collins doing the organ shuffle style and they call it pop-a-top. That’s how the pop-a-top came in. They were trying to find a different style of reggae, or a different name for reggae music, and they call it pop-a-top. Bup bup BOOP, bup bup BOOP, bup bup BOOP. That’s pop-a-top.

Heather: You recorded a number of songs in that style, right?

Derrick: Not many. I do Fat Man and John Crow Skank, but the rest of them is mixed, they mix it different like pop-a-top.

Heather: Were there others who recorded in that style?

Derrick: There were quite a few rhythms with the same shuffle, that organ shuffle, that pop-a-top shuffle, but it wasn’t for long.

Heather: And when did this happen–was it after rocksteady, after reggae?

Derrick: It was after rocksteady. Then the reggae came in and Bunny Lee and Lynford Anderson wanted to change the name to pop-a-top, but it only hit in England with a few tunes, like Fat Man.

Enjoy these pop-a-top tunes!

Derrick Morgan’s “Fat Man” in pop-a-top style–Andy Capp “Pop A Top”

Fitzroy & Harry “Pop a Top Train”

 

Derrick Morgan and I talked about other topics, such as how he discovered Bob Marley, female vocalists, his 14 children and their involvement in the music industry, the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour, and a day in the life at a recording studio, all of which I will bring to you in next week’s blog post! Please

Me and Derrick Morgan in Chicago, May 2013.

Me and Derrick Morgan in Chicago, May 2013.

Former Prime Minister Edward Seaga Heralds Jamaican Music

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This INTERVIEW on NPR’s “Tell Me More” show is a favorite of mine. Former Prime Minister Edward Seaga talks about the history of popular Jamaican music and his role in this important era where ska was in the spotlight. He talks about the songs “Oh Manny Oh,” “My Boy Lollipop,” “Wash Wash,” “Police and Thieves,” and others, as well as the artists behind them.

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This interview was promotion for Seaga’s collection, “Reggae Golden Jubilee” that he put together in 2012 for the 50th anniversary of independence. It’s a four CD set and it has 100 songs from Theo Beckford’s “Easy Snapping,” to Shaggy’s “Boombastic,” which has been featured in just about every children’s animation film since 1995.

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I’d highly recommend this collection because in addition to a choice selection of music curated by Seaga, there is also an outstanding liner note booklet with articles by Dermot Hussey, John Masouri, a preface from Christopher Chin, and track-by-track text from Daddy Lion Chandell, Donald Clive Davidson, and Roy Black. There’s plenty from Seaga himself in the liner notes as well.

 

King Jammys and Rodigan and the Jolly Boys, Oh My!

 

The organizers of the Global Reggae Conference at the University of the West Indies Mona really outdid themselves this year with a stellar selection of scholars from around the world presenting their research and work on a variety of topics related to dancehall, as well as films and events related to Jamaican music and culture.

 

conference5Opening panel at the Global Reggae Conference 2017 featuring Julian Henriques, David Katz, Dennis Howard, and Ray Hitchens

conference8Dr. Carolyn Cooper and Ninja Man

conference9Dr. Donna Hope, Dr. Carolyn Cooper, and Dr. Sonjah Stanley-Niaah

 

I had the pleasure of presenting a paper entitled “Rhumba Queen: The Original Women of the Dancehall” and I profiled the importance of rhumba dancers Daisy Riley, Margarita, and Madam Wasp. I was pleased with the level of interest in these women and I am considering developing this paper into a small book that talks about these women and others, as they literally and figuratively drew the spotlight to Jamaican music. My colleague and friend Nina Cole presented her research which she is furthering on the authenticity of the Jamaican sound system in her native Los Angeles. She was wonderful, both as a presenter and a researcher and I am in awe of her work and look forward to her continued research.

conferencePanel at the Global Reggae Conference

conference2Hazel Reid of Columbia University, me, Butter, and Nina Cole of University of California Davis

conference3Me speaking on Rhumba Queens

conference6Panel with Nina Cole, second from right

conference4Me and my good friend Ruth Wilson.We met at the conference in 2013 and have been friends ever since!

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the highlights of the conference was a performance from the legendary producer and DJ King Jammy! I had the pleasure of visiting King Jammy at his studio in Waterhouse last year, touring the interior of the ground zero of creativity. What a warm spirit. His smile is contagious. This man lights up when he talks about music, and he is still at it, working with Chronixx and Bounty Killer and Shaggy, to name a few. Well the legendary King Jammy performed with another Jamaican music DJ, David Rodigan! And it was at 10A no less! This is the site of the filming of The Harder They Come! It was Perry Henzell’s house and is now Justine Henzell’s house, and it was festooned by a small portion of Maxine Walters’ collection of 4,000 signs advertising for dancehall events, a selection of which are featured in her popular and praise-worthy book, Serious Things A Go Happen: Three Decades of Jamaican Dance Signs. Read more about her work HERE and HERE.

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conference7Panel at 10A led by Justine Henzell at 10A

justine henzellJustine Henzell and me!

IMG_707410A with Maxine Walters’ signs

IMG_707910A with Maxine Walters’ signs

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maxine waltersMaxine Walters and me!

Heather and rodiganDavid Rodigan and me!

Here are clips of that historic performance from King Jammy and David Rodigan! I wasn’t able to get more because I was too busy dropping legs!

Sleng Teng

King Jammy and David Rodigan

King Jammy Rock It Tonight

 

king jammy and david rodiganDavid Rodigan and King Jammy

king jammyKing Jammy

king jammy2King Jammy

 

The screening of Rick Elgood’s Pimento and Hot Pepper: The Story of Mento Music was a real treat and I would encourage anyone who has the opportunity to see this fantastic film which features interviews from a number of mento artists, many of whom have now left this earth, as well as the esteemed Dr. Daniel Neely. Elgood’s passion for Jamaican music is deeply felt throughout this crucial piece of film that has preserved history and celebrated the genre that led to all Jamaican music to follow. To read more about this film, which should be making film festival rounds soon, click HERE

IMG_6085Rick Elgood

Elgood and mento expert extraordinaire Dr. Daniel Neely, along with Dr. Matthew Smith, Professor in History and Head, Department of History and Archaeology, The UWI, Mona, and Roy Black, music historian and Jamaica Gleaner journalist, also led a wonderful discussion and a screening of Pimento and Hot Pepper at the Institute of Jamaica, organized by Herbie Miller and Roberto Moore, on February 4th and 5th, 2017, followed by a performance by the Jolly Boys! Here is a clip from that performance.

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IMG_6176Albert Minnott of the Jolly Boys and me!

IMG_6173Roy Black, Dr. Matthew Smith, and Dr. Daniel Neely talk the origins of mento.

rick elgood and meRick Elgood and me!

Tribute to Nambo Robinson

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The sweet man who called me Sis Heather, Ronald “Nambo” Robinson, has died today, January 25th at the age of 67.

According to Howard Campbell in the Daily Gleaner, “Trombonist Ronald ‘Nambo’ Robinson, a prolific session musician who worked with reggae’s greats, died this morning at his St Andrew home. He was 67. Robinson’s wife, Marcia, told the OBSERVER ONLINE that he died at 1:00 am but did not give a cause of death. From East Kingston, Robinson started his career with Mystic Revelation of Rastafari. He was a founding member of the 809 Band, which also included his longtime friend, saxophonist Dean Fraser; singer Desi “Desi Roots” Young and bassist Michael Fletcher. Robinson was also a longstanding member of Sly and Robbie’s Taxi Gang. He played on several of the duo’s biggest hit songs such as Baltimore by The Tamlins and Bull Inna The Pen by Black Uhuru. Robinson got his big break in the late 1970s by playing on Survival and Confrontation, two of Bob Marley’s albums. Buffalo Soldier, Trench Town and Wake Up And Live are among the Marley songs Robinson played. Ronald “Nambo” Robinson is survived by his wife and three children.”

 

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For his own bio, Nambo wrote, “My name is Ronald ‘Nambo’ Robinson, and I am a veteran musician, vocalist, percussionist and recording artist in Jamaica.  I am recognized among my peers as one of Jamaica’s foremost trombonists.  I have recorded with various artists such as Bob Marley, Dennis Brown, Jimmy Cliff, Lauryn Hill, Gregory Isaacs, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Beres Hammond, Shaggy, and Buju Banton. Also I performed live with Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, The Four Tops, Lloyd Parks and We the People, The Tony D’Acosta Affair, The Boris Gardener Happening, Light of Saba and Mystic Revelation of Rastafari.  This vast array of experience not only made me a true expert in composing reggae music, but also exposed me to genres such as jazz, classical and rhythm  and blues. I have recently launched a series of shows that feature young Jamaica musicians.  The purpose of this effort is to showcase these talented young musicians while celebrating the various genres of indigenous music such as Mento, Ska and Rocksteady. I have launched solo projects with the release of four album/CDs, titled Reggae in my Bone, Nambone Ska, Nambo Sing and Play and Raw Roots Rock Reggae. Along with that, I perform regularly at studio sessions for many of the island’s contemporary artists.”

Enjoy listening above to the beautiful Nambo on trombone with the drumming of the Mystic Revelation of the Rastafari.

And below is a nice example of Nambo’s beautiful voice.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in JA

This past Monday, January 16th we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and the legacy left by this powerful man. MLK had visited Jamaica three times during his lifetime. Former Prime Minister Hugh Shearer paid tribute to MLK in December, 1968 when he presented the Marcus Garvey Prize for Human Rights to MLK’s widow, Mrs. Coretta Scott King at the National Arena. Shearer told the assembled crowd, “Three times in. his short public life he found time to visit Jamaica. He came here to rest and to write; and he told us he was happy here.  Addressing, and here I quote him, ‘his brothers and sisters of this wonderful island’, unquote, we heard him say that in the light of many unpleasant and humiliating experiences with which he had to live, he was always glad to feel like somebody, and here I quote him: ‘in Jamaica I really feel like a human being.’ unquote. (Applause). He was proud to say ‘I am a Jamaican’.

 

The following is an excerpt of a speech delivered at the University of the West Indies, Mona during one of those visits. This university is the site of the 5th annual Global Reggae Conference which will take place next month, February 9-11th. Below that is a clip of Max Romeo’s Martin Luther King.

 

 

 

 

Tribute to Bumps Jackson

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This year has been catastrophic with the deaths of so many of the world’s beloved musicians. This week I received word of yet another. The daughter of Jamaican guitarist Keith “Bumps” Jackson informed me that he passed away on November 7, 2016.

Earlier in the year I had written about Mr. Jackson, (see blog post here) looking for him to write about him for his work with Byron Lee as a member of the Dragonaires and as leader of his own band, Bumps Jackson and the Caps. I was able to locate him after his daughter reached out to me and fortunately I interviewed Mr. Jackson just months before he died so that I preserved his history (in my book on Byron Lee, which is complete and will be available in 2017).

But Bumps Jackson’s contributions in music will always live on, in his music. In the words of his daughter, “My Dad remained a true musician right up to his departing. We learned so much about his music endeavors: played with George Benson, hired as a band director for Patti Labelle, and even asked to play with the Afro-Cuban band Mongo Santa Maria, but always wanted to say true to his reggae roots!”

I share here both some photos of Bumps Jackson that his daughter sent to me, as well as clips to his music where you can celebrate Mr. Jackson’s life by enjoying his talent on guitar, as well as his skill at composing and arranging.

Bumps Jackson–Funky in Jamaica

Bumps Jackson–The Ghetto

bumps1Bumps with guitar in the back, mustache

bumps2Bumps and the Caps. Bumps on far right with guitar.

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Margarita the Rose

bobby-gaynair

Last week I interviewed the legendary Ferdinand “Bobby” “Little Bra” Gaynair over the phone. From his home, we talked over the course of a few days for a total of six hours and let me say, it was perhaps the best experience of all of my work. I cannot express in words the generosity and warmth in spirit of this gentle man. He and his wife Anne feel like family to me. He is 88 years old and his recollections of his life, from his childhood seeing elephants in the streets of Kingston during a visiting circus, to today, practicing scales on his saxophone, are why I do what I do–to record and share these stories so they are never forgotten. The interview will be featured in my upcoming book on Alpha Boys School. My co-author Adam Reeves and I are nearing completion.

One story Mr. Gaynair shared with me was about Margarita, with whom he was very close. It was ironic that he told me this story the very same week as the death of Rudolph Bent, Margarita’s ex-husband, the boxer, the Dark Destroyer. I was surprised to learn from Mr. Gaynair that Margarita was once his girlfriend. Here he tells the painful story, his voice unable to hide the sorrow still in his heart:

“Don Drummond wanted to kill me. Seriously. His girlfriend was my girlfriend before she became his girlfriend. Yes. Bless her soul, she was a beautiful young lady, and she loved me, because of my profession. Margarita loved me. There was a certain time when I control her hunger. She was so hungry and I had food to give her and then she was comfortable and satisfied and she never forget that. She could do anything with me, and sexually and otherwise I never interfere with her. And I knew I could do anything with Margarita and she would love it, I could even take her life and she’d love me that much that she trusts me. There were men in Jamaica who loved Margarita because she was a great dancer, an excellent dancer. I played the type of music that Margarita love and made her dance and do some marvelous things on stage. She was sexy but when she did those things she was more sexy.

Drummond knew those things and he knew good music and he knew his music was too progressive, mostly jazz. Professionally he plays everything perfect, but apart from music, he was definitely what you call mad now. He was a mad man. But with me, he would interact with me normally because he knows if you are going to talk to me you are going to have to act normal and I don’t show him or tell him that he is crazy, I just deal with him as a normal person. So probably that helped us both to communicate. If it is a sickness or whatever, it could trigger at any time. When all that is finished in the studio and he is by himself, he look at me, and whenever he look at me the jealousy come up. And he really love Margarita. He was really in love with her. But he didn’t realize it wasn’t me alone who love Margarita, it was the whole Jamaica love Margarita.

margarita-april-1-1958-small

After he committed the crime and kill Margarita was in love with another, what do you call it, beauty and the beast? There was another beast who love Margarita and it wasn’t me. Because she told me that this other beast, his name was Bobby, so he thought it was me, and everybody talk about Margarita was with Bobby and they thought it was me, but it wasn’t me, it was another guy who I call beast named Bobby who she was with. I wouldn’t take her sexually, I respect her.

She was a prophet because she told me before I leave Jamaica one day when we were reasoning and she was madly in love and on the brink, she had a rose and she was picking the petals of the rose and she said, ‘Uncle Bobby, Brother Bobby.’ She called me Uncle and Brother. I said, ‘Why are you destroying a beautiful rose, Margarita?’ She said, ‘This is what I’m trying to see, how my lover is going to destroy me, just like I am destroying this rose.’ And I said, ‘What you mean by that? You mean he is going to kill you?’ And she said yeah. I said, ‘What can I say. What can I do to help your situation?’ At that time I was living in the wilderness in my shack and she came to my shack and I was playing a tune for her and Count Ossie was playing the drums, and it was so nice, you could hear it for miles, the drums. This was the greatness in the wilderness. When we play the music, that sound went over the whole city, and goes out in the harbor, and all the fisherman, and boy that music was beautiful. It was a nice time, and a terrible time.

Giving Thanks

rude-turkey

In the United States we celebrate Thanksgiving on November 24th this year, a holiday that according to history.com was designated by Abraham Lincoln. “In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies. For more than two centuries, days of thanksgiving were celebrated by individual colonies and states. It wasn’t until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November.”

So in honor of this holiday when people from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon will break bread together with family and friends in a tradition of community, love, and unity, let us give thanks, and skanks, with some Jamaican tunes of thanks. Here’s a selection of songs of thanks, and though the artists may be thanking and praising Jah, we too can celebrate this spirit this time of year and always, by being kind to each other and embracing one another in love and unity. Feel free to chime in below and add yours to the mix–after all, that’s what this post is all about.

 

Bob Marley–Give Thanks and Praises

Hortense Ellis and General Roy–Give Thanks

Derrick Morgan and The Scorpions–Give Thanks

The Abyssinians–Satta Massagana (Give Thanks)

Sugar Minott–Give Thanks & Praises

The Versatiles–The Thanks We Get

U Roy–Give Thanks Continually

 

Lord Charmer–Louis Farrakhan

charmer1
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.”
charmer
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.
charmer3 charmer4
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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