(1955) Edric Connor and the Southlanders – Calypso
Cover art: Olga Lehmann
Edric Connor: baritone vocals
The Southlanders: harmony backing vocals
1 Jolly Good Fellows
3 Mango Tree
4 Marabella Wedding
6 Animal Concert in a Cemetery
Recorded and released a good year before the world went momentarily calypso crazy to the tune of Harry Belafonte wannabes and hip-swinging cabaret gals accompanied by jolly black guys in tattered straw hats and cut off white trews, this isn’t among the first calypso records issued in the UK.
Parlophone and Melodisc, for example, had been releasing music by London-based Calypsonians like Lord Beginner, The Lion and calypso jazzer (and soon to be collaborator with Ewan MacColl) Fitzroy Coleman since 1950.
A few years before that Edric Connor, with his BBC connections, had been a key figure in introducing the music to a British audience. He was a Trinidadian and Calypso was part of his repertoire on Traveller’s Tales, a BBC radio programme that he co-presented after arriving in England in 1944.
In 1948 Connor starred with Evelyn Dove in the “West Indian Musical Play” Calypso at the London Playhouse (script by Hedley Briggs, words and music by…erm…Ronnie Hill). That may not have been ‘the real thing’, but this album will be (I haven’t heard it).
Smacking of the real thing
Or at least that’s what a review of the album in the Gramophone magazine said:
“Fifty consecutive minutes of calypsos is rather a big dose, but these smack of the real thing from beginning to end, whereas many tend to be artificial and sophisticated. With the calypso record is given a book of words. Of the thirteen items, Ugly Woman has the most amusing words and Police Force the most infectious tune.”
Outside of ‘the authentic real thing’ there was all sorts of cod calypso out there around the time this album came out – artificial, sophisticated, vulgar, bizarre – and plenty more once the craze took hold.
If you knew where to find them, you could get imports of American cod (with its ‘vulgar penchant for titillating double-entendres’, as Michael Eldridge describes it) released on the Decca/London Calypso subsidiary from 1954 onwards. Stuff like Don’t Touch me Nylon by New York’s Marie Bryant with Jackie Brown’s Calypso Kings. “I had to tell the young man flat, touch everything but not my this and that”. Oooh, missus!
Brixton’s Labour MP Lt. Col. Marcus Lipton was not amused. Citing ‘Don’t Touch’ and (bizarrely) Stan Freberg’s ‘John and Marsha’, he called on the government to ban the sale of “gramophone records of an indecent character”.
“Is it in the public interest that these wretched things should continue to be publicly sold?” he harrumphed in the House of Commons in June 1956.
Messed up gene pools
And while we’re talking cod, let’s not forget the British contribution. In the cod stakes (geddit?) we had one of the front runners in a 23-year-old from Sevenoaks called Lance Percival (going under the guise of Lord Lance) who had audiences hooked at the El Morocco nitery in Montreal in 1957 and Le Cupidon in New York.
“You don’t need anyone to tell you Our Town is still in the grip of the Calypso fad,” Dorothy Kilgallen reported in her Voice of Broadway column in May that year. “You may adore it, or you may hope to live the rest of your life without hearing about those chaps on the banana boat, but if you’ve never seen a calypso act you ought to try it just once.
“The easiest place to test your reaction to the island rhythms is Le Cupidon, currently featuring a colourful fellow named Lord Lance, who is alleged to have been a smashing success in London, Montreal, Las Vegas and Hollywood. Lord Lance wears calypso outfits from the neck down, but a top hat and monocle north of the Adam’s apple, and is greatly admired for his flair for improvising verse – a technique he perfected when he was writing television commercials in Montreal.”
Cod. With chips and scraps.
That colourful fellow’s flair for improvising verse and his penchant for race mimicry (“equal parts ridicule and desire”, as Eldridge puts it) would endear him to the audience of the BBC TV satirical show That Was The Week That Was five years later. And send him into the lower reaches of the UK pop charts in 1965 with his version of Shame and Scandal in the Family.
All this and lots lots more – the vulgar, the dopey, the negrophobic, the authentic, the ersatz and THE MAN – is discussed in a great essay on the Calypso Craze (‘Bop Girl Goes Calypso: Containing Race and Youth Culture in Cold War America’) by Eldridge. Read it here.
The upshot of the short-lived craze, Eldridge says, “was that although calypso was now in some sense permanently entrenched in the gene pool of American pop culture, the gene had been altered in such a way as to be effectively neutered, stripped of any power to affect that culture meaningfully”. There’s an essay waiting to be written about GM folk music crops.
You have to feel a bit sorry for Melodisc. Or not. With Calypso ‘poised on the threshold of peak popularity on both sides of the Atlantic’ in Spring 1957, the label was ‘all set to cash in’, reported Music Mirror. Not to be. It was all over before it had begun.
By May an industry pundit in Billboard was advising that “…the apparent fade of calypso may be just the right setting for the build-up of the skiffle sound…none of the calypso material has anything approaching a swinging, hand-clapping beat. The kids want a beat.” Finger on the pulse.
So, given that I haven’t got a copy of the Edric Connor album, here’s Lord Kitchener doing a reverse Bop Girl Goes Calypso in 1956. It’s the real thing! With a swinging, hand-clapping beat!
There used to be a great online Calypso exhibition on the web at http://www.calypsoworld.org, but it only ever had a limited shelf-life (strange but true). There’s lots of good stuff on the Caribbean studies journal Anthurium’s website and on Ray Funk’s section on the Musical Traditions web site.
For a quick gallop through the history of Calypso in the UK, see this article by Stuart Hall in the Guardian. For a musical introduction to Trinidadian calypso recorded in London in the 1950s, the best place to start is London Is the Place for Me, a compilation released by Honest Jon’s Records in 2003.
For the history of Calypso and Calypsonians in North America 1934-61, check out Michael Eldridge’s blog Working for the Yankee Dollar.
Three years later Connor would have a chart hit (his only one) with a Calypso song that he wrote. Manchester United Calypso, sung with Ken Jones and his Music, snuck in at number 20 in the Melody Maker charts in March 1958, only weeks after eight of the Busby Babes were killed in the Munich air disaster, and five months before the Notting Hill race riots. Listen to it here. Not clear when the song was written and recorded, but some say it was in the year this album came out, 1955.
For more information about Edric Connor see separate post.
Connor’s Calypso album got released in the States under the deal that Argo had with Westminster records.