Paul Vernon takes a historical look at the roofs
recording industry in the English-speaking
Caribbean - Trinidad and Jamaica
By the time American engineers arrived in 1912 to make the island's first records, Trinidad was a blend of African, Spanish, French and British culture, the influences stretching back to 1498 when Columbus first arrived on the island and named it after the Christian holy trinity.
For almost 300 years it was a minor Spanish territory, and remained largely undeveloped. In the late eighteenth century a colonial tussle between Britain and France left a number of French planters homeless in the Caribbean. Taking advantage of a Spanish law that allowed them to settle provided they swore loyalty to Spain and Catholicism, they and their African slaves relocated in Trinidad and Tobago. Further warfare between Britain and France resulted in both islands being ceded to the British in 1802. By the turn of the century, with slavery abolished in law but not always in spirit, the island's black Creole populace had created a unique culture of its own. It now stood ready to absorb new influences from North America and also to make its own impact upon Western culture.
The long and complex history of carnival, from which calypso has so successfully grown, is well told by John Cowley in his excellent new work Carnival, Canboulay & Calypso. When Victor and Columbia first recorded Trinidadian music, in New York in 1912, they both chose Lovey's String Band, a twelve-piece orchestra playing paseos with probably more Venezuelan, influence than anything else. It was certainly not the calypso that had been heard in carnival tents for a dozen years previously. A smattering on non calypso Trinidadian music would continue to surface on record for the next two decades, but the sound that the world would come to identify as Trinidadian was first recorded in August 1914 when Victor visited Port of Spain:
"Among the arrivals from New York on the S.S. Matura... were Mssrs. George H. Cheney and Charles Althouse of the recording laboratory of the Victor Talking Machine Company, who are making a special trip to Trinidad for the purpose of recording a complete repertoire of Trinidadian music... Mr. Theodore Terry, the Victor Company's representative who arrived here two weeks ago, has everything in readiness so that Mr. Cheney may begin his work at once". (Port of Spain Gazette, 28 August 1914)
Cheney's work captured, among other things, songs by Julian Whiterose, currently believed to be the first calypsonian on record. Their impact upon the general public was minimal, however, and Trinidadian music was ignored by the American record companies for another seven years. Although Trinidad was a British : possession, American Victor and the British Gramophone Company (HMV) had agreed, as early as 1904, how the world should be divided and the Caribbean was clearly marked out as American territory.
Recording started again in 1921 with tangos, waltzes and paseos by Lovey's Mixed Band and Lionel Belasco's Orchestra, and continued sporadically throughout the 1920s, featuring calypso artists Johnny Walker, who vanished almost immediately, and Wilmoth Houdini, whose career was to last well into the post-war period. In 1927 the first 'west Indian' records were issued in Britain. They included seven couplings by Sam Manning, and one each by Slim Henderson and Montrose's String Band. Manning was more a generic all-round entertainer than a true calypsonian, and it wasn't until some five years later that a solitary release on Brunswick by Wilmoth Houdini introduced Britain to the calypso. it made little impact.
Back in Port-of Spain, however, things were stirring, In late 1933 an expatriate Portuguese businessman Eduard Sa Gomes founder of Sa Gomes Radio Emporiums, took the next logical step in expanding his empire. He rounded up two local calypsonians, Atilla The Hun and The Roaring Lion, and sent them to New York to record for the American Record Company, owners of a string of dime-store labels. The results were processed and pressed in America and then shipped in large quantities by steamer to Sa Gomes. By May of the following year Sa Gomes was advertising his "local products" available at his "two good palaces of music" in Port-of-Spain for 48 cents each. So successful was this endeavour that later that same year Sa Gomes sent Atilla, Lord Beginner and Growling Tiger to New York for a lengthy recording session with the same company.
In 1935 Sa Gomes switched his allegiance to the new and aggressive Decca label, who offered him better quality pressings at a cheaper price, and in doing so helped to create a: catalogue of music so successful: that is now seen as a high point in calypso history. The Decca series included topical songs and carnival hits by popular artists like Lion, Lord Invader, King Radio, Lord Executor and Atilla. By 1938 Sa Gomes was selling his exclusive Decca hits at 36 cents each, or three for a dollar, only now from his "Five Palaces of Good Music" including a branch in San Fernando and another on Tobago. American Decca, financed by its British parent company, had good distribution throughout North America and was giving RCA's cheap Bluebird label a thoroughly harassing run for its money. Bluebird had launched a 'west Indian' series in 1933 and although, in retrospect, much of what they recorded was excellent, Decca beat them hands down in both in the Caribbean and in the New York area where the bulk of expatriate Trinidadians had settled. Calypso also enjoyed its first period of popularity in mainstream American culture. Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee were both seen associating with calypsonians, American cover versions of Trinidadian hits were appearing on record and visiting singers like Atilla were guesting on American radio.
In 1942 J.C. Petrillo, head of the American Musicians Union, called for, and got, a total ban on all recording until the record companies agreed to new terms. The resulting hiatus, which lasted until 1945, caused a major shake up within the American record industry and by the time recording was under way again most major companies had abandoned 'minority' markets to concentrate on the huge mainstream. This left the field wide open for small entrepreneurs to take up the slack.
Following a short-lived attempt by Decca to revive its market, calypso fell into the hands of small independent companies, in much the same way as blues, country and other ethnic musics did. Mostly New York based, labels like Guild, Manor, Stinson and Times started recording local Trinidadians for both the American and Caribbean markets. They had plenty of motive for doing so; writing in the Negro Digest in 1947, Wenzell Brown noted:
"duke boxes account for a large proportion of sales of calypso records in America, for you'll find at least one of the Trinidadian records in almost any of the 450,000 juke boxes scattered across the States".
Furthermore, Brown observed, calypsonians were appearing regularly in Harlem's Caribbean Club, at the Vanguard in Greenwich Village and at the Apollo on: 125th Street.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, a parallel situation was starting to occur. With a decimated male population and the need to rebuild the infrastructure of the country, the post-war government in Britain advertised widely in both Trinidad and Jamaica for people to come "to the mother country". Good wages were promised, although, according to more than one account, relative costs of living were often glossed over.
Thus from 1948, and in increasing numbers for several years thereafter, ships packed with hopeful immigrants arrived at Tilbury, Southampton and Liverpool. The result was the blossoming of a fresh and substantial culture within Britain.
In January 1950 an English jazz promoter and radio personality, Dennis Preston, organised the first English recordings of West indian music since Sam Manning's 1927 session. Backed by an authentic band that he had constructed by scouring the country, Preston recorded Lord Beginner and Lord Kitchener for Parlophone records, one of EMI's labels. He went on to produce calypsos regularly for the independent Melodisc label, an interesting operation that issued specialist music as diverse as Brownie McGhee and Cantor Joseph Cussovetsky. Other labels such as Kay, London, Lyragon and Savoy followed suit and until the early 1960's were supporting a small but loyal local market.
British based calypsonians commented on events within their new environment, especially cricket, politics and royalty, and throughout the '50s and early '60s a perception of calypso entered British mainstream consciousness. At its tackier end it included daft interpretations by the likes of Harry Belafonte but it also meant that a strain of topicality and satire was constantly available. Lords Beginner, Kitchener and Melody, and Roaring Lion all commented on aspects of British society throughout this period.
Calypso's fate in Britain was sealed; as much as anything, by the generation gap. By the mid 1960s most young Trinidadians, especially those born in Britain, found little to relate to in either the lyrical content or the rhythm. At the same time, Jamaican music and culture was undergoing a similar metamorphosis.
The reasons why Victor or Columbia never visited Jamaica to record are unprovable at this remove. Perhaps the companies had no faith in sales potential; perhaps plans were cancelled following disappointing sales from the initial Trinidadian recordings. Whatever the reasons, no major company went to Jamaica, and as a result we have no aural reference for anything much before 1950. Jamaica's recolonised indigenous music was mento, a guitar-accompanied atrophic song deeply influenced by calypso. The earliest recorded examples currently known date from the late 1940s, a time when the new generation in Jamaica was rejecting the genre as old fashioned and looking for something fresh.
Lord Invader The Growler. Attila The Hun (dressed as Eve) and Roarinq Lion, 1943
What they found and liked came from outside the island, and it came first by radio, By the late 1940s radios had become commonplace in Jamaica, largely due to the presence of the British Rediffusion Company, who rented three waveband bakelite table models for a few shillings a month. By attaching large aerials to these sturdy receivers, people could pull in signals from all around the Caribbean including Cuba, Mexico and Venezuela. The ones that grabbed their attention, however, were those coming from the American gulf coast cities; Corpus Christi, Houston, Mobile and New Orleans. The music on offer was a diverse selection: hillbilly, Latin, jazz, pop and rhythm & blues, but it was the new, energetic R&B that most young Jamaicans responded to. Black American music was undergoing some fundamental changes in style, approach and instrumentation; it was fresh, vigorous, exciting and often loud. It was no longer being controlled by major record companies, as it had been in the pre-war era. The new, independent labels were much more in touch with their customers' needs. The emergence of black radio stations and the continuing spread of the juke box helped to quickly sew together the fabric of the new music by disseminating it more widely.
In Jamaica people responded quickly and enthusiastically, and the sound of Fats Domino, Joe Turner, Wynonie Harris and Roy Brown became an integral part of Jamaican society. Not content with listening to far-off radio signals, a few enterprising people made trips to North America to buy records. They came back with arms full of discs by newly recorded and often obscure artists and played them at neighbourhood yard parties. From these simple beginnings grew the first mobile sound systems that would soon dominate Jamaica's musical culture. Principal among the characters involved were Duke Reid and Coxsone Dodd.
Lord Caresser, Attila The Hun, Roaring Lion and Lord Executor with Eduardo Sa Gomes, 1936
Percy Miller, who as a young man in Kingston had observed events at first hand, remembers: "Daddy Nick [an early DJ] started to import records from Randy's Record Shop in Tennessee because he didn't have any other way of getting the records. So it developed, there were sound systems that might carry a thousand records each on lorries and they would have competitions between them. During the competitions, those records that the guy got from the States, you couldn't see the names on the labels because they were scratched out, but we would try to listen to the voice. Smiley Lewis, you would recognise the voice, or perhaps the sax or guitar, and then the audience would have a competition among ourselves to identify the new records."
The sound systems were huge affairs, transported from one location to another on Trojan lorries (hence the name of the early Jamaican record label), run by generators and operated by up to a dozen 'helpers'- strong young volunteers - who set up the equipment and guarded the allimportant records from any possibility of industrial espionage.
"The first system I listened to was Coxsone but at that time Reid was on top with his records and fans. His amplification was thousands of watts but of course at that time we didn't realise that as they were playing in the open air, right off the trucks, but if you stood too close to the speakers your stomach would move to the power of the music. They had to strap down the speakers with ropes to stop them from jumping around. Each sound system would have its own fans who travelled with them and each system would try to improve its records; Duke and Coxsone were the only two guys who could go to the States to buy records - they were the only two with enough money! Coxsone and Duke never played together but they would play in the fields next to each other and they'd try to out-do each other with records. The most popular records were by Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis, Joe Turner and Shirley & Lee, however, if a sound system got a record by, say, Lester Williams, it would draw a crowd from other systems just to hear that new record."
The rivalry between Coxsone, Reid and other minor DJs like Daddy Nick and Blue Miller resulted in an almost paranoid secrecy; the DJs would deface the record labels, routinely announce them by titles of their own choosing and almost always omit to announce the artist. Thus, King Perry's California Blues would become Downbeat Shuffle, while Shirley & Lee's Let The Good Times Roll was known as Come On Baby.
Stanley Motta, a Kingston-based businessman, set up the first recording studio and pressing facility on the island around 1956. He produced a variety of 78rpm records to order and is believed to have been responsible for a number of 'unofficial' Jamaican labels issuing American R&B. Again, Percy Miller takes up the story: "Coxsone went back and forth to the States, he would pick out, for instance, four popular records and have Motta press up 10,000 copies. Every street corner you'd find someone with an amplifier selling these records he'd pressed. But he couldn't always find the things he wanted, so he decided to do something for himself. He made a record called Pink Lane Shuffle, and then Reid heard it and went and made Luke Lane Shuffle."
Coxsone had issued Pink Lane Shuffle on his new, eponymous label and continued with other locally recorded instrumentals including the hit Milk Lane Hop by Clue J & His Blues Blasters, a pick- up group that included Don Drummond and Ernest Ranglin, and went on to become known as the Skatalites. It was from this group, says Percy Miller, that the Ska sound took its name. ::
"in about 1959 the sound systems were badly hit by a guy called Edwards who went to the States and brought back thousands of records and started selling them in Jamaica. These were records that Coxsone and Reid were playing on the systems, and for the first time people could freely buy the records and the systems no longer had exclusives This guy, his people had money and he had brothers in the States regularly shipping him stuff. On top of this he had a more powerful amplifier. So, Coxsone and Reid started to play the records they had made themselves, and they found they were really popular and come to rely on them more and more."
Thus it was that locally produced records, like Lord Lebby's wonderfully energetic reading of Louis Jordan's: Caldonia or Laurel Aitkens Aitkens Boogie, allowed a style to evolve that was becoming essentially Jamaican rather than just a copy of the American sound. R&Bbecame Ska, Ska became Blue Beat and Blue Beat eventually became Reggae.
While these events had been occurring in and around Kingston, Jamaican immigrants in England, bringing with them a taste for R&B, found their needs illserved. Vogue: records issued a few 45s by Shiriey & Lee, Amos Milburn and others, and a trickle of R&B appeared on the London label. There was some material to be had by trawling through the jazz catalogues but it was a hit and miss affair.
To a degree the gap was filled by a small, obscure record shop in North West London. Tucked behind the Kilburn & Brondesbury tube station was a place run by an ex-dance band musician and jazz i enthusiast called Ralph Foxley. In about 1953, responding to numerous local requests, Foxley privately pressed 25 copies of an Amos Milburn record that he happened to have. It sold out in one morning. Realising the potential, he contacted a friend who worked on the passenger liners sailing from Southampton and arranged to have him buy a regular selection of new R&B records in New York. These would then be copied and pressed on metal acetate singles, which Foxley sold across the counter. News quickly spread and Saturdays at Foxley's became famous. An affable man, Foxley presided over what became, to all intents and purposes, a regularly scheduled party. People came from all over London and as far afield as Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester. Friends would meet, talk, listen and buy - the session finished only when the last record had been sold - it served as a meeting place for musicians and fans alike at a time when there was little else to be had.
By the early 1960s Jamaican music was more readily available in England. In 1961 the Blue Beat label, distributed by Melodisc, was regularly issuing new 45s and two years later Chris Blackwell would launch Island records - just in time to happily collide with an explosion of interest in American R&B among the white youth of Britain - the rest, as we all know, is rock history, but the world-wide influence that Caribbean music has today is underpinned by these events.
For those of you who wish to sample history, here's a short list:
Arhoolie 7004 Calypsos from Trinidad-1930s
Arhoolie 7010 Wilmoth Houdini 1928-40
Flyright 942 Sir Lancelot
Harlequin HTCD16 Trinidad 1912-1941
Heritage 06 Calypso Ladies 1926-41
Matchbox 905-906 History of Carnival 1914-39 (2 volumes)
Rounder 1039 Calypso Pioneers 1912-37
Rounder 1054 Calypso Breakaway 1927 41
Rounder 1077 Calypso Carnival 1936-41
Rounder 1105 Calypso Calaloo
Sequel NEX232 Calypso War 1956-58
KAISO 1-4 Early Calypso Vols. 1-4
Start with Arhoolie 7004; the Harlequin will give you historical background, Rounder 1039 includes the first known calypso by Julian Whiterose and the Sequel allows you to sample British recordings. If you get that far, you're hooked!
Sequel NEX254 Ska Boogie-Jamaican R&B
Island 518399-2 Tougher Than Tough
- The Story of Jamaican Music (4-CD set)
KAISO 5 & 6 Early Calypsos Vols. 5&6
Reissues of Jamaican R&B are scarce, but the Sequel is as good a starter kit as any. Older vinyl releases exist but you'll have to scour the collectors' record shops.
Further Reading: For Trinidad, John Cowley's new book Carnival, Canboulay & Calypso is essential and exhaustive. For both Trinidad and Jamaica, John Storm Roberts Black Music Of Two Worlds is worth reading but it's currently out of print, I'm told. Roaring Lion was interviewed in F.R.105
With thanks to John Cowley without whose unmatched knowledge of Trinidadian music and culture we would know very little.
Thanks also Percy & Ralph.
This article was originally published in the magazine FolkROOTS.
Copyright belongs to the author.
Electronic edition by Lars Fredriksson, April 17, 1997