Flabbergasted Focus #2: Vintage soca and calypso

Just in time for Notting Hill carnival.  I’ve only been in London at the same time as that famous celebration once.  I caught some of the steel band showcase  with a good friend on the Friday before the real festivities get underway, and then it proceeded to rain all weekend, and I found myself doing other things.  I keep hearing it’s not the same as it used to be, but I hope to make it back someday anyway.  There’s a lot of history in that celebration.  In the meantime, I made this mix for our mutual edification.  I do hope you enjoy it in good health.

Tracklist

Ray Silvester and his Orchestra – Funk Calypso

Maestro – Reveller

Beckett – Oppression

Duke – Is It Groovy Now?

Singing Francine – She

Sparrow – Play You Mas

Shadow – Carnival Is Fete

Crazy – Back To Pan

Lord Kitchener – Dog Bite You (1978)

Lord Kitchener – Body Argument  (1965)

Ben Bowers & Bertie King’s Royal Jamaicans – Man Smart, Woman Smarter

Ray Silvester and his Orchestra – Statue

Sparrow – What Is Life

Penguin – Finger

Ed Watson – Love Is Not For Sale

Mighty Power – London Soca

Mighty Sparrow and Byron Lee – Sparrow Meets The Dragon (1969)

Mighty Sparrow With Byron Lee And The Dragonaires
Sparrow Meets The Dragon
1969 SpaLee Records – SLP – 001
US Release

A1 Maria
A2 No Money No Love
A3 More And More Amour
A4 Born Free
A5 Sandra
A6 Walk Away
B1 Peace And Love
B2 Only A Fool
B3 Theme From Doctor Zhivago
B4 Make The World Go Away
B5 Try A Little Tenderness

Producer – Byron Lee

RIPPING PROCESS: SpaLee-001 US vinyl; Pro-Ject RM-5SE with Audio Tecnica AT440-MLa cartridge; Speedbox power supply); Creek Audio OBH-15; Audioquest King Cobra cables; M-Audio Audiophile 192 Soundcard ; Adobe Audition at 32-bit float 96khz; clicks and pops removed with Click Repair on light settings, manually auditioning the output; further clicks removed with Adobe Audition 3.0; dithered and resampled using SoX for 16-44 version. Converted to FLAC in either Trader’s Little Helper or dBPoweramp. Tags done with Foobar 2000 and Tag and Rename.

This is a fun little record that is something of a classic but, in my opinion, probably less than the sum of its parts.  Both these guys have a bazillion records to their names and, no matter what your specific tastes, you can probably find a few that would tickle your earholes a little more than this.  But I suppose the album is a snapshot in an important time in their careers.  It was released and distributed internationally at a time when not many of their recordings were available outside of their home territories, but as their international profile was rising through live performances in North America and the UK.  My American pressing does not have liner notes, but from what I can just barely read from the blurry pics somebody took of the Jamaican gatefold version, this album was almost made like a joint effort of international diplomacy and/or development of the tourist industry.  At the time both Sparrow and Bryon Lee were big names from tiny islands, and the idea of throwing both their combos together into a studio seemed to play up their roles as cultural ambassadors to the world for Caribbean music.  Friends of this blog more knowledgeable in Jamaican music history can no doubt situate Bryon Lee’s career better than I can and are encouraged to leave comments below.  I know he did some important work as a producer and arranger in Jamaica but I mostly know him from a smattering of carnival / calypso-soca records from the 70’s.  (By which I mean the smattering that I’ve heard – he released dozens of ’em!)  I presume those LPs were a direct result of this collaboration with Sparrow, as he seems to have stepped up his engagements in Trinidad and Tobago in the wake of its success.  This album was pressed in dozens of different countries and reissued a whole bunch of times, sometimes under the title “Only A Fool.”  So it’s a pity that it is actually kind of lightweight.

The calypso songs are pretty solid, especially the opener “Maria”, which essentially appears again as “Peace and Love” with its silly and naughty word-play — the melody and chord progression are basically identical in the two songs.    Lee and the Dragonairres are mostly known for playing instrumental versions of other peoples’ material, and I find the instrumental stuff on this LP pretty groovy. “More and More Amour”  and “Theme From Doctor Zhivago” do not disappoint.  I’m inclined to think it was Lee’s idea to get Sparrow to sing so many contemporary popular songs on this album, and these are much less interesting to me.  For these ballads, Sparrow’s voice takes on crooner proportions in the vein of a hotel lounge singer. His renditions of ‘Born Free’ and ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ are at best fun kitsch, and at worst utterly unnecessary.  I will confess that his rendition of “Walk Away” makes me tear up a little, but that is probably just because its a great song that I can personally relate to.  But the track that ended up a huge hit from this collection is their rendition of “Only A Fool,” an Arthur Prysock tune that has been recorded by a slew of different artists, including Tom Jones.  There is nothing particularly Caribbean about this Sparrow/Byron Lee rendition other than the people performing it, and it’s a bit baffling to me why it became such a huge success.  Obviously it resonated with an audience, though. Not only did it remain in Sparrow’s live repertoire for years, it was even reissued in 1977 by Trojan Records, with an accompanying promotional video clip in which Sparrow manages to invent the future outfit of the Super Mario Brothers while awkwardly singing the hit song, strolling on the beach.

I’ve had this post ready in the wings for months and what I guess prompted me to finally put it up here is that Notting Hill carnival is about to take place in London.  While revelers will be observing a moment of solemnity and attempted silence for the 79 people killed in the horrific Glenfell Towers fire this past June, London police are demonizing the festival through ham-fisted public relations like the “crackdown” described in this Guardian op-ed piece.  With all the blatant, unapologetic racism on display in my own country, it’s a bit disappointing to see Scotland Yard blowing their own dog-whistles.

Music helps bring power to the people, I say, so here’s a small contribution to the cause.  I might even have another surprise post in this genre in the next few days, who knows!


 

 

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Ed Watson & His Brass Circle – Heavy Roller (1980)

Ed Watson and His Brass Circle
Heavy Roller
1980 Circle Records CRL 1014
A1     Judgement Day
A2     Boogie Woman
A3     One In A Million You
B1     Take It Easy
B2     Hot Line
B3     Sail On
B4     Shining Star
    Mixed At – Eras Recording Studio
    Recorded At – K.H. Studios
Credits
Vocals  – Errol Asche
1st trumpet – F. Ruiz
2nd trumpet – C. Mitchell
Trombone – K. Stevens
Alto sax – D. Dyal
Guitar – Renol Boucaud, T. Voisin, R. Imanisha
Bass – M. Wilson, A Bushe
Piano – P. Goddard
Strings and synth – Ed Watson
Congas – O.Haynes, W. Watson
Percussion – A. Well, A. Jules
    Arranged By, Conductor – Ed Watson
   Mixed by – Ed Watson, Rawlston Charles
    Mixing engineer – Ray Volpe
    Recording engineer – R. Michaud
    Producer – Rawlston Charles
Mixed at Eras Recording Studio, 226 East 50th Street, N.Y., N.Y.
Vinyl; Pro-Ject RM-5SE with Audio Tecnica AT440-MLa cartridge; Speedbox power supply); Creek Audio OBH-15; M-Audio Audiophile 192 Soundcard ; Adobe Audition at 32-bit float 96khz; clicks and pops removed with Adobe Audition 3.0; resampled using iZotope RX 2 Advanced SRC and dithered with MBIT+ for 16-bit. Converted to FLAC in either Trader’s Little Helper or dBPoweramp.  Tags done with Foobar 2000 and Tag and Rename.

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Welcome to our first blog post of 2016!  My enthusiasm for tending to this blog has slackened once again, but this time it has nothing to do with my dear readership or the “blogosphere” in general and everything to do with the dour notes that ended my 2015.  So why not start the blog-year with something (not completely) different?

I will leave it for another post to say more about my slowly gestating interest in calypso and soca music.  But along with finding random interesting stuff at record shop digs or on the virtual stacks of the internet, over a year ago I asked a good friend with good connections among record dealers and traders to “hook me up” with a stack of such titles, because I assumed his city must be drowning in the stuff.  I went home with a bunch of cool music that day but this is the first title I have gotten around to sharing here.

   I don’t know a lot about keyboardist Ed Watson and his band Brass Circle, so any calypsonians out there feel free to write in with comments.  About six months after getting this record, I stumbled on another one from 1982 in which the liner notes state that he had kept a group together for 20 years, so therefore he got his start in the early 1960s.  A few enthusiastic calypso/soca/kaiso YouTubers have uploaded a bunch of his material spanning the mid 70s to the 90s.   Although I can only assume lots of musicians came and went in this band, the sound on this record is definitely a group that has spent a lot of time in live performance.  It’s from the transitional period when cheesy synth patches were just beginning to proliferate, but there is enough leanness to the overall sound – including lots of electric piano and guitar – that I actually find the keyboards glorious.

[EDIT:  I’ve always thought of my blog as a learning process, in public, so I’m only slightly chagrined that I didn’t know Mr. Ed Watson was the arranger of the famous monster hit for Lord Kitsch, Sugar Bum Bum. I’m adding this here but I expect that my next Ed Watson post will have more information about the man’s legacy as I live and learn]

The four original tunes here are skin-tight smoking soca. Punchy horns, rippling rhythm guitars, and that bass drum that hits you in the diaphragm like you’ve been kicked by a startled horse who keeps perfect time.

Unfortunately, those are only half the tracks.

The tightly animated originals are interspersed with some cover songs of contemporary soul hits.  And unlike with reggae artists, where a singer would reinterpret an American soul tune backed by a clever arrangement, there is no attempt here to turn these songs ‘soca’: they are pretty much played as straight covers, with the exception of the bouncy faux-reggae lilt given to “Sail On”.  A couple of them are instrumental or only feature vocals on the chorus. They remind me of something you’d expect to hear a wedding band play: they’re not bad, but they are also nothing special.  In fact a more apropos analogy  would be a cruise ship or hotel band, and I think there might be actual historical considerations here (as opposed to just talking out my ass).  Many a steel band and calypso singer made their bread and butter playing in hotels or on cruise ships for tourists.  It wouldn’t be unrealistic to speculate that Ed Watson paid the bills that way at least some of the time.  The kind of repertoire on display here – spirited originals alternating with familiar hits of the day – would not be out of place on the tourist circuit.  We can be glad at least that Mr. Watson had good taste in his song selection:  Larry Graham, The Commodores, and The Manhattans are the chosen purveyors of 1980 chart happiness.  I can’t quite fathom the reason why none of these covers have a lead vocal, as singer Errol Asche seems more than capable of giving these tunes a worthy spin.  Instead, they come off as a bit like karaoke backing tracks.

Okay, let me revise something I said earlier, about these covers being “not bad”:  the version of Larry Graham’s “One In A Million You” is just downright awful, with a spiritless saxophone playing the vocal melody.  It’s not my favorite Larry Graham cut anyway, but there’s no excusing this dreary rendition.  I suppose these tracks were what the band played when it deemed it time to initiate an intimate slow dance, seeing as soca is seemingly inimical to slow couples-dancing.  If your tongue is halfway down your partner’s throat I guess it doesn’t matter much how the music sounds or if the sax is slightly out of tune.

The other two covers are better, especially The Manhattans “Shining Star”, which really makes you want to sing along (hey the mic is wide open, go for it!).  But rather than share a clip for one of the covers on this album, I’ll share one from another of his records to prove without question that the formula can work.  In the clip below, witness what – as my friend Bertha Butt has proclaimed – may be the best version of “Feelings” ever recorded.

Seriously, I just love everything about the instrumentation, production, and arrangement.  I want it played at my funeral in lieu of a eulogy.  Pop culture historians are free to argue the point, but I contend that for a time in the 1980s and 90s, singing a few lines of “Feelings” was the pre-internet equivalent of being “Rick Rolled”.  AND did you know the original singer of the tune, Morris Albert, was a Brazilian whose real name was Maurício Alberto?  So there, don’t let it be said that my first blog post of 2016 had no Brazilian content.

The other record I have, 1982’s “Dat Is Soca”, is a more solid listen that won’t have you reaching for your ‘skip’ button as often as this one.  With any luck I’ll post it some time.

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Lord Nelson – Then and Now (1974)

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Since I recently took a long break from blogging after being called an imperialist gringo pig spreading misinformation about cultures and countries that aren’t mine. So it may be a while before I begin posting lengthy pontifications again about whatever records happen to be tickling my earhole on any given week. Let me be perfectly clear that I am not from Trinidad andTobago, Barbados, Brooklyn or the Bronx and can make no pretense of authority on this music.  In fact I only started collecting it a few years back.  I could extrapolate on how I am interested in the ludic, carnivalesque aspects of it from a cross-cultural perspective, its place in the black musical diaspora and Caribbean history and sugar production, it’s cutting and off-color humor…


Or I could just stay that I’m drawn to it because it’s groovy.

This blog is about the discovery of music.  Sometimes for you and sometimes for me as well.  I started this blog in 2008 as just a fun way to kill some time when I was ‘between jobs’, so to speak, and while it has grown into something else I still like to think I’m approaching it the same way, as a genial way of sharing music about which I’m interested and usually at least a little enthusiastic, and about which I try to be informed to some degree.  I have no problem with somebody chipping in to the conversation to drop some knowledge about an artist or a genre or a supporting musician if you’re inspired to do so, and if I’m mistaken about something, I’m generally happy to be enlightened.  But if you come here to one-up anybody, to talk down or diminish with your conspicuous hipness, well then fuck you and the sanctimonious horse you road in on.  Especially if you’re just here to spout some cultural nationalist horseshit about how foreigners can never understand your music and they should all stop listening / enjoying / talking about it.  And especially when you haven’t even read the whole post I’ve written and just want a soapbox for your insensate hostility.   The minute you open your mouth and that sort of drivel comes out, you’ve proven yourself an idiot.

And take note, because that’s about the only time you’ll hear me say that.  I may be opinionated about some of the records I post, and sometimes curmudgeonly  in my tastes, but I will never call someone an idiot for not agreeing with me about whether a song, record, or artist is good or great or awful.   (OK, so if I’m completely honest with myself, this has sort of happened at least once in 6 years that I can remember.  It involved somebody who was repeatedly slagging off Tim Maia because they “hated that disco stuff.”   Perhaps I would be more diplomatic in my snark today than I was then..)   Some of you will surely say I ought to have a thicker skin, and you wouldn’t be the first to say so.  But sometimes I think it’s a rhinoceros typing in front of a computer on the other end, which would explain all the typos.      To stop blogging on account of a handful of clueless asshats might have seemed unfair to the “fans” of this blog, and I know that those fans do exist.   Guys and gals, sorry about the unexpected break.  But you know, I’ve quit salaried jobs with good benefits and a pension and given less notice than I did for this blog.  Maybe that impulsive attitude accounts for some of the mess in my life, but I have no qualms about moving on to something more interesting when things become a drag and harsh my mellow.  So now before I go to play my bongos on the beach, let me tell you about this great calypso record I found.

/rant
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Lord Nelson
Then & Now
1974 Camille Records LP-9039

1. So Sweet
2. Old Youth
3. Immigration
4. Pressure
5. Stella  (Jump Up Records, JU-527)
6. Sugar  (National Records 101)
7. Itch  (Dem Boys Records DB-101, CAB records 107)
8. Garrot Bounce  (previously on an LP by National Recording Company
N.R.C. 01-1, and most likely as an early-60s single too)
 9. He And She (1960s recording, I can’t find release info)

Produced by Camille E. Hodge
Photography – Woodie Wilson
Cover design – Murray Sincoff

Flabbergasted rip.  Vinyl; Pro-Ject RM-5SE turntable (with Sumiko Blue Point 2 cartridge, Speedbox power supply); Creek Audio OBH-15; M-Audio Audiophile 192 Soundcard ; Adobe Audition at 32-bit float 96khz; Click Repair; individual clicks and pops taken out with Adobe Audition 3.0 – dithered and resampled using iZotope RX Advanced (for 16-bit). Tags done with Foobar 2000 and Tag and Rename.

All the tracks on side 2 are monoaural recordings, collected from various singles on different labels.  I did a stereo to mono fold-down on this side of the record.
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 One of the great calypsonians here, Lord Nelson aka Roberto Nelson aka Nelo, always brings the bounce.  From what I can tell, this album is one side’s worth of “new” material, and a second side comprised of songs previously released as 7″ singles.  The album should really be called “Now and Then”, because the first side is stuff that definitely hails from the early 70s, with little wah-wah guitar licks and somewhat funky arrangements, while Side Two shows more of the huge jazz influence in early 60s calypso.  Lord Nelson had made records for the Camille label in New York since the mid-60s, most notably with Milo & The Kings on “Dove and Pigeon.”  But these tracks are a bit earlier, and had all been released on labels like Dem Boys Records, Stateside, and National Recording Company.  These labels were all based either in Trinidad and Tobago or in the UK.   The LP’s failure to explain any of this possibly means the recordings weren’t being licensed through the proper channels, but presumably since Nelson was putting out full LPs on Camille in the mid-70s, this was fine with him.  I guess that puts this album in the long tradition of “we don’t have enough new material for a full album, so lets scrape together some old chestnuts with those couple of new tracks you have.”  Like a lot of genres, calypso was more of a singles market until the 70s anyway.  Although the difference between the two album sides is definitely noticeable, the end result is less of a patchwork than it sounds and really a very enjoyable listen.   As I said above (c.f.”rant”),  I’m sort of new to collecting this stuff, but a lot of 70s calypso LPs seem to have a few really strong tunes or maybe even a fistful, but also some filler.  Whereas previously there would be a surge in singles released for every carnival, now artists were putting out full LPs.  This one, though, is all killer.     It’s got a lot of really clever and funny stuff on it.  Calypso is famous for its unsubtle double entendre, but Nelson excells at weaving narratives, like the wonderful “Immigration” which basically describes the results of someone jokingly shouting that word on a boat full of West Indians on the Hudson River, with an aftermath the equivalent of the proverbial “shouting FIRE in a crowded theater” scenario.  This was a different time in the United States, when wry jokes and colorful stories could be told about flouting immigration laws, long before the massive deportations, draconian laws, and creepy wall-building of today.

“Garrot Bounce” is one of Nelo’s signature tunes.  I’m confused about the provenance of this recording.  I’ll presume it is the same version that appears on an N.R.C. long-player of the same name released in 1965. But there is a 1969 version on Youtube that is about six minutes long, the second half of which is one big jam.  It appears to actually be the A and B sides of the 45 edited together flawlessly by the uploader.  For the A side it cold almost be the same recording as this one (except in stereo).  Anybody want to play spot the difference?  Ain’t nobody got time for that.  The backing group is Milo & The Kings and I suppose they had played this crowd-pleaser thousands of times, so an essentially note-for-note rendition shouldn’t surprise me.  But flip the 45 over, and the song breaks down into this monster jam.  I almost wish I hadn’t heard it, because the original is fantastic, but this version with an instrumental bridge has blown my mind.  Anyway, check it out as it will give you a taste of Lord Nelson, but don’t get too excited about the awesome jam at the end because it’s not on it.  I don’t see the 1965 version up on the ‘Tube  (there is even a version up there falsely attributed to Nelson that is totally not him).

So, the first side of the “Then And Now” LP is cool and should titillate the soca fans out there and for people like myself who enjoy anything from the early 70s regardless of the genre, but the real gold here is on Side Two.  “Stella” is another classic and wonderfully silly, not quite wacky enough to get played by Dr. Demento but it’s pretty funny.   “He and She” manages to get in some observations on gender double-standards alongside some good jokes about ugly babies, and “Itch” is probably about VD.

Here’s a photo of label head Camille Hodge holding this LP in his cramped little store in NYC.  Courtesy of a really awesome website that hosts an original interview with him, Other Sounds

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Sparrow – Sparrow Vs. The Rest (1976)

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Sparrow
Sparrow vs. The Rest
1976 Dynamic (DYLP 3001)

A1         How You Jammin’ So     4:50
A2         Music & Rhythm     4:00
A3         Saltfish     3:05
A4         Witch Doctor     4:15
A5         My Woman     3:10
B1         Fatman     4:10
B2         The Statue     4:45
B3         Pan Jam Fete     4:25
B4         We Kinda Music     4:05

Produced by Slinger Francisco
Arranged By – U. Belfast & Slinger Francisco
Backing Band –  The Troubadours
Photography – Aston Chin, Howard Moo Young
Recording engiener – N. Case
Remixed by B.Lee
Mastered by G. Goodhall
Album design – Moo Young / Butler Associates Ltd.

Recorded at Dynamic Sounds Studios, 15 Bell Road, Kingston 11
to C. Wear and J. Francique, special thanks from The Dragonaires

Manufactures by Creole Records, London

Vinyl; Pro-Ject RM-5SE turntable (with Sumiko Blue Point 2 cartridge, Speedbox power supply); Creek Audio OBH-15; M-Audio Audiophile 192 Soundcard ; Adobe Audition at 32-bit float 192khz; Click Repair; individual clicks and pops taken out with Adobe Audition 3.0 – dithered and resampled using iZotope RX Advanced (for 16-bit). Tags done with Foobar 2000 and Tag and Rename.

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Well it is too late for Notting Hill Carnival but not too late to still enjoy some calypso!

Sparrow aka Mighty Sparrow aka Slinger Francisco (with a real name like Slinger Francsico, why do you even need a stage name??) has been one of the kings of calypso music for half a century.  Although he is known for political songs too (see Capitalism Gone Mad for a great example) he is probably most famous for ribald, raunchy double entendre songs like Big Bamboo (which I’m not entirely sure if he wrote, but he definitely made famous).  This album has no political songs but a few choice cuts from the latter category, like Salt Fish and Fat Man.  Some songs just celebrate the power of good music (Music And Rhythm) and one celebrates the Afro-Caribbean folk religion of Obeah, albeit it tongue and cheek, the wickedly glorious “Witchdoctor.”   This record is also probably one of his last 1970s records of straight calypso music as he transitioned into also singing the popular Soca style, at which he is also fantastic.   His band The Dragonairres are in top form and the horn arrangements are especially great.

This album has been at the front of the stacks for a long time before I finally got around to this blog post – here’s hoping that I manage to post a couple more Sparrow albums sooner rather than later.  In fact this particular LP was a gift from the lovely Bertha Xique-Xique, to whom I owe much inspiration.  Have you noticed that this is also one of the most bad-ass album covers ever?

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