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Five men stand on stage. One sings into a microphone.
Portrait of Count of Monte Cristo (George Anderson), Macbeth the Great (Patrick MacDonald), Duke of Iron (Cecil Anderson), Wilmoth Houdini (Frederick Wilmoth Hendricks), Lord Invader (Rupert Grant). Part of a series of photos shot by William P. Gottlieb, probably at the Renaissance Ballroom in Harlem, New York City, in July, 1947. Find the archival scans here.

Caught My Eye and Ear: Calypso Photos and Recordings, 1946-1947

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Last week while looking for images to go with a blog post mentioning Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” I stumbled across pictures of another Macbeth, “Macbeth the Great.” This was the performing sobriquet of Patrick MacDonald, a Calypso singer active in New York City in the 1940s. In some of the photos, which are part of the William P. Gottlieb collection at the Library of Congress Music Division, Macbeth the Great appears with fellow calypsonians Duke of Iron (Cecil Anderson) and Lord Invader (Rupert Grant).

a man sings into a microphone and plays maracas.
Macbeth the Great (Patrick MacDonald) sings and plays chac chac, as maracas were known in the 1940s calypso world. Macbeth’s son Ralph MacDonald was a percussionist and composer known for writing “Where is the Love” for Roberta Flack and “Just the Two of Us” for Grover Washington, Jr. Part of a series of photos shot by William P. Gottlieb, probably at the Renaissance Ballroom in Harlem, New York City, in July, 1947. Find the archival scans here.

I was immediately intrigued by these photos because of their connections to a collection item at the American Folklife Center. In December 1946, Alan Lomax produced a concert featuring Calypso music from Trinidad, with these same three headliners, and the Center has a recording of the whole show. As we’ll see, these aren’t photos of the same show, but it’s nonetheless fascinating to have relevant visuals to go with a classic set of recordings in the archive.

These collections shed light on an interesting time in American music, before the emergence of rock and roll, when calypso and related Caribbean styles were vying for popularity with other folk music genres. In 1944, the Andrews Sisters had a major hit with Lord Invader’s “Rum and Coca-Cola.” In 1956, Harry Belafonte’s “Calypso” became the first million-selling LP record. During the period between those milestones, it looked possible that calypso could emerge to be one of the leading styles of American pop music. Performers like Houdini, Duke of Iron, Macbeth, and Lord Invader engaged in friendly competitions like the ones documented by Gottlieb and Lomax, using witty lyrics, catchy music, and personal charisma to fascinate audiences on stage and on record.

A man in West Indian garb sings into a microphone
Lord Invader (Rupert Grant) was best known for writing the lyrics to the song “Rum and Coca-Cola.” When Morey Amsterdam plagiarized the song and the Andrews Sisters made it into a hit in 1944, Grant came to New York from Trinidad to sue. He eventually won his case in 1948, and in the meantime became one of America’s leading calypso singers. Part of a series of photos shot by William P. Gottlieb, probably at the Renaissance Ballroom in Harlem, New York City, in July, 1947. Find the archival scans here.

Much of the information we have about these photos comes from crowdsourcing. When the Library of Congress acquired the Gottlieb collection, we didn’t know who the performers were or even where and when the photos were taken. All we knew is that they were taken between 1938 and 1948 and seemed to show a calypso concert with several charismatic lead singers. So we put them up on the Library of Congress Flickr page back in 2010, and Flickr users contributed suggestions about them, which Library curators then followed up on.

After Flickr users had identified most of the singers, several people suggested they might be photos of the 1946 Lomax concert. Sadly, some details didn’t add up: in particular, Wilmoth Houdini is featured prominently in the photos, but doesn’t seem to have been at the Town Hall show. Soon, other Flickr users suggested a more likely concert event: a July 1947 calypso contest held at the famed Renaissance Ballroom in Harlem.

A man in West Indian garb sings into a microphone
Wilmoth Houdini (Frederick Wilmoth Hendricks) was best known for writing the song “Stone Cold Dead in the Market (He Had It Coming),” an adaptation of a Barbados folksong, which was a Top Ten pop hit for Louis Jordan and Ella Fitzgerald in 1946. Houdini seems to have capitalized on his song’s success to organize the Renaissance Ballroom concert, which was advertised as a contest to crown the New York King of Calypso. It is not known who won the contest. Part of a series of photos shot by William P. Gottlieb, probably at the Renaissance Ballroom in Harlem, New York City, in July, 1947. Find the archival scans here.

This last suggestion made a lot of sense to our colleagues in the Music Division. For one thing, Gottlieb didn’t generally document calypso. He was, however, one of the era’s preeminent jazz photographers, and the Renaissance Ballroom did feature many jazz nights. (Gottlieb’s other calypso photos, featuring Josephine Premice, were likewise taken at a well known jazz venue, in that case the Village Vanguard.) In addition, contemporary news reports confirm that this combination of singers performed at the Renaissance Ballroom that night.

The background to Lomax’s 1946 concert series was itself interesting: Lomax found out that New York’s famed venue Town Hall could be rented at a deep discount late at night, since those hours didn’t interfere with its regular run of shows. Lomax dreamed up a midnight concert series sponsored by the People’s Songs Collective. It was called “The Midnight Special,” and each concert had a theme, including “Blues At Midnight,” “Ballads At Midnight,” and, yes, “Calypso At Midnight.”

Four men gathered around a microphone
Macbeth the Great (Patrick MacDonald), Count of Monte Cristo (George Anderson), Lord Invader (Rupert Grant), and Wilmoth Houdini (Frederick Wilmoth Hendricks). George Anderson was the younger brother of Cecil Anderson, the Duke of Iron. I believe Cecil is standing on the stage next to his brother, but is almost completely hidden by Lord Invader. Part of a series of photos shot by William P. Gottlieb, probably at the Renaissance Ballroom in Harlem, New York City, in July, 1947. Find the archival scans here.

The story of the recordings is even more fascinating. In the days before tape recordings, it was quite a hassle to record a whole two-hour concert onto discs. Each disc side held approximately five minutes of music, which meant a disc had to be flipped or taken off the turntable every five minutes, or 24 times in two hours. Because of this, Lomax didn’t bother to record most of the concerts in the series, but for some reason he did arrange for the calypso concert to be recorded. Sadly, he then lost track of the discs for over 50 years. In the 1990s, however, Alan’s sister Bess Lomax Hawes found the discs in her closet as she prepared to move! The discs were dutifully added to Alan Lomax’s collection, which was then owned by the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE). The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress acquired this collection in 2004, as the Alan Lomax Collection (AFC 2004/004). This brought the “Calypso At Midnight” recordings into the American Folklife Center’s archive.

In 1999, before the Library of Congress acquired ACE’s Lomax collection, ACE arranged for the concert to be released on two CDs on the Rounder Records label, with notes by Steve Shapiro, Donald R. Hill, and John H. Cowley. Research for the CDs failed to turn up any photos of the concert. Moreover, they didn’t find any photos they could use of the principal singers together, either. It’s therefore a pleasant surprise to stumble across these excellent photos by Gottlieb, which include shots of the three singers, as well as clarinetist Gregory Felix, who also performed at Lomax’s concert.

A man plays the clarinet
Gregorio Felix Delgado, known as Gregory Felix or simply “Felix,” was a clarinetist and bandleader of such groups as Felix and his Internationals and Felix and his Krazy Kats. He was also a valued member of Gerald Clark and his Calypso Serenaders, who were the band at the “Calypso at Midnight” concert, and (it seems) at the Renaissance Ballroom concert as well. Part of a series of photos shot by William P. Gottlieb, probably at the Renaissance Ballroom in Harlem, New York City, in July, 1947. Find the archival scans here.

It’s an even greater joy to let you know that the entire “Calypso at Midnight” concert is online for listening at ACE’s website. Although the original discs and other documentation are here at the Library of Congress, ACE still administers the rights and manages the Lomax Digital Archive. Because they also coordinated the research behind the CDs, they are able to include notes on each song from the CD booklets.

It’s always fun when collections can shed light on one another, as these two collections do. If you’ve ever listened to the “Calypso at Midnight” concert recordings and wondered what the singers looked like at the time, Gottlieb’s photos help answer that question. If, on the other hand, you’ve seen Gottlieb’s striking photos but had never heard the singers, now’s your chance to hear them in a similar context.

Three men gathered around a microphone
This detail shows the three principal singers of Alan Lomax’s 1946 “Calypso at Midnight” concert recordings, (l-r): Duke of Iron (Cecil Anderson), Lord Invader (Rupert Grant), and Macbeth the Great (Patrick MacDonald). Part of a series of photos shot by William P. Gottlieb, probably at the Renaissance Ballroom in Harlem, New York City, in July, 1947. Find the archival scans here.

Look again at the photo above, featuring Duke of Iron (Cecil Anderson), Lord Invader (Rupert Grant), and Macbeth the Great (Patrick MacDonald), the three principal singers of Alan Lomax’s 1946 “Calypso at Midnight” concert recordings. I recommend you take these three friends’ advice and enjoy the “Calypso Invasion.” Follow this link to find the “Calypso at Midnight” concert!

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Comments

  1. Thank you very much for sharing this! It brings back good memories of days gone by and reminds me why I love this music and life style so much. Also, so very happy that this music – and the stories – have now been placed so more people can appreciate them and enjoy the stories that are told!

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