Collecting Caribbean Records In Australia Part 1: Calypso and Ska in the 1950s and ’60s

My first awareness of Caribbean music was through cricket. It must have been the summer of 1984 or ’85, when the West Indies played the Australian Prime Minister’s XI at Manuka Oval in Canberra. My dad and I were among the record setting crowd who saw Alan Border and Rod Marsh do battle with Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards, while a band of steel drums scored the action. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. Infectious rhythms and colourful melodies leapt through the stands provoking the hips and feet of many to move. And it wasn’t just the sounds. I’ll never forget the joyous, friendly faces of the men playing the drums.

I subsequently learned that we’d been treated that day to some of the finest steel drum players in the world. Courtney Leiba was one of them. When I met him years later he told me about his life as a musician; how he’d been a member of the Trinidad Steel Drum Band in the 1970s; how he made records with Van Dyke Parkes; and that he was once nominated for a Grammy Award. Courtney was one of many who left their birthplace in the Caribbean and made new homes in other parts of the world. The music that travelled with them didn’t take long to find enthusiastic and appreciative audiences around the globe.

Bob Marley has definitely been the most visible (and audible) ambassador for Caribbean sounds over the last forty years. His songs, messages, and image have permeated popular culture. During my own travels I’ve realised that no matter which dot on the map I happen to be in, and regardless of barriers like age or language, it is usually possible to start a conversation about Marley and his music. His appearance on the international stage in the mid 1970s certainly played a significant role in planting the seeds for reggae and ska bands that began to bud towards the end of the decade and into the 80s. But there were many artists and recordings available long before that. For the music lover with an ear for island music there had been fantastic offerings since the 1950s.

Caribbean Calypso

Perhaps the first taste of the Caribbean for many was the Andrews Sisters with their recording of Lord Invader’s Rum and Coca Cola. The song was a big hit in late 1945 despite being banned on some radio stations for lyrics that critiqued prostitution in Trinidad while promoting coca cola and hard liquor.  

Lord Invader was one of many artists, including Atilla The Hun, Roaring Lion, and Lord Kitchener, who travelled overseas and cut calypso records after the second World War. Their work played an important role in popularising the style in countries like the U.K and the U.S.  

American Hi-Fi enthusiast and stereo recording pioneer Emory Cook was particularly passionate about the music of the Caribbean. His Cook Records label released a string of fantastic discs during the mid to late 1950s. In Australia, Cook’s “Sounds of Our Times” series of LPs were first issued in June 1955 and provided some of the earliest genuine examples of calypso to antipodean audiences.  

Harry Belafonte released Calpyso in the U.S in 1956 and it arrived in Australia in 1957. Jamaica Farewell and Banana Boat (Day-O) were released as singles in March. These were immensely popular and influential recordings. Calypso was the first L.P to sell a million copies in the U.S and the singles Banana Boat and Jamaica Farewell both made the Australian top 5. In November Belafonte was starring beside Dorothy Dandridge in Island in the Sun and the theme song became a third hit single for the year. Another LP, Songs of the Caribbean, also came out. Belafonte eventually toured Australia in August 1960. In 1961 he released Jump Up Calypso, the much anticipated follow up to Calypso.

In June ’57, with Belafonte’s voice emanating from radio stations across the country, the Tribune newspaper sought to understand the phenomenon a little better and asked Trinidadian author Ralph de Boissiere, who was now living in Australia, what is true calypso?

Besides Jamaica Farewell, two other calypso inspired singles made number one on the charts that year: Marianne by Terry Gilkyson and Cindy, Oh Cindy by Eddie Fisher. Marianne is a song often credited to Trinidadian singer The Lion, while Cindy Oh Cindy was a pop song with a calypso arrangement copied from Vince Martin and the Tarriers’ version the same year.

Hollywood looked to capitalise on the burgeoning popularity of Belafonte and calypso. High Society was a box office success in 1956 and featured Louis Armstrong performing High Society Calypso on its soundtrack. Director Howard Koch made two films in 1957 that riffed on the theme, Bop Girl Goes Calypso and Untamed Youth, the latter featuring Mamie Van Doren singing Go, Go Calypso.

Having already cashed in on the rock ‘n roll craze with the films Rock Around The Clock and Don’t Knock The Rock in 1956, Fred Sears and Sam Katzman made Calypso Heatwave starring Johnny Desmond, Meg Myers and Maya Angelou. It began playing in Australian cinemas in July 1957 and Festival released the soundtrack on Coral  Records.

In 1957 Festival also issued Goombay as a “musical flight to the Bahamas” which promoted both the music of Beacham Coakley’s Emerald Hotel Beach Orchestra with vocalist Vincent Martin, and the Pan-American Airlines flight from Sydney to Nassau.

American jazz drummer J.C. Heard toured Australia and recorded an album of calypso songs for the Philips label called Tropicana. Released in May or June 1957 it features a wide range of songs from both U.S and U.K based calypsonians including Wilmoth Houdini and The Lion. This record was released in the U.S as Calypso For Dancing. It was also made available in Europe. An EP was also issued in August 1957 (confusingly, using the same title and cover photo as the U.S LP) featuring four additional songs not on the L.P including Lionel Belasco’s Sly Mongoose.

Also available in 1957 was Hi Fi Calypso etc. by Enid Mosier and her Trinidad Steel Band. Mosier was born in Antigua and made her name on Broadway where she was cast as a calypso singer alongside Pearl Bailey in Truman Capote’s House of Flowers. She subsequently made a couple of recordings with The Trinidad Steel Band who comprised Michael Alexander, Roderick Clavery, and Alphonso Marshall.  Featured on this LP is the song that had become a hit from the show Two Ladies In De Shade Of De Banana Tree.

The recordings mentioned above were all made in the Caribbean or the United States. In 1958 at least two further records appeared from companies based in Europe and the U.K which underscore the influence of calypso in those parts of the world too. Southern Bar–B-Cue was released by Polydor with Armando and his Trinidad Orchestra performing most of the songs. French bandleaders Roger Roger and Marcel Feijoo are also on this LP contributing five of the fourteen songs. The first issue of this album appears to have been in Germany at the end of 1957.     

Caribbean Calypso is a compilation of records made during the previous decade by a handful of the most popular U.K based Caribbean performers. The album provides an introduction to seminal artists like The Lion, Lord Kitchener, The Iron Duke, and Lord Beginner. The liner notes give an interesting early history of the arrival of calypso in the U.K.

Jamaica Ska

Millie Small and her 1964 hit My Boy Lollipop was the introduction for many to the irresistible Jamaican rhythms of Bluebeat and Ska. The recording featured accompaniment directed by Ernest Ranglin. Lollipop was a top 10 hit in many countries including Australia. A U.S correspondent published in the Canberra Times in May 1964 reported that Variety Magazine was predicting a boom for Jamaican ska. New Zealand singer Dinah Lee recorded a version of the song Do The Blue Beat (Jamaica Ska) and it became a hit for her both in N.Z and Australia in September.

During the winter of ’64 Festival released a trio of ska singles from the U.S by the Ska Kings, Rhythm Kings, and Baja Marimba Band.  Festival also issued a couple of LPs – Caribbean Joyride by Byron Lee and the Dragonaires and Jamaica Ska, with the latter featuring not only the Ska Kings tracks but also sides by The Charmers, The Blues Busters and The Maytals.

In 1965 the Woman’s Weekly published a feature advertising the “new jet air route via Tahiti, Mexico, Bermuda and Nassau” which made it cheaper and faster to travel to “The Caribbean Calypso Isles”.  In the same year W&G records issued Johnny Christian’s Calypso A La Mode which featured smooth, pop oriented tunes from across the islands.

The influence of ska was much greater in the U.K where migrants from the Caribbean had been moving in in large numbers after WW2. Labels like Coxsone, Bluebeat, and Island ensured that many great tracks were made available to the diaspora and many other English fans who developed a taste for the music and culture. One example was Birmingham band The Locomotive who were influenced by the rude boy sub-culture that emerged in the 1960s. In 1967 they released a cover version of Dandy Livingston’s Rudy – A Message To You for the U.K’s Direction label. This song was later covered by The Specials and became an anthem for the ska/2-Tone revival in the late 1970s.  In 1968 the Locomotive issued a follow up called Rudi’s In Love, which was written by their keyboard player Norman Haines, and it was a top 30 hit in the U.K. This meant it also got an Australian release on Parlophone records.

Another significant late 60s Australian release which bears the strong influence of ska is Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da by The Beatles. It appeared on The Beatles (White Album) in November 1968 and was also issued as a single in February 1969. It was to become one of the biggest selling songs of that year. Concurrent to The Beatles version was a cover by Jamaican singer Joyce Bond which was cut for Island Records and licensed to Festival Records. Arthur Conley also had a cover on Atlantic. The flip side of the Bond single has a great reggae instrumental called Robin Hood Rides Again which is credited to the Joyce Bond Review.

It’s also worth noting that a reggae influenced version of Give Peace A Chance, the first single by Hot Chocolate Band (later to become simply Hot Chocolate), was issued in Australia on Apple Records late in 1969.

Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da introduced a man named Desmond who has a barrow in the marketplace. Jamaican singer Desmond Dekker had toured the U.K early in 1968 and was Paul McCartney’s inspiration for the choice of name. Desmond Dekker would have been a new name to most Australian listeners but that was to change over the next 12 months.  

Part 2 will look at the emergence of reggae from the late 1960s through till the early 1980s. Please sign up for email updates at the top of the page to make sure you don’t miss it.

If you enjoyed this or have additional information or releases to share please leave me a comment below. I always love hearing from fellow collectors.

Here’s a dozen calypso tracks available in Australia between 1955 and 1958