Crop of a photograph of Lord Kitchener playing the double bass

Calypso and the birth of British black music

Fashioned out of a collective Commonwealth-comes-to-Britain experience, London calypso was always more that just a Saturday night feelgood soundtrack. Lloyd Bradley explores how the genre embraced social commentary, biting satire and a stock-in-trade bawdiness.

When Calypsonian Lord Kitchener stepped from the gangplank of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury, he barely had a chance to feel Mother England beneath his feet before a microphone was shoved into his face. The coterie of English reporters waiting for the new arrivals from the Caribbean knew to look out for this imposing, snappily-dressed figure, whom they’d been told was a bit of a singer. Never one to pass up an opportunity, Kitch, unaccompanied and apparently ad-libbing, broke into song:

London, is the place for me
London, this lovely city,
You can go to France or America, India, Asia or Australia
But you must come back to London city

The song is still dusted off as an easy-fit encapsulation of the start of mass immigration from the Caribbean into the UK. And, indeed, of the immigrants themselves – happy-go-lucky souls, never too far from spontaneous song. Neither assumption is particularly accurate, not least because West Indians had been present in London in significant numbers since the First World War.

Photograph of Lord Kitchener

Black and white photograph of Lord Kitchener holding a double bass

This photograph of Lord Kitchener was taken in 1956.

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As a symbol of specifically musical immigration into the UK, however, Kitch’s quayside concert is priceless. It was music that, while remaining faithful to the Caribbean, was adapted to fit its new setting. One reason the ship has assumed such significance is that 1948 marked the start of the process whereby Caribbean immigration made a cultural impression on the UK.

Origins and themes

Even before Lord Kitchener came down the Windrush gangplank there was calypso. Originating in Trinidad 300 or so years ago, the music established itself and evolved into the first modern Caribbean music to make an impact on the wider world. Hardly surprising really, the style’s narrative tradition began with enslaved peoples mocking masters and the ruling classes in witty often coded lyrics; and, as the 20th century gathered pace, the genre developed to embrace sophisticated political and community commentary and satire alongside a stock-in-trade bawdiness that would take hilariously lewd songs as near to the knuckle as a singer could go back then.

London-recorded calypsos included Lord Invader’s 1959 no nonsense response to contemporary racial attacks in parts of the London, entitled ‘Teddy Boy Calypso (Bring Back The Cat-O-Nine)’:

The only thing to stop those Teddy Boys,
From causing panic in Great Britain,
The only thing to stop those hooligans,
From causing panic in England,
Well I hope that the Government,
See they need another kind of punishment,
I say one thing to cool down this crime,
Is to bring back the old time cat-o-nine.

So the old time cat-o-nine beat them bad,
And they bound to change their mind,
Is to send them to Dartmoor with licks like fire,
And they bound to surrender.

Kitch summed up how many new arrivals felt about their treatment in the capital in ‘If You’re Brown’:

‘It’s a shame it’s unfair but what can you do
The colour of your skin makes it hard for you…
If you’re brown they say you can stick around
If you’re white well everything’s all right
If your skin is dark, no use, you try
You got to suffer until you die

Later, on an album entitled Curfew Time, he would include the track ‘Black Power’. And then there was his ‘If You’re Not White You’re Black’, a song detailing one aspect of the English approach to race relations that pretty much nullified how shadism worked in the Caribbean:

Your father is an African
Your mother maybe Norwegian
You pass me, you wouldn’t say goodnight
Feeling you are really white
Your skin maybe a little pink
And that’s the reason why you think
Dat de complexion of your face
Can hide you from the Negro (Black) race
No!, you can never get away from the fact
If you not white then you considered Black…
You jut along the thoroughfare, you shake your waist like Fred Astaire,
And when you see me passing by, you watch me with a crooked eye

At the earthier end of the spectrum there was ‘The Lion’s Tick! Tick! (The Story Of The Lost Watch)’, about a woman who steals a watch and hides it in her vagina, or Marie Bryant’s ‘Don’t Touch Me Nylon’, a song so suggestive it prompted Brixton MP Marcus Lipton to bring it up in Parliament, calling for a ban on ‘gramophone records of indecent content’. Prior to these particular examples, such an appealing mix of sex and social commentary understandably spread around the West Indies and, consequently, to wherever West Indians ended up, although nowhere did calypso have a more significant cultural impact than in the UK. From the late 1930s onwards, calypso provided the foundation stone of what would blossom into our unique black British culture. The sound systems of the 1950s onwards enjoy a rightly prominent status for creating the conditions under which that culture could flourish, but as regards the actual black British musical expression, Ground Zero is calypso from a couple of decades earlier.

Photograph of Marie Bryant and Illinois Jacquet

Black and white photograph of vocalist Marie Bryant with saxophonist Illinois Jacquet at a recording session

These photographs were published by American media covering the release of the 1944 American short Jammin' the Blues.

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Photograph of Marie Bryant and Red Callender

Black and white photograph of vocalist Marie Bryant with bassist Red Callendar at a recording session

These photographs were published by American media covering the release of the 1944 American short Jammin' the Blues.

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The Commonwealth-comes-to-Britain experience: Adapting, expanding, absorbing

Fashioned out of a collective Commonwealth-comes-to-Britain experience, London calypso was always more that just a Saturday night feel-good soundtrack (although its importance there shouldn’t be underestimated). It set the template for the black music styles that were to follow: start with a specific style (Trinidadian calypso); adapt it to the new environment (London’s ballrooms, pubs and broadcasters) with different audience/management expectations; acknowledge popularity of existing black musical forms (jazz and swing); and absorb the not-necessarily Trinidadian influences of the pool of players (West Africa, Guyana, Jamaica, the USA). The same intrinsic process created lovers rock reggae, britfunk and jungle, and provides a vivid line from 1940s London calypso superstars such as Sam Manning, Rudolph Dunbar and Freddie Grant through Eddy Grant, Carroll Thompson, Light Of The World and Soul II Soul to Rey BLK. Indeed, put Lord Kitchener next to Skepta and, really, the only thing separating them is the cut of their trousers.

Mainstream versus independent record labels

As would prove the case with lovers rock, britfunk and so on, calypso developed along these spontaneously creative lines because, by this point, the mainstream music business had largely left it to its own devices. It was also the first high profile example of big record company idiocy when it came to handling British black music. In the UK, calypso had been enjoying modest success, always popular on the dancefloor and with a few standout records such as George Browne’s huge 1943 festive hit ‘Christmas Calypso’ or Edric Connor’s ‘Manchester United Calypso’, still aired at Old Trafford over 60 years later. In the US, however, between 1945 and 1955 calypso was major league pop music: all over the charts, stars as big as Ella Fitzgerald adopting a Caribbean approach, bars and clubs changing their names to things like Calypso Lounge and film studios producing a string of low budget calypso-themed teen flicks such as Bop Girl Goes Calypso. The UK record industry was mesmerized and began wholesale licensing of what they assumed to be a very milky cash cow.

What they failed to realise was that this was a mainstream America-assimilated take on the music – see the Andrews Sisters’ ’Rum And Coca-Cola’ – very different from what was on offer in Britain from the likes of the All-British Coloured Band or the All-Star Caribbean Orchestra. Held up against what was being played on the BBC live broadcasts and in the ballrooms, it, erm, paled in comparison and made barely a ripple among record buyers. 'That’s it', the industry thought, 'Calypso can’t sell so let’s just forget about it'. Enter the small, below-the-radar record labels who adopted the seemingly inexplicable practice of knowing who the UK calypso audience was, finding out what they wanted and how to reach them.

The most significant independent was Melodisc, run by jazz-loving wide boy Emil Shallit, who was very aware of Britain’s growing black presence. His label initially catered for that audience by recording jazz and West African hi life along with calypso – he would also found the iconic Bluebeat label several years later. Shallit knew his crowds’ tastes crossed over with each other and would be reflected in the make-up of the studio musicians’ nationalities. Then the jazzer in him meant that he was shrewd enough to let them get on with it. He hired a Trinidadian musical arranger, Rupert Nurse, who welcomed external musical ideas and incorporated them into the charts he wrote. In many ways Nurse was merely replicating the jamming that took place in London clubs most nights – why not? It had proven popular. But in recording it he created a base camp for London calypso’s inclusive approach to build on as other little labels followed suit. Shallit also solved any distribution problems in an equally straightforward manner: he did a deal with an importer/wholesaler of African and Caribbean food and got them to handle Melodisc’s catalogue along with the yam and green bananas – get your records to where you know your audience will be.

Perhaps more critical than even the creative and financial success Melodisc and others experienced was – once again like lovers rock … you know the drill – this inclusive approach meant London calypso was instrumental in the notion of a black identity that reflected where it was, rather than where it had come from. When players from all over the Commonwealth came together the vibe was x; the pianist and bandleader of the time Russ Henderson told me:

We didn’t care where we was actually from, because we
were all of us black in London – we all brought bit of our
own musical backgrounds to the studio and everybody had
something to offer the others. This was important for the
music because it gave it a feel it didn’t get anywhere else.

A platform for London’s black presence

London calypso’s success on its own terms gave Britain’s booming black presence the perfect platform from which to introduce itself, and, as proved to be the case in the future, the public at large happily embraced the real deal. During the 1950s calypso and West Indian culture made huge inroads into mainstream broadcasting. The BBC televised part of Claudia Jones’s first West Indian Carnival live from St Pancras Town Hall in 1959, featuring the cream of the UK’s Caribbean entertainers. Trinidadian music and dance duo Boscoe & Sheila Holder had a radio series called Caribbean Carnival, and their live West Indian-themed TV special Bal Creole was such a huge hit, public demand meant the BBC had to recreate it to show it again because it hadn’t been recorded. The Holders were also regulars on the black variety TV series Caribbean Carnival and, along with Edric Connor and Lord Kitchener, would frequently appear on black TV specials such as It’s Fun To Dance and We Got Rhythm. Guyanan barrister turned calypsonian Cy Grant had his own ITV chat show; and boogie woogie pianist Winifred Atwell, a Trinidadian native, featured much black talent on her primetime variety series, which proved so popular BBC and ITV got into a bidding war over it. Meanwhile, the music’s social commentary aspect saw it become the weapon of choice for the new breed of TV satirists on shows such as Tonight and That Was The Week That Was.

Claudia Jones' Caribbean Carnival Souvenir programme, 1960

Page from the Caribbean Carnival programme for 1960, containing photographs of Lord Kitchener, Elaine Delmar and Cy Grant

Lord Kitchener, pictured bottom right, also starred in Claudia Jones’ Caribbean Carnival in 1960.

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As if all this wasn’t quite enough, London’s unique take on calypso saw it become a genuine black music hub, and Emil Shallit and Melodisc were central. They sold a great deal of London calypso to the West Indies and West Indians in the US – something of a no-brainer considering the music’s biggest stars were working in the UK – but what happened in Africa was less predictable. The company recorded West African music in London for sale in, chiefly, Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone – and France – then pushed London-recorded calypso along the same distribution channels. Whether or not the West African input into London calypso played a part here is a moot point, but it did so well that in turn calypso had an audible effect on the regions’ music, hence the modern day similarities. West Indian calypsonians became superstars in West Africa, so much so that when Nigeria became independent in 1960, the new president asked Young Tiger, a London-based Trinidadian calypsonian, to write the new national anthem. Respectfully, he turned the request down.

So what went wrong? Why aren’t we grooving to a hugely-evolved, tower block-instigated, grimey form of calypso? Why isn’t the accepted shorthand for laidback Caribbean vibes Marie Bryant’s ‘Don’t Touch Me Tomato’ instead of Bob Marley’s ‘One Love’? The answer is, quite simply, Jamaican music and its approach to the music business. By the end of the 1950s, sound systems ruled the UK black music scene, and when ska came into its own around the same time, the soundmen pretty much ignored everything else. However, when you consider the impact calypso had on the UK and its emerging black presence, Lord Kitchener’s 'spontaneous' rendition of 'London Is The Place For Me' takes on an even greater significance.

Q: What have screen tough guy Robert Mitchum, leader of the Nation of Islam Louis Farrakhan, and 1960s English TV comedian Lance Percival got in common?
A: They’ve all had hit calypso albums.

© Lloyd Bradley.

Banner: Getty 454176560 © Wolfgang Kaehler / LightRocket via Getty Images

  • Lloyd Bradley
  • Lloyd Bradley is an author focusing on British black music and the contribution it continues to make to the UK’s wider cultural experience. His published works include Bass Culture: when Reggae was King and Sounds Like London: 100 Years of Black Music In The Capital; he is co-curator of the exhibition Black Sound: Black British Music’s Journey of Creative Independence, at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre until 2020; and currently writing Funk Is Its Own Reward: How 1970s Soul Music Changed Everything.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.