- Irving Louis Burgie:The Legendary Composer behind the 1950s Calypso Craze
When most people think of American music of the 1950s, rock ’n’ roll is usually what first comes to mind. It was in many ways the most characteristic music of the era. It divided and united cultural and political forces during a time when the civil rights movement was in its early ascendancy; its influence is vast. Parents, the mass media, and political leaders (even President Eisenhower) took notice of the effect of rock ’n’ roll on teenagers. Teenagers succumbed to its sound and the unique beat as they navigated the racial and sexual politics of the time. Rock ’n’ roll not only inspired a rebellious spirit among teenagers, becoming a major feature of youth culture, but also helped erode long-standing prejudices against blacks. The music was making people dance across the color line—along with other dance crazes of the 1950s.1 For this reason, among others, rock ’n’ roll is quintessentially the American music of the 1950s.
Sociotechnical transformation dynamics associated with rock ’n’ roll (the electric guitar being a prime example) indubitably played a major role; and then there were those legendary charismatic figures associated [End Page 110] with this music who “corrupted the youth,” figures such as Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Brenda Lee, Connie Francis, and Fats Domino. A significant factor that has been overlooked (one that I will segue back to shortly): there were numerous behind-the-scenes individuals who played notable roles in the transformational musical dynamics of the 1950s.
Dominant as rock ’n’ roll may have seemed during the 1950s, mainstream music of the period actually celebrated a diversity of music styles and forms that permeated popular culture through recordings, radio, movies, and television: rhythm ’n’ blues, rhumba, folk, rockabilly, cha-cha-cha, swing, West Coast jazz, mambo, bebop, and, finally, Caribbean calypso. The calypso is central here because in the late 1950s, as rock ’n’ roll surged and galvanized attention, it was anticipated that calypso would ultimately dethrone rock ’n’ roll. American tourist and entertainment industries capitalized on what amounted to a calypso craze. The roots of calypso go back to the seventeenth century, and in various forms this Afro-Caribbean music had been heard in the United States before the 1950s. But this time it was different; the American public became enamored of it as never before, and it was marketed widely. Calypso started not only to gain a following in Miami, Chicago, Manhattan, San Francisco, and other cities but also to be performed in more trendy clubs (the Village Vanguard in Manhattan is a prime example). Radio programs began to play more calypso music on stations, and promoters concluded that calypso was becoming the new boom, and they became part of it. In addition, many World War II soldiers had gone to Trinidad and other Caribbean islands and brought a taste for calypso back to the United States.
Calypso’s challenge to rock ’n’ roll centered on one individual, Harry Belafonte. He became an icon for this music and was actually labeled by the press as the “king of Calypso” (a title he never fully accepted). Fueled by Belafonte’s popularity, calypso garnered international recognition. By 1958 the global battle between rock ’n’ roll and calypso was already judged to be over. Although calypso did not decimate rock ’n’ roll, as was anticipated, its popularity forged Belafonte’s trajectory for him to become the first black matinee idol.
Belafonte was the Barack Obama of the calypso craze. In addition to his talent, he was charismatic, intelligent, well spoken, and sexy, and he had that spell-binding exoticism or racial ambiguity that fascinated whites and blacks alike. Thus, Belafonte’s talent and attributes, combined with his acceptance, propelled calypso to the status of an international commodity. There were many acknowledged calypso singers prior to Belafonte, for example, Lord Invader (1919–57), Lord Melody (1928–88), Lord Kitchener (1922–2000), Lord Pretender (1917–2002), and Lord Blakie (1932–2005), but none accomplished what Belafonte did.2 It [End Page 111] really did not matter that Belafonte’s calypso bore little resemblance to the...