For each of us there is the memory of a particular performance of a song at a particular time that stirred us deeply in some way, creating such an impact, for different reasons, that the memory stays and stays.
Very early in my life in Canada, I had one of those experiences hearing the popular American singer Roy Hamilton perform the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein ballad You’ll Never Walk Alone. For me, an aspiring performer, I was struck, as never before, by the power and tone of the man’s voice. Alone in a nightclub in Toronto, I was awed by the tone-with-power aspect of his singing. I must have been 21 years old at the time, and hearing for the first time, live, a singer in full control, taking a great song and simply dominating it with great talent. I must have been sitting there with my mouth open. Drawn from the musical Carousel (later a movie), the song would become known to soccer fans when it was adopted by the fans of the Liverpool team in England, with the fans roaring it out at games to inspire their team, itself a very stirring performance. But Roy Hamilton’s version of it was a musical baptism for me.
Another moment came in Trinidad Carnival, in the early ’80s, when in the early morning of J’ouvert I was shocked to suddenly hear a leading steelband of the time, CIBC Starlift, coming down the road with a stunning rendition of the Beatles’ pop song Penny Lane. Being within yards of the band, I was overwhelmed by the completely different treatment of the Starlift arrangement, completely calypso, down to the dramatic rhythm breaks, not known in pop music, but common to this African-based carnival music on the road; Penny Lane transformed. I can still hear the band coming out of one of those breaks and exploding into the chorus of the song with the tenors going high. I followed Starlift on the road for almost two hours, waiting, as the repertoire changed, for them to come back to Penny Lane. When I play a recording of the song today I am back in that J’ouvert morning.
Trinidad was the scene of another stirring memory. This involves Sparrow in what my brain says was 1968. Tradewinds had performed, and I was standing backstage in the Savannah as the Birdie came on and went into the song We Passed That Stage. The impact there was in the concept of the piece as Sparrow listed some of our Caribbean failings, ending each verse with the point that “in this day and age, you must remember we’ve passed that stage.” One line went, “Whole week, look at we, we drunk and we smoking dope, but Sunday morning we holier than the Pope.” I was moved by the powerful message of the song, and for Sparrow’s courage to bring it to the Savannah stage where it could be considered somewhat out of place. It was essentially “message” calypso; today we say “conscious lyrics” which I find an odd term. The song never was the huge hit I felt it would become, but the impact of a powerful lyric, powerfully projected was a striking lesson for me as a budding songwriter. Hearing that tag line, it gave me goose bumps.
Some years ago, I was in the Frank Collymore Hall in Barbados as one of a number of Caribbean performers (Mighty Gabby; a story-teller from Grenada; Chalkdust; Alfred Pragnell; National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica, etc) being honoured by that country. The closing number on our show was a performance by the NDTC of David Rudder’s soca Praise that almost moved the Collymore Hall off its foundations. The NDTC, superb at all times, seemed to outdo themselves that night to that inspiring song from David (the African sprits were definitely about). They just enveloped the space and transformed it in a way that I cannot begin to describe. If you didn’t feel proud to be a Caribbean person that night, with that combination of NDTC and David, it meant you were from some other region. (I must note, in passing, that I have seen occasions where our own Le Classique dancers here have been close to mesmerizing, as well.)
Again in Barbados, this time just last month, I ended up seeing, for the first time, the American singer Danny Zolli. Known for his leading roles in many Broadway hit shows (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Technicolour Dreamcoat, Sweeney Todd), he was in the island with other Broadway performers in a show staged to raise money for Barbados’ Queen Elizabeth Hospital. The revelation here was the range and tone of the exceptional voice of the man, and, equally, his impressive musicianship. Dealing with a selection of popular “rock” or “soft-rock” music spanning the years, Zolli was the star among stars. When high notes seemed unreachable he would hit them and in a way that left you feeling he could go still higher; the tone never unravelled. And then, in the style of a pro, he handled the backup vocal for another singer Andrea Rivette in a Linda Ronstadt song, restraining his own talent to achieve a careful blend of the two voices, moving the microphone in and out to achieve balance; vocal craftsmanship throughout.
The Trinidadian Lord Funny provided another highlight. This one has to do with his immaculate timing in a poplar calypso, the mature folks may remember, called Farmer Brown. It’s a double-entendre gem about a farmer and his jackass. In one verse, when his jackass destroys the neighbours’ crops, the song says:
Farmer Brown begging for the jackass
But the neighbours they wouldn’t stop.
They didn’t care about Farmer Brown;
They kick his ass up.
It was a joy to hear Funny do this song, stretching the words for emphasis, or pausing for effect. The man was a master at taking a good line and making it sound great. In the verse above, he would play with the last line, putting a tiny pause after the fourth word, and dropping the final word “up” like a hammer coming down. The effect was delicious. The crowd would be held waiting for it, and would erupt when the “up” came. The lesson there, for anybody who works on stage, is the value of timing in playing or singing music, and, indeed in delivering the punch line in comedy. In Farmer Brown, Lord Funny was doing it with just one word. Even today, every time I hear the song, I can see Funny again in that moment about to deliver that “up” punch. Sweet stuff, that; sweet beyond words.