Lip-Syncing in 1948

For once, the AI algorithms suggesting clips in the side column on YouTube turned up something of value—in fact, something almost invaluable. It’s certainly not every day that you find a calypso performance from 1948 with both sound and motion.

Yes, it’s Cecil Anderson, a.k.a. the Duke of Iron, laboriously lip-syncing to his own recording of Wild Indian, a song depicting a costumed troupe playing American Indians in the Trinidad Carnival. From Dukie’s concentrated, slightly flickering gaze, you get a sense of the uneasiness of the situation. The artist was most probably not very used to addressing a light-hearted ditty towards a set of gigantic movie cameras while trying to keep his lip movements in sync with a backing track booming through some unseen speakers. But he does make a valiant attempt.

A similar Wild Indian theme was picked up by Lord Melody some years later in his song by the same name (sometimes called Carnival Proclamation or Nikivo), one of the differences being that Melo imagined himself as the leader of the carnival band. This fact may tell us something of the different outlooks of the two singers: Melody was a “true” calypsonian in the sense that he sang “from the inside”, for fellow Trinidadians, while Duke of Iron mainly performed for American nightclub crowds, presenting Caribbean culture, carnival parades, and Wild Indians as thrilling exotica.

The central element of both Melody’s and Duke’s compositions is the chorus of nonsense words that is supposed to imitate the portrayed band leader’s fake-Amerindian chants—dual mimicry going on there. The clou of Duke’s performance—which I believe must be the only live recorded part of the film—is undeniably when he suddenly stops playing to sound a “war cry”, during which the musicians try (but fail) to appear dumbfounded.

Gregorio Félix Delgado c.1946

Surveying the musicians, I found that the bass player bears a pretty close resemblance to Bermudian singer Ross Talbot of the Talbot Brothers, but I wouldn’t bet on it. The only one who can be safely identified is Puerto Rico-born clarinetist Gregorio Félix Delgado (“The Benny Goodman of the West Indies”) who first came to New York in 1917. He went by at least four different names in musical contexts. When playing calypso, he seems to have preferred “Gregory Felix”, heading his bands Felix and his Krazy Kats, and later, Felix and his Internationals. Apart from Duke of Iron, he accompanied many of the famous calypso singers who spent time in New York at some point, like Wilmoth Houdini, Lord Beginner, Lord Invader, Bill Rogers, and Macbeth the Great. He died in 1965; Cecil Anderson stayed on for another three years.

Major credit is due to the man who found this lost reel and took time to digitize and upload it for the rest of us to enjoy: Chris Clawson at Meloware Media.

3 thoughts on “Lip-Syncing in 1948

  1. This is a great find! There are plenty of lost “Soundies” out there–perhaps even others featuring calypso artists–but this is a real rarity. Interesting that it’s tagged as a “Sterling Television Release,” as broadcast TV in the US was pretty much confined to major cities in 1948.

    The Duke’s recording of “Wild Indian,” which appears on the 10″ LP “Jungle Calypso,” Stinson/Folksay SLP/FLP-10, 1953 (but not on the original 3-disc 78 rpm of the same name, Stinson 105, released in late 1946), probably comes out of a session done for Moe Asch in the spring of 1945. Personnel on that date were Gregory Felix, clarinet; Modesto Calderon, bass; and Victor Pacheco, violin & percussion. However, that is clearly not the recording that the band is miming to here, as the lyrics, arrangement, and recording quality are all different. No idea whether Calderon and Pacheco are the other members of the trio in the video.

  2. By the way: going through some notes that I took some years ago while perusing old issues of Billboard magazine, I came across a review of the Duke of Iron’s run at New York’s “Pago Pago Club” in early 1941. The reviewer was annoyed by the fact that the night he attended, the performance was interrupted by cameramen shooting movies of the troupe (which included Bill Matons, a/k/a The Calypso Kid, and his dancers, who had earlier performed with the Duke and Gerald Clark at the Village Vanguard). Elsewhere in the same issue, it emerges that two soundies of Matons, undoubtedly including the Duke, would soon be released by Spotlight Productions. Wouldn’t it be amazing if those turned up one day…

  3. It would indeed, Michael. But it’s quite nerve-wracking to think about all the different conditions that have to be fulfilled for that to happen. Not only would a film like that have to turn up in a fair state (in that attic, on that flea-market): the person who finds it must deem it worth preserving, pay for a digital restoration, and finally take time to share it on a digital platform. What little we can do to help this come about, I believe, is to keep sites like yours going, and assure every potential calypso archeologist of our deepest gratitude—in advance.

    Thanks for all the added info-bits!

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