The Bebop Connection

This modern music’s got me confused
To tell you, friends,
I’m quite unenthused
Be-ah-ba-do-la, beep-bleep
George Browne, 1953

In the late 1940s bebop was enrapturing the jazz world. It was a rhythmically and harmonically complex form of jazz, often played at a staggeringly fast tempo. As such, it was not primarily suited for dancing or singing, diverging in this respect from earlier Black music styles. Blurting out a stream of nonsense syllables, a.k.a. scatting, was one of the few ways a singer could engage with bebop. Scatting, in turn, could perhaps be considered the antithesis to singing a well crafted, witty calypso, and judging by the views expressed in his 1953 composition, calypso singer George ‘Young Tiger’ Browne seems to have been rather down-hearted by the success of bebop. Was Browne imagining the coming of a new era in which the musical development would make the singing of real words extinct? In this post I will look at five bebop related calypso recordings to see what kind of relation the singers had with the phenomenon.

Lord Kitchener in 1956, 34 years old.

London of the early 1950s was a boiling pot of musical styles competing for attention. Americans, West Africans, and West Indians all brought their sticks to the fire. The resulting brew has been amply sampled in Honest Jon’s awesome London Is the Place for Me series, taking its name from Lord Kitchener’s on-the-spot composition upon his arrival to England, standing on the deck before a British Pathé reporter.

Like most calypsonians going abroad, Kitchener was open to letting whatever musical trends he encountered influence his calypsos. A prime example can be heard in his 1951 Melodisc recording called “Kitch’s Bebop Calypso” (Melodisc 1162), in which he lauds the American bebop monarchs and namedrops some of their most famed compositions. Freddy Grant’s orchestra proves their capabilities, delivering peppy bebop phrases in between Kitch’s verses.

As far as I can tell, the songs whose titles Kitchener quotes don’t seem to match with the riffs Grant’s orchestra plays, which is kinda funny. And I’m not sure whether Kitch sings that bebop is “sweeter” or, more diplomatically, “sweet-ah.” In any case, he certainly gives the impression of being a keen supporter of the fresh style he has stumbled upon in the clubs of his new homeland.

Another witty testimony of a first-hand bebop experience can be heard in Al ‘King’ Timothy’s “Gerrard Street” (Melodisc 1247), found on the second volume of the London… series.

Back to the critical Mr. Browne, a man whose remarkable life story ought to be presented in a fuller way somewhere. In short, he was born in Port-of-Spain in 1920, and grew up to become a singer, guitarist and actor, appearing in plays, cabarets, and TV shows from the 1950s onward. Later in life he owned and managed a restaurant and a health club. At the admirable age of 66 he began study computers. Val Wilmer’s obituary in The Guardian paints a somewhat melancholy picture of Browne’s last years in a London high-rise, “surrounded by computers, playing the stock market for modest return.”

In 2007—the year of Browne’s death—BBC radio host Charlie Gillett (1942–2010) wrote a fine account of his meeting with Browne around 2003 when he appeared on Gillett’s show. Some weeks before, Browne had heard one of his own songs, “Calypso Be” (Parlophone M.P. 119), on the show and was in the middle of writing a letter to thank Gillett for playing it when Gillett called him up. Browne told him that he hadn’t heard the song since it was recorded, fifty years earlier.

It’s no coincidence it was chosen as the opening track for the first CD of the London… series. It’s a smasher:

In his striking bass voice Browne is taking a hard stand against the “monstrosity” of bebop culture with its “high speed riffs and staccato beats”, equivocal scatting and outrageous harmonies. At least this is what he seems to be doing. As anyone who has studied the lyrics of any calypsonian a little closer knows, Browne was probably just taking the chance to portray one side of the music debate that was going around in London at the time—just like Kitchener, in all probability, was. In and between the lines, Browne and his co-musicians manage to paint a vivid and rather flattering picture of the bebop sound and its performers, ending each chorus with a jazzy minor sixth to underline the coolness of it all. Browne may claim to be “unenthused” but that claim is betrayed by all the details he’s put in there, the hilarious scatted phrases and saxophonist Sam Walker’s improvisations. In the last verse of his mock-diatribe Browne duly admits “the bebop boys, they know how to play.”

Next up is Jamaican singer Norman Thomas, who performed as Lord Flea. According to some sources he was crowned Jamaica’s Calypso King in 1951. In 1957 he recorded his only album Swingin’ Calypsos for Capitol (Capitol T-842). Sadly, he died two years later of Hodgkin’s disease.

Two songs penned by Lord Kitchener are included on the record, one being the aforementioned “Bebop Calypso”, here called “Calypso Be Bop”. Comparing the lyrics of the two renditions, Lord Flea is apparently not too concerned about getting it all “right”. He rather seems to be singing whatever words he remembers from the original, filling in blanks and coming up with new lines in a… spontaneous fashion. Instead of bebop being the sweet(er) music style (as according to Kitchener), Flea, suprisingly, claims that “calypso is really sweeter.” This says something of the times and his focus. Lord Flea was heavily marketed as a “genuine calypso artist” in the American nightclubs where he performed during the mid to late fifties. By that time, Belafonte had turned calypso and Caribbean folk songs into a hot novelty trend and performers of all kinds and races were eager to jump the bandwagon. Everybody played and recorded each other’s songs and there wasn’t too much concern about credits or license money. In short, artistic integrity was not the main part of Flea’s line of business.

In contrast to Kitchener’s version, Lord Flea and his boys are actually scatting the correct melody once, after the mentioning of Gillespie’s “Good Bait”. On the other hand, Flea decides to add a coda that hardly can be said to have much to do with the theme of the song. I’m pretty sure this would not happen if a Trinidadian calypsonian would have sung it. Not that the calypsonian wouldn’t change some words here and there—to suit the occasion or due to lack of exact memory—but he would never put totally random words like “calypso come back to me” in it. So in this sense, Lord Flea is scatting nonsense in at least two ways. But what he lacks in accuracy he makes up for with joyful charisma and energy.

Lord Melody scribbling the lyrics to “Peddlers” while Cyril Diaz and his boys have a lunch break. Perhaps.

A year later, Lord Melody records his version of the Guyanese folk song “West Indian Weed Woman”, originally recorded by vaudeville artist Bill Rogers on the RCA Bluebird label in 1934. Melody calls it “Peddlers” (Cook CC 5838) and has made a full revision of the lyrics to suit his Trinidadian audience. Instead of meeting an old woman selling herbs, roots and plants, Melody tells the tale of a young street vendor with a dizzying array of (stolen) goods for sale.

Apart from the song being a fine example of Melody’s machine gun-like word delivery, it has another interesting feature. Listen to the intro. Have you heard that melody before? Of course you have, if you’re into bebop music. Cyril Diaz and his saxmen have copied the first phrase of the theme of Gillespie/Parker’s “Anthropology”, one of the songs refered to by Kitchener earlier. Whoever in the band got that idea is not known to me, but it says a great deal of how musical ideas were dauntlessly blended together in the Trinidadian hotpot. “Where you get dis? Where you get dat?” From somewhere!

Let’s now listen to a Bahamian band called the Blue Notes, consisting of Godfrey ‘Gully’ Deveaux, Lawrence ‘Makeba’ Rolle, Frankie ‘Zhivago’ Young, and lead singer Marvin Henfield. Contrary to what their band name suggests, they are not that into jazzy blue notes. On their first album In the Rum Keg Room (Carib LP-2033, mid-1960s) they present a tourist pleasing lot of Caribbean standards like “Wings of a Dove”, “Island in the Sun”, and “Yellow Bird”, coupled with a few soul and calypso numbers. Once again Kitchener’s “Bebop Calypso” pops up. It’s plain, however, that the Blue Notes have used Lord Flea’s recording as the template for their cover, which partly explains why it has the feature of the last instance of a game of Chinese whispers. In fact, it seems like they are not really aware of who or what they are singing about: words and meanings are almost completely mashed up. “Gillespie” has morphed into “Gilleslie”, “Anthropology” into something like “Koshropolity”, “different composers” into “the French composer”, and so on.

Question is: did anyone care that these lyrics were mostly nonsense? Up to this post on a fairly obscure calypso blog: probably no one. Certainly not the drinking and dancing tourists of the Nassau Beach Hotel. Today’s producers of dance oriented music also tend to treat lyrics in this way, like how Mick Jagger (I believe) once put it: that lyrics are just something that you sing. Nothing more, nothing less. If so, do we really need them? Perhaps George Browne’s bebop-bashing persona was on to something: scatting might indeed be the future. And perhaps the Swedish Academy tried to curb that development by giving the prize in literature to a certain singer named Bob this year. Speculations, of course.