Wilmoth Houdini

[Portrait of Calypso, between 1938 and 1948] (LOC)

After seeing the absolutely amazing C.W. Stoneking a few months ago (in a tiny church, which was pretty much the best show I’ve ever been to. No exaggeration, literally the best show I’ve ever been to. Even months later, I’m in awe.), I started to wonder about some of his direct influences. I knew that some of the songs on his Jungle Blues must be covers, but since we don’t get liner notes anymore (sigh), I hadn’t yet looked into any of the original artists.

During the show, Stoneking mentioned a few who I hope to research eventually, but the song that’s always intrigued me on that record is “Son of America”, the very odd calypso ode to General MacArthur. I’d assumed it was a bit of a joke, a serious subject done so bizarrely intensely that it’s hilarious. I had no idea it was an old song.

The original artist is one Wilmoth Houdini (to the right in the photo above), a calypso singer from Trinidad who eventually became known as “The Calypso King of New York”. After singing in Trinidad and traveling the world working on ocean freighters, Houdini landed in New York and, apparently, went to town making calypso records. Between his arrival in New York in the late 1920s and the 1940s, Houdini recorded over a hundred songs and supposedly wrote over a thousand. Even though I’m pretty crazy about the ones I’ve heard, the sheer volume of these recordings might explain why a lot of them are a bit same-y.

In 1946, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan and His Tympani Five recorded a version of Houdini’s “He Had It Coming” as “Stone Cold Dead In The Market”. Their version was a hit R&B single and even had some crossover success. This gave Houdini the boost he needed to create calypso events all over the city, helping to popularize the style for the masses.

Although Houdini’s songs are an absolute joy – just try to listen to “Rum and Coca-Cola” and not get up and dance – here’s the really funny part of the story. Apparently, Houdini’s calypso colleagues back in Trinidad started to see him as, well, a bit of a sell-out, watering down their calypso for the American (ahem, white) audience. This seems to have started pretty early on, because Houdini answered these allegations in his 1934 track “Declaration of War”. Oh, snap! Diss songs, old-school stylee. Truthfully, his come-back is a little weak – he basically accuses them of being jealous ’cause he so fly. Not the most creative retort ever. The thing is though, I hate to say it, but I kind of see what they meant. From the first time I listened to Houdini, before I’d researched his career, I couldn’t help but wonder who these songs were meant for. I mean, ‘Oh, Frankie Sinatra … you have the perfect voice to sing calypso’ and songs about how great it was when the Yankees came to Trinidad, spending American money and dating their daughters – it sure seems like these lyrics were meant to appeal to the white record-buying audience. Not that I can blame him for it – the music business has never been an easy one, especially for black artists – but you can’t help but see what his fellow musicians were saying.

Even so, Wilmoth Houdini is a sadly forgotten artist today – I’d have never heard of him if it weren’t for C.W. Stoneking – and 1930s-1950s calypso isn’t a style we talk about often. Shame really, because these are some really wonderful pop songs. Grab yourself a collection of Houdini’s recordings at emusic.