LEGEND: Slinger Francisco – more commonly known as the Mighty Sparrow – has enjoyed a string of hits over his impressive career
LAST WEEK’S column sparked many interesting conversations for me. It’s always insightful to see how people accept your thoughts and how they are interpreted – both positively and negatively – especially when speaking about the elephant in the room.
It got me thinking that one of the key things that we do not do enough of is celebrate our pioneers – the people who laid the path for us and expressed themselves in such a way that is unforgettable.
It’s easy to say kind words when they have passed, but we should celebrate our kings and queens while they are here and able to see how much they are loved, admired and adored.
One of the artists that I feel do not get early enough acclaim for all of their work over a very long period of time is the subject of this week’s column.
I grew up in a Caribbean household in London during the 1970s and ‘80s.
There were a few things that were almost guaranteed to be in most houses like mine – the multicoloured fish figurine on the sideboard, the picture that starts with “The Lord is the Head of this house…”, the obligatory Ace Cannon album (those who know, know) as well as the likes of John Holt, Brook Benton and others there is a strong possibility there would be a collection of Mighty Sparrow albums.
Slinger Francisco, better known as The Mighty Sparrow, is the unrivalled Calypso King of the World, with a career that spans nearly 65 years.
Although many people think he is from Trinidad he was actually born in Grenada.
They migrated to his adopted h o m e l a n d , when he was a baby. He went to an all boys’ school and joined the choir of his local church. His influences were widespread – from Nat King Cole and Frankie Laine, Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine to the early calypsos of Lord Melody, Lord Kitchener, Lord Christo and Lord Invader.
His breakthrough song, Jean and Dinah, came when he was 20 years old. In 1956 he spoke of improvement for calypsonians and steelband men in Carnival Boycott and the song was eventually responsible for the formation of the Carnival Development Committee.
The early ‘60s saw Sparrow relentlessly hit the charts and have the hits on the streets.
It wasn’t only about calypso, though. In 1965 he remade Arthur Prysock’s original, Only A Fool Breaks His Own Heart, alongside Byron Lee and the Dragonaires (the song went on to be used by Wyclef on his The Carnival album).
The hits continued – Melda; Good Morning, Mr Walker; Sa Sa Yea, Drunk & Disorderly – and the iconic status was now assured. His ability make you laugh, think and dance at the same time and in equal measure is a skill he maintains to this day.
His appeal stretches way past the Caribbean diaspora (in 1977 he received the honorary title of Chief of the Yorubas in Nigeria). As the music morphed in Soca, he kept pace and was continued to put social commentaries in his music (even though the scene was moving to a more ‘dance’ and frivolous serious of topics.
He could do that too – as the mid-80s hit Doh Back Back proved with ease. The mayor of New York, Ed Koch declared March 18 ‘Mighty Sparrow Day’ across the State – a huge accomplishment given Sparrow’s humble beginnings, and the constant fights that black music and artists were facing for recognition in 1980s America.
The turn of the century saw Sparrow suffer from health complications, including being hospitalised with diabetes.
In the last few years the awards have (quite rightly) been flooding in – in 2013 he was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Government of Trinidad and two years later was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s birthday honours (I wonder if she ever listened to the lyrics of Phillip, My Dear, a Sparrow hit chronicling the exploits of Michael Fagan who broke into the Queen’s bedroom in Buckingham Palace in 1982).
His wit, delivery and writing has a timeless quality to it that allows you to enjoy them without it ever feeling dated, even 40 or 50 years on from their conception. His touring schedule would put many artists in their 20s or 30s to shame.
This man is a complete workaholic, and the performances are energy filled from start to end. He will be coming to the UK to perform as part of the London Jazz Festival on Sunday, November 17 alongside Anthony Joseph, Calypso Rose and Brother Resistance.
With over 16 combined Road March and Calypso king titles, his place in the pantheon of black music icons is rightly saluted and acknowledged by the entire BrukOut team. Salute.
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