Birthdays in March: Harry Belafonte (83), Ornette Coleman (80), Quincy Jones (77), Johnny Pacheco (77), Lloyd Price (77), Mike Stoller (77), John D Loudermilk (76), Herb Alpert (75), Lee 'Scratch' Perry (74), Johnnie Allan (72), Don Covay (71), Flaco Jiminez (70), Tommy McClain (70), Sam The Sham (70), Solomon Burke (69), Victor Uwaifo (69), Jorge Ben (68), Aretha Franklin (68), Lou Reed (68), George Benson (67), Diana Ross (65), Sly Stone (66), Eric Clapton (64), Eugenio Bennato (63), Don Covay (62), , Ry Cooder (63), Ken Boothe (2), Burning Spear (62), Eddy Grant (62), Lene Lovich (61), Nick Lowe (61), Goran Bregovic (6059), Mory Kante 60), Bob Brozman (56), Thione Seck (55), Gary Numan (52), Natacha Atlas (46), Tracy Chapman (46), Neneh Cherry (46), Damon Albarn (42), MC Solaar (41), Camille (32)
Back in the 1980s, Charly Records released two vinyl albums of calypsos recorded in London during the 1950s. One song leapt out and demanded to be played several times, 'Calypso Be' by Young Tiger, in which the singer pretended to be appalled by the musical devilry of be-bop. The words were funny, the musicianship marvellous and listeners always responded. But the albums didn't do well enough to stay in catalogue, and were never released on CD.
During the late 1990s I copied 'Calypso Be' onto a CD-R of vinyl favourites, and occasionally played it on the radio.
In 2003, Honest Jons released the compilation London is the Place for Me, drawn from the same material as those Charly albums, and although 'Calypso Be' wasn't on it, they did include another song by Young Tiger, 'I Was There at the Coronation'.
As usual, at the end of that year I invited listeners to nominate a track they would like to hear again, and somebody requested 'I Was There at the Coronation'. Intending to play it, I called Gareth Davies at Chapple Davies PR to ask if I could have a copy of the album to give away as a prize, and Gareth said something about Young Tiger living in Croydon. Incredulous that he was (a) still alive and (b) living so near, I suggested that I could phone him during my show and have a brief chat. Wanting to make sure that he would be as alert as Gareth promised, I phoned George a few days ahead of the show, and introduced myself. He repeated my name to make sure he had got it right.
'I'm just starting to write a letter to you.'
I'm used to coincidences, but this seemed extreme even by my standards.
'Why?' I asked.
'I couldn't sleep the other night, so I came down to make myself a cup of tea, and while the kettle was boiling I heard a familiar song on the radio, which is always tuned to Radio 4. And then I realised it was 'Calypso Be' which I hadn't heard for about fifty years. And then your voice came on and so I had to write to thank you.'
Having saved George the price of a stamp, I made the arrangement to call him during that Saturday's show.
In the phone call on air, George recalled that he had had to write 'I Was There at the Coronation' a few weeks ahead of the event, imagining what it would be like, so that the record could be released to coincide with the date of the event itself.
He sounded so great, and his memory was so good, I spontaneously asked him if he would like to come into the studio some time soon to play a game of radio ping pong, confident that Honest Jons would spring for the price of a cab to bring him into Marylebone High St.
The programme was marvellous, as George gave us a thumbnail sketch of his life, starting as a sailor on oil tankers crossing the Atlantic during World War II without any protection against potential attack from German planes. When his tanker docked at Glasgow, George and a fellow Trinidadian sailor met another Trinidadian who told them they were in the wrong town, they should go to London where they would get work as entertainers. And so they followed the advice, discharged themselves from the crew and set off for London.
And so the story unravelled, involving a photograph with Duke Ellington, a spell in Paris, record contracts with Esquire and EMI and a residency on one of the first BBC colour television programmes, as a songwriter who could make up songs on the spot, whatever topic is thrown at him. We played a couple of his 45s from the 1950s, still in the BBC Library, one about a tomato grower whose glass breaks every time a supersonic airplane flies overhead, breaking the sound barrier.
[photo by Philip Ryalls]
After the programme, a listener who worked for Bug Music got in touch to ask if George had a publisher. He didn't, and she was able to register his songs properly and make sure he received whatever income was being generated by this new activity.
I hoped that somebody would be inspired to make a television documentary with George, who was such an amusing and likeable man, with a fantastic memory for detail. But that didn't happen and he had to be content with appearing at an event at the Round House organised by and featuring Damon Albarn, whose Honest Jons label had brought George briefly back into the limelight. I'm sorry I missed it. Did any of you go?
'Calypso Be' is track 1 on volume 2 of London is the Place for Me.
George died on Friday at the age of 87, and I feel like I have lost a friend.
Last edited by Charlie on Tue Apr 03, 2007 10:29 am, edited 2 times in total.
Sad news, but a lovely tribute to the man. A sax playing friend was accompanying him recently and was amazed by his energy and flawless memory for the lyrics.
Whenever I hear as fine a calypso as "I was there" I wonder how it is possible that our kids can go through their schooling without having had such a great combination of poetry, language, humour and popular history pointed out. Calypso should be on the curriculum I reckon. A toast to the Young Tiger.
obit from the Indpendent sent by email from Jon Lusk
Thought you might like to know, my obit of Young Tiger is published in today's Independent. I mentioned his appearance on your show (see original version below link) but that was one sentence the editor took out...
Calypso singer known as Young Tiger who recorded the royal tribute 'I Was There (at the Coronation)'
Published: 10 April 2007
George Edric Browne (Young Tiger), musician and entertainer: born Port of Spain, Trinidad 4 May 1920; married 1970 Liesel Stevens (one daughter, one stepson); died London 23 March 2007.
On 2 June 1953, millions of British viewers watched the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II live on newly purchased black and white televisions. Later that night, a relatively unknown young Trinidadian performer billed as Young Tiger appeared on their sets singing a calypso-style song, "I Was There (at the Coronation)", which described the occasion in detail:
Her Majesty looked really divine
In her crimson robe furred with ermine
The Duke of Edinburgh, dignified and neat
Sat beside her as Admiral of the Fleet.
By a miracle of show business, a 78rpm recording was available for purchase immediately, because Young Tiger (aka George Browne) had actually recorded the song on 22 April that year, having received advance information about the parade route and the monarch's intended wardrobe.
It wasn't the first brush with royalty for the expat entertainer, who had arrived in London just over a decade earlier and become established as a regular performer with swing, jazz and rumba bands at "bottle parties". Though not a calypso specialist at the time, Browne drew direct inspiration from the Trinidadian tradition of spontaneously commenting on topical affairs when the Duke of Edinburgh and the Duchess of Kent attended a club called the Orchid Room where he was performing one night in 1947.
"When we went off for a break, I wrote a few verses to the song 'Rum and Coca-Cola' and when we got back, I started singing it," he recalled. "All hell broke loose!" Even though Browne was reprimanded by the proprietors, a larger royal party returned the following night and asked for the song again. However, by that time the artist had thrown away his lyrics.
Browne first fell under the spell of music as a teenager in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Radios were not commonplace there until the end of the 1930s, and the only way for youths like him to hear one was to loiter outside the homes of the few who owned them. He also delighted in the sounds of the "tamboo bamboo" percussion orchestras - the forerunners of steel bands - practising in their yards, although he was too intimidated by their reputation for gangsterism to actually go inside.
In 1934, while still at school, he got his first job running errands for downtown import/export businesses. This involved a lot of hanging around outside sundry goods stores, especially one called Sly Mongoose, which would broadcast jazz and calypso 78s onto the street to attract customers. Browne soon noticed he could memorise the lyrics of contemporary calypsonians such as Roaring Lion, Attila the Hun, and Growling Tiger - a model for the stage name he would later adopt.
By 1941, he was working as a merchant seaman and ended up in Glasgow, where he met several other Trinidadians. Among them was the musician John Clarke, who encouraged Browne to travel with him to London. The capital in wartime hosted a lively underground entertainment scene, and they soon found work in a "minstrel show". Though he went back to work on ships briefly, he soon returned to London, studying tap dancing, taking singing lessons and finding plentiful employment in cabarets, private parties and clubs with his maracas and guitar. During this period, his 1943 composition "Christmas Calypso" became a seasonal favourite on the scene.
In 1947 he formed the trio the Three Just Men in reference to an Edgar Wallace novel, The Four Just Men ("but we couldn't find a fourth man"). When Duke Ellington's band played the London Palladium, the trio managed to persuade the bandleader to pose for a photo with them, which helped enormously in clinching bookings when they relocated to Paris the following year.
While there, they were befriended by numerous American musicians such as Sidney Bechet and Dizzy Gillespie's drummer Kenny Clarke, but after a season in Biarritz in 1950, the group split up. During their Paris sojourn they had also met the entrepreneur Emil Shalit and when Browne returned to London in 1951, he signed with the new Melodisc label, which Shalit co-owned. The label was a pioneer of world music well before the term had been coined, and in December that year he recorded "Single Man", an adaptation of Growling Tiger's hit "Sadu Man". There followed several more calypso 78s for Melodisc and the Lyragon label before he recorded his infamous royal tribute, and he continued to cut records throughout the 1950s.
By the late 1950s, the calypso boom had peaked and was soon eclipsed by the skiffle craze and early rock'n'roll. However, Browne had never restricted himself to one style. In 1957, he formed a choir called the Hummingbirds, which briefly backed Cy Grant, and Browne appeared onstage alongside Paul Robeson at the Brixton Academy the following year. From 1955 until 1960, he had a regular gig with a trio at the Mayfair club Blue Angel.
Throughout the 1960s, he made his living in musicals and television. He wrote several songs for the musical Do Something Addy Man, which ran in 1961-62, and performed in Cindyella with Cleo Laine and Cy Grant between 1962 and 1964, also appearing on the LP soundtrack. He later made several appearances on the children's programme Jackanory and recorded his first and only album, A Folk Evening with George Browne (1967), which he described as "a sort of loose history of black music".
By the end of the decade Browne was working regularly as an actor at the National Theatre and Theatre Royal, Stratford. However, in 1970 he turned his back on show business, opting for a quiet life as an operator for British Telecom. He moved to the US during the 1980s and ran restaurants in Florida and California.
Browne returned to the UK in 1990 and was living in semi-retirement when "I Was There (at the Coronation)" was reissued in 2002 on the compilation London is the Place for Me. The release prompted a stream of journalists, myself included, to beat a path to the door of his flat in Croydon, Surrey, where we met a kindly and surprisingly sprightly 82-year-old with a twinkle in his eye. When I asked if it felt like he'd come out of retirement, he replied, "I didn't come out of retirement, I was blown out. Well, I love it. It's a perfect high talking to all these people again."
Browne made his final public appearance in October last year at the Roundhouse in London as part of the BBC Electric Proms. Introduced by Damon Albarn, he performed three songs including "I Was There (at the Coronation)" to rapturous applause.