There is no doubt that he was one of the greatest of all calypso singers. I had the good fortune to spend a few hours with him last year when despite his health and eyesight failing he was still able and very willing to talk of calypso and his achievements, sit and sing calypsos without accompaniment. I have been working on a Who's Who entry for a while and it is far from complete, especially as to Lion's early life. The difficulty of reconstructing these years is magnified because Lion himself gave many contradictory reports, especially as to dates. However, Herman Hall of Everybody's requested one for a tribute to Lion so here is the one I'm sending him for their next issue.
Roaring Lion (Raphael Arius Kairiyama De Leon
Lion was one of the all time great calypsonians, best remembered for songs like Ugly Woman, Mary Ann and Netty Netty. Justly famous for his 95 recordings for Brunswick and Decca from 1934 to 1941 - more than any other Trinidadian calypsonian at the time - he continued to record in later decades. He revived his career in the 1990s through the efforts of Eddy Grant to update his sound and had a hit in 1995 with a revamped version of his Papa Chunks. Lion was always impeccably dressed and known for his lion headed cane, he was a strong singer, and was recognized as a composer of all the major styles of calypso. He and his friend Atilla the Hun were perhaps the first to do calypso duets and both were involved in the introduction of calypso dramas in the tents. Respected as an 'experimentalist' in calypso, he could write calypsos on any theme and while never crowned a calypso monarch, he was one of its greatest practitioners.
The Roaring Lion started appearing in the calypso tents in Port-of-Spain in the late Twenties, although the exact year is not clear. He first appears in Railway Douglas's tent but breaks off in the early Thirties to form an alliance with Atilla, the two of who go on later to lead their own tent. He was originally known as Lion Flaps but that was dropped as he found more success and he became Roaring Lion. Lion was noted for his Shango in 1932 and his Soucouyant in 1933. After the season in 1933, Rohumut and Company sponsered a calypsonian tour of the Caribbean, with Atilla, King Radio, Beginner, and Lion, as well as clarinetist Willy West and his band and leading masqueraders. In 1934 he featured one of his most memorable songs, Ugly Woman. That year his Fall of Man was a popular Road March contender. He and Atilla were at the Salada Millionaires Tent at 47 Nelson Street that year and promoted both duets and staged a calypso drama. In March 1934 Eduardo Sa Gomes the Trinidad agent for Brunswick Records sent Lion and Atilla the Hun to record calypsos in New York City. This event was one of the defining moments in calypso history. While Belasco and Houdini and others had recorded calypsos before, this was the first trip of calypsonians based in Trinidad to New York for recording and proved to be the start of a series of annual trips by select calypsonians.
While in New York City, Lion and Atilla also appeared on the Rudy Vallee's Fleishman's Variety Hour radio show on WEAF on March 8, 1934 that was heard, though just barely and with great static, on shortwave in Trinidad. The singers also appeared as part of the floor show at Vallee's Hollywood Cafe on Broadway in Manhattan and performed for President Roosevelt at a charity function at the Waldorf Astoria. The events of that trip were later celebrated in song in Lion's Guests of Rudy Vallee recorded as a duet with Atilla in 1938.
In 1935, he did not return to New York that year after the Carnival Season but instead toured the Caribbean singing on a cruise ship, SS Scanpen. In 1936 Lion had a popular Road March with his Advantage Mussolini, an early attack on Imperialism concerning Italy's conquest of Ethiopia.. In 1936, he returned to New York after the season to record that song and 11 others.
In 1937, Lion again had a very popular Road March with his Netty Netty. He again went to New York and recorded a dozen solos and four duets with Atilla. When the calypso recordings for the season arrived in Trinidad Customs seized the records with Netty Netty and Sally Sally Water as obscene and over 4,000 copies were held pending ruling on censorship. It is not clear if these were Lion's recordings of these tunes or those by Radio and Pretender or both that were seized. It appears that the records were never released from Customs and may have been dumped in the harbor. A further scandal occurred in May when an excursion boat the SS Trinidad took over 100 Trinidadians to Grenada and the boat loudly broadcast records included the banned Netty Netty. Protests were made and letters to the editor from Grenadians expressed horror about the situation. Lion responded with a calypso about the incident that explained his position and attacked censorship - Excursion to Grenada. In addition to his activities during the calypso season and his participation in the annual trips to New York to record, Lion stated he served as the official calypsonian for Government House during this period and was regularly called upon to entertain visiting dignitaries and on occasion would compose calypsos in their honor.
Lion who had always supported England was a strong advocate for the War Effort and like other calypsonians wrote and sang about the Allied effort. In 1940, he was at the The Maginot Line Calypso Tent, 47 Nelson St., P-o-S and sang Poland, Poland and Mr Neville Chamberlain. He recorded both of these and other selections for Decca which had came to Trinidad that year. He came in third at the Marine Square competition that year with The Rise of the British Empire. He returned to the same tent in 1941 and performed at various theatre shows. His Whoopsin' that year was one of the most popular sings of the season. That season he also appeared in the calypso drama, Adam and Eve in the Garden, in which he played Adam to Atilla's Eve with Radio as the Snake.
He made what would be his last trip to New York to record for Decca in 1941. At this or a later trip to New York the next few years, Lion reported that he was detained for several days at Ellis Island where he was suspected of being a spy until, with the intervention of lawyers from Decca, he got released. Lion was at the Victory Trent at 95 Edward Street where he sang Olga and the Catfish in 1942. He was also contacted at that time by Paramount Films for the rights to use his song Ugly Woman for a movie and he gave permission. In 1943, Paramount released the musical, Happy Go Lucky, with Sir Lancelot singing Ugly Woman. In 1943, Lion returned to the Victory Tent to sing The Governor Say No Mas, an attack on the Trinidad government's decision to ban Carnival during the War. He reports going to New York after the season. After Carnival that year did a 14 day tour to British Guiana with other calypsonians and the famous Muttoo Brothers Band who were from Guiana. In 1944, Lion sang at Victory The Soldiers and the Mopsies or Pam Palam expressing the Trinidadian male's bitterness at women abandoning them for the American soldiers. A special program was held at the tent in early February to celebrate the 70th Birthday of Captain A A Cipriani where Lion and others sang his praises in calypso. Lion also participated in a calypso drama at the Victory that season involving a "typical barrick-room altercation between bailiff and tenant."
In 1945, Lion had a strong year at the Victory Tent singing Turn Around Girl, and winning a competition at the tent. He also featured Royal Carnival in which he "envisages a 'real fete' with men of all classes mingling." After the season, he returned to New York and appeared for several months at the Village Vanguard and the Blue Angel in New York City. During this time, he also appeared at USO shows during the day. He came under sufficient notice to be featured in an article for P M Magazine in New York on 'The Lion of Calypso'. While other calypsonians came to record for Decca that year, Lion and Atilla broke with their label of the prior decade and recorded instead for Guild/Musicraft. Lion recorded four numbers including his two classics for the year, Dorothy Went to Bathe and Mary Ann. Meanwhile in Trinidad Mary Ann was especially popular for VE and VJ Day celebrations where Carnival, which had been banned during the war years, was suddenly given free reign. Lion stated that he composed the song during an all day party on Carenage Beach on St Peter's Day in 1941 but that it only came to light in 1945. Mary Ann went on to become one of the most well known of all calypsos and the folk group Terry Gilkyson and the Easy Riders had a popular hit in the United States with their 'adaption' of it in 1957. Dorothy Went to Bathe was according to Lion based on a Carnival song from 1926 that told the folk tale of an Indian chief's daughter who in the process of going of eluding male suitors goes to the mouth of a river and gets eaten by a catfish. Both remain among his most popular numbers.
In 1946,Lion is again back at the Victory tent, singing Intermediate Sex and Cavalcade of Songs. In 1947, he switches to the Old Brigade on Edwards Street and sang Little Mary Has No Lamb, Deleon, his early classic Shango and Shouterism. In 1948, he has a great deal of the success with The Lost Watch which will be recorded and prove very popular. During the late Forties, he opened cafe called Calypsoville at 59A Glouster Lodge Road and supplied entertainment for tourist boats coming to Trinidad. Lion reported he worked with Amazon Films and their manager Mr Alcon for six weeks on a film entitled Holiday in Trinidad in 1948, shot with the Casablanca and Syncopaters steelbands. However, solid information on this film is lacking. Lion did recordings in Trinidad for Mr Sa Gomes, some of which were issued in the US on Continental and some in Trinidad on Kiskadee and Sa Gomes Records. He appears in the Old Brigade in 1949 doing Chanka Maharaj's Election and My Experiences as a Soldier and then in 1950 performing The English Language there.
Lion took the SS Golfito to England in August 1951 to participate in the Festival of Great Britain with the TAPSO, Trinidad All Star Steel Orchestra, but ended up staying for over a decade. He began to record in England and perform both in England and elsewhere in Europe but later also started a cosmetics company in England. From January to August 1952, Lion performed at an Amsterdam nightclub, La Cubana, which was run by a calypso singer from Surinam named Max Woisky. He also ran the Colored People's Accommodation Bureau offering aid for visiting West Indians. His time in England prompted Lion to compose a number of songs about the Royal Family as well as more calypsos on every topic.
Lion returns to Trinidad in December 1963 and appeared at the 1964 Calypso Revue. He came in second that year in the TTT Television Calypso Competition to Lord Brynner. He continued to be an active performer in Trinidad. At the end of the '60s starts appearing at the Calypso Theatre. In 1969, he sang Side and If. In the fall of 1970, he did a series of thirteen half hour radio shows on the history of calypso for Radio Trinidad. In 1971 he sang Tribute to George Bailey and Children's Games. He participated in the 1972 Tenth Anniversary Independence competition singing Formula for Nationhood and Trinidad Carnival. He made the semifinals for the Monarchy competition in 1975 but did not make it to the finals. In 1976, he was in the Professionals tent singing Hopney Rice. He recorded a few singles in the Seventies, Old Time Carnival and Eye of a Needle and later two for Camille in the US, Carnival Long Ago / Calypsonian Government and I Ain't Gonna Do It No More / Hopney Rice. Lion also served for a period in the early Seventies as president of the Calypsonian Association. By the end of the decade, he had largely stopped performing.
In late 1981 and on into 1982, he wrote a weekly column on calypso for the Trinidad Evening News. In 1984, he did an extended sight-seeing tour of Norway at the invitation of his sons who lived there. In 1985 performed a calypso greeting for Pope John Paul II when the Pope traveled to Trinidad and which was recorded as 12 inch single. In 1986 released his book 'Calypso from France to Trinidad: 800 Years of History', which grew out of his Evening News columns and as the title suggests, traces the history of the calypso to roots in French troubadours and the ballade. The book proved controversial in asserting European rather than African roots for calypso and Lion took issue with other calypso scholars like Chalkdust who emphasized the African roots of calypso music. It has been out of print for several years.
In February 1991, he made a guest appearance at Queen's Hall as part of Rawle Gibbon's Sing De Chorus to sing Dorothy Went to Bathe and The Lost Watch and was well received. In his later years, Lion was a familiar figure in Independence Square selling lottery tickets. Lion went to England in 1991 and was the cover and feature article magazine in March 1992 for Folk Roots, Britain's most influential world music magazine.
A last important turn in his career came when Lion hooked up with Eddy Grant and his Ice Records. With a great deal of care, Grant reunited Lion with his guitarist from the Fifties in England Fitzroy Coleman to record the album, Standing Proud (1993), recordings of some of his classic calypsos with modern arrangements and to a great deal of success. The next year Ice issued Sacred 78s, the first reissue album devoted solely to Lion's early recordings. Then Lion had a major hit during the 1995 calypso season with his re-recording of Papa Chunks in '95 in the latest soca style with rap introduction by General Grant. Originally released as a single for the season, the song graced his fine last album, Viva Le King. He suffered debilitating health problems in late '97 and finally died in 1999 after a long period of failing health.
All three of his excellent CDs on Ice have been remaindered but may still be found and are all well worth searching out. Otherwise, many of his early Decca recordings can be found on the excellent calypso anthologies on Rounder and those found on other labels.
Ray Funk - 14.7.99
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