Kaiso No 33 January 14, 2000

Andrews Sisters

What calypso song sold seven million copies in the Forties?  Why, "Rum and Coca-Cola" as recorded by the Andrews Sisters on Decca, of course.  Every calypso fan knows that and about the two lawsuits by Lord Invader and Lionel Belasco to get the royalties due on the song.   However, little background has been written about the singers of the biggest selling calypso record of all time.  Well, that is until now.  Just published is the first ever biography, John Sforza, Swing It! The Andrews Sisters, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1999.

It is a well-written survey of the careers of one of the most popular singing groups of all time.  Amazing that when you consider their popularity as Sforza notes, 'approximately 100 million records sold from just over six hundred recorded songs spanning a studio-recording career of over three decades'.  The book details the trio's rise as daughters of a Greek merchant in Minnesota who ran a fruit company to one of the most popular stars of stage, screen and the airwaves.  The book also offers detailed appendicies of the recordings, film, TV, and radio appearances of the Andrews Sisters.

The three sisters had participated in a talent contest and bandleader Larry Rich, who provided the accompaniment for the talent, took them on the road with his band starting in 1932.  They did some touring and recorded a few numbers but didn't find success.  Undaunted, they went to New York City chasing the dream of making a living in show business.  A radio appearance led to them being heard by Dave Kapp who had heard them a year before in Kansas City.  Kapp went to his brother Jack Kapp, then president of Decca Records.  Kapp had them record.  Their second single, the unlikely Yiddish theatre number Bei Mir Bist Du Schon (Means That You're Grand), was a hit with total sales by 1950 reaching 14 million.

From there, they were on a fast pace to stardom with record sales, regular radio appearances and a career in Hollywood.  By the time they recorded Rum and Coca Cola in New York on October 18, 1944 they were one of the top popular recording acts in the country.  One might wonder how they came to record calypso.  Indeed, the group had already had hits with an incredibly wide variety of material.  Their roots had been in the jazzy sound of New Oreleans's Boswell Sisters and swing numbers like Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy from Company B and Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar.  But they proved a success from ballads to the Beer Barrell Polka, country western material like Pistol Packing Mama, Don't Fence Me In and even Latin numbers like Tico Tico.  So it does not seem unusual that they were asked to do a calypso.

Nor was it the first calypso they recorded.   They recorded Sing a Tropical Song a few months earlier on April 4, 1944.  This song was indeed already a minor hit, reaching 24 in the Billboard charts for the week of July 8, 1944.  The group was also featured singing it in their fourteenth film, 'Her Lucky Night' (Universal, 1944) and recorded it for V-disc for military radio shows.

This was not a Trinidad calypso but was a Tin Pan Alley creation written by the team of Frank Loesser and Jimmy McHugh for another film, 'Happy Go Lucky' (Paramount,1943).  In Happy Go Lucky, it is sung by calypsonian Sir Lancelot who also sang Lion's Ugly Woman.  The song was later recorded by its lyricist (Frank Loesser, Bloop Bleep / Sing a Tropical Song MGM 10044).

The recording of Rum and Coca Cola was not planned.  As Sforda noted:

The sisters found themselves in New York City in the fall recording two songs for Decca - I'm in a Jam (With Baby) and One Meat Ball.  Only thirty minutes remained of the session when the girls decided to record a calypso number called Rum and Coca Cola. Patty [Andrews] recalls the last-minute decision: "We had a recording date, and the song was brought to us the night before the recording date.  We hardly really knew it, and when we went in we had some extra time and we just threw it in, and that was the miracle of it.  It was actually a faked arrangement.  There was no written background, so we just kind of faked it."
The record proved an amazing hit, behind only Bing Crosby's White Christmas and Patti Page's Tennessee Waltz as one of the top selling records of the decade.  The Andrews Sisters featured it in their December 1944 radio appearances on G.I. Journal and Command Performance.  It spent ten weeks as number one in the Billboard charts in the spring of 1945.  Despite its popularity, it was not without controversy - that extended beyond who got the royalties.  

First, it was banned from the radio, as Sforza notes:

Network radio shied away from the song because it mentioned an alcoholic beverage.  Patty recalled, "It was restricted because of the word rum.  You couldn't advertise liquor on the air."
It also mentioned a commercial name of a soft drink and could be construed as free advertising when broadcast.  There was talk by Pepsi of issuing a competing song.

The lyrics of the song with its mention of liaisons between American soldiers and local women were also a cause of controversy despite being very popular with soldiers themselves and the public at large.  Maxine Andrews was asked years later about this:

The rhythm was what attracted the Andrews Sisters to Rum and Coca Cola.  We never thought of the lyric.  The lyric was there, it was cute, but we didn't think of what it meant; but at that time, nobody else would think of it either, because we weren't as morally open as we are today and so, a lot of stuff - really - no excuses - just went over our heads.
Perhaps it is these reasons that the Andrews Sisters, despite its popularity, never used the song in any of their subsequent film appearances nor ever recorded another calypso in the hundreds of songs they latter recorded.  They continued to have success with an enormous variety of song styles and surely never felt the need to return to calypso and the group was never identified as a calypso group.  Decca did issue a ten inch album in 1950 called Tropical Songs that included both Rum and Coca Cola and Sing a Tropical Song.  The other numbers were not calypso.

When they switched labels in the mid-fifties to Capitol and then to Dot in the early Sixties, they did record new versions of the song.  Both times, this seems to be part of a wholesale re-recording of their earlier hits.  With the Calypso Craze in 1957, took advantage of having the Andrews Sisters on their label and released Rum and Coca Cola on a single and part of a four song EP called 'Hit Calypsos' with calypso recordings by other artists.  The Andrews Sisters also performed Rum and Coca Cola on television on the Perry Como Show on February 23,1957.  They would continue to perform it as one of their hits for the rest of their careers including an appearance in 1966 on the Dean Martin TV show in which Dean joined them in singing it.

Complete back issues of the Kaiso newsletter can now be found on the web at the excellent on-line world music journal, Musical Traditions.  If you missed any, check them out at: http://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/kaiso.htm

Keep those email messages and news coming to the cold and Frozen North.

Ray Funk - 6.11.99
POBox 72387, Fairbanks, AK 99707, rfunk@ptialaska.com

Part of Article MT044

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