No one has defined calypso as Mighty Sparrow. With wit, an eye on Cold War politicking and a keen nose for taking the piss from tradition, Sparrow charms, alarms and earns his title of Calypso King Of The World. Although in the mid-’50s calypso was infiltrating the U.S. through the Andrews Sisters’ appropriated versions of Lord Invader’s “Rum And Coca-Cola” and pretty much everything social activist Harry Belafonte released, it was his first hit, 1956’s anti-U.S. and anti-prostitution “Jean And Dinah,” that launched Sparrow into international fame.
Strut’s collection—an ideal companion to the comprehensive Ice retrospectives released in the mid-‘90s and to Smithsonian Folkway’s Sparrow collection, First Flight—focuses not only on the Trinidadian singer’s mighty calypsos but also on his foray into genres like boogaloo (with the appropriately titled “Calypso Boogaloo”). Sparrow might be lustier than the likes of Otis Redding, but he gets quite sentimental along with Jamaican singer Byron Lee on their cover of “Try A Little Tenderness.”
Sparromania! is subtitled Wit, Wisdom And Soul From The King Of Calypso 1962-1974; while some pre-1962 tracks would have rounded out this collection nicely, it still contains a wonderful selection. The famously satirical cannibalism-roaring “Congo Man” and his well-known, dogs-in-space lament “Russian Satellite” appear, as does “Jook For Jook,” the predecessor to saucy dancehall grooves and the song that paved the way for the rowdy rhythm sections of contemporary soca. With tongue firmly in cheek, Sparrow lets insults fly in a 1960s island-style rap battle with fellow calypsonian Lord Melody. The pair famously spars with words on several tracks; it’s “Picong Duel,” named for picong, the friendly mocks between peers of the West Indies, wins the place of honor on Sparromania!.
As a folk musician for an era of sea-change, being prolific without succumbing to droll navel-gazing is where, as always, Mighty Sparrow shines.