The Mighty Sparrow

The wonderfully picaresque Mighty Sparrow.

The Mighty Sparrow of Trinidad in a dazzling performance.

The Mighty Sparrow
, along with several other Trinidadian immortals, laid the cultural and stylistic ground for the Calypso “Movement” that seemed to take firm root during the late 1950’s. This musical art form, however, evolved from a much earlier tradition as we have seen in my previous post.

Slinger Francisco, better known as “The Mighty Sparrow,” and less popularly known as, The Birdie, was and continues to be the unrivaled “Calypso King of the World.” The Mighty Sparrow, as well as many other Calypsonians, had a strong influence over the Westindian community in Panama reflected in the style and compositions of their own Panamanian Calypsonians. We will soon discuss our native Calypsonians in more depth.

Sparrow was born in Gran Roy Bay, a rural fishing village in Grenada in 1935, to a poor working class family. When he was one year old his family migrated to their adopted homeland, Trinidad. He attended the New Town Boys School where he was selected to sing in the boy’s choir of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church and this would be just the start of his involvement in music. The harmonics of the Gregorian Chants and the Plainsongs of the church that were implanted in him would later be reflected in the depth and intensity of his compositions. As the head choirboy who sang baritone and tenor in Latin in the church he would invariably develop his richly versatile vocal abilities.

At the age of 20 Sparrow emerged as the leading Calypsonian with his record-breaking hit “Jean and Dinah,” (Yankees Gone, 1956 with Harry Belafonte on the cover). Throughout the years he managed to display his diversity each year with the release of at least one album. “Carnival Boycott” (1957), a highly polemic song, eventually became responsible for the many changes and improvements for Mass Men Calypsonians and Steel Band men; it lead the way for the formation of the Carnival Development Committee, an organization founded to assist Calypsonians, Steel Band men and Mass men. This committee was fully endorsed by the Founding Father of Trinidad and Tobago, Dr. Eric Eustace Williams.

In 1958 he became the only Calypsonian to have had a triple win, in the same year, in the Road March Competition. The calypsos were P.A.Y.E. (“Pay as You Earn,” a song that enabled the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago, to understand the importance of paying taxes); “Russian Satellite” (a song reflecting on the act of cruelty to animals) and “Theresa” (a number where, for the first time in his career, he utilized other languages). In an unprecedented move, he was awarded a cash prize by the Carnival Development Committee, for winning the Road March Competition that year.

By now clearly an artist with a very strong opinion in 1959 he released “Federation,” (a song that reflected his disappointment over the breaking up of the proposed Caribbean Federation). In 1960 his career continued to soar with the melodious “May May” and “Leave the Damn Doctor,” Royal Jail and Ten to one is Murder followed in 1961. In 1962 he presented us with Sparrow “Come Back Home” and “Model Nation.” “Dan is the Man in the Van” came in 1963 and “The Village Ram” in 1964.

As with any great talent, Sparrow has been influenced by many artists and many schools of music including American street quartets, pop tunes by Nat King Cole and Frankie Laine, the jazz greats of Sarah Vaughn, Billy Eckstein, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, and the early calypsos of Lord Melody, Lord Kitchener, Lord Christo, Lord Invader (of “Rum and Coca Cola” fame) and the Mighty Spoiler.

He has also expressed the more romantic hue to his style in 1965 with his remake of Arthur Prysock’s original, “Only A Fool Breaks His Own Heart” accompanied by Byron Lee and the Dragonaires. This rendition won him a Gold Record in Holland. He also recorded Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” and Lucho Gatica’s (a Chilean balladeer) “El Reloj.”

His career continued to spiral upwards and in 1966 he won the Road March Competition again with “Melda,” and again in 1969 with “Sa Sa Yea.” In 1970 he appealed to the people of this world to “Love one Another” and “Lend A Hand.” These songs especially appealed to the country for unity, “Unity, somehow if Trinidad ever needed you is now“.

In 1977, he was so well received in Nigeria during the FESTAC that Sparrow received the honorary title of Chief of the Yorubas, (which is Chief Omo Wale of Ikoyi). In 1978 he paid tribute to Penny Commissiong (the first black Miss Universe) with The First Black Miss Universe, and chided Idi Amin Dada, tyrant in Africa. Kerry Packer (a song about the cricket revolution) followed in 1979 and in 1980 the Shah of Iran (Wanted Dead or Alive ). This number was covered by the popular American group, Manhattan Transfer.

Sparrow continued to climb the ladder of success while developing his unique social commentaries proving that the Calypsonian is really the eyes and ears of the people. In 1981 he gave us “We Like It So” and his first chutney contribution “Sexy Marajhin” another liguistic inclusion. In 1985 he demonstrated to the youth in the business that he can step up to another level when necessary with “Soca Pressure.”

Around this same time, Mayor Ed Koch of New York proclaimed March 18th, The Mighty Sparrow Day. He dealt with another evil of society in 1986 advising the vulnerable that “Coke Is Not It.” In 1987 he thrilled the world with another classic, the humorous Lying Excuses. He made another appearance in Nigeria, this time as Chief Omo Wale of Ikoyi, during his National Tour of Afirca and upon his return he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate Degree, Doctor of Letters, from the University of the West Indies.

“Manjhay,” and “Dutch Romance” both gave us a touch of French and Dutch languages in 1989. In 1990 he gave us Let the Music Play and was inducted into the SUNSHINE Awards Calypso and Steelband Music Hall of Fame on June 24th. That same day the Brooklyn Borough President, Howard Golder proclaimed the day The Mighty Sparrow Day. Another strong social commentary, “We Could Make It Easy If We Try” and “Precious” a dedication to his daughter followed in 1991.

Sparrow continued to define the true meaning of “The Calypso King of the World.” In 1992 with “Both of Them,” “Crown Heights Justice” and “Man Will Survive,” all making a big impact in the Caribbean and the United States.

In 1993 he sang “Put on Your Dancing Shoes” and “More the Merrier” and in 1994 told the youth on his heels that “Age Is Just A Number” and “Salvation,” underscoring his roots as a choirboy in the church. In 1995 he gave us a course in history where once again he kept the linguistic involvement “Democracy In Haiti” (Liberte) and a keen sense of observation with the social situation at home “This Is Madness,” (“Why have we cast aside intelligence and abandon common sense with unprecedented violence for which there is no known defense”). Incidentally these gems earned him third place in the Calypso Monarch Competition. He gave us “OJ” (the juice is loose) and the “Royal Divorce” in 1996 and an assortment of Soca Ballads in 1997.

This illustrious lyricist/composer/singer/comedian/entertainer is an 11 time Calypso Monarch. This includes winning the King of Kings Competition (where every monarch in the calypso world is invited to compete against The Mighty Sparrow, each time suffering total defeat at his hands) in Trinidad. He also won the Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival Road March Competition eight (8) times, second only to the Lord Kitchener, (his songs were selected and played most often by the bands in this category). Sparrow received many other University citations and awards from governments and organizations too numerous to mention.

The Mighty Sparrow continues to rule the Calypso/Soca world with his voice, lyrics and melodies. He is demonstrating once more that he is the King. His new release, “The Supreme Serenader” is full of dance, humor and facts. The first track “Paramaribo” is not only a beautiful rendition of how he was captivated by the girls in Surinam but it also demonstrates the depth of his thoughts and his gratitude for a land of style and grace.

“Santo Domingo” is a track full of dance and is undeniable proof that the King is truly global with his music and he will be embraced by the Latino communities around the world for this one. “Racism” is a very powerful social commentary, both lyrically and musically. In this song, Sparrow once again deals with an issue of international concern while at the same time reflecting on those who have been in the forefront of the struggle.

“Willie Dead” is a humorously and classically executed double entendre, so convincing that you will mourn for Willie. Another powerful and appealing social commentary is “Raperman.” The King assumes the role of messenger and protector of women and underscores his position with the following tracks, “Born To Love,” and “Don’t Give It Up.”

The Mighty Sparrow has proven himself to be the Quintessential Calypsonian, par excellence, with over seventy (70) albums to his credit. He is richly endowed with many gifts. He possesses an amazing ability not only to put into works and tempo the exploits of society, but to crown it all with showmanship and appeal. His great contribution to the art form and our lives has unraveled the mysteries of Caribbean life, leaving the professionally trained sociologist and economist befuddled.

A combination of talent, hard work and opportunity enabled Sparrow’s ascendance to Calypso King of the World. He brought honor, glory and dignity to an indigenous art form that was once scorned upon by the elite of Caribbean society. He is one extraordinary entertainer who utilizes the medium he masters not just to entertain but also to edify, enlighten, and educate.

Sparrow’s musical career has spanned nearly 50 years.  This monarch has earned his rightful place as “King of the Calypso World” by defeating every other competitor/pretender to his throne. He has entertained audiences across the globe, including, the Caribbean, Europe, Asia, Africa, North and South America, to name but a few.

Without doubt, as The Mighty Sparrow, The King of Kings, is the real Supreme Serenader.

Article taken from:
The Mighty

Click on the audio clip below to hear Sparrow at his best:

5 responses to “The Mighty Sparrow

  1. Kyle & Svet Keeton

    Hey Roberto & Lydia,

    I am caught up now. Waiting for more story. 🙂

    I have been having a few heart problems in the last few weeks but doing better now. I have not left you . I read alot from my RSS feeds.

    Keep up the good work I am enjoying the story line.

    Kyle & Svet

  2. Hi Kyle and Svet,

    I was beginning to worry about you, Kyle! Maybe that Russian coffee is a bit strong :-)). But, seriously, I do hope you are taking care of yourself and have turned your heart over to Christ. You’ll be in extremely good hands.

    Best regards from the both of us,
    Roberto and Lydia

  3. Gloria Falcon

    Love me some Sparrow. Thanks for sharing a well written and informative article. Keep up the good work. I enjoyed every bit of it.

  4. the silver people should be honored and respected as survivors and their families should be paid reparations for damages sustained as victims of the apartheid imposed by the govt imposed jurisdictioning of the U.S. govt.