In 2014 the tributes flowed for Maya Angelou – and rightly so. She was a great – and important – writer. And of course she was more than (just) that. So much more. A role model, spokesperson, activist. She was of course a mother, a poet, essayist, author. Many will know, from her books, that she did have a background in music. She had been a dancer, she had dabbled with singing. She dabbled with songwriting. That’s perhaps what most people know.
One of many great quotes attributed to Angelou is: Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.
Well, I like that one. I’ve shared that quote a few times over the years and though it works to take it on board as a listener, and to think of it as coming from a fan of music, Angelou was likely meaning it as someone who wrote and performed music too.
In 1957 an apparent calypso craze was set off – in terms of mainstream traction – by Harry Belafonte’s rise; his third album (called Calypso, released in 1956) had been his breakthrough. A young Angelou released her debut album, Miss Calypso aiming to catch up with and cash in on this fad.
She sings on every song. She wrote half of the material on the album, and though it was only ever a modest success it’s a pretty wonderful record to have; to hear. Reissued in the mid-90s when the exotica and lounge compilations were all the rage I first heard Angelou’s album right around the time I was hearing her Caged Bird Sing lines cribbed (lines she herself had borrowed) for a band called Buckshot LeFonque (the “acid-jazz” group was a project of Branford Marsalis – I loved this group, I’m almost frightened to even ponder just how dated that music sounds now). I hadn’t made any connection between the two – one was simply music of the time. And the other, the Angelou record, back then I knew the name but not much at all of her writing. It was music from another world. It was amazing though. It was when I was also first properly hearing Johnny Cash and Harry Belafonte, Trini Lopez and Jose Feliciano and so wrapped up in Bob Dylan that I’d look for anything he might have heard or had.
The Maya Angelou album sounded like Odetta backed with great jazz colours.
I didn’t join the noise issuing tributes to Angelou. And I haven’t (yet) returned to her writing. But I did head back to Miss Calypso after hearing that she died, aged 86.
Miss Calypso has, over the last couple of yearss, become a firm favourite. The album’s instrumentation is simply Angelou’s voice, a session guitarist named Tommy Tedesco (best known for playing on some of the most famous TV and film soundtracks and pop/rock albums – and as a member of The Wrecking Crew) and a talented percussionist named Al Bello. (I only know he’s talented from hearing him on this album, I know nothing else about him).
Angelou’s songs are deep – Scandal In The Family, Mambo in Africa, Neighbour Neighbour – the politics of race and place, the heritage and family values, important themes throughout her written-word work are present here. And the covers include material by Louis Jordan and the great calypsonian Wilmoth Houdini – his chilling Stone Cold Dead In The Market is a highlight of the album.
If you can find this record about – I’m pretty sure the CD was deleted in the mid/late 1990s after that one reissue-run – give it a whirl. It’s only 32 minutes (perfect!) and it’s filled with heart and soul; her voice – which she downplayed – is wonderful. The material stands shoulder to shoulder for me with all of the great early Belafonte material. And I say that as a massive fan of Harry Belafonte’s work. Some days he’s my all-time favourite, the ultimate.
Angelou wrote a couple of songs for B.B. King but she never recorded another album. There were rumours, talk of a covers project, of standards; she performed in musical theatre (most famously Porgy and Bess) and acted. But not so long after Miss Calypso was released, Maya Angelou became a star of the written word. Her first autobiography, the famous I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, created Maya Angelou the literary star.
Miss Calypso of course now gets the vinyl reissue treatment. As crass as it might seem to chase ambulances, to cash in on caskets, I do love that a few more people might get the chance to hear this album. To hold onto it, discover it anew, return to it. Whatever. However.
I know I’ll be trying to get hold of a copy of the LP. Finally.