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In the standard history of American pop music, the 1950s
appear as a parade of icons: Bill Haley and the Comets, Chuck
Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Elvis Presley. The fifties, in
short, are The Decade of Rock 'n' Roll. What that shorthand
elides, however, is that after the great dance bands of the
1940s met their demise, rock 'n' roll didn't actually secure its
position as the Next Big Thing until fairly late in the day.
Indeed, for a few short months in the latter half of the decade,
it seemed that rock might be just another passing fad – and
was here to stay.
From late 1956 through mid-1957, the Trinidadian music
was everywhere: not only on the Hit Parade, but on the dance
floor and the TV, in movie theaters and magazines, in college
student unions and high school glee clubs. There were calypso
card games, clothing lines, and children's toys. Calypso was at
the center of commercials and comedy routines, news reports
and detective novels. Nightclubs across the country hastily
tacked up fishnets and palm fronds and remade themselves as
calypso rooms. Singers donned straw hats and tattered
trousers and affected mock-West Indian "ahk-cents." And it
was Harry Belafonte – not Elvis Presley – who with his 1956
album 'Calypso' had the first million-selling LP in the history
of the record industry. No wonder reporters and marketers
joined the trade journals and fanzines in declaring a "Calypso
Craze." In fact, by the time 'Variety' announced
"Hot Trend:
Trinidado Tunes"
(on the cover of its December 26, 1956 issue),
the Craze was already well underway.
But even if the term "craze" suggests that the nation had
suddenly taken leave of its senses, that's not quite what hap-
pened. The hysteria was new (even if the madness was largely
manufactured), but the country's infatuation with calypso was
not. Over the preceding half-century, calypso had slowly
seeped into the American musical unconscious, surfacing
periodically to compete with other "exotic" genres like rumba,
meringue, and cha-cha-cha. Twice, at least, a steady hum of
interest in calypso had crescendoed to a noisy buzz. And in cos-
mopolitan cities like New York, home to a large West Indian
population, and Miami, itself a Caribbean city, the uproar had
been even more intense.
How calypso came to America from the Caribbean and rose
to such celebrity, vying seriously (if only fleetingly) with rock
'n' roll for the affections of the nation's youth, is one of the
stranger tales of modern popular music. This collection offers
an overview of calypso's slow rise, heady prominence, and
precipitous fall in America and around the world in the period
surrounding the Calypso Craze of 1956-57.
1,2,3 5,6,7,8,9,10,11
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