2007   MAY 20   #140

Wilmoth Houdini

He Dead, He Gone Already (2:27)
Moan People Moan (2:50)

Over the last few years, I've moved closer and closer to deciding that Calypso (at least the initial version of the genre, as played in Trinidad and New York in the 1930's and 1940's) is the greatest style of music ever devised by mankind. Even in its weakest examples, the intoxicating rhythms, the wonderful wordplay, even the uniquely accented English of the Trinidadians, can lift my spirit and make my day every time. And when it's good or great, Calypso is just about synonymous with heaven for me.

The list of my favorite Calypso performers would probably include just about everyone who ever made a record in this style, but Wilmoth Houdini stands in the upper tier. Aside from having a really cool name (and although his last name was assumed, he didn't feel the need to adopt a title, such as "The Lion" or "King Radio", like most of his contemporaries), he had a vocal style which gives me chills, featuring a wicked vibrato, and an intensity on held notes which expresses as much emotion as just about any singer I can name. Seek out his performance on the vintage record "Trinidad Hurricane" for perhaps the best example.

A few years ago, I picked up a compilation album which featured Houdini as well as some other lesser lights from the genre. I was caught off-guard by the two tracks posted here today, which combine Houdini's singular style with a dixieland band from what I'd guess is the early 1960's dixieland revival period (as well as some admittedly unnecessary and overused female vocalists).

Early Calypso certainly includes a heavy Jazz influence, but this is Jazz with a Calypso influence, and I can't remember ever having heard other tracks quite like these. I particularly enjoy the drummer's work on these tracks. Houdini is past his prime here, in recordings made perhaps 20-25 years after his heyday, but his singing still gets me.

Both of these tracks are a lot of fun, despite the rather morose subject matter, with "He Dead, He Gone Already" being the clear favorite for me. This is a close cousin, lyrically, to "Stone Cold Dead in de Market", in which an abusive husband gets his rightful comeuppance, and the singer's only regret is that he'll never see the money he had just lent the dearly departed.

Although these tracks appear to appeared only on the compilation album I mentioned, there is a good amount of Wilmoth Houdini material available out there on CD, as well, and one could hardly do better than to seek it out.

- Contributed by: Bob Purse

Images: Front, Back

Media: LP
Album: Calypso Capers
Label: Waldorf Music Hall
Catalog: MHK 33-1220