In the early 1980s when I was cabbing for a living, there was a NYC radio station that devoted all of its Sunday programming to reggae and calypso music. The deejays knew their stuff, and they covered a lot of ground, from the famous artists like the Wailers to the more select acts, such as Max Romeo, Delroy Wilson, Desmond Dekker, or the woman chanteuse, J.C. Lodge. I can’t tell you what a lifesaver this was. There was nothing more tedious than idle banter with the well-heeled as I drove them from their condos on the upper East Side to La Guardia airport. A dose of Lee Scratch Perry usually took care of that problem. And then there was always The Mighty Sparrow.
Slinger Francisco is known by his stage name The Mighty Sparrow. He is a calypso singer from the island of Grenada. That’s the same place that was invaded by the US military in November, 1983. As a point of reference, one could fit the entire male population of Grenada into the bleachers of Yankee Stadium, and still have plenty of room for the usual knuckle-dragging local baseball louts and yahoos. The Mighty Sparrow followed in the tradition of Lord Kitchener, Byron Lee, and The Iron Duke, even Harry Belafonte. In many circles, he is regarded as the godfather of calypso singers. Earlier this month on July 9, 2020, The Mighty Sparrow enjoyed his 85th birthday. I believe he is worthy of a toast.
What set The Mighty Sparrow apart from his peers and those who came later, like Ras Shorty and Black Stalin, was his ribald wit and political savvy. A lot of his material would probably come under scrutiny today from the politically correct Gestapo. Most of these people wouldn’t recognize something clever from a slap in the face with a cold dead fish (the Luca Brasi type), so none of their opinions matter too much anyway. Rather than wade through all of that muck and get into the justification business, I am asking readers to take my word for it. The Mighty Sparrow is the real McCoy.
And I have no intention of of writing a long biography here. This is a birthday greeting after all. Let’s raise a glass of Red Stripe and tell a Sparrow story. My tale involves an incident that happened on July 9, 1982 (coincidentally, The Mighty Sparrow’s birthday). On that particular evening, an unknown man broke into Buckingham Palace and made it into Queen Elizabeth II’s bedroom. The assailant was arrested and it became big news. The Mighty Sparrow decided to commemorate the event. Later, he released a song entitled “Phillip My Dear.”
The theory behind the song was that the Queen woke up and mistakenly thought that the intruder was Prince Phillip, the royal hubby. You can only imagine what happened next. Here’s the opening verse:
Phillip my dear last night I thought was you in here
Where did you go? Working for good old England
Missing out all the action. My dear do you know
There was a man in my bedroom wearing your shoe
Trying on the royal costume, dipping in the royal perfume
I telling you true
There was a man in my bedroom
Anxious for a rendezvous and I thought it was you
Of course it gets a lot raunchier, later on the character is on top of the bed “perching like a cockatoo.” It’s downright funny, the idea of a horny queen doing the shamboolie with a fill-in for Prince Phillip.
This tune enjoyed plenty of playing time during my stint as a hack driver. This was post the Falklands War fiasco in the summer of 1982, the British equivalent of the US knocking over Grenada. The English, steeped in great tradition, did not take too kindly to the Mighty Sparrow’s rendition of the palace episode. The BBC summarily banned the song. It was the equivalent of John Lennon’s statement that the Beatles were more famous than Jesus. Somewhere, some people were burning Mighty Sparrow records.
That’s it. Sparrow was always spoken of with high deference by the record spinners on the radio. I can’t remember, but I think he owned a business or two around here, maybe a restaurant in Queens. I seem to recall mention of a laundromat on Empire Boulevard in Brooklyn. But that might be memory playing silly buggers. If I am wrong here, I apologize. This is a result of age and an older people’s malaise. Hell, The Mighty Sparrow is a lot older than me, and he is still going. Bless him on his birthday…and many more.