So there I was in early 2019 in our house a mile inland from Mendocino, creating songs for Lounge Act In Heaven. New music and lyrics were coming with ease and I was also writing words for music I’d written years ago but had never gotten around to recording. A most exciting creative time for me.
One morning I was in my office/studio and said aloud to the unseen ones, my main audience these days, “I want to write a calypso.”
The minute I said the word calypso I thought of Harry Belafonte, a vastly important person to me when I was a young music-hungry kid in a household with a non-musical father and a musical mother who only played the piano and sang songs from the 1920s and 30s when she, as Paul McCartney put it, had a bellyful of wine. I loved standing beside her and singing along as she played from a Tams-Witmark songbook and sang the old songs in her beautiful soprano.
It’s only a shanty in old shanty town,
the roof is so slanty it touches the ground,
In a tumbled down shack by the old railroad track,
like a millionaire’s mansion it’s calling me back
The records I remember my mother playing when I was little, and those records only rarely, were a couple Mills Brothers albums (which I loved singing along to) and Artie Shaw’s big band hits, which my parents played and danced to at every party they ever gave. We also had a read along/sing along album of Winnie the Pooh. When Winnie sang Tum Tum Tiddle Iddle Um Tum Tum I was supposed to turn the page. That was our home music scene until…
1957. I was eight. A movie called Island In the Sun starring Harry Belafonte came out that year, caused a national sensation, and made Harry an even bigger star than he already was. Island In the Sun was such a big deal culturally that shortly after the movie came out every sophisticated household and many quasi-sophisticated households in America had Harry Belafonte’s hit album Belafonte Sings of the Caribbean.
I will never forget the first time my mother put Belafonte Sings of the Caribbean on our old monophonic record player. I came out of my room like a moth drawn to a flame, listened breathlessly to the heavenly songs for the duration of Side One, then dashed to the record player, turned the record over, camped by the speaker for all of Side Two, and then turned the record over and started Side One again. I must have listened to that album from start to finish five hundred times over the next few years, and my mother occasionally played the album while she made dinner for the first few years we had the record, so I came to associate supper with calypso.
My favorite song from that album was ‘Cordelia Brown’. Oh Cordelia Brown what makes your hair so red? Oh Cordelia Brown what makes your hair so red? They say you come out in the sunshine with nothing on your head. Oh Cordelia Brown, what makes your hair so red?
When I was ten, I went to Discount Records in Menlo Park and with my very own hard-saved three dollars bought Harry Belafonte’s album Love Is a Gentle Thing, a mix of Calypso songs and folk songs and what in those days were called Negro Spirituals. I played the album countless times and still remember several of the songs sixty years later, including ‘All My Trials’. If living were a thing that money could buy, you know the rich would live and the poor would die. All my trials lord, soon be over.
Some months later, I bought another Harry Belafonte album, brought it home, took the album out of the Discount Record bag, and was horrified to find I’d somehow brought home the wrong record. The man on the cover was African American and wearing dark glasses. His name was Ray Charles. How was this possible? I had watched the record store clerk put the Harry Belafonte album in the bag and hand the bag to me. Was the clerk a sleight-of-hand genius? And why had he given me a record by someone named Ray Charles and not Harry Belafonte?
Then I turned the album over and here was Harry Belafonte. Seems in those days record companies would release promotional albums that paired two of their recording artists on the same LP so the popularity of one might aid the popularity of the other.
Now here is something I find interesting about me, and maybe about people in general. For the first six months of owning that Harry/Ray album, I listened over and over to the Harry Belafonte side and steadfastly avoided the Ray Charles side.
Then one fateful rainy Saturday, having exhausted the indoor resources of our house and being a bit weary of Harry Belafonte, I lowered the needle onto the first cut of the Ray Charles side, the song ‘CC Ryder’. When Ray began to play the piano in a way I had never heard anyone play the piano and sing in a high plaintive voice unlike any voice I had ever heard, I only listened for a moment before I lifted the needle from the record. Why? Because Ray’s music and his incredibly emotional singing seemed like something I was not supposed to hear, something frightening and forbidden and dangerous.
A little while later on that same rainy Saturday, my mother announced she was going to Macy’s, did anyone want to go with her? My sisters and brother all jumped at the chance to get out of the house and my father was at work, which meant I would have the place all to myself.
When my mother and siblings were gone, I returned to the living room, lowered the needle on Ray Charles singing ‘CC Ryder’, and seven songs later I was a totally different cat and rarely listened to Harry Belafonte after that.
My parents loathed the Ray Charles side of that record, so I only played it when they were not around until we got a stereo with a headphone jack, and thereafter headphones were the salvation of my musical life.
So I lived another sixty years without listening to Harry Belafonte, but his songs and timing and phrasing were ingrained in me and I wanted to write a Calypso song. I spent several days hunting around on my guitar until I found a calypso-like chord pattern I loved, and when I’d mastered the pattern, I started scat singing with Harry’s calypso phrasing, and out came ‘Sometimes It Seems’.
One of the things I loved about Harry’s calypso songs was that no matter what the songs were about, they sounded sweet and hopeful, and that’s what I aimed for with ‘Sometimes It Seems’.
In his commodious recording studio, Peter Temple set up three microphones and we tried a couple takes of ‘Sometimes It Seems’ with me playing the guitar and singing. I was not happy with the rhythmic consistency of my guitar playing, so we recorded the guitar part first, which allowed me to focus entirely on the somewhat tricky chord changes without the distraction of trying to sing, too. Once I was happy with the guitar part, we recorded my vocal part, made a rough mix, and gave that mix of voice and guitar to Gwyneth Moreland.
Gwyneth spent some time figuring out her accordion part and a vocal harmony and then came to Peter’s studio. We recorded her accordion track first, then she sang, and we liked her singing so well, we mixed her voice slightly louder than mine, which resulted in a pleasing duet. Then I recorded a second vocal track we placed low in the mix, and voila, a sweet simple calypso song.
Sometimes it seems life’s not fair
And nobody seems to care
Nobody seems to understand
Makes us want to run away to the end of never land
But when you dance with me
Our worries disappear
When you sing with me
We overcome our fears
So let’s dance together every day
Sing harmony and chase those blues away