Birdie’s Best: the Mighty Sparrow’s Top 10 Hits

Trinidad’s Mighty Sparrow, known to music fans everywhere as the Calypso King of the World, has sung more brilliant, bawdy tunes than listeners can count. Garry Steckles is brave enough to name his top 10

  • he Mighty Sparrow in his heyday, performing in a calypso tent

Some columns are easier to write than others, and despite more than three decades of covering Caribbean music, promoting concerts, hosting radio programmes, and crossing paths with just about every big name in the business, I must confess to being more than a trifle apprehensive about the one I’ve just started.

Before finally sitting down at my trusty computer, I spent week after week agonising over whether I should risk incurring the wrath of every single calypso and soca fan who happens to read this issue’s Riddem&Rhyme.

How, you may wonder, can I possibly offend so many people in a single column? Simple.

I’m about to list my choice of the 10 greatest songs by Slinger Francisco, the calypsonian the world knows as the Mighty Sparrow. And I’m 100 per cent certain that no Sparrow aficionado is going to be anything but incensed. I can almost hear the gripes now, and I can only apologise in advance to those of you who disagree vehemently with my selections.

Before going any further, a quick bit of background information on Sparrow for the benefit of readers who may not be familiar with him. Slinger Francisco is generally regarded as the greatest exponent ever of the calypso/soca art form . . . and I say that with the greatest respect for the genius of the late Lord Kitchener. His remarkable career spans five decades and counting, and along the way he’s won eight Trinidad Carnival Road Marches and eight Calypso Monarch titles (despite retiring from competition for many years, partly to give fellow calypsonians a chance).

Sparrow’s calypsos cover the full spectrum of the art form, from pointed and often poignant political and social commentary, to the downright ribald — although, like Kitch, he’s always eschewed crudeness and profanity, preferring to let listeners draw their own conclusions from his double entendres, which are occasionally accompanied by what must be the most salacious and infectious of laughs in the history of popular music. I must also confess that when I made my first list of contenders for Sparrow’s 10 greatest, it dawned on me that many of my favourite Sparrow tunes fall into the risqué category. But here goes my Sparrow top 10:

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1. Jean and Dinah: If there’s one shoe-in for top 10 inclusion by any Sparrow fan, this has to be it. Apart from a melody line that never wears thin, Jean and Dinah is the song that won Sparrow his first Trinidad Carnival Road March title and Calypso Monarch crown, back in 1956. As such, it’s part of Trinidad folklore and history, and certainly one of the greatest calypsos ever written.

2. Ah Fraid Pussy Bite Me: Sparrow, with tongue firmly in cheek, admits to an irrational fear of a ferocious feline. The master of double entendre at his creative best . . . and a killer hook into the bargain.

3. Melda (Obeah Wedding): The unfortunate Melda’s wedding plans make musical cannon fodder for Sparrow, whose cruel barbs set to one of his most memorable melodies earned him the 1966 Road March crown.

4. Mas in Brooklyn: “Give me my calypso music, Brooklyn is my home.” A tribute to New York’s annual West Indian Labour Day parade, and also to the millions of people who have moved from the islands to big cities throughout the world and kept their Caribbean culture proudly alive.

5. Sa Sa Yea: A pretty Martiniquan girl comes to Port of Spain for Carnival, but she doesn’t have enough money to play mas
. . . Until the lecherous Sparrow comes to the rescue. The 1969 Road March.

6. Lying Excuses (Part 1): Pure lyrical genius, as the incorrigible Sparrow attempts to talk his way out of what his better half regards as compromising situations.

7. Congo Man: The tragic story of two white women who are captured by cannibals in the Congo, and face the prospect of being eaten alive. Sparrow at his ribald best.

8. Mr Walker: The pursuit of a rich man’s daughter presented Sparrow with some of his most memorable — and wicked — lines. I fell in love with the melody when I first heard it played on the steel pan in the venerable Kensington Hotel in St John’s, Antigua, back in 1968, and it sounds just as fresh 35 years later.

9. Sixty Million Frenchmen: More double entendres, with Sparrow expressing grudging admiration for French culinary creativity.

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10. No Money, No Love: Sparrow’s a shrewd businessman as well as a brilliant singer-songwriter, and his value-for-money philosophy comes through loud and clear here.