During the summers of the mid-1960s, social worker Rhaune Laslett persuaded Russ Henderson and his steelband trio to parade on the streets of Notting Hill at different events she had. The complex history of London’s Notting Hill Carnival is widely understood to evolve from these events. From this humble beginning grew one of the largest Carnivals in the World. Prior to that, Claudia Jones and her newspaper West Indian Gazette had staged a series of annual pre-Lenten Carnival cabarets from 1959 to 1964 at various venues.
Sixty years ago, before Notting Hill, before Claudia Jones, a concert billed as The First Caribbean Carnival in London was held at the Royal Albert Hall on July 31, 1955. It was sponsored by Hugh Scotland. Though little remembered today, music historian Val Wilmer has cited him as a “legendary Jamaican entrepreneur” and one “who booked London’s Caribbean and African entertainers for more than three decades.” The Royal Albert is one of the premiere concert venues in the British capital for all styles of music.
A surviving printed programme for The First Caribbean Carnival in London shows that it had calypso, steelband, mas, and even J’Ouvert. The lineup of singers, musicians and dancers was very strong.
Lord Kitchener and George Browne provided the calypso. Kitch was at the height of his popularity in England at the time. Browne, though never on the Trinidad calypso scene, was a versatile singer and actor who had a long and distinguished career. He had come to England in the 1940s, started recording as Young Tiger, and recorded many calypso numbers in the 50s. He performed all over the country, especially at universities, and travelled as a calypso singer in the 50s around England and into Europe.
Edric Connor was also on the programme. He was involved in the summer of 1955 as a featured singer in Jazz Train, a musical revue on African American jazz history that ran at the Picadilly Theatre in the West End for 111 performances. Connor was tied to another group on the programme.
Connor had put together a group of Jamaicans in 1950 as back up singers for him in concerts and for an album he did called Songs of Jamaica. His backup singers had gone on to sing pop vocal harmony to great acclaim in England as the Southlanders, described in the program as “Jamaica’s tight harmony quartet.” The Southlanders would go on to have top selling hits in England in 1957 and 1958.
The steelband featured on the show was the Trinidad Southern All Stars who were run by the Stephens brothers, Theo and Selwyn. Theo Stephens was the youngest member to go to England as part of Taspo in 1951 out of Free French, a leading band in San Fernando.
Upon his return he formed Metronomes, whose stage side toured Barbados in 1953 and upon their return he started a new band out of that touring stageside called Southern All Stars who won the 1954 Music Festival within months of starting out. The Stephens brothers then took the core of that band to England in 1954 and where they stayed for a considerable period and were sometimes just known as the Trinidad All Stars Steel Band.
The band also recorded several numbers in 1955 on Parlophone and later for the Nixa label. Though not listed on the program, Russ Henderson recalled that his trio was also part of this show. Between them, they were the leading steelbands in London at the time.
The jazz element in the program was from Ray Ellington Quartet, a jazz group with its sound influenced by the jump swing music Drummer Ellington took over what was previously called the Caribbean Trio and featured the pioneering electric guitarist from Trinidad Laudric Caton (brother of calypso composer Nelson Caton) and Jamaican bassist Coleridge Goode.
The other jazz band was the Hermanos Deniz Cuban Rhythm Band made up of the three sons of a Cape Verdian musician. The concert also featured the British trumpeter Eddie Calvert had just had a number one instrumental hit record the year before with Oh Mein Papa.
The show also featured a little remembered dance group, Ben Johnson and his dancers. Johnson who had grown up in Belmont and was a childhood friend of Russ Henderson had formerly been a featured dancer in the seminal Jamaican troupe Les Ballets Negres that had come to England in 1946 and disbanded in 1952.
Johnson was in the merchant marine and it was as part of therapy from war injuries that led him to become a dancer. Johnson went to lead his troupe in England for many years and later on to open a dance studio in Milan, Italy that is still going and he passed away earlier this year.
The show ended with a series of mas and dance performances designated as the Carnival portion of the show. Among them was Horace Jeremie, older brother of former attorney general John Jeremie. Now in Canada, he had been involved in mas bands in Belmont and had brought over to England when he migrated in the mid-50s a set of costumes from the band Fish Gods. He received a call to play mas for the program and was happy to do so.
Trinidadian Vivian Jack was also on the programme with his small dance troupe. Raised in Toco, Jack became an engraver for the Trinidad Guardian and a member of the Bury Thomas dance group who performed regularly around Port-of-Spain in the early Fifties. Jack was not satisfied with his employment opportunities and decided in early 1955 to move to England and continue his career as an engraver. And shortly after he arrived, he formed a small dance troupe who appeared at various West Indian events over the next few years.
This Royal Albert Hall appearance was the biggest performance of their career. Retired and living in Virginia he has recently published his memories as Toco and Toco II. Boscoe Holder was also the concert as Vivian Jack recalled that Boscoe and his troupe performed at the show and at the last minute he and Boscoe rehearsed and performed a staged stick fight but without sticks as part of the show.
Source: Trinidad Guardian