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Roaring Lion

One of the major figures of early calypso music, Roaring Lion recorded copiously between the 1930s and '50s, and was instrumental in spreading the international popularity of calypso. His vintage sides are what many listeners think of as calypso at its best -- infectious rhumba rhythms, lighthearted (sometimes nonsensical) lyrics, and a combination of Trinidadian musical elements with Anglo pop sensibilities.

Roaring Lion was born as Hubert Raphael Charles in 1908, although he later changed his name to Raphael de Leon. Already a writer of poetry as a boy, he launched his career as a singer in 1927, when -- much to his surprise -- he won a calypso competition. The event also occasioned his nickname of Roaring Lion, inspired by his style of vocal delivery (although if he was indeed a roaring lion, he was a pretty gentle and charming one).

In the '30s, Roaring Lion (with help from partner Attila the Hun) was crucial to the development of calypso, devising the calypso duet and calypso drama, and introducing new melodies to a style that originally had very few. Between 1934 and 1941, he was the most prolific calypso recording artist, cutting nearly 100 singles, including some of the music's most popular standards, such as "Mary Ann," "Netty Netty," and "Six Feet High." One of his most famous compositions, "Ugly Woman" (originally recorded in 1933), formed much of the basis for Jimmy Soul's 1963 number one hit "If You Wanna Be Happy."

Roaring Lion performed and recorded in the United States occasionally during the '30s and '40s. In fact, he spent much of 1945 singing in New York clubs, including the Village Vanguard, where he was replaced by a young Harry Belafonte. Roaring Lion has claimed that Belafonte subsequently performed and recorded some of Lion's songs without crediting or compensating the originator.

In 1951, Roaring Lion relocated to Great Britain for 15 years, performing, recording, and running both a cosmetics company and a bureau that helped immigrants find jobs and places to live. After his British jaunt he returned to Trinidad to assume his position as an elder statesman. He is also the author of a treatise devoted to his theory that calypso's roots can be traced back to 13th century France, Calypso from France to Trinidad: 800 Years of History. In 1993, he issued an album of re-recordings of a dozen of his hits, with Eddy Grant producing, and guest appearances by Grant and David Rudder. Ice also issued many of his classic originals on CD with Sacred 78's. ~ Richie Unterberger
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