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Calypso Greats Pass On

By Terry Joseph
January 08, 2005


CALYPSONIAN Warlord Blakie, known for his classic calypsoes, outgoing personality and full-bodied trademark laughter and Francisco "Frankie" Francis, a superior saxophonist of quiet disposition, both died Thursday night in equally different circumstances.

Francis, who is said to have played on more calypso albums than any other musician, died at the San Fernando General Hospital, whereas Blakie, the ultimate man-about-town, died at his Mount Hope home; both after long illnesses. Blakie won the road march in 1962 with "Maria" and some records have him as winning eight years before with "Steelband Clash" although other records give that honour to Kitchener's "Mama, Look a Band Passing". Among his other memorable tunes were "Send Them Back", "Something Wrong", "Warlord" and "Hold the Pussy".

"You could say they were both calypso icons, although one played in the band and the other was at the front of the stage performing the role of a lead vocalist," said veteran singer and musician Lord Superior, who started his career and shared a San Juan apartment opposite the fire station with Blakie and Sparrow back in 1954, after the latter two were released from incarceration.

"I remained friends with Blakie although he was, shall we say, sometimes a little unorthodox but he was a charming fellow and one of the most beloved characters in calypso and held in high esteem by his colleagues.

"I met Frankie Francis in the same year I met Blakie, which was interesting because the two of them were so completely different but each person had his singular qualities that made him likeable. It was Frankie who taught me to write music, demystifying the whole system and making it attractive to learn and as a player he was something to both see and hear," Superior said.

Frankie Francis
Frankie Francis

Bandleader and fellow alto-saxophonist Roy Cape also met both men in the same year, in his case 1961 and remembered them in the fondest terms. "Like me, Frankie was a product of the Belmont Orphanage although well before my time there," Cape said. "When he came out, he joined the John 'Buddy' Williams band and shortly after we met on the outside, he asked me to come play with the band he had formed.

"I will never forget this great man. I told I could not join his orchestra because I had a little band myself and couldn't leave the guys. He said he would take everybody in his band and that group included some of the musicians that, under his guidance, eventually ranked among the most famous in this country, including Ron Berridge and Michael 'Toby' Tobass.

"At that time, Frankie was musical director at Telco Recording Studios in Champs Fleurs, working closely with Francisco Torrealba. Art de Coteau was his bassist and Carlysle Eversley played guitar. I would say he improved all of us and by the following year, he took the whole group to play at the Young Brigade Calypso Tent with Lord Melody and the Mighty Sparrow. I was age 20 and stayed the full season but could not work with him any more. "Frankie migrated to the US and worked with Sid Joe and more so with Harry Belafonte but because of his personality, humility, really, he didn't make a lot of money. He returned home and immediately Joey gave him a job and when I became a full-fledged bandleader, it was my first thought to have this great musician, this phenomenon come and play with me at Calypso Spektakula, where he stayed for many years.

"He had taken a correspondence course with Berklee and we saw when his work was sent for correction, they came back asking how many instruments did he play and how he got to be so good without having that level of formal music education. The older guys used to say, as a compliment, that Frankie was so good, if a fly messed on the music score he could read and play that too. He had perfect pitch.

"He was a protector of young performers. That is something he and Blakie had in common.

From early he found Leroy Calliste was a talent and it is Blakie who named him Black Stalin.

"It is normally sad when people pass on but these two calypso icons would not want us to be grieving, for they also know that when God says it is time, there is no arguing with that," Cape said. "What was sad was when I called some people on the radio to tell them Frankie died, they had no idea who he was.

"On a brighter note, the Culture Minister, Joan Yuille-Williams called me early this morning to volunteer whatever assistance the families might need in this difficult time and I have to say that Protector responded early when I told him of the conditions under which Frankie was at hospital. He sent Ras Kommanda there to explain to the doctors and nurses who Frankie was and from that time to the moment of his passing, they made it as comfortable as possible for him."

Announcements regarding funeral arrangements for both Francis and Blakie are expected today.

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