I don’t believe we’ve featured a lot of calypso here on the ol’ GMC, although Harry Belafonte did make an appearance at one time. But when writing recently about Jimmy Soul, whose music was often calypso-flavored (although he was from North Carolina), I discovered an interesting fact. Jimmy’s big hit — “If You Wanna Be Happy” — was actually an updated version of an old song performed decades earlier, by a calypso pioneer known as the Roaring Lion.
Born in Trinidad in 1908 and bouncing between orphanages and foster homes while growing up, it’s not surprising that there’s a little confusion about his name. But even though some sources say he was born as Hubert Raphael Charles, as an adult he was calling himself Rafael de Leon, and by the time he started appearing in music shows in the 1920s, he’d picked up his new stage name — the Roaring Lion.
It might have seemed an odd name for the soft-spoken and gentlemanly singer, but he did have a striking stage presence and he’d also started to dress as a dandy, in spite of his humble origins. By the 1930s, the singer and his frequent collaborator Atilla the Hun (real name Raymond Quevedo) had shown up in New York to make some of the earliest calypso records around. Over the next decade he’d generate dozens of them, many becoming familiar calypso standards, like “Mary Ann” and “Ugly Woman” (the song that inspired Jimmy Soul’s hit record). But there was more to him — modern rap artists still take inspiration from some of his politically-charged songs, and he was also known for risque tunes that were sometimes banned, like the scandalous tale of a prostitute, “Netty, Netty.”
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s de Leon found a lot of success working back and forth in America, but he relocated to Great Britain for much of the following two decades. Eventually he returned to the islands, where he would spend the remaining years of his long life as a sometimes businessman and a much-loved musical treasure who continued to entertain his fans well into his last years. He was 91 when he died in 1999.
Roaring Lion – “Ugly Woman” Roaring Lion – “Mary Ann”