Soca Up the Sun
Eddy the Baptist.
It's not what most South Floridians think of when they hear the name Eddy Grant. As the artist himself readily admits, the knee-jerk response to that moniker is "Electric Avenue." Boosted by exposure on MTV back when that moribund institution was still a scrappy, eclectic upstart, the single defied long odds to become a reggae-flavored rock hit sounding unlike anything that had preceded it. The album on which it appeared, Killer on the Rampage, rode the unconventional tune's coattails up the pop charts and yielded another modest hit, "I Don't Wanna Dance." Eddy Grant appeared to be the most endearing of popular music stereotypes -- the overnight success.
What few people in this country realize is that Grant first topped the international charts a quarter-century ago. In the intervening years the Guyana-born artist has worn -- not just tried on -- nearly every hat in the pop-music haberdashery. He's been Eddy the songwriter, Eddy the producer, Eddy the singer, Eddy the studio musician, Eddy the studio owner, and even Eddy the indie-label president. And now he's taken on the most challenging role of all: Eddy the Baptist.
Grant has a new album out, a collection of his versions of classic soca and calypso tunes titled Soca Baptism. The release is both a tribute to calypso greats like Lord Kitchener, Mighty Sparrow, and Roaring Lion, and the first wave of Grant's one-man crusade to soak the world with soca music. He wants to make the island style as popular as reggae. To that end, he formed his own label, Ice, and signed nearly every living soca and calypso artist. He acquired the masters and publishing rights of a few who are deceased, such as calypso legends Executor, Dictator, and Atilla. The dreadlocked mini-mogul then iced (no pun intended) the deal by inking a distribution pact with RAS (Real Authentic Sound) Records, the label generally credited with maintaining reggae's foothold in the U.S. during the post-Marley era.
"I have in my possession as a corporate man possibly the greatest combination of Caribbean talent that there's ever been. The names speak for themselves -- Roaring Lion, Lord Kitchener, Mighty Sparrow, Gabby, Calypso Rose, Superblue," Grant explains patiently as he ticks off the monikers of the soca-calypso royalty signed to his label. Grant covers most of them on the new album, from a faithful rendering of Roaring Lion's droll (and refreshingly un-PC) "Ugly Woman" to Lord Kitchener's infectious "Sugar Bum Bum," not to mention Grant's rollicking rendition of the title cut, Superblue's "Soca Baptist." The combination of Grant's voice and fifteen ageless soca and calypso tunes written by the masters of the form is a powerful one, indeed.
During a recent stay at the Omni Hotel -- while in Miami to check out a few of his newly signed acts playing at a Caribbean music festival in Bicentennial Park -- Grant came off as an extremely personable man with an easy smile and a relaxed manner. Wearing a wine-colored T-shirt, black jeans, and an expansive black knit hat encasing his dreadlocks, Grant politely invited a star-struck New Times reporter into his modest room. Sprawled across the bed was a lovely blond -- a battered '58 Stratocaster of that hue. His breathing was labored, and he conversed at low volume, but Grant's speaking voice was unmistakably the singular raspy baritone at the core of "Electric Avenue" and "Romancing the Stone." Although he'd enjoyed success as a writer, musician, and producer, it was that voice more than any other single factor that delivered unto Eddy Grant the quantities of cash necessary to embark on his current musical mission. He believes that proper marketing and promotion can make soca (Grant coined the term "kaisoul" in the Sixties; while there's no official etymology, the word "soca" is generally considered to be short for soul-calypso) as popular as reggae -- or for that matter rap or country. And while the songwriter himself admits that's a tall order, those familiar with Grant's background would not bet against him.
There's much more to his curriculum vitae than "Electric Avenue" and the album from whence it sprang. He had his first hit in 1967 with the Equals. Ironically, Grant, whose distinctive voice has become such an integral part of his popular success, did not sing "Baby Come Back," the tune that vaulted the Equals (one of the first multiracial rock bands to garner international acclaim) to stardom. He did just about everything else, though, serving as writer, lead guitarist, and producer.
"By the time I started playing pop music with the Equals, I had been experimenting with different ethnic forms for a while," Grant recalls. "One of them was ska -- most people don't know that I made the first successful British ska record, 'Train Tour to Rainbow City,' which went to number 31 [on the British pop charts] in 1966. I was the first to add strings to reggae music, also in 1966. The great Prince Buster copied two of my songs -- he tried to steal them, but the law stopped him and he eventually gave me credit -- 'Train Tour to Rainbow City,' which he called 'Train Toward the Girls Town,' and 'Rough Rider,' which was covered by the English Beat. And they credited Buster for it!
"I put all of my energy into trying to make the Equals a success. I wasn't the lead singer. I got to play my guitar, write songs, and produce records, which was what I really wanted to do. But everything conspired to make me a solo artist. I never considered myself a singer; I didn't want to sing. My lead singer was a surrogate. I suppose it's almost the same as Pete Townshend with Roger Daltrey, or Keith Richards, with whom I have a great affinity. I only wanted to go into middle age with the Equals, as brothers together fighting to make great music. But it wasn't to be."
Grant's role grew, and as it did the Equals became equal in name only. "I wrote the songs, I produced the records, I did the interviews. These things were given to me. I didn't want to do them, to be in the studio all hours of the day and night making records. I would much rather be at home playing my guitar. But when everybody left, I was alone with the engineer. He'd say, 'Well, what do we do? Who's going to be the producer of this record?' And I'd say, 'Well, Mr. Krasner.' He said, 'Well, Mr. Krasner's not here and he ain't gonna come. You better sit there. Let's start with this bass drum.' And he'd push up the bass drum and say, 'Whattayou think? Think we need some top on that?' And I'd say, 'Top?' 'Yeah, treble.' A 'cause we only had treble, middle, and bass in those days -- and I'd say, 'I don't know. Try it.' And he'd add some treble and I'd go, 'Yeah, okay.' And he'd bring up the snare and he'd say, 'You need some reverb on that?' And then I'd say, 'Try it without.... Now try it with. Stop! Go back.' And he said, 'Look, you're producing already.' And I thought to myself, 'So I am.'"
With their songwriter-guitarist-fledgling-producer twiddling the knobs, the Equals followed "Baby Come Back" with three Top Ten hits, culminating in 1970's "Black Skinned Blue-Eyed Boy."
"It was the first soca record," claims Grant. "It was said in Jamaica that 'Black Skinned Blue-Eyed Boy' was the first pop tune that Rastamen danced to. At that time Rastamen were very serious men, a very powerful force in Jamaican culture."
The pressures of his hectic recording and touring schedules took a toll, and the lifelong teetotaler and vegetarian was felled by a massive heart attack at the tender age of 21. Grant immediately canceled all touring and disbanded the Equals. After some extended rest and no small amount of soul searching, Grant wrote "Hello Africa" in 1971.
It was Grant's second successful foray into the genre that would eventually become known as soca. "Ras Shorty, who they often ascribe the invention of soca to, covered that song."
Grant maintained a low profile for much of the Seventies, scoring a minor hit near the end of the decade with the defiantly individualistic reggae polemic "Living on the Frontline," famous for its extended funereal synthesizer jam ending. At the turn of the decade he moved from England to Barbados, where he built Blue Wave recording studio and founded the Ice label. It was there that Grant wrote and played all the instruments on what was to become his monstrously popular Killer on the Rampage album, the disc that made Eddy Grant an "overnight" international sensation for the second time in fourteen years.
When the pressure of his solo success began to mount, Grant backed off, preferring to work at his own pace rather than to drive himself to another coronary. The major labels came calling (and occasionally still do), but he wasn't interested. Instead he spent more and more time following the soca-calypso muse, helping to develop young artists like Gabby, Grynner, and Square One. Meanwhile the Clash covered his "Police on My Back," and Blue Wave began hosting artists like Sting, Elvis Costello, and Mick Jagger (the Stones rehearsed there for their gargantuan Steel Wheels tour).
The time had come for Eddy Grant to take on a bigger challenge. After all, he'd had hit records in three decades. Time for a different game, something more long-term. A legacy. "For the first time in the history of calypso, we're going to have a young thrust. Historically it's always been geared toward an older crowd. The attitude and the lifestyle have not gone with it to promote it to the young people, because there were no young people making calypso. Now there is a smattering of them around, and we are going to expose them to the upper echelons."
Grant sees Miami as an important part of his plan to conquer the U.S. in the name of soca. "Miami is a part of the Caribbean, but attached to America, and it has the Caribbean ambiance that goes with it. But there is something missing. Miami needs soca music because things have become so heated and dogmatic, so polarized. People here have become like their environment -- strident and hard.
"Country's popularity has been partly a counterbalance to urban violence and aggression, to threatening music. Soca and calypso are like a counterbalance to that also. They're glorious, soul-expanding music that, if given the same opportunity as country, will explode in popularity. If they played more of it on the radio, especially in the mornings before people went to work, the feeling of vitality that you get from listening to the music would make everybody more productive.
"For a time in the Sixties you had a lot of experimentation, Indian music and other forms infusing themselves into different types. It was beautiful. It really, really was. Now we need that spirit more than ever."
The gospel according to Eddy the Baptist.
"I have in my possession the greatest combination of Caribbean talent that there's ever been."
"Everything conspired to make me a solo artist. I never considered myself a singer.
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