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!

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Todd Anthony
Contact: Todd Anthony