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Lord Flea

 

Page last revised: 11/3/12

 

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Introduction

 

   

No other golden age mento artist reached the peak of international popularity that Lord Flea (Norman Thomas) achieved in the late 1950s. And while it would be overkill to call Flea the Bob Marley of mento, his multi-medium international crossover was unmatched by any other mento act. And like Marley, Flea sadly died at the peak of his international popularity, well before his time.

In 2008, The Jamaica Association of Vintage Artistes and Affiliates (JAVAA), celebrated its fifth anniversary on Friday with the first induction for the Jamaica Music Hall of Fame. Lord Flea was an inaugural honoree, along such stellar company as Bob Marley and the original vocal Wailers, Louise Bennett, Count Ossie, Sister Mary Ignatius Davies, Vere Johns, Coxsone Dodd, Duke Reid, Don Drummond, Roland Alphonso, Tommy McCook and "Jah Jerry" Hinds.

(There was another Caribbean musician that took the name Lord Flea: Reuben McCoy, who played rhythm guitar with Bimshire Boys on the LP "Bermuda Calling", circa 1970.)

 

From The Daily Gleaner:


November 2, 1949. Headlining before reaching 18 years of age.


From August 11, 1950, with Baba Motta


October 17, 1958,
with Lord Fly and Sugar Belly

  Comments from Lord Flea's daughter

In April of 2004, I heard from Norman Thomas' daughter, Kathie Way-Giddarie, who was kind enough to share the following information about her father and family:

"My father was born in Kingston, Jamaica. He moved to the United States in 1950. He and my mother met and married in 1951. He was 27 years old when he died [on May 18, 1959] from Hodgkin's Disease. Each evening during his hospital stay, he would play music for the doctors, nurses and the patients on the isolation ward at Jackson Memorial Hospital. He was there for months before his demise.

His was to date the longest funeral precession in Miami-Dade County being more than five city blocks long. It included several celebrities, his family, friends, fans and others. The casket was lined with colorful cloth very much like the band uniforms and the floral spray was a guitar made of an array of flowers. He was married to an American, Catherine Anderson, and had three children; Norman, Jr., Henry and I am the eldest and my name is Katherine.  I once asked my father what did his song " Where Did The Naughty Little Flea Go" mean.  His answer to me was that when he was gone that there would be another, then another and then another.  Norman, Jr. is an singer actor, I also sing and my brother Henry was a musician (drummer).  Lord Flea's grandson (my son) Devin, is also a musician who plays more than 14 different instruments.  He was the first black student in the United States to win a scholarship in the arts from the Educational Foundation for foreign studies.  He studied music at the Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College in England. 

At current, the Museum of History and Natural Science here in Miami has an exhibit in his honor.  There is a rap artist who has asked me if he could use some of my Dad's music in a rap tune.  My father was a trained dancer in Jamaica and studied at their conservatory.  He studied with Mr. Rex Neddleford who is now the director at the same conservatory in Jamaica.  He has many stories of my father.  His is remembered in some Jamaican History books.  There have been a couple of tributes to him and his band here in Miami and another is planned for some time next year. 

Fish Ray's son who is a jazz musician is putting this tribute together.  Fish Ray was the base fiddle player in Dad's band and is the person who came up with the idea of the siren in "Out De Fire".  Only My Dad, Pork Chop and Largie were Jamaican born.  The other members of the band were American and one Cuban born. 

I had the opportunity of meeting Sammy Davis, Jr. who had said in a news article that he though that my Dad was a prolific performer while others considered him to be a real showman.  He has graced the cover of Look Magazine as well.  He has been a feature with Jet and Ebony Magazines as well."

Golden Age Recordings

Flea's earliest recordings were the approximately twenty dance band sides on 78 RPM primarily for the Times Records label, samples of which can be seen below:

 

On the Calypsodisc label (pride of the Savoy Record Shop), a dance band single by the Blue Blue Mountain Caroleers, vocals by Lord Flea:
 
  Ol Fowl   

   backed with

Irene & Yo' Fr'en'

Unusually, this label includes full band credits.



 

Courtesy of Robert Schoenfeld of the US, this time on the Calypsotime label (again with band credits), another single by Blue Mountain Caroleers, vocals by Lord Flea:

Man Forty Leg    b/w:
The Number One.


I have also seen this single on the Calypsodisc label like the one above.



Courtesy of Allen Kaatz of the US, on the Ken Khouri's Times Record label, a single by The Jamaican Calypsonians, Vocals by Lord Flea:

Wheel and Turn Me     b/w
Matty Rag/Brown Skin Gal

 


"Wheel and Turn Me" can be heard on the 2006 CD compilation, "Take Me To Jamaica".

 

To the right is a scan of another label for this 78 RPM side.


 

 

 

Here's another version of the label from this single. Unusually, the dull Times Records label is improved with a graphic of a straw hat wearing guitar player.

Further singles by Lord Flea and The Jamaican Calypsonians on the Times Record label:

Further singles by Lord Flea and The Jamaican Calypsonians on the Times Record label:

From two different discs, both sides of the single

"Donkey City"    b/w:
"Run Mongoose; Linstead Market" 

 



From three separate discs, both sides of a Lord Flea single consisting of two 2 song medleys:

"Time So Hard / Old Lady"   backed with   "Solas Market / Water Come   From Me Eye"  


 




 

Six of the Times Record sides were compiled into an album called "Calypsos From Jamaica" with a cover that may be the best depiction of mento on any record of the golden age, even if Flea is not credited on it. Thanks to Jeremy Collingwood (www.Traxonwax.net) for this scan. The tracks on this album of three 78 RPM singles are:

1. Time so Hard; Old Lady b/w Solas Market; Water Comes From My Eye.
2. Wheel and Turn Me b/w Mattie Rag; Brown Skin Gal.
3. Run Mongoose; Linstead Market b/w Donkey City.



One golden age Lord Flea recording, the original version of "Naughty Little Flea", can be heard today on the CD collection, "Rookumbine: Authentic Calypsos and Mentos". This calypso sounding take is historic for a number of reasons. First, to his best recollection, it is the very first song Ken Khouri produced. Second, it may be from this song that Flea took his name. Third, this is probably the first recording of a song that was not only frequently recorded in mento, but was also covered by Harry Belafonte (who acknowledged Flea as the composer), Toots and the Maytals,  Miriam Makeba, and others. (One of these, Owe Thörnquist, recorded a version in Swedish. So if your life long dream is, like mine, to see the lyrics of Naughty Little Flea in Swedish, your quest ends here: http://hem.bredband.net/vikkri/loppan.htm.)

Flea Comes To The US

In 1957, articles on Lord Flea appeared in the first (and, as far as I know, only) issues of two dirrerent calypso magazines: Calypso Magazine, published out of NYC and Calypso Stars, published out of London. (The covers can been seen on the Harry Belafonte page, as he was the cover story for both issues.) It tells us that Flea was playing at the Glass Bucket nightclub in Kingston around 1954. (Although the Glass Bucket featured live Jamaican music, it couldn't be too rough otherwise it would turn off the upscale crowd. For example, in 1962, The Glass Bucket featured its first ska show, called, "Ska Goes Uptown". The backing band wasn't the ghetto Skatalites or the raucous Carlos Malcolm, but the highly polished, safe professionals, Byron Lee and The Dragonairs. By this, my guess is that Flea's live sound at this point may have been closer to the dance-band singles described above than the relatively polished but still rural sound Flea brought to the US. Buy this is only speculation.)

Though it was a top venue, the articles claims that Flea's salary was just three US dollars a week for two shows a day, six days a week. If true, then it comes as no surprise that he jumped at the chance to play in the US for a "four figure salary". The article explains:

Yankee calypso fan Bill Saxon recruited a group around him... Lord Flea invaded America via the closest route to his homeland -- Miami, where he clicked instantly at Club Calypso and then played 28 weeks at Eden Roc Hotel. At the Dunes in Las Vegas, Flea chalked up new house records, as he has been doing the past few months in New York's Jamaica Room.

In the Calypso Stars article, Flea had a number of salient comments, showing wisdom as to the relationship between mento and calypso, as well some cultural differences between Americans and West Indians:

In Jamaica, we call our music "mento" until very recently. Today, calypso is beginning to be used for all kinds of West Indian music. This is because its become so commercialized there. Some people like to think of West Indians as carefree natives who work and sing and play and laugh their lives away. But this isn't so. Most of the people there are hard working folks, and many of them are smart business men. If the tourists want "calypso", that's what we sell them.

But I do think the islanders know how to get more out of life. They don't worry as much as Americans do about unimportant things, I mean. You can say they just sing and dance their troubles away -- and it beats psychoanalysis, you can bet.

I also think that West Indians have the best sense of humor in the world. Even the most solemn song, like "Las Kean Fine" ("Lost and Can Not Be Found"), which tells of a boiler explosion on a sugar plantation that killed several of the workers, their natural wit and humor shine though.

As for Trinidadians who look down at Jamaican calypso, well, how do they explain the fact that they're singing so many of our traditional songs?

The magazine goes on to give some examples of Jamaican songs that have entered the calypso repertoire: "Hill 'n' Gully, "Linstead Market", "Fan Me Solja Man", "No Body's Business", "Day Dah Light" and "Water Come A Me Y'eye".

Calypso Stars also points out that bassist Lord Fish Ray performs a solo number called "Calypso On Sand" that "ranks all by itself in the new-sounds department". This is probably the act's percussive sand-dance number, which can be seen in the video clip at the bottom of this page. It also puts forth the notion that Lord Flea gets his name from small physical stature.

Flea was briefly discussed in an issue of the long running US weekly news magazine, Time (as seen below).

By the time these articles were written, Flea had appeared on the popular American television program, The Perry Como Show (where he performed "Shake Shake Senora" and "Naughty Little Flea" on February 9, 1957), and had secured a Capitol Records deal and signed on to appear in two Hollywood motion pictures. Tragically, he would die two years later, at the age of 25.

Postcards

 

 

Above is a souvenir postcard, complete with faux autographs from Flea's residency in Miami, Florida. Below is the same for one "Calypso Eddie", who appears to be supported by Flea's band and planned a Flea cover for their début single.

Magazine Photos from 1957

The February 11, 1957 issue of Life magazine had a cover story called "U.S. Tourists Rush To The Caribbean". Part of this was a two page spread about calypso singers performing in U.S. The brief text points out that "five different versions of The Banana Boat Song, a Jamaican dock worker's chant, are filling teenager's jukeboxes." The photo, right, of Lord Flea performing is included, with the caption, "Caribbean Singer In New

York. Lord Flea of Jamaica heads the bill at Jamaican Room, accompanied by Pork Chops and a high-perched bongo drummer".

From "Calypso" magazine, issue 1, published in the United States, 1957.

       


From "Calypso Stars" magazine, issue 1, published in the United Kingdom, 1957.

     
 

From "Hep Cat's Review" magazine, issue 3, published in the United States, 1957.

From a forgotten magazine, here's a pic from the same photo session as the above mags, with a group autograph and article.

 

 

Capitol Records releases

In 1957, Capitol Records released the LP, "Swingin' Calypsos", by Lord Flea and His Calypsonians. This makes Lord Flea one of two mento act to release an LP on a major label on both sides of the Atlantic. The other was "Calypso!" by Lord Foodoos, which can today can be readily purchased on CD. Sadly, the Lord Flea LP can not.

The liner notes mention "calypso" about 500 times, but never "mento".

It's safe to assume that this release rode the coat tails of the massive popularity of Harry Belafonte's album, "Calypso", released a year earlier. A fair turn, considering how much Jamaican music gave to Harry Belafonte, not to mention Lord Flea in particular. In addition to Belafonte covering "Naughty Little Flea", he would also cover "Monkey" and "Shake Shake Senora" (as discussed below) from this LP.

 

 

Advertisement from Cash Box magazine, February 23, 1957.

   


 


 


 

Side 1:

1. Shake Shake Senora
2. Shi-Du-Bi-Du-Bab
3. Bachelor’s Life
4. I Can’t Cross Over
5. Out De Fire
6. Mister Give Me De Rent

Side 2:

7. Monkey
8. Love
9. Calypso Be Bop
10. Pretty Woman
11. Magic Composer
12. Naughty Little Flea

The band is identified as follows:

Lord Flea - leader, singer and guitarist
Porkchops - banjo
Count Spoon - drums and spoons
 [not to be confused with mid-period artist, Lord Spoon]
Prince Charles and Lord Largie - timbali and tumba percussion
Fish Ray - washtub base

Although the percussion is fuller than what was typical, and a different kind of home-made bass was used, the music was rural mento, with a dash of polish. The accomplished musicianship (especially the banjo playing) and strong vocals were ideal to break mento to an international audience whose ears were opened by Harry Belafonte's popular, if processed, presentation of Caribbean music.
 

Because it was out of print when I created this page, here are clips of my favorite songs from  this LP. Of them, only the first, Flea's signature song was self-penned. The rest were popular songs from earlier in the 1950s. [Click here for notes About the Audio Clips On this Site.]

Naughty Little Flea describes an animal dilemma, which was something of a popular theme in mento during the 1950s. This is a remake of the original golden age recording discussed above. As seen below, this became a single.

I Can't Cross Over is also known as "The River Come Down" or Bamboo,  an old Jamaican folk song that is also heard on the Edric Connor LP.

Shake Senora is an energetic song that was later a hit for Harry Belafonte, as "Jump In The Line". It had been recorded in the early 1950s as "Jump In The Line" by clarinetist and big band leader Woody Herman. Herman credited the composer as "traditional".

Love is a version of the excellent Love (and Love Alone) track heard on a Valmark release and described on the More Artists and Song Clips page. Originally a calypso song, it's a showcase for Flea's strong voice.

Monkey is a likeable track and another animal dilemma, as Flea is followed by a monkey that imitates everything he does.

Out De Fire is an interesting track, because it's essentially calypso being played with mento instrumentation. It's a great track with ripping banjo and fire bell throughout

Magic Composer is perhaps the best version of the often covered song, Bargie (Composer). Perhaps Capitol changed the title to make it more accessible to non-Jamaicans. Ken Bilby Points out that the original version of this song was called "B.G. Bargee", by Bill Rogers. Will Friedwald points out that a related song, "Bargee Pelauri" was recorded by calypsonian The Lion in the 1930s.

"Magic Composer" adapted by Lord Flea

There was a Chinie-man de name of Pangalee
He married to a little gal, they call her Cookie
Tell her to cook rice and de ackee
She disobey order, cook de rice and bargie
Bargie is a thing that spring it own water
Bargie is a thing that need plenty fire
Get two rock, set it pon de cover
Prevent de bargie from boiling over
Get the curry, get the coriander
Get the mausie, get the mausiana
Get the spice, spice down de bargie
When I sing, I put gal fe wonder
Bring them in number and make them surrender
Just because I'm a bargie composer
This here Bargie never make any blunder

Bam bam bam, bargie composer

Come on everybody if you want to realize
This is the way to economize
Come listen 'bout the beegie[?] bargie

Bam bam bam, bargie composer

One day I take a stroll right down to Three Mile
I met upon a little girl, she really have to smile
When I touch her, she shift her body
Turn around gal, tell me where you come from

Bam bam bam, bargie composer

 

Capitol must have had high hopes for Flea's success. Tracks from the "Swingin' Calypsos" LP appeared as singles, EP and on various Capitol samplers. However, it does not appear that any Lord Flea release charted. As mentioned in the March  25, 1957 issue of Time Magazine, in an article entitled "Calypsomania":

All told, calypso records account for roughly a quarter of current pop sales. Financially, American imitators are doing better than such authentic calypso singers as the Duke of Iron, or Lord Flea and His Calypsonians (Lord Fish Ray, Count Spoon, et al), whose cleaned-up version of the nocturnal wanderings of a flea (The Naughty Little Flea; Capitol) is also a nightclub favorite.
 

 


A single was released on both 78 (left) and 45 RPM (right) formats:

Naughty Little Flea      b/w
Shake Shake Senora

 

Naughty Little Flea is a mento remake of the more calypso-ish early Ken Khouri recorded track discussed above. As mentioned above, both tracks were covered by Harry Belafonte, who had a hit with Shake Shake Senora (retitled as "Jump In The Line") in 1961. Belafonte credits one Stephen Somvel as the author. These two tracks may have been recorded first, and this single may have been released ahead of the LP.


 

Obviously very fond of the jacket photo, Capitol alsoreleased three 10" 45 RPM EPs called Swinging Calypsos, with identical cover art. Each had 4 tracks from the LP. To the left is Part 1 which contains 4 of the album's better tracks:

Shake Sonora,
Shi Du Bi Du Bab,
Magic Composer
Naughty Little Flea.

To the right is Part 2,  courtesy
of Matthias Münchow of Germany.
The jacket lists the tracks as :

Bachelor's Life
I Can't Cross Over
Calypso Be Bop
Run Run Run

 

 

The last track, "Run Run Run" is not a non-LP track, though it appears to be. It's a  printing error, as the label above reveals that it's actually the LP track "Pretty Woman."

Part 3 had the following tracks:

Out De Fire
Mister Give Me De Rent
Monkey
Love

Additionally, from the Netherlands, is this 7" with 4 LP tracks:

Calypso Be Bob
Pretty Woman
Bachelor's Life
I Can't Cross Over

South American releases. Left is "Swinging Calypsos" LP from Argentina, where it was called "Bailando Calypsos con Lord Pulga Y Sus Calysomanos". Right is the Uruguay 78 RPM single, "La Picara Pulguita" ("The Naughty Flea") and "Sacucaso, Sacucaso Senora" ("Shake, Shake Senora"), again by Lord Pulga Y Sus Calysomanos.

 



As mentioned above, tracks from "Swingin Calypsos" appeared on a number of Capitol sampler albums, four of which can be seen below, plus one sampler EP, as well as a French EP released on the Festival label:
 

As seen to the left and below, Lord Flea represented calypso for Capitol on three different samplers called "Dance Craze". The first, left,  included "The Bop", which is probably a mistitling of "Calypso Be Bop". The second, right,  included Flea's "Shake Shake Senora".


Here is the Capitol "Dance Craze" 7", four song EP, with cover art like the LP above, but includes Flea's "Shake Shake Senora", like the LP above, right.


Next is, "New Album Preview, April 1957", in which the "Swingin Calypsos" jacket is given a place of prominence. (I have not yet found out which song from "Swingin Calypsos" made it to this sampler.)

   
 

A third sampler, this time a 45 RPM EP, entitled "Hit Calypsos!" featured Flea's "Shake Sonora", along with a track each by three other artists. Scans are courtesy of Matthias Münchow of Hamburg, Germany.
 


Appearances are deceiving, as this four song French EP on the Festival includes "Love" by Lord Flea.
 

Some time after the LP was released, Capitol followed it with a Lord Flea and His Calypsonians single containing two tracks that did not appear on the LP:

"It All Began With Adam and Eve"
      backed with
"Donkey Bray".
 

As you can see above, this single was released as a 45 and a 78. Although these songs are mento, they are slightly slicker than the LP tracks. A flutist is added to the line up and dominates the sound.
 
 
Here are the same two tracks as part of a 16" (!) Armed Forces Radio & Television Services disc.

front

back          

In April of 2009, Capitol finally released Lord Flea's "Swingin' Calypsos" (along with the "It All Began With Adam and Eve" / "Donkey Bray" single). All 14 tracks appear as bonus material on a Harry Belafonte CD called "The Early Years At Capitol Records".

With Capitol's promotion, nightclub and movie appearances, magazine coverage, etcetera, who knows how popular Flea would have become if not for his untimely death?

Movie Appearances

Also in 1957, Flea appeared in two obscure films, "Calypso Joe" and "Bop Girl Goes Calypso". (He may have also appeared in, or, more likely, was heard in the soundtrack of the 1957 UK film "The Tommy Steele Story", a.k.a. "Rock Around The World".)

 

    

I have not seen "Calypso Joe", and comments from anyone who has would be welcome. Lord Flea is said to perform "Naughty Little Flea" in this movie that starred Herb Jeffries and Angie Dickinson. The photo at the top of this page, as well as the three above, come from this film.

I have seen "Bop Girl Goes Calypso", which is quite a bad movie with little to recommend it, other than Flea's appearances. There is much to do about the fear that calypso would replace bop (which here is used to describe R&B and early rock & roll). The writers only had to look at the effect that R&B had on the mento recording industry in Jamaica to see that these fears were unfounded.

In this movie, Flea is seen performing three numbers with what looks to be the same band pictured on the Swingin' Calypsos LP. The songs are not from the mento repertoire though Lord Kitchener's Calypso Be Bop, from the Capitol LP, is performed. The performances are strong and the nightclub showmanship is high, including band members taking turns with dance solos in one number. The third number is maddening, as the film's star, Judy Tyler, sings lead with the band. And take a look at the odd photo used in the lobby card to the right. The producer seems to feel that using a photo that captures an unpleasant moment is a good way to promote a movie.  

All quibbles pale against the fact that Bob Girl Goes Calypso is a rare chance to see a golden age mento artist perform. Below are some video clips from the movie, followed by links to download 7:32 of video with all the Lord Flea scenes.

 

The marquee

 

 

Lord Flea and His Calypsonians

 

 

Lord Flea's close-up

 

 

 

The banjo player is Porkchops
from the Capitol LP

 

Porkchops invents Jimi Hendrix

 

 

Flea dances

 

Flea sings his only speaking line

 

 


Download the video

 Note: the wmv files are of better quality than the rm.

Windows Media file format

Lord Flea .wmv (160 x 120; 2,357 KB)

Lord Flea.wmv (720 x 480; 8,691 KB)

Real file format:

Lord Flea .rm (160 x 120; 1,969 KB)

Lord Flea.rm  (720 x 480; 8,588 KB)

 

 

View the
YouTube
version

 

 


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