Fitzroy Coleman fingers dancing on the fret. And when you think that he through, he aint start nothing yet…
“Calypso Music”, David Rudder
While Rudder’s lyrics are now a clichéd reference to the jazz/calypso guitar great, it is Fitzroy Haynes Coleman’s saviour from obscurity in the land he was born in, that shaped his style, and failed him terribly. The few videos available of Coleman at work capture the sweet chromatic chaos and the intricate, complex choreography that he performed every time he picked up the instrument.
His fingers stretch to form personalized chords and voicings, while his thumb does the tango to pivot his fingers into unimaginable positions and sounds on the fret board. The chords and licks that made him famous are the innovations and inventions of a young boy with perfect pitch, who, from 1932, stole alone-time with his father’s precious guitar when that gentleman was at work.
Performing almost like a minstrel with other youth for the estate owners of St Clair earned him the nickname “Little Boy Wonder”, which led him to England in 1945 with an all-star Caribbean band. He was chosen above experienced guitarists who read music. At the time he couldn’t.
Throughout the 1950s, he was constantly rated among the best guitarists in Europe. He created jingles for Barclays Bank. Being black then, Coleman said, was a hindrance to landing big gigs and recognition. By the mid-1950s, his performing in excelsis could not go unnoticed. He was frequently featured on BBC radio, and television broadcasts. He accompanied Mahalia Jackson, Lena Horne, Marlene Dietrich, Tony Bennett and many other international stars.
Coleman and Kitch: Race and Love
No doubt his guitar work played heavily on Kitchener’s pre-soca sounds of the 1950s and 60s. Coleman once said that he and Kitchener were friendly before he left for England. When his calypsonian friend arrived in 1948, they would improvise music and lyrics in their performances, trading and feeding off mutual respect and brilliance.
Although musically and lyrically Kitchener may not be remembered for socially conscious songs, early Kitch was different. He was at the forefront of building West Indian identity among burgeoning immigrant communities in England. Fitzroy Coleman was his right-hand man in composing and recording the sounds and stories of black West Indian immigrants in the UK.
Coleman’s chords and colours are clearly heard in the important social chronicles such as “When a Man is Poor” and “If You’re Brown”. Without his melancholic tones, the social commentaries of the tribulations of the Windrush Generation would have been far less impactful. At the time, he also worked with and helped Lord Beginner and the Mighty Terror find their feet in a new country. (Coleman’s solo in The Monkey is a lesson in instrumental soloing for calypso).
In England, he gigged at every club, restaurant and hotel imaginable. The performances were organized by his friend Enid who had owned nightclubs before World War II. In an interview on Power 102FM this week, Foster said she always took diligent care of his business. Tricky fellow musicians took advantage of the island boy in the “mother land” metropole until she came along.
One day, Foster says, Enid asked Coleman, “Why don’t you marry me and let me take care of your business?” Coleman and Enid got married in 1947. She had told him she was ten years older than he was; it was more like twenty. When she died, he discovered the truth.
Whatever the state of their love, her professional care for him lasted late into Coleman’s old age, as he used to receive pension cheques from England before he died.
She defended him and strongly opposed anyone who had anything to say about his colour. Foster relates a story of the couple walking the streets in London one day when someone called him a nigger. Enid said to Coleman, “Darling, wait here.” She walked to the taunter and said: “You didn’t know they were niggers when they were fighting for us in the war!” She beat him up.
The flawed genius
As a young reporter and musician, I once tried to interview him. For years, I had researched his music. I picked up the telephone directory, found his name and gave him a call. His second wife, Edna, who he lived with in Laventille answered the phone. She called him and he sounded excited that a youngster knew of him and wanted to talk. I got there a few minutes late and called at the gate. He chased me furiously, warning me never to come back. Discouraged, I never tried again.
“Like most geniuses, he was very fragile,” Foster tries to piece together some of the experiences that made the genius such an emotional man. He explains that Coleman frequently remitted money to his mother while he was in England.
On a visit to Trinidad in 1960, he was very upset to see his mother still living in a dirt-floored Woodbrook barrack yard, with alcohol a key part of her existence.
Older musicians ostracized him when he left Trinidad. They were jealous that a young man, who, at the time, could not read music, was taking their place to go to England in search of a musical living.
He learned to read and began to learn the theory of the things he had already been doing on the guitar without being taught. The rejection he faced from some of his own countrymen continued in England.
His return to Trinidad to play music was difficult. In response to his style in Kitchener’s Frederick Street tent, he got: “Mr. Coleman, you bound to make all them chords?” And: “You playing rubbish! We don’t want no Englishman here!”
That led him to self-imposed exile in the Matura forest. He bought ten acres of land and began to garden. Music was a thing of his past.
Lord Relator, one of his guitar students says, “Kitchener would dig what he was doing. It was like school for me. Men couldn’t relate. They would look back like he playing s–t, when he played a 13th or a flatted 5th. He fattened the chords.”
Mas’ man Teddy Pinheiro, a fabulous collector and archivist of cultural trinkets and records, says in one musical lime decades ago, Coleman picked up Relator’s guitar and played all sorts of songs for forty minutes. After, Relator exclaimed, “Ah never hear my guitar sound so good!”
Coleman the experimenter
As an innovator, he is unmatched. He would take bass guitar and banjo strings and put them on his guitar. One of the recordings sounds like he was using synthesizing technology which did not appear until the decades of the 80s and 90s.
Foster chronicles some of the work of the intense innovator and says that Coleman had written countless chords that he imagined in his head onto paper.
“It took him two years to perfect a chord.” Foster says that John Williams, recognized as one of the greatest classical guitarists ever, once looked on in tremendous respect at Coleman playing. He said Coleman was “the world’s greatest chord-player.”
His chordal playing is unlike anything heard before or since. Sometimes, he would play a separate chord for every note of a bass line (which he played), walking a mile a minute, cajoling from unsuspecting ears, the impression of two or three guitars, all while he played intricate melodies.
In much of his calypso soloing, the sound is rooted in a Trinidadian joie de vivre. Brief solos, peeping from behind calypsonians’ lyrics are high craft, fast and sweet. Listen to Roaring Lion’s “Mary Ann”. After a chorus, Lion’s lyrics instruct him to “Come up, Mr Coleman!” He lets rip a fast, high-pitched barrage of demisemiquavers and semiquavers, rattling the frets.
Pinheiro, Relator and Foster relate the story of Coleman playing in a band assembled by Sparrow, and being fired because his soloing sorcery was stealing the limelight from the Calypso King of the World.
What can be done to preserve, beyond Rudder’s words, the already frail legend of Fitzroy Coleman? UWI and UTT researchers should compile a detailed discography.
The archives of Pinheiro (with his direction and blessing) should be made an important part of every library’s heritage section.
Relator’s chords, handed to him by Fitzroy Coleman must be written and taught in fine arts programmes at UTT. Foster should be given the funding and support to make his recordings of Coleman into a documentary. These are just a few suggestions.
I have no regrets. The thing is, I’ve made a lot of people happy in this world, and I contribute to mankind. As far as I’m concerned, if I close my eyes now, I didn’t waste my life. I’ve done something constructive for mankind. That’s how I look at it.
Fitzroy Haynes Coleman 1923-2016