Mighty Sparrow - Biography
By J Poet
Slinger Francisco, known better as The Mighty Sparrow, is the greatest living singer of calypso, and perhaps the greatest singer and composer the genre has ever produced. He got his name, because he “jumped around like a little sparrow” in the pre-Elvis era when most singers stood motionless in front of their bands. Sparrow's sexually and politically explicit lyrics, strong melodies and dynamic performances made him a superstar in most of the world. Although he lives and works in Jamaica, New York, he's almost unknown in the United States outside of the West Indian community. Sparrow was inducted into the Sunshine Awards Calypso and Steelband Music Hall of Fame in 1990.
Sparrow was born on Grenada in 1935, but his family moved to Trinidad when he was a child. He attended Newtown Boy's School and was head choirboy at St. Patrick's Catholic Church. He grew up surrounded by calypso, but loved American pop and jazz singers like Nat King Cole, Frankie Laine, Sarah Vaughn, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald as well calypsonians like Lord Christo and Mighty Spoiler. In 1949, he joined a steel band and got interested in performing. Trinidad was under British rule when Sparrow grew up, and calypso was considered outlaw music, because of its socially conscious lyrics. A mini calypso craze stuck the US in the late 30s and early 40s and tourists came to island at Carnival time to hear Lord Melody, Growling Tiger, Atilla and Lord Invader. Invader’s “Rum and Coca Cola” was plagiarized by Morey Amsterdam and became a big hit for the Andrews Sisters.
Sparrow taught himself to play guitar and started writing songs. In 1956, he entered the yearly calypso competition and won first place with "Jean and Dinah." To record the song, he had to sign away his royalties, so he wrote "Carnival Boycott" and led a strike of about half the singers. In 1957, during the strike, he became the first calypso artist to record an LP album, Calypso Carnival (1957 Cook), which included "Russian Satellite," "Theresa," and "Post Card to Sparrow" which were much played during Carnival season, despite the fact that Sparrow was still boycotting the contest. Sparrow in Hi Fi (1959 Cook) was also a hit.
In 1958, Sparrow returned to the competition and although the boycott was only moderately successful, things had improved with the formation of the Carnival Development Committee. In 1959, thanks to the success of Harry Belafonte, RCA signed Sparrow and he released Sparrow (1960 RCA), The Calypso King of Trinidad (1961 RCA), Sparrow: Calypso King (1961 RCA), The Mighty Sparrow (1961 RCA), Sparrow the Conqueror (1961 RCA), Sparrow Come Back (1962 RCA), Great Calypsos (1963 RCA), Sparrow’s Greatest Hits (1961 RCA), a collection of his best singles from Trinidad and More Sparrow’s Greatest Hits (1961 RCA.) In the following years he won Calypso King (best performer) six times and Road March King (best song) five times, He was one of the first artists to win both titles, taking the double crown in '56, '60, and '72. In 1974, after winning Calypso King for the eighth time, he stopped competing to give younger singers a chance.
During the 60s, Sparrow released countless singles as well as Sparrow Sings True Life Stories of Passion, People & Politics (1964 National), Congo Man (1965 National), Calypso Genius (1965 National), Spicy Sparrow (1968 RA) and Sparrow Meets the Dragon (1967 Spalee, 1978 Trojan UK as Peace and Love), a reggae fusion album made with Byron Lee and the Dragonaires. It included a cover of Arthur Prysock's "Only A Fool Breaks His Own Heart" which was a #1 hit in Holland. In the 70s he cut Power (1970 RA, 1973 Trojan), Calypso Time (1971 RA), Moods of Sparrow (1973 Bestway), a one off for Warner Brothers called Hot and Sweet (1974 Warner), Sparrow Dragon Again (1975 Spalee, 1993 Rhino), King of the Caribbean (1976 DJM), NYC Blackout (1978 Charlie’s) and Pussy Cat Party (1979 Charlie’s)
Because of the poor quality of recording studios and the high price of recording in Trinidad, many calypso singers live in Brooklyn, where a West Indian population supports the music and the artists. The influences of New York City's disco, hip hop, funk, soul, R&B, Haitian and Salsa scenes mutated the music into soca (SOul/CAlypso) in the 80s. Sparrow kicked off the 80s with the double album 25th Anniversary (1980 Charlie's), which includes “Dead or Alive,” a worldwide hit that decried the ruthless dictators of the Third World,. He moved into soca with Sanford Soca Disco Human Rights (1981 Charlie's.)
In the 80s, the Indian population of Trinidad began competing in carnival, with a music influenced by Indian pop and Bollywood soundtracks; they called this music chutney. Sparrow wrote his first chutney tune, “We Like It So,” for Sweeter Than Ever (1982 Charlie's.) Other 80s albums: King of the World (1984 B’s), Vanessa (1985 B’s) which included the title track, a salute to the first black Miss America, A Touch of Class (1986 B’s), Dr. Bird (1988 Charlie’s) and All in the Game (1989 Charlie’s.) Sparrow competed in the King of Kings show in 1985, a battle of 11 Carnival Kings and won the title. He was awarded an honorary Yoruba title in the wake of his triumphant FESTAC (World Festival of Black Arts and Culture) tour of West Africa in 1977. In 1988, he received an honorary Ph. D. from the University of the West Indies. Sparrow’s albums from the 90s include We Could Make It Easy If We Try (1991 BLS), Salvation (1993 BLS), Dancing Shoes (1993 Ice), which got worldwide distribution thanks to Eddie Grant’s Ice label, “The Juice is Loose” single (1996 BLS) about OJ Simpson, Soca Lover (1997 BLS) and Doh Stop The Carnival (1999 BLS.) Sparrow won another Calypso King crown in 1992.
Ice Records put out four excellent CDs that give a good overview of Sparrow’s career: Mighty Sparrow, Volume One (1992 Ice) gives you 13 early hits, including several tunes that won Sparrow Carnival King titles like “Jean and Dinah,” “Dan is The Man (in the Van)” and “Congo Man,” Mighty Sparrow, Volume Two (1992 Ice), Mighty Sparrow, Volume Three (1992 Ice), Mighty Sparrow, Volume Four (1994 Ice.)
Sparrow’s output has fallen off a bit since 2000, but he did give us Redemption (2003 BLS) his first religious album and Barack the Magnificent (2008 BLS), a two CD compilation of Sparrow’s political songs that includes the new title track, a song praising the 44th President of the United States. There are hundreds of compilations of Sparrows work available, so read the track list carefully before buying.