August 29, 1955: The Charmer’s Last Gig?
Gene Walcott, “Boston’s calypso monarch,” was the headliner at the Mambo-Calypso Festival staged at the Cadets Armory on August 29. Mambo had peaked by August 1955, and calypso was the new musical trend.
Louis Eugene Walcott, aka Calypso Gene, aka The Charmer, played calypso music well before the Belafonte-inspired national craze took hold. Born in the Bronx and raised in Roxbury, Walcott was playing the violin at the age of six. In 1949, while a student at Boston English High School, Walcott was on television’s Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour, playing classical violin. That’s also about the time he started playing calypso.
It is entirely possible that Walcott was dabbling in jazz in 1949-50; Sam Rivers remembered Walcott playing violin with his band at Louie’s Lounge on Washington Street, and that band, led by Rivers and Gladstone Scott, was an out-and-out bop band. Ray Perry was very popular in Boston then, and thus inspired, perhaps the young Walcott fiddled some jazz, too.
In 1950, Walcott entered Winston-Salem Teachers College. He completed three years of study, but quit when he started a family. Back in Boston in 1953, he took up calypso with a vengeance.
Walcott started with the group of saxophonist Tom Kennedy, working the summer excursion boats out of Boston. Walcott, the band’s front man, would start with some comedy, then play some classical violin, and then sing calypso songs while he played the tiple (not the ukelele, as sometimes stated). Kennedy probably introduced Walcott to Eddie Levine, and for about a year in 1953–54 Walcott led his own group, the Calypso Rhythm Boys, at Levine’s Mass Ave club. Levine also arranged for the group to record in New York, for the Monogram label. He also recorded for Tico.
Walcott began touring in 1954, and was in Chicago in February 1955 when he was first influenced by the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. He became a member of the Nation of Islam in July 1955, as Louis X. He had to choose between music and religion, and he chose the latter. His gig in August 1955 at the Armory was one of his last, and perhaps even the last, engagement as The Charmer. Gene Walcott’s calypso career was over, but the career of Louis X was only beginning. A protégé of Malcolm X, he received his Muslim name, Louis Abdul Haleem Farrakhan, and became the minister of Boston’s Temple No. 11 in 1956. His history from that point forward is well documented.
Louis wasn’t the only musician in the family. Pianist Alvan Walcott (1931-1994), Louis’s half-brother, was firmly in the modern jazz camp. He worked at the Melody Lounge in Lynn as well as the South End Clubs, and his playing is captured on a February 1955 date with Miles Davis, recorded live at the Hi-Hat. It was released on the Fresh Sounds label, and is now out of print. Al followed his brother out of the music field.
Had Walcott remained a calypsonian, his next few years would have busy indeed. He was the most formidable musician playing Caribbean music in Boston, and when the calypso wave reached tsunami proportions in 1956-57, he would have been well positioned. He might even have landed a role in such quickie Hollywood fare as Calypso Heat Wave.
Here is The Charmer, with one of the tunes he recorded for Monogram, “Back to Back, Belly to Belly,” with Johnny McCleverty’s New York group.