If you were an artist before the mid-1960s, original albums – conceived as such – were probably not how you rolled. You probably just released singles that were, if you were both lucky and talented, assembled into compilations. Well, even if you happened to be Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley or Elvis Presley, chances are you never released a compilation as astonishing, world-beating, poignant, and downright hilarious as Mighty Sparrow’s Volume One, released in 1992 and spanning the years 1956 to 1967.
I’m not sure where to begin extolling the manifold virtues of this incredible record. The 13-song track-list starts wonderfully and gets better as the album progresses, clocking in at 54 minutes – ample listening time, but not so lengthy as to grow wearying. Then again, the only reason it might have become wearying is its intensity: an extensive but far from exhaustive list of topics covered includes nationalism, colonialism, racism, prostitutes, economic independence, superstition, education, fickle fandom, materialism, and cannibalism. The tedium experienced by reading that last sentence is directly proportional to the hip-swinging enjoyment afforded by Sparrow’s album: any song that mixes cannibalism and anti-racist satire, as ‘Congo Man’ does, has to be worth at least a laugh, if not more.
Sparrow was born Slinger Francisco in Grenada in 1935, and has been musically active since the age of 14. He was brought up in Trinidad, and his experience of choral singing and steel bands is discernible in his hits. Not for nothing is he widely known as ‘Calypso King of the World’: his lyrics are as good as, and his melodies better than, Chuck Berry’s. Only Paul Simon has exhibited a more natural synthesis of words and music, and even he lacks Sparrow’s brilliant wit and humorous indignation. In about 250 seconds the calypsonian can deliver an insanely catchy, even-handed view of the effects of American imperialism on Trinidadian women, in a vignette stuffed with humour, poignancy, and vivid incidental detail. I defy you to listen to ‘Don’t Go Joe’ and not be moved to laughter and/or sadness; if you remain unimpressed, you might want to check your pulse.
He has an ear for soaring melodies, and a refreshingly unpredictable style of delivery, but his greatest asset is his use of humour to tackle all sorts of issues. Not a single song on the album seems didactic or too serious-minded. In his song about the practical inconveniences of love, he trills (in character), “Johnny, you’ll be the only one I am dreaming of / You’re my turtle dove, but: no money, no love. / Find some money, Johnny!”. The mellifluence of his ever-optimistic voice can somehow make insults like “If you really want a wedding ring, Melda / There are many other ways and means / Like scrubbing your teeth and bathing regular…” sound like sweet come-ons. His intermittent feminist-baiting is mitigated by his context and the exuberant charm of his delivery.
Sparrow’s recorded output is not uniformly superb. Sometimes, his satire is a little heavy-handed; at other times, he employs dated, saccharine synths. But Volume One suffers from neither problem. It’s one of the greatest albums of all time, compilation or otherwise, and once you hear it you’ll wonder how you ever felt complete without Sparrow in your life.