There's long been a need for Britain's early black music scene to receive the same kind of generous anthologizing as its white counterpart. The massive influx of Commonwealth immigration which shaped the country during the late '50s, after all, introduced much more to the culture than a love of ska and some fancy dance steps, but with the exception of a handful of persistent practitioners, few of those pioneers are remembered today -- or, if they are, it's for utterly the wrong reasons. Maxine Nightingale, Cymande, Sweet Sensation, Jimmy Helms, Jimmy James, and the Real Thing would all score massive U.K. hits through the 1970s, but only after a decade or more of struggling to establish themselves. From Calypso to Disco does not necessarily right this wrong, for the most part choosing material from the better known part of these careers. But in avoiding the actual hits, it at least portrays an alternate angle. Another '70s act, Mac and Katie Kissoon, fare even better, as solo cuts from 1968 and 1965 respectively emerge to confirm the siblings' historical credentials. And then there are the names which emerged in an earlier era, and can claim their own role in developing Britain's black music scene -- Emile Ford and the Checkmates, the first West Indian act to score a U.K. number one; Joe Meek protegé Ricky Wayne, pianist Winifred Atwell (brother of Trinidad calypsonian the Mighty Atwell, the Mighty Terror, Lord Ivanhoe, and Lord Invader. At a time when the musical needs of the country's minority population were fed by a tiny handful of specialist labels, names like these were completely unknown in white English circles. But amongst the African and Caribbean communities, they were as popular as any rock & roll performer -- a point proven when the aptly named Cuddly Dudley landed a regular slot on television's epochal Oh Boy. The erstwhile Dudley Heslop's status as Britain's first black rock & roller was further enhanced, incidentally, when his backing band went onto become Johnny Kidd's Pirates. As this collection's title suggests, the majority of these acts concentrated either on soul or dance. The reality, however, was somewhat further reaching. The Foundations plowed a strong pop furrow, while the evocatively named Demon Fuzz struck out in the direction of prog rock, and did so with such conviction that they were swiftly snapped up by the prestigious, specialist Dawn label. Jazzman Ray Ellington moved even further afield, as the resident bandleader on the legendary The Goons radio show. This, then, is the diversity which From Calypso to Disco set out to chart, and it succeeds with room to spare. Scouring the Pye Records vault as a tribute, perhaps, to that company's own far-sighted musical policies, the 29-track collection, in its own way, rivals any comparable American label anthology -- the much-vaunted likes of Atlantic included. British soul and black music has never been accepted as a substitute for their American counterpart -- and From Calypso to Disco proves that it was never meant to be one. Born of an entirely different set of circumstances and experiences, it inevitably grew to reflect them and, in the process, became as distinct a domestic entity as any other British music you could name, from Merseybeat to 2-tone, from baggy to Brit pop. The only difference is, nobody ever came up with a nice, catchy name for it.
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