Lionel Belasco


Lionel Belasco was born in 1881 in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad to a Trinidad Creole mother and a Sephardic Jewish father and died in June 1967 at the age of 86.
Lionel Belasco was a top pianist, bandleader, composer, vocalist and entrepreneur, who made his first recording well over 100 years ago in Trinidad in 1914.
Soon after his recording debut, Belasco moved to New York after a rumoured affair with the daughter (who was his piano student) of Trinidad’s then governor Sir George Le Hunte who served as T&T’s governor from 1909 to 1916.
In addition to recording and writing songs, he made piano rolls, ran a piano store, and regularly returned to Trinidad for Carnival, in part to pick up new tunes. Belasco was in fact the first person to popularize calypso outside of Trinidad.
As a bandleader/recording artist Belasco was engaging and humorous. Perhaps his recordings were not as earthy as some of the other early calypso greats, but they usually boasted a high level of musicianship, rhythmic bounce, and accomplished arrangements.
Belasco spent a lot of time in Venezuela in the 1920’s and 1930’s and composed and recorded a number of songs and instrumentals that became standards in Venezuela.
As a composer, Belasco’s chief virtue was an ability to adapt material from Trinidadian and Venezuelan sources for recording purposes and a larger audience.
Indeed, some songs that are credited to him were adapted from such sources and copyrighted by Belasco, a common practice among many musicians and publishers during that era.
Famously Belasco claimed that “Rum & Coca Cola,” a big hit in the 1940s for Lord Invader, was based on a calypso called “L’Année Passée“ that he had published in a song folio in 1943.
“L’Année Passée“ in turn was actually based on a Martinquean folk song, although Belasco adapted the lyrics and claimed to have written it in the early 1900s.
Belasco’s song “L’Année Passée” was a hit in Trinidad for the 1907 Carnival season and won the unofficial T&T Leggo/Road March competition that year. See this link for confirmation and scroll down to the year 1907:…
Lord Invader composed the lyrics for his calypso “Rum & Coca Cola” that became a hit in 1943 without Lionel Belasco’s help but borrowed the melody from Belasco’s older calypso hit from 1907 that was based on a similar theme of prostitution. This was in line with a popular calypso tradition of re-using melodies from older calypsos that covered a similar theme.
Belasco also won the unofficial T&T Leggo/Road March competition again in 1911 with another calypso ditty called “Poeme One”.
It has been claimed that Belasco was the first musician to popularize West Indian music for a significant audience outside the English-speaking Caribbean. He was one of the artists responsible for the hybrid of styles taken from disparate sources including European classical music, waltzes, jazz, pop, Latin, West African and Caribbean folk music that became known as Calypso.
Belasco was a well-traveled man — in the West Indies, South America, New York City and London — for his time, experience which most likely contributed to the potpourri of influences that can be detected in his music.
You can listen to Lionel Belasco’s 1999 released CD album called “Goodnight Ladies and Gents” for examples of the variety of musical styles that he frequently composed and recorded in.
Between 1914 and 1945, Lionel Belasco made at least 278 recordings under his own name, more than any other West Indian bandleader did during that period.
Belasco collaborated with numerous artists, including vaudevillian Phil Madison, calypso singer Wilmoth Houdini, concert singer Massie Patterson, and vocalist Gracita Faulkner. He continued to record, in the United States and England, until the ’60s before passing, in his mid-eighties, in 1967.
Following is link to listen to a 1932/1933 hit song from Lionel Belasco about the infamous Treasury Building Fire which took place in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad in 1932. Vocals on this song is by the famous New York based T&T calypsonian Wilmoth Houdini with backing by Lionel Belasco & His Orchestra. Enjoy!!

Credit Ian Henry


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