Born: 1981 | Died: June 24, 1967 Primary Instrument: Composer/conductor
Lionel Belasco was the Scott Joplin of calypso: he composed West Indian music from folk sources, which he found on his many travels throughout the islands, and was the first person to popularize calypso outside of Trinidad. Piano player, bandleader, composer, and entrepreneur, Belasco recorded more West Indian songs before World War II than any other performer.
A musical pioneer, Lionel Belasco was born in Barbados in 1881 and raised in Trinidad. During his youth, he learned to play European classical music on the piano but was drawn to the traditional music that was all around him, especially Afro-Trinidadian genres.
By 1900 he was leading his own band and, in the mid-1910s, he moved to New York, which became his base of operations for much of the rest of his life. His first records were made in Trinidad in 1914. He subsequently made numerous other recordings, both in the U.S. and in Britain. He also gave performances, sometimes as an accompanist for concert singers.
By the late 1930s, Belasco had learned the Tin Pan Alley music publishing business in Manhattan. Until after World War II, there was no tradition of copyrighting music in Trinidad. Belasco took advantage of this situation and copyrighted many songs in New York, either in his own name or with a partner. He also composed songs and wrote adaptations of traditional material.
In 1943 he published a songbook that included a piece called L'Année Passée. The melody of the song (from a Martiniquean folksong) was the tune used by Lord Invader for his calypso Rum and Coca Cola. Following the publication of Rum and Coca-Cola by Leo Fiest, Inc. and the hit record by the Andrews Sisters, Belasco sued for the copyright to the melody, while Invader sued for the copyright to the words. Both won their cases.
Belasco continued performing, making records and touring throughout the 1950s, and only slowing down in the 1960s. Early in 1967 he completed the music for a play entitled The Rajah of the Islands. Shortly after, on June 24, Lionel Belasco died in New York at the age of 85.