Slinger Francisco, also known as The Mighty Sparrow, is a Caribbean icon.
Many words can describe him: performer, songwriter, prophet, satirist, and historian. He took the purely Caribbean sound of calypso and introduced it to the world. He definitely deserves the title, “Calypso King of the World.”
Sparrow was born on July 9, 1935 in Grand Roy, Grenada. His father, a carpenter, moved to Trinidad to earn a better living. The rest of the family joined him before Sparrow was two years old. They lived in Port of Spain.
Sparrow loved to sing from a young age. He sang in the weekly Friday concerts while attending Newtown Boys Catholic School but stayed away from calypso because it was considered unhealthy.
At the age of 14, Sparrow joined a steel band with the boys in his neighbourhood and they performed at Trinidad’s Carnival. His energetic stage presence earned him the stage name of “Little Sparrow”. He changed it to “Mighty Sparrow” a few years later.
Sparrow did not finish school and took a job with the government. He continued to sing his calypso and eventually left his job because the music paid better.
In 1954, Sparrow performed for the first time as a carnival singer with “The Parrot and the Monkey”. In 1956, he won Trinidad’s Carnival Road March and Calypso King competitions, with, “Jean and Dinah” aka “Yankees Gone”. It became his most famous song.
A live version of “Jean and Dinah” was included on the Jump Up Carnival album in 1956. It was Sparrow’s first recording.
Sparrow boycotted the Calypso King contest in 1957 due to money. The prize money awarded to the Calypso King was a meager $40, compared to the $7,500 presented to the Carnival Queen beauty contest winner.
Sparrow wrote the song, “Carnival Boycott” in protest. Other calypsonians including Lord Melody joined the boycott.
Sparrow claims his boycott improved the conditions for calypso and steel band musicians in Trinidad. It also established the Carnival Development Committee, a musicians’ assistance organization.
In an interview in 2019, referring to the boycott, Sparrow said, “The people who were organizing everything, I don’t think they had much respect for calypso.”
Sparrow refused to officially participate in the Carnival competition for the next three years. He did, however, win the Road March title in 1958 with “P.A.Y.E.” In the 1957 carnival, he performed in the Young Brigade Calypso Tent. His four-song set was recorded live and released on the Calypso Kings and Pink Gin album.
Later that year, Sparrow recorded his first album, Calypso Carnival 58.
Between 1960 and 1964, Sparrow recorded 11 albums with RCA.
Sparrow returned to the Calypso Monarch competition in 1960. He won his second Kingship and third Road March title with “Ten to One Is Murder” (an autobiographical song about an incident in which Sparrow allegedly shot a man) and “Mae Mae”.
He won the Road March title again in 1961 with “Royal Jail” and won his third Calypso King title in 1962 with “Model Nation” and “Sparrow Come Back Home”.
His popularity grew in Trinidad as he won further titles in the 1960s and 1970s.
Sparrow also began recording for his own label, National Recording. He released approximately forty albums in the 1960s and 1970s.
The 1968 Sparrow recorded the album, Sparrow Meets the Dragon, with Byron Lee. Their version of “Only a Fool Breaks His Own Heart” was an international hit.
That international success continued in the 1970s. with the albums The Best Of and Hot and Sweet. In 1975, he reunited with Byron Lee on the Sparrow Dragon Again album.
In the 80s, Sparrow returned to the Carnival competitions. In 1984 he won his eighth Road March title with the soca-influenced “Doh Back Back”. In 1985 he won the ‘King of Kings’ title and the $10,000 first prize.
He won the Calypso Monarch title in 1992, with “Both of Them” and “Survival”. It was his last major title.
Although less active, Sparrow continued to write, perform, and tour throughout the 90s and into the 21st century.
As he grew older, Sparrow’s health suffered. He was hospitalized several times due to complications of diabetes and he suffered a hernia in 2010. He was in a coma for two weeks in September 2013 before he regained consciousness.
But his health can’t stop him. In 2020, Sparrow released his Live at 85! album in celebration of his 85th birthday.
Sparrow’s vast knowledge is evident in his music. “Slave”, “Wanted Dead or Alive”, and “Barack The Magnificent” touch on issues of international significance.
For his contribution to the musical world and beyond, Sparrow has received several honours including an honorary doctorate from the University of the West Indies in 1987, the Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, and the Order of the British Empire.
The Mighty Sparrow is surviving the COVID-19 pandemic in his Queens, N.Y. apartment.
SOURCES: CARICOM.ORG, CARIBBEANELECTIONS.COM, GUARDIAN.CO.TT, MOJO4MUSIC.COM