Academy of the Underrated #5:
From Lionel Belasco's 'All Music Guide' Biography:
It has been claimed that Lionel Belasco was the first musician to popularize West Indian music to a significant audience outside the English-speaking Caribbean. The child of a Sephardic Jew and a Trinidadian Creole, pianist and vocalist Belasco made his first recording in Trinidad in 1914. Between 1914 and 1945 he made at least 278 recordings under his own name, more than any other West Indian bandleader did. He was one of the artists responsible for the hybrid of styles taken from disparate sources including European classical music, waltzes, jazz, pop, and African and Caribbean folk music that became known as calypso. Belasco was a well-traveled man in the West Indies, South America, and New York City for his time, experience which probably contributed to the potpourri of influences that can be detected in his music.
Soon after his recording debut, Belasco moved to New York after a rumored affair with the daughter (who was his piano student) of Trinidad's governor. 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. As a bandleader/recording artist he was engaging and humorous. Perhaps his discs 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. As a composer his 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. He claimed that "Rum and Coca Cola," a big hit in the 1940s, was based on a calypso called "L'Annee Passee" that he had published in a song folio in 1943. "L'Annee" in turn was actually based on a Martinquean folk song, although Belasco claimed to have written it in the early 1900s. Belasco collaborated with numerous artists, including vaudevillian Phil Madison, calypso singer Wilmouth Houdini, concert singer Massie Patterson, and vocalist Gracila Faulkner. He continued to record, in the United States and England, until the 1960s before dying, in his mid-eighties, in 1967.
-- Richie Unterberger