In 1954 a young Marguerite “Rita” Johnson hit the San Francisco music scene, singing and dancing to the then-increasingly-popular calypso. The name she brought with her, while she’d had it since birth, wasn’t one that would stick. And her voice, though destined to be iconic, was bound to be known in a different form.
“You’re going to be famous”
In the earliest days of her budding career, young Rita was already going by another name when she met a fully-bloomed legend named Billie Holiday. When Lady Day saw Miss Johnson perform, she wasn’t fully impressed. She did however, notice something about this young artist that was undeniably captivating.
“You’re going to be famous,” Holiday told Johnson. “But it won’t be for singing.”
The prophetic Lady Day couldn’t have been more right. The singer by the name of Rita Johnson would remain virtually unknown, but the world would forever know the woman she came to be as Maya Angelou.
On the morning of Wednesday, May 28, 2014, Maya Angelou died in her North Carolina home. As expected, when an icon dies in the 21st century, the Internet resoundingly responded. Twitter mourned with quotes and sad-face emojis, Facebook ranted about their favorite poems, Tumblr wrote new poems about their favorite poet. As always, this entire death-ensued cacophony rubbed many the wrong way. Some would rather have their newsfeed spilling over with the latest updates about elevator fights and tacky floral walls.
While I understand the perspective that finds the selfie-taking-1D-loving-tween suddenly quoting “Still I Rise” slightly annoying, we as a collective, shouldn’t shun the opportunity to celebrate and learn more about a truly amazing life.
I am by no means a Maya Angelou expert, and that’s why I sit down to write this. One of the most fascinating things I learned today was about the poet laureate’s short-lived life as a calypso singer.
The greatest thing to me was that it was through calypso, through music, that she adopted her name as Maya Angelou. By the suggestion of her manager, she took up the now world-known name, who told her it was “distinctive” and would capture the energy of her sound.
During ’54 and ’55, Angelou toured Europe as a feature dancer in the American opera Porgy and Bess. In ’56 she opened her own calypso show in Beverly Hills, which paved the way for ’57, when she released a studio album under Scamp Records called Miss Calypso.
Four of the album’s fourteen tracks were penned by the poet herself. The album was a moderate success that ultimately received mixed reviews. Some questioned the authenticity of Angelou’s take on calypso, accusing the artist of not knowing her voice and riding calypso’s growing wave of popularity while Others praised Angelou’s finesse and spirit, saying the artists brought a fresh, cool take on the genre.
The album was re-released in 1995, so there’s a slim chance you’ll be able to find the CD at your local record store. This rare album isn’t even available on Spotify (yet), but there’s some tracks that are Google-able and on YouTube. Two of the stand-out tracks, “Run Joe” and “Neighbor, Neighbor” (the latter written by Angelou) I’ve attached below for your listening pleasure.
Throw these hits on your weekend playlist and drop some little known Miss Calypso knowledge on your friends and family while they’re too busy talking about that time Maya Angelou made Tupac cry.