King Austin, legacy of love

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An article by Corey Connelly for Trinidad’s Newsday.

“Love is my father’s legacy,” an emotional Marvin Lewis said of his late father, calypsonian King Austin.

Fresh from Austin’s funeral service on Friday at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Independence Square, Port-of-Spain, the pain of the loss evident, Marvin regarded his father as the kindest man that ever lived.

“He was very kind and he would always say something to make a person smile,” Marvin said of his father. “He would find the good in everybody and everything.

My father had his shortcomings like everybody else but he was a loving man.” Indeed, King Austin’s former colleagues in the calypso fraternity voiced similar sentiments as they shared lively anecdotes about the man, whom they believed, never realised his fullest potential but one who, though plagued by illness, reflected frequently about his glory days in the artform.

“He was one of the nicest people in the world,” Relator (Willard Harris) said in the courtyard of the Roman Catholic Cathedral.

Harris, who won the 1980 National Calypso Monarch finals in which Austin placed second, said they enjoyed a cordial relationship even in the face of rivalry in competition.

“We had a beer after the show (Calypso Monarch competition) and there was never any negativity,” he said.

Recalling that Austin’s hat had fallen off his head during his performance, Harris recalled that he was quickly able to regroup and “fall back in time with the music” for the remainder of his set.

President of the Trinbago Unified Calypsonians’ Organisation (TUCO) Lutalo “Brother Resistance” Masimba said Austin’s passing was a great loss to the country and the world.

“He was a top of the line artiste who touched your soul and was very humble,” he said.

“The world will never forget Austin.” Winston “Gypsy” Peters also regarded Austin’s passing as “a sad day” for the country. “His contribution has been an invaluable one,” he added.

King Austin, 73, whose birth name was Austin Lewis, died at the Port-of-Spain General Hospital, last Saturday, after a six-year battle with Alzheimer’s Disease.

His remains are interred at the Lapeyrouse Cemetery, St James. Revered for his timeless 1980 selection, “Progress”, which appealed to a wide audience, laymen and professionals alike, Marvin said his father produced a slew of nation-building offerings in his heydey as a calypsonian. He added that his father loved music up until the moment he passed away.

Otis Redding, Marvin recalled, was his father’s favourite entertainer. Redding, who died in December, 1967 at the age of 26, was an American singer, record producer and arranger. He is considered to be an icon of American soul and rhythm and blues music.

“He (Austin) always used to say that man (Redding) with that voice should never have died,” Marvin said.

Although many people loved “Progress”, Marvin regarded “Who Guarding The Guards” as his father’s favourite song.

Austin was originally from Celestine Drive, Morvant, but had been living at St Paul’s Street, East Portof- Spain, for the past five years, shortly after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

As King Austin’s only surviving child, Marvin said he often had to travel from his home in Chaguanas to St Paul’s Street, to take care of his father when he became ill.

He had developed a close relationship with neighbours, who sought his father’s interest.

“There was always someone who stayed around to see what was happening but there were times when he would wander off and get lost in Port-of-Spain,” Marvin said, adding that he eventually had to put his father in a senior citizen’s home where he would haven been provided with better care.

Marvin said drug abuse prevented his father from reaching the pinnacle in calypso.

“He overcame it (drug problem) in latter years but by that time it was too late.” One of King Austin’s contemporaries in the artform, Dr Hollis Liverpool, better known as Chalkdust, said the late calypsonian’s legacy was his voice and the contribution of calypso writers to the artform. “Before Austin, people did not pay attention to people writing calypso,” said Liverpool.

“He broke the ice because calypsonians did not take non-calypsonians seriously. He motivated non-calypsonians to write calypso. Because of his success, calypso changed after King Austin.” Several of King Austin’s offerings, including “Progress”, were written by prolific composer Winsford “Joker” Devine.

Liverpool, however, acknowledged that it still was not easy for non-calypsonians to write for calypsonians.

“Calypso has to be relevant,” said Liverpool, programme professor at the Academy of Arts, Culture and Public Affairs at the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT ).

“The singer has to be interested in the lyrics and be able to execute it. The author has to know the ca calypsonian’s tone and pitch.” It was for this reason, Liverpool believes, that veteran calypsonian Slinger “The Mighty Sparrow” Francisco turned down “Progress” when Devine had initially offered the song to him.

“He probably did not see much in the lyrics. It perhaps sounded more like a thesis rather than an event in TT ,” he said.

The eight-time monarch reasoned that King Austin embraced the song because he was not a composer “and so in his exuberance to sing, he snatched it.” “But he probably lost to Relator because he did not understand the song he was singing,” he added.

Liverpool said he last saw King Austin four years ago.

“He came with Errol Peru (calypso promoter) to my home but he did not look sick at all during the visit,” he said.

Liverpool recalled that King Austin was discovered by late Trinidad Express editor Keith Smith, whom he described as a connoisseur of calypso.

He said Austin started singing calypso at the Carnival Development Committee (CDC) Calypso Tent before moving on to the Regal Calypso Tent and later Sparrow’s Young Brigade.

“I have always known him to be a humble man. He was never one to demand money,” Liverpool recalled of Austin.

He said Austin will best be remembered as one of the sweetest voices in calypso.

“The artform is poorer with his passing,” Liverpool said.

Through the UTT ’s Saving The Calypso Series in 2009, Liverpool said attempts have been made to celebrate and archive the works of calypso greats and musicians who have passed on.

He said profiles of Mighty Striker (Percival Oblington), Cypher (Dillary Scott), Duke (Kelvin Pope) and Composer (Fred Mitchell) have already been completed.

Liverpool said, though, that the project has been hampered by a lack of money.

“If we could get a company or private person to support the project that would be nice,” he said.

Liverpool said many in the current crop of calypsonians were not composers.

“They have good voices but when you see a Valentino (Anthony Emrold Phillip) you know that is a good calypso and Stalin (Leroy Calliste) not singing stupidness,” he said.

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