Merchant, is that you?

He died a decade ago, but Laura Dowrich-Phillips finds that Merchant's peers have not forgotten this great calypsonian

Merchant at Spektakula Calypso Show, 1983. Photograph courtesy Trinidad ExpressPerforming at a Vintage Kaiso show at the Queen`s Park Savannah. Photograph courtesy Trinidad Express

There it was, Merchant: The Early Years, for sale in a nondescript record store in Dalston, a grimy district of northeast London. It was the last place I expected to find a calypso album. Someone had ordered it, the owner explained, but never came back. Too bad for them. I happily forked out the pounds for the CD and rushed back to my flat. That purchase, in 2000, was made out of nostalgia and pride in all things Trinidadian, but especially in celebration of the prolific songwriter, who had died the year before, weeks before his 56th birthday on May 19, 1999.

Born Dennis Williams Franklyn, Merchant died about five years after contracting HIV/Aids. As a newspaper reporter, I was sent to interview him in his last days. But when he opened the door at his ground-floor apartment in east Port of Spain, looking frail and a bit annoyed, he firmly but politely declined my request. A few months later he was dead. The congregation at his funeral, held at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Port of Spain, was a list of who’s who in entertainment.

It’s been ten years since Merchant’s death, and apart from a book of his music scores published by Alvin Daniell, a songwriter who co-wrote songs with him, little has been done to honour Merchant’s contribution to the artform. Kenny Phillips, musician, radio-station owner and owner/producer at KMP Music Labs, puts it down to the stigma surrounding him. “He was an addict, he had Aids, and he was a jailbird,” said Phillips, who played guitar on many of Merchant’s tracks.

But everyone agrees that his talents as a songwriter far outweighed his transgressions. “He was a brilliant man with a rough life,” said David Rudder, adding that there were certain artistes he liked to look out for, and Merchant was one of them.

Merchant is among Daniell’s personal top five greatest composers of all time.

“When you are on drugs everyone thinks you are a bad person, but it’s a weakness. In his heart he was a good person. But when you want money to satisfy your cravings you beg, steal and borrow,” said Daniell, who, as host of the television show Calypso Showcase, interviewed Merchant while he was in rehab. “It was a weakness and illness that did not affect his work as a composer and songwriter.

“His style of writing and composing was interesting. He did everything in his head and then played it on guitar. He couldn’t read or write music. He composed by listening to people and that would give him an idea, like when he heard someone in a taxi say, ‘Driver, I will take it here’, that gave him the idea for ‘Taxi Talk’. For ‘One Superpower’, he got the idea from watching TV and hearing them talk about the US and Russia being the world superpowers and he said no, God is the only superpower.

“While his lyrics may look simplistic, they fit the music like a glove, because he composed lyrics and melody at the same time,” Daniell explained.
Orphaned at 11 by the death of his mother, Marion, Merchant spent much of his teenage years at the Belmont orphanage. According to one published account, he served time in jail on a rape charge, and while in prison he met the legendary calypsonian Sniper, who taught him how to compose and to play the guitar.

He got into soca after being convicted of housebreaking and larceny. William Munroe, now chairman of Caribbean Prestige Foundation, which promotes the popular Soca Monarch competition, told High Court judge Clinton Bernard that Merchant would turn over a new leaf if spared a jail term. Merchant was convicted, but put on four years’ probation.

In 1977 he gained popularity with “Um Ba Yo” and “Let No Man Judge”, but it was his follow-up tune, “Norman, Is That You”, the title of a popular comedy movie about homosexuality, that saw him to his first national calypso monarch final, although it was eventually won by Calypso Rose. But his ex-wife Ruthlyn Dickson-Boxhill is quoted as saying in an interview that after he released the song, people labelled Merchant gay and he never performed it again.
In a tribute to Merchant after his death, Peter Ray Blood, entertainment guru at the Trinidad Guardian, recorded that “Pan in Danger” and “Caribbean Connection” earned Merchant his second trip to the monarch final in 1985, and even when the judges didn’t select Merchant himself for the finals, his compositions were getting others there. In 1994, both The Original de Fosto Himself and the Mighty Trini made the grade singing songs by Merchant.

Daniell said Merchant wrote for numerous artistes, though he was never credited for a lot of his work, particularly the songs he practically gave away when he was on drugs. He wrote for Bally, Baron, Crazy, De Fosto, The Mighty Trini, Designer, Drupatee, Eddy Grant, Elsworth James, King Austin, Explainer, Errol Asche, and Leon Coldero, among others. He also wrote for bands that included Atlantik, Byron Lee and the Dragonaires and Leston Paul and the New York Connection. Merchant also produced four albums in his lifetime and recorded songs that have stood the test of time, among them “Pan in Danger”, “Caribbean Connection”, “Um Ba Yo”, “Let No Man Judge”, and “Rock It”.

Merchant had a good relationship with pan. Blood recalls that among his pan compositions were “Jam It With You”, arranged by Len “Boogsie” Sharpe and performed at Panorama by Phase II Pan Groove in 1995, and “Pan in Danger”, which he wrote ten years earlier. He also worked closely with Ray Holman and Carib Tokyo.
Blood recalled that when Merchant was first diagnosed with HIV in 1994, he wrote with the obsessiveness of a man possessed during his convalescence. “Not knowing how much time he had left, he penned more than 40 calypsoes from his sick bed, with many of them being purchased and recorded for the Carnival of the following year.”

Merchant produced a whole copybook filled with handwritten songs, said Blood, many of them just one-verse ideas.

Merchant had discovered his HIV status when he voluntarily checked himself into the Rebirth House rehab centre. Blood says he turned to drugs to drown his sorrows, and acknowledged that extensive substance abuse and indiscriminate sex were the main factors that led to his illness and death.

“On one of my visits to Merchant at San Fernando General Hospital,” said Blood, “in his weakened state he lamented that he would die without documenting most of his work.”

In fact, driven by the gravity of his illness, Merchant sought to preserve his numerous classics by recording 11 songs on the CD I found in Dalston. The album was recorded in 1996, produced by JW Productions and arranged by Leston Paul and Martin “Mice” Raymond. Among its tracks are “Private Conversation”, “Symphony of Love”, “Be Careful”, “Soca Powerplay”, “Simmer Down” and “Hot Line Baby”.
There is a belief that Merchant had a hit on the British charts with “Rock It”, but Eddy Grant, to whose Ice Label Records Merchant was signed as a writer, said to his knowledge this wasn’t true. He did say, however, that the song was recorded by American funkmeister Afrika Bambata.

Grant’s relationship with Merchant developed in the 90s, after his HIV diagnosis, and Grant, who owns the rights to Merchant’s music, said he supported Merchant at a time when he was an outcast in Trinidad. He lamented the lack of appreciation of Merchant and Winsford De Vine, another prolific songwriter, who still writes from his Patna Village home in Trinidad. These men, said Grant, carried calypso on their backs for a long time.

“Nothing’s been done [for them], and there goes, but for the grace of God, any one of us as writers and creators,” he said.

“They are two separate kinds of people, but both are brilliant. Merchant was a special, special guy,” he said, labelling them the greatest creators of music in the region.