Charlie and his roots: Tobago’s Rawlston Charles

In his New York studio, Rawlston Charles from Tobago has masterminded some of calypso and soca’s greatest hits

Photographer by Wayne BowmanRawlston Charles sits in his recording studio, where big names in calypso, soca and even hip-hop have worked. Photograph by Wayne Bowman

Soca acts from the Caribbean enjoy mass appeal today, but many of these young artistes are unaware of the pioneers who opened the doorways through which they have waltzed to fame and fortune. Among the men who paved the way is Rawlston Charles, owner of the famous Charlie’s Calypso City Record Store in Brooklyn, and founder of Charlie’s Records. On this label, established in the 1970s, were produced some of the greatest calypsoes and soca hits ever, from the likes of Sparrow, Rose, Shorty, Explainer, Kitchener, Shadow, Maestro, Swallow and Becket. And then there’s the band Charlie’s Roots, named after him because he sponsored it. That’s the band that nurtured several leading musicians, chief among them one of the greatest calypsonians of the modern era, David Rudder.

Charles was born in Tobago, moving to Trinidad when he was 15. Shortly after that, he migrated to the United States, where he got involved in the automobile business, repairing, buying and selling cars. The transition from this lucrative enterprise to the shaky ground of the music arena came gradually and quite by chance. Nowhere in his plans did Charles ever intend to become involved with the recording industry—the closest he had ever come to musical activities had been as a member of the church choir during his teens.

“I arrived in New York on December 12, 1967, and got into the auto business, which was going very well. I ended up in this music thing after going out to parties in the 1960s and hardly hearing any calypso. In fact you weren’t hearing any of it at all, and I became disturbed and very annoyed over this, because I could not understand how Trinis could be socialising and we are not hearing our music being played. The Jamaicans would walk with their own music and give to the DJ to play, but it was very hard to even get calypso in those times.”

Charles had travelled to the US with his copy of Kitchener’s 1967 album. He began to add to his calypso collection, and would take his records with him whenever he went liming or partying on weekends. Eventually he started to DJ at these events and things just took off.

“I don’t even know why I walked onto the plane with that Kitchener album under my arm. I was young at the time and did not really listen to much calypso, but I took up that album and brought it to America with me, not knowing at the time that it was probably a symbol of what my calling would be.”

It was very hard to get calypso records, but as a DJ Charles would not play any other music. Calypso records also cost more, as they had to be imported into the US.So Charles opened his own record store, on July 4,1972, and the next year he began to travel back to Trinidad to make contact with calypsonians and bandleaders, get their music and take it back to the States. Next he became an executive producer and started Charlie’s Records. The first production on the label was an album entitled Labor Day in Brooklyn with Mano Marcellin—which didn’t even sell 100 copies. This did not stop Charles, who admitted that at the time he knew nothing of the music business, so he set out to get it right by connecting with the right people.

By 1975 Charles was putting out music from just about every major calypso and soca act of the day. Then, in 1977, he hit upon what would be the artiste and the song that finally earned him the respect of the biggest players in the arena, when he made a judgment call on a piece of music that at first left people saying he was a madman.

But when Calypso Rose became the first woman ever to win the Road March title, everyone admitted that Charles was not only a man with vision, but also had a sixth sense when it came to what would make a hit.
Charles recalls how it happened.

“I sent Tempo [Rose’s song] to Art de Coteau for him to do the arrangement, and when he gave me the tape with the finished product it was not what I wanted to hear. I….asked him to do it again and he flat out refused.

“I just paid Art de Coteau and all the musicians who worked on the song and took the tape and dumped it in the garbage right there in front of all of them. Everyone said I was a madman, but I knew what I was hearing in my head and would not settle for less than that.”

Producer Ellis Chow Lin On told Charles about a young arranger, Pelham Goddard, who had not worked with any major artistes yet, but who, he said, was very talented. “Even he said I was crazy to throw away an Art de Coteau work,” adds Charles.

“I gave Pelham the song and two hours later he called me to hear what he came up with and it was exactly what I wanted.

“We pressed the records and put out Tempo, which as you know made history on several levels. From that time people in the calypso fraternity stopped looking down upon me and respected me for knowing what constituted a hit song.”

Later, when Chow Lin On told Charles that Goddard and his band were struggling, Charles gave them US$14,000 to purchase instruments and equipment, and the band became known as Charlie’s Roots.

That wasn’t all Charles did for the art form.

“I fixed up a building I owned and put in rooms with all amenities, calling the place Calypso House and inviting the calypsonians to stay there at no charge—not only those who recorded on the label, but any calypsonian seeking lodging.”

Charles built and opened his recording studio in 1984. It was used not only by calypso and soca artistes, but also some of the biggest names in the East Coast hip-hop fraternity, such as Dougie Fresh, Slick Rick, and RUN-DMC. The gold records they were awarded were once proudly displayed in the studio’s hallway, but most of them were stolen some years ago and only a couple of them were salvaged.

As for executive producers in the calypso/soca fraternity making millions, Charles said that doesn’t happen. These days, he added, thanks to music piracy in the form of CD burning and illegal downloading off the Internet, it is even harder for anyone in the business to make a living.

“The Rawlston Charles, Garfield Strakers and Ellis Chow Lin Ons in this business have all lost more money than we have made profits. Artistes and others call us thieves and accuse us of all sorts of things when they don’t get the kind of returns they were looking forward to from their work. Piracy has killed the business.

“The old material is still in demand, though, and I am glad that I always insisted on the best production possible on the songs that came out of the label.”

As for soca music crossing over to the mainstream, Charles doesn’t believe that it will happen as yet. Soca and other Caribbean music is often too seasonal, geared for Carnival alone, and that’s the only time Caribbean people themselves want to hear it.

“The music is still for the most part tailor-made for our people and our celebrations, not for sitting at home. You have to ask yourself how come on one day you can have millions of people in one small area dancing to a music all day long, and the next day you can’t sell any of this music?”

There is hope, though, he says. “Fifteen years ago the youth were not interested in soca, but now, with the young artistes coming in, the youth are interested in the music and even exploring what was there before. I am here,” says this veteran, “looking forward to a bright future.”