Calcutta connection

Three songs inspired by the feminine wiles from the “city of joy”

Album cover of Horace Silver Quintet’s ‘Song For My Father’.
Album cover of Horace Silver Quintet’s ‘Song For My Father’.

Until the early 2000s, my hometown Kolkata had its own birthday—celebrated on 24 August, the day it was supposedly founded in 1690 by the British merchant Job Charnock. Then in 2003, thanks to a bit of historical revisionism, the Calcutta High Court ruled (based on a report by a committee comprising historians, intellectuals and experts) that the city was not founded by Charnock and had no real birthday to speak of.

That does not stop me from feeling nostalgic about Kolkata around this time of the year…and a few days ago I fished out a couple of records that celebrated the feminine charms of my old hometown.

The two tunes are like chalk and cheese. One of them, a version of Calcutta by The Four Preps is as kitschy as it can get without making you reach out for the nearest barf bag, while the other is an understated jazz number Calcutta Cutie by the late pianist Horace Silver.

The Four Preps released Calcutta in 1961 on Capitol Records and it has a breezy continental air to it with its accordion playing. Originally a German pop song, the American bandleader Lawrence Welk, who also had his own television show, cut an instrumental version that reached number one on the Billboard pop charts in 1961. At that time, Welk held the record for being the oldest artist to hit number one.

The English lyrics to Calcutta were written by Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss, who were at the time known for penning the Brian Hyland hit Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini. One can only wonder how a couple of songwriters from Brooklyn managed to pen a paean to the “ladies of Calcutta” who are “sweeter by far”—sweeter than the dames from Naples and Paris.

The Four Preps were a late 1950s and 1960s vocal group from Hollywood, and had a few hits before Beatlemania confined them and their ilk into obscurity. They even released a song that humorously attacked the mop-tops, A Letter to the Beatles. The Four Preps still perform to this day, though only one original member remains. You may actually have heard of one of the original Four Preps who sings on Calcutta without knowing it—the late Glen A. Larson, who was a baritone, later found bigger success as the creator of television shows such as Knight Rider and Battlestar Galactica.

On the other end of the artistic spectrum is the Horace Silver Quintet’s Calcutta Cutie. The track was a part of the hard bop jazz pianist’s famous album Song For My Father from 1964. Many of Silver’s compositions from the mid-sixties are quite funky with an infectious groove. Calcutta Cutie is much more restrained; a slow, atmospheric track, Silver, who had never been to Calcutta, apparently wanted an Indian flavour, similar to one of his earlier compositions, The Baghdad Blues. A nice touch is provided by drummer Roy Brooks, on the finger cymbals, which sound quite like the ones used for religious ceremonies in Bengal.

Coming full circle, there is a version from 2010 of the song by a jazz group from the Bay Area in San Francisco which features Bengali musicians. The band named Bengal & Beyond feature the track on their live album, Gautam. The band, which often combines Bengali lyrics with world jazz, includes vocalist Sharmila Guha Lash and bassist Bishu Chatterjee. The latter was one of the founders of the seminal 1970s Bangla folk rock group, Mohiner Ghoraguli. In fact, the album title is a tribute to his late brother Gautam Chattopadhyay.

While writing this blog, I suddenly remembered another song about a woman from Calcutta by the New Orleans blues and boogie-woogie pianist Champion Jack Dupree. He recorded Calcutta Blues in 1966 in London, backed by Eric Clapton on guitar and John Mayall on harmonica. A classic slow blues, it’s about a “long, lean and lanky” woman who’s “dropped in from Calcutta” and she’s “sweeter than apple butter”.

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