Although Maya Angelou would later gain fame as an author and a poet, most notably with her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she began life as a singer and dancer.
She even released Miss Calypso her debut and only studio album released in 1957 when she was 27. The album was released during a craze for calypso music catalyzed by Harry Belafonte the previous year.
Angelou sang every song on the album of which she composed five, touring in support of the album and performing tunes such as “Run Joe”, “Stone Cold Dead in the Market“, and “Calypso Blues”, in nightclubs.
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In 1954, Marguerite “Rita” Johnson whom the world would acclaim as Maya Angelou hit the San Francisco music scene, singing and dancing to the then-increasingly-popular calypso. It’s curious that it’s through calypso and music, that she adopted her name as Maya Angelou at the suggestion of her manager, who told her it was “distinctive” and would capture the energy of her sound.
Miss Calypso was viewed as a modest success. The album consisted of quite respectable calypso with mild pop and world music influences. It also featured conga, drum, light guitar and bongo accompaniment.
Angelou herself in later interviews revealed she was not a trained singer although she could sing. Little wonder that some of the performers on the companies she travelled with told her “Maya you flattened a G or an H.”
Of her dancing, she disclosed she auditioned for the role when Porgy and Bess hit town with dreams of touring the United States, earning good money and even having the chance to tour Europe.
And tour she did. During 1954 and 1955, Angelou toured 22 countries mostly in Europe as a feature dancer in the American opera Porgy and Bess. In 1956 she opened her own calypso show in Beverly Hills, which paved the way for ’57, when she released her studio album under Scamp Records called Miss Calypso.
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.
The album was re-released in 1995. Angelou herself though appeared to desire a memory erasure of her singing time. Her fourth autobiography, The Heart of a Woman, downplays her singing career and assigns little importance to Miss Calypso.
In 1957 Angelou appeared in an off-Broadway revue that inspired her first film, Calypso Heat Wave, in which Angelou sang and performed her own compositions.
According to reviewer Hilton Als, Angelou sang and performed calypso because she “had followed the fashion of the time”, and not to develop as an artist. Als states about Miss Calypso: “But it was clear that the album itself was not the point. Developing her artistry was not the point. Fame, not art, was her spur…”
On the morning of Wednesday, May 28, 2014, Maya Angelou died in her North Carolina home aged 86.