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Soca legend McIntosh gets Sunshine honour

Published: 
Thursday, October 1, 2015
Frankie McIntosh is being honoured with a Sunshine Award. The view from many in the Caribbean music industry is that an award for this well-loved and universally respected musician is long overdue. Frankie McIntosh was honoured by his country, St Vincent and the Grenadines with a postal stamp.

Among this year’s honorees for Sunshine Awards Hall of Fame, which will be held on October 3 in Manhattan, is the legendary soca music arranger and keyboardist Frankie McIntosh. 

Since the mid-1970s, McIntosh has arranged over 2,500 songs and led recording sessions with almost every important calypsonian and soca artist in the Caribbean. He is a member of the elite pantheon of arrangers, including Ed Watson, Leston Paul, Clive Bradley, and Pelham Goddard, who helped forge the revolutionary soca style in the late 1970s and early 1980s. 

For many McIntosh’s award is long overdue. St Vincent and the Grenadines leader Dr Ralph Gonsalves noted, “He is a Caribbean music icon who has rendered exceptional service as a musician, arranger, and producer. He has unselfishly contributed his talents to mold and help develop younger Caribbean artists.” His country has already given McIntosh the rare honour of putting him on a stamp. 

Dr Hollis Liverpool, the calypsonian Chalkdust, who worked with McIntosh on numerous recordings reflected: “Frankie is one of those Caribbean geniuses whom we often take for granted. As a Calypsonian on the stage, if I happen to glimpse him as a musician in the band, I know my calypso performance will reach close to perfection.” 

Frankie McIntosh was born in Kingstown, St Vincent in 1946. His father, Arthur McIntosh, led a popular dance orchestra, the Melotones. The band played primarily instrumental dance orchestrations of calypso, Latin, and American standards, but members gathered at the McIntosh home on Sunday afternoons for jazz jam sessions. 

Frankie took piano lessons as a youngster starting at age nine, then joined his father’s band at age ten and formed his own band by age 14. After graduating high school and teaching in Antigua for three years, Frankie McIntosh migrated to New York and began studying music at Brooklyn College in 1968. 

While earning a bachelor’s degree in music at Brooklyn College and an MA in music at New York University, he played keyboards with several Caribbean and American R&B groups, and he jammed with leading New York jazz musicians. He trained under many leading musicians including John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet and Chopin expert Zenon Fishbein. 

McIntosh’s first foray into calypso came in the summer of 1976 when Becket, a St Vincent calypsonian who had recently relocated to New York, approached him about tightening up several of his calypso arrangements for an upcoming Manhattan boat-ride engagement. 

The two hit it off, and shortly after McIntosh arranged his first calypso recordings for Becket’s 1977 Disco Calypso album, which included Becket’s most popular song, Coming High. Today the piece is considered classic early soca, and is widely admired for McIntosh’s ingenious use of advanced harmonies, sophisticated jazz solos, and rhythmic break/groove sections.  

Granville Straker, Brooklyn’s premiere record producer at the time, was highly impressed with the Becket recordings, and in 1978 approached McIntosh about arranging for his label. The two Vincentians would go on to forge a musical alliance that would last for decades.

McIntosh became musical director for Straker’s Records, organising the house recording band and arranging for dozens of Straker’s calypsonians including Chalkdust, Shadow, Calypso Rose, Winston Soso, Poser, Lord Nelson, Singing Francine, Duke, King Wellington, and others. He would eventually go on to arrange for Brooklyn’s other major calypso/soca labels, Charlie’s Records and B’s Records.

As the music moved into the 1980s McIntosh emerged at the forefront of the new soca style, with arrangements famous for their innovative horn lines, catchy synthesiser figures, and sophisticated harmonic settings. 

Though McIntosh maintained his permanent residence in Brooklyn, his influence was felt throughout the Caribbean. Classic calypsos that won the Trinidad Calypso Monarch for Chalk Dust in 1981 (Things That Worry Me) and 1989 (Chauffer Wanted), and the Road March for Sparrow in 1984 (Doh Back Back) and for Duke in 1987 (Thunder) featured McIntosh arrangements. 

McIntosh is held in the highest esteem by musicians and singers alike. Calypso King of the World Mighty Sparrow commented: “Frankie’s unique style and approach for the task at hand puts him ahead of his time. His depth is unfathomable and he is a gifted musician.” 

Soca giant Explainer recalled, “The greatest arrangement I ever had on any song was Frankie McIntosh’s work on ‘Lorraine.’ I met him in Brooklyn around 1980 and gave him the basic melody and the lyrics. What he gave me back was the whole song—he did the bass line, the horns, the chords, everything. Back then I wasn’t even sure if we should even record it, but Frankie said ‘trust me.’ And it turned out to be my biggest song ever.” 

McIntosh brought a genuinely flexible, jazz-influenced sensibility to the recording studio. Chalkdust and other artists recall McIntosh being much freer than older arrangers, allowing musicians and singers more input, modifying arrangements on the spot during sessions, and in general leaving room for modest embellishments and improvisation. 

As McIntosh put it: “Oh yes, even when I go to a full score, it’s never like this is written in stone and we must stick to this. From the first date, if we are playing the rhythm section and I don’t think a chord works I will change them. Or I would change the horn line or the bass line in a flash…I was always open to ideas, as long as they worked. 

“So in the studio we might be playing a chart, and someone like (trumpeter) Errol Ince might say, ‘Frankie, do you mind if we do this instead?’ I’d say play it and let me hear it. And if I liked it I’d say ‘bang, go for it!’” 

These days McIntosh continues to arrange and perform in New York, occasionally touring back to the Caribbean. He has been the head of the music department at PS 270, The DeKalb School in Brooklyn. 

He has performed at popular jazz festivals like the Barbados Jazz Festival and the St Lucia Jazz Festival. Recently he has been heard around Brooklyn with the talented Trinidadian pannist Garvin Blake, whose latest CD, Parallel Overtures, McIntosh arranged. 

• Ray Allen is Professor of Music at Brooklyn College, CUNY. He is editor of Island Sounds in the Global City: Caribbean Popular Music in New York, and is currently working on a book on the history of Carnival music in Brooklyn. Ray Funk is a retired Alaskan judge who is passionately devoted to calypso, pan and mas. He is the co-author and producer of The Calypso Craze, a book/CD compilation released on Bear Family Records last year and the co-author of the just released book on Invaders Steel Orchestra with Dr Jeanine Remy. 

Ray Allen and Ray Funk

MORE INFO: The 27th Sunshine Awards will be held at the AXA Equitable Center, 787 Seventh Avenue at 51st Street, in Manhattan on October 3. For further information or to get tickets, call 201-836-0799 or [email protected].