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date: 17 October 2019

Roberts, Aldwyn [performing name Lord Kitchener]free

(1922–2000)
  • Philip Carter

Aldwyn Roberts (1922–2000)

by Ron Burton, 1957

Roberts, Aldwyn [performing name Lord Kitchener] (1922–2000), calypso singer and musician, was born on 18 April 1922 on Farfan Street, Arima, Trinidad, one of the six children of Stephen Roberts (d. c.1936), blacksmith, also known as Mr Pamp, and his wife, Albertha. From the age of five to fourteen he was educated at the Arima boys' government school, which he was forced to leave on his parents' death about 1936. By then he had been singing and playing the guitar for four years, influenced by his father, an accomplished ballroom dancer, who whistled popular Spanish songs while at work in an environment whose rhythms recurred throughout his son's later musical career. In 1936 Roberts took his first job serenading employees at the San Fernando Valley water works. Over the next couple of years he emerged as a full-time calypsonian with the popular song 'Shops Close too Early' and between 1938 and 1942 was four times winner of Arima borough council's calypso competition.

Having moved to Port of Spain, Roberts was spotted by Johnny Khan, manager of the Victory Calypso Tent, where under the sobriquet Arima Champion he performed alongside established singers such as Attila the Hun, Roaring Lion, and Growling Tiger. It was here that he had his first major hit, 'Green Fig' (1942), also known as 'Mary, I am Tired and Disgusted', in which a cuckolded husband bemoans his inability to get a decent meal in his own home. When he performed the song for US president Harry S. Truman in 1945, it was under the name Lord Kitchener, bestowed on him several years earlier by Growling Tiger, and by which he was known for the remainder of his career. During the early 1940s Kitchener, or Kitch as he often referred to himself in songs, performed at the House of Lords Tent and the Victory Calypso Tent where, in 1946, he achieved a trio of hits, 'Jump in the Line', 'Chinese never had a VJ Day', and 'Tie Tongue Mopsy'. In the following year he opened his own tent at 100 Vincent Street, Port of Spain, along with a former Victory associate, Mighty Killer. Here Kitchener gathered an impressive collection of singers, among them lords Melody and Pretender, and, drawing on jazz influences, developed an innovative form combining Trinidadian calypso with American swing and Latin horn music. The result, a more energetic, racier style, complemented by suggestive and witty lyrics, proved popular with US troops stationed in the Caribbean and is evident in later hits such as 'Kitch's Bebop Calypso' (1951).

Late in 1947 Kitchener toured Jamaica accompanied by fellow calypsonians Egbert Moore (1904–1980), alias Lord Beginner, and Harold Phillips (1928–2000), alias Lord Woodbine, with whom he travelled to England on the Empire Windrush in May of the following year. America had been Kitchener's first choice and, at first, it appeared that his career would go nowhere in post-war London; early public-house performances were cut short by audiences bemused by Kitch's Trinidadian accent and subject matter. However, turns at the Achilles Club and Soho's Sunset Club were better received and, encouraged by Denis Preston, jazz editor of the Musical Express and BBC radio presenter, EMI-Parlophone signed him to work with Cyril Blake's Calypso Serenaders in January 1950. The popularity of the subsequent recordings owed much to calypso's traditional focus on the quotidian, producing humorous and intimate vignettes of Caribbean experiences in post-Windrush London well before the accounts of novelists such as Sam Selvon or George Lamming. 'Underground Train' (1950) describes an unsuccessful attempt to travel to Lancaster Gate on a journey which confusingly begins and ends at Piccadilly—'never me again go by London Underground train'—while in 'My Landlady' (1951) Kitch recalls his battle with an intrusive rule-bound houseowner. Regardless of these frustrations, early depictions of England were predominantly witty and affectionate, a theme epitomized by one of Kitchener's best-known songs from this period, 'London is the Place for Me', recorded with his new company Melodisc in March 1951. By this date he had also performed the song, written on board the Windrush, for Pathé newsreel. In doing so he provided white audiences with one of their first images not just of calypso music but also of the cultural implications of post-war immigration policy. Soon afterwards, Kitchener's songs began to introduce these audiences to aspects of a Caribbean culture that was now taking root in England. This growing confidence was bolstered by events such as the West Indian cricket team's victory at Lord's in June 1950, where Kitchener led the pitch invasion and subsequent procession to Piccadilly Circus, and which was commemorated by Lord Beginner's triumphalist 'Victory Test Match'. Later songs such as 'Saxophone no. 2' (1953)—a tussle between Kitch and his wife over ownership of his 'instrument'—likewise saw the ingenuousness of early English recordings give way to the traditional suggestiveness of Trinidadian carnival music. Such departures proved popular among a young audience which included the queen's sister, Princess Margaret, who saw Kitchener perform at the Chesterfield Club and is said to have bought a hundred copies of his recording 'Kitch, Come to Bed'.

In 1953 Kitchener married Elsie Lines and followed his Windrush travelling companion Lord Woodbine to the north-west. Woodbine had established himself as a Liverpool club owner where, in association with Allan Williams, he promoted the Beatles at his New Cabaret Artists' Club and organized their trip to Hamburg in 1960. Kitchener, who moved to Manchester, likewise had a brief spell as a nightclub owner while continuing to record. Songs from the mid- to late 1950s combined the calypso taste for reportage with the celebration of sporting heroes—among them West Indian cricketers and members of the pre-Munich Manchester United football team—as well as commemorations of landmark events in post-colonial Africa, notably his 'Nigerian Registration' (1955) and 'Birth of Ghana' (1956). Further recordings went beyond the humorous culture clashes of tube travel or bossy landladies to detail more serious problems: London's winters, hunger, and unemployment are the antitheses of a life forsaken in 'Sweet Jamaica' (1952), while 'If you're not White you're Black' (1953) drew attention to British resistance to racial integration.

Kitchener returned in 1962 to Port of Spain, where he lived for the remainder of his life, returning briefly to England two years later. While in Britain he had maintained strong links to Trinidad and Tobago, and quickly became the dominant force in the annual Road March competition to write the calypso to lead the carnival procession. He took the title of Road March king on ten occasions between 1963 ('The Road to Walk on Carnival Day') and 1976 ('Flag Woman'). Kitchener was also prominent in the island's new Panorama competition for steel-band music, a form learned from the pan music of a childhood spent in his father's blacksmith's shop and which, in 'The Beat of the Steel Band' (1948), he first successfully combined with calypso. Later recordings, including his commercially most successful song 'Sugar Bum Bum' (1978), were influenced by 'soca', a soul and calypso hybrid which developed during the 1960s. Originally critical of what he saw as the corruption of traditional calypso, Kitchener came to accept the form towards the end of a recording and performing career from which he retired in 1999. Divorced from Elsie Lines in 1968, he was subsequently married for nineteen years to Valerie Green, with whom he had two children, and later had a relationship with Betsy Pollard (d. 1998), his common-law wife. In 1994 Kitchener's considerable contribution to Trinidadian culture was commemorated with statues at Arima and at Roxy Roundabout, Port of Spain. He died of a blood infection and kidney failure at the capital's Mount Hope Hospital on 11 February 2000, and was buried three days later at the Santa Rosa Roman Catholic cemetery.

Sources

  • M. Phillips and T. Phillips, Windrush: the irrepressible rise of multi-racial Britain (1999)
  • J. Cowley, West Indian gramophone records in Britain, 1927–1950 (1985)
  • D. R. Hill, Calypso calaloo: early carnival music in Trinidad (1993)
  • S. Hall, ‘Calypso kings’, The Guardian (28 June 2002)
  • The Independent (23 Feb 2000)
  • New York Times (14 Feb 2000)
  • The Guardian (12 Feb 2000)
  • P. R. Blood, ‘Remembering Kitchener’, Trinidad Guardian (12 Feb 2000)

Archives

Film

  • BFINA, newsreel footage, 21 June 1948

Likenesses

  • R. Burton, photograph, 1957, Getty Images, London, Hult. Arch. [see illus.]
  • Pat Chu Foon, statue, 1994, Roxy Roundabout, St James's, Port of Spain, Trinidad
  • bust, 1994, Arima, Trinidad

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