As a young boy, Charles Romeo Smith sang in his church choir and the school choir at St Leonard’s Boys. But any sign that he was interested in getting involved in the entertainment business was met with strong disapproval from his grandmother who raised him.
Despite this, he held deep admiration for the top local and regional performers of the day, including the Mighty Sparrow and Lord Kitchener.
He also counts Gabby, Trinidad’s Chalkdust and Antigua’s King Obstinate among his calypso idols.
“I always had a love for calypso, hearing the guys like Sparrow, and Lord Kitchener way back yon. . . . They would come to Barbados, and I was living in Eagle Hall . . . and I would get a chance to mix with those calypsonians of status,” he told Barbados TODAY.
After his grandmother’s passing in 1963, when he was 16, he decided to pursue his talents on the stage. He entered his first competition that year, in what was then called the Summer Festival, placing second to Sir Don with a song called Scavengers, in praise of the sanitation workers at the time.
Romeo also performed on the hotel circuit, thanks to Oliver Lord Radio Broomes.
“He took me under his wing and I worked the hotel circuit in places like Miramar, Sam Lord’s Castle, Paradise – those were the big hotels and he had about three bands on the circuit, so I would work in one of them,” he recalled.
Romeo was also a founding member of one of the first calypso tents, teaming up with fellow calypsonians Sir Don and the Mighty Viper to form Calypso Enterprises.
“At that time, we didn’t have a fixed place; we were like calypso nomads. We had to travel and carry the calypso to various parishes and various dancehalls,” he said, recalling that they would take the show to the town and country. “And that is how it began to grow.”
Calypso Enterprises was later renamed the Battleground Tent, when the founding members handed over the reins to Anthony Gabby Carter.
Romeo’s first win was in 1973 with A Land so Dear. He won his first Pic-O-de-Crop competition in 1981 with Brother Fuzzy and Gem Gone. It was one of his proudest moments, Romeo said, as Barbados hosted the Caribbean Festival of Arts (CARIFESTA) that year and, as Pic-O-de-Crop winner, he got to perform on stage with the Mighty Sparrow and other noted calypsonians.
The following year, however, Romeo was dethroned by a newcomer.
“1982 was the year that Red Plastic Bag (RPB) came on the scene . . . so I’m defending my crown and this guy Red Plastic Bag came from St Philip. He didn’t only beat me, he beat everybody in Battleground! And from then there was no stopping Red Plastic Bag,” Romeo said.
Following RPB’s entry on the scene, calypsonians began to get some more recognition and better compensation for their talents.
“When I won I got $2 000; and the fee in the tents, you sing a night and you get about $40. But now, calypsonians are treated better,” he noted.
Romeo remained a fixture on the calypso stage for several years, but in 2005, at age 57, a severe illness forced him off the stage.
“I spent something like 92 days in the hospital – 11 days in the MICU [Medical Intensive Care Unit] with the doctors just not knowing what was wrong with me. After three MRIs, they placed something in the system and they discovered I had inflammation in my spine. I had the spinal surgery . . . and they removed the inflammation. But then I developed blood clots and I didn’t regain my balance.”
He thanks his medical team and his wife of 46 years, Cecily, for getting him back on the road to recovery.
“After the surgery, my wife moved into the hospital, got permission and she got involved in patient care, and she was my nurse. And she spent 81 days in the hospital with me without coming into this house. And I cried.
“If it was the other way [around], I would make sure that my wife had the best of everything . . . but I couldn’t live in the hospital and not be a patient. And she did that for me. And if I had any doubts it’s then I knew this was someone sincere,” he said.
Romeo has not allowed the challenges of his illness to dampen his spirits, and while he no longer performs he continues to follow the art form. Today, he is proud of the development of calypso over the past decades.
“I see calypso like the cricket. Whereas cricket is the collective noun, but there are different areas of cricket, you get the batsmen, you get the bowler, you get the wicketkeeper but they’re all cricketers. So, in calypso now you get the Road March guys, you get the soca guys, you get the social commentators. I am a social commentator but we are all calypsonians.
“One time calypso was just a little rum shop thing, I’m not ashamed to tell you that. Sparrow sang about it. Your daughter couldn’t be seen talking to a calypsonian, because he was a little rum shop boy and scarcely recognized. But I always knew . . . that it would be respected someday,” he said. (MCW)