The small South American nation has produced two exceptional bandleaders from two different eras, who helped transform music in the UK
Georgetown is 3,500 miles across the Atlantic from Britain, but it has exercised a huge influence on the music of the imperial mother country.
This little city of low-rise colonial architecture, with the unspoilt jungle lying beyond, was still firmly under the rule of Britain, its rum and molasses the country’s major exports as they had been two centuries before, when Kenrick Johnson was born there in 1914. As Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson he would become one of the most flamboyant bandleaders of wartime London and begin a tradition of Guyanese musicians shaping British music.
It was in vain that Johnson’s father sent his 15-year-old son – a violinist and natural dancer – to a Buckinghamshire grammar school with a career in medicine in mind. The young Kenrick instead took up dance, touring the Caribbean and catching the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance in New York. There he encountered Cab Calloway, on whom he would largely model himself. His sinuous dancing gained him his stage moniker, but the heady mix of musical influences he soaked up during his travels – from Trinidadian calypso to hot Harlem jazz – also led Johnson to form a swing band back in Britain.
Founded in 1936 with Jamaican trumpeter Leslie Thompson, the Rhythm Swingers had both West Indian and white players. Later becoming the all-black West Indian Dance Orchestra, and with born showman Johnson as its dynamic leader – at well over 6ft tall and clad in white tails, he was an undeniably striking figure – the act gave the local swing bands a serious run for their money in pre-war London.
Melody Maker called the West Indian Dance Orchestra “dance-inducing”, and indeed the fundamental difference between the Orchestra and the British bands was that they swung harder, at a less moderate tempo and with a sound that came directly from African American swing. The BBC had begun broadcasting the Orchestra on the eve of the war and by 1940 they had a regular slot performing at the Café de Paris, the very embodiment of elegant wartime London nightlife.
It was the night of March 8, 1941, and the height of the Blitz as Johnson’s orchestra played their signature tune Oh Johnny from the stage of the Café de Paris. Seconds after Johnson took the stage to join them, the club took a direct hit from two bombs.