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The Mighty Gabby

The story of musical culture in Barbados cannot be adequately told without mentioning Anthony Carter,  who is also affectionately and commonly known as The Mighty Gabby.  The musical juggernaut not only entertained, but he was a storyteller, social activist and watchdog for those who sought to play in the political arena.  His distinctive vocals and crafty penmanship will be forever woven into the history of Barbados.

Gabby was born on March 30th, 1948, when Barbados was trying to free itself from colonial shackles and seek to establish its identity.  The social, economic and political atmosphere during that period shaped and inspired The Mighty Gabby.  He grew up in the close-knit community of Emmerton, located on the outskirts of Bridgetown.  The humble beginnings and strong community ties kept him grounded and contributed to his strong national identity.  He was the fourth of five children, and his mother was a well-known midwife in the village. She was a hard-working woman who did all she could to provide for her children.  His father left the family when he was five years old, but Gabby recalls that both of his parents were music lovers. Around the age of seven, he was introduced to calypso by Miss Walcott, who had the first gramophone in the village and Miss Charles.  

Miss Charles was a St. Lucian shop owner who had the only radio in the community.  Between the two of them, he listened to Lion and Antilla, Houdini, and the Trinidadian Lord Kitchener.  During his formative years, Gabby started to harness his vocal skills as a member of both the St Mary’s and St. Leonards School choirs.  Like most other well-known singers, the choir was the place where they developed and explored their skills.  It was during this period that Gabby decided singing was what he wanted to do.  However, the idea of becoming a professional singer was not a reality for a young boy from a poor village.  His mother was not a fan of the concept and was adamant that he pursue a more academic career path, especially since he was a keen student who was doing well in school.  Secretly, however, he kept listening to the popular calypsonians, which included Charmer, Lord Radio, and Sir Don.  So passionate and determined was Gabby about the pursuit of musical greatness that on a day in 1965, the seventeen-year-old was scheduled to take his GCE exams but instead, he went to a calypso competition.  His mother became suspicious after months had passed without receiving any results, and he told her that he had failed all his subjects.  It was a secret that he kept for years until he got the courage to reveal it to her.

After leaving school, Gabby was trying his hand at songwriting and becoming a successful calypsonian.  Around 1967 he learned that a boat captain named Carlo was looking for a singer for the boat to entertain tourists as they sailed.  He jumped at the opportunity and was the one man headlining act on the boat where he mostly sang covers to Harry Belafonte’s songs.  He credits his days on the sea with teaching him about life and the various characters and personalities that exist.  During his time on the seas, he continued writing and experimenting and would sometimes sneak an original song into the set. To his surprise and delight, these original pieces were always well received by the tourists.  One such original song was entitled, Heart Transplant.  This song led him to win his first major competition - the Crop Over Calypso Competition in 1968.  He became the youngest singer to win on the island.  The following year he was crowned King again with a song entitled Family Planning.  At that time he had moved on from performing on the seas to performing on the hotel circuit with the band Tyrone and the Clouds.  

As he tells the story, while performing on the circuit, he met the then US ambassador and was able to get a US Visa.  “ I just wanted to see what the U.S looked like. And I had a girlfriend whose mother sent for her, and she was up there, and I missed her a lot”.   So he got on a plane and went to the Big Apple.  While in New York, Gabby met up with another Bajan, Paul Webster, who was producing a play named Under the Duppy Parasol, about a girl who had lost her identity in the U.S.  Gabby was asked to write the music for the play.  A twist of fate occurred when one performance night, one of the actors was a no show and Gabby, knowing the lines was asked to fill in.   From then, for five years Gabby was an actor on the theatre landscape in New York.  He left Barbados in 1971 a two time Calypso king and returned in 1976 as an actor.  But when a mix up with his Visa left him unable to travel, Gabby continued where he left off and that same year recaptured the Calypso Crown with a song entitled Licks Like Fire.

The Mighty Gabby continued to establish his name and dominance on the Calypso landscape winning the title in 1985, 1999, 2000 and 2010.  He voice was also prominent in the genre of Folk, where he won Folk Singer of the year in 1977,8 and 9. As mentioned earlier the community of Emmerton where he grew up was very special to him. So when the decision was made in the early 80’s to clear the houses from the area to build a sewage plant, it didn't sit well with Gabby.  So he took pen to paper and created one of his most famous songs, Emmerton.  On many occasions Gabby’s penmanship and voice was one which not only echoed the opinions of the masses but was also the catalyst for change.  Another such song was Jack, which about Jack Dear, a Corporate lawyer for the then Board of Tourism in the 1980s who wanted to initiate policies that would bring about the privatisation of beaches.  This did not sit well with the Calypsonian with strong lyrics he stated, “ that can't happen here not in this country...tell Jack that I say that this beach belongs to me”  The song went on to win the Crop Over Road March in 1982, and the privatisation of the beaches did not happen.  He also formed one of the most famous Calypso Tents on the island, Battleground Calypso Tent, which became a hotbed of hits, especially with road marches.  

As much as he was a competitor and wanted to win every time he hit the stage, the Mighty Gabby was also a prolific songwriter, even to those who competed against him.  He always gave advice to the young talent and was passionate about the art form and keeping it alive.  During the Crop Over season, especially later in his career, he could mentor the juniors.  For his tremendous contribution to the artform and continuing to uphold high standards, the Mighty Gabby was named Cultural Ambassador, an aptly suitable title for the entertainer.  He was also awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from the University of the West Indies

The Mighty Gabby: 8 time Calypso King, Folk Singer, actor, activist and cultural icon.  His work, passion and dedication to cultural development have fortunately been documented and rewarded, and many generations have seen and will continue to see his contribution.  He was the voice of the people, and he used his talents to help those who could not be heard.  Many of his songs are considered classics, and many others still rock party crowds: Dr Anthony Carter, Cultural Ambassador of Barbados, Barbadian Calypso legend.

Interesting Facts

  1. A number of his songs in the 80s were banned from being played on the radio.
  2. He worked as a Cloth Cutter in New York and formed a union among the workers.
  3. His Song Emmerton was named the song of the ’80s
  4. He has written more than 700 songs.
  5. He does not own a drivers license.