Biography All Music Guide
All Music Guide:
Wilmoth Houdini earned his moniker as the Calypso King of New York in the 1930s and 1940s, due in part to the many calypso events he organized in the Big Apple, but his own personal history is a bit harder to pin down. Most sources claim he was born November 25, 1895 (some have placed the birth date a year later) in Port of Spain, Trinidad, although in a profile written by New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell in 1939, Houdini claims to have been born in 1902 in Brooklyn and states that his family didn't move to Trinidad until he was two years old. Even his birth name is somewhat unclear, although it appears to have been Frederick Wilmoth Hendricks, although Mitchell states in his New Yorker profile that the name on Houdini's passport read Edgar Leon Sinclair.
What is clear, however, is that he grew up mostly in Trinidad, eventually taking Houdini as a performing name. That was the name he was going by in 1916 when he became a chantwell (lead singer) for the African Millionaires, a 25-person street carnival group in Trinidad. In the mid-'20s he worked aboard ocean freighters, visiting North and South America, Europe, and Africa, finally landing in New York around 1927, where he seemingly immediately began recording calypso pieces with local jazz and string bands like Gerald Clark's Night Owls, including the interesting LP Harlem Seen Through Calypso Eyes, which was released by Decca Records in 1940.
Houdini was incredibly prolific, composing reportedly thousands of songs, many of them brilliant, spur-of-the-moment constructions, and he released well over a hundred different 78s between 1928 and 1940. A song Houdini had recorded in 1939, "He Had It Coming," was covered by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan as "Stone Cold Dead in the Market" in 1946 and shot to the top of the R&B charts, where it remained for five weeks, even crossing over to reach number seven on the pop charts. The success of the song brought Houdini a great deal of attention, and he used his high-profile situation to promote and organize a series of calypso concerts and festivals in the city, and he was greatly respected within New York's Caribbean community for his efforts (although in Trinidad he was often targeted in local calypso songs as an outsider -- leading to Houdini's 1934 retort called "Declaration of War").
Houdini died on August 6, 1977, in New York, and if it turns out he wasn't actually born in the city, he certainly spent most of his life there. Both Brunswick and Folklyric released roughly the same set of Houdini 78s recorded between 1928 and 1940 as an LP (called Songs of Trinidad by the former label and Calypso Classics from Trinidad by the latter), and the Folklyric set was reissued on LP in 1984 by Arhoolie Records, then re-released by Arhoolie on CD under the title Poor But Ambitious in 1993 with an additional eight tracks that Houdini recorded in the mid-'40s added.