Sparrow was born in Grenada on July 9, 1935, but moved to Trinidad when he was one year old. He was first exposed to music through the choir in Catholic school, and became interested in calypso at 14 when he joined a steel band composed of neighborhood boys. He received his performing name during his early career:
Your calypso name is given to you by your peers, based on your style. In the old days they tried to emulate British royalty. There was Lord Kitchener, Lord Nelson, Duke. When I started singing, the bands were still using acoustic instruments and the singers would stand flat footed, making a point or accusing someone in the crowd with the pointing of a finger, but mostly they stood motionless. When I sing, I get excited and move around, much like James Brown, and this was new to them. The older singers said "Why don't you just sing instead of moving around like a little Sparrow." It was said as a joke, but the name stuck. -Mighty Sparrow
In 1956, Sparrow won Trinidad's Carnival Road March and Calypso Monarch competitions with his most famous song, "Jean and Dinah". His prize for the latter was $40. In protest of the small sum, he wrote the song "Carnival Boycott" and attempted to organize other singers to boycott the competition. About half of the singers followed . Sparrow claims credit for succeeding improvements in the conditions of calypso and steelband musicians in Trinidad, as well as the formation of the Carnival Development Committee, a musicians' assistance organization. Sparrow refused to participate in the competition for the next three years, but he continued to perform unofficially, even winning another Road March title in 1958 with "P.A.Y.E."
Calypso music enjoyed a brief period of popularity in other parts in the world during the 1950s. Trinidadian expatriate Lord Kitchener had helped popularize calypso in England, and Sparrow also found some success there. In the United States, interest in calypso was sparked largely by Harry Belafonte's 1956 album Calypso, the first LP to sell over one million copies. In January 1958, Sparrow, along with longtime rival Lord Melody, traveled to New York City seeking access to the American music audience. Sparrow had already been recording with Balisier and Cook Records, and with Belafonte's help he also began to record for RCA Victor. He did not achieve the success he had hoped for; he said in a 2001 interview, "When nothing happened for me, I went back to England and continued on with my career."
In 1960 Sparrow returned to the Calypso Monarch competition, winning his second Kingship and third Road March title with "Ten to One Is Murder" (an autobiographical song about an incident in which Sparrow allegedly shot a man ) and "Mae Mae." He also began recording for his own label, National Recording. He continued to enjoy great popularity in Trinidad throughout the 1960s.
As soca began to supplant calypso in popularity in Trinidad during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Sparrow embraced the hybrid of Calypso and Local (Chutney) music. In 1984 he won his eighth Road March title with the soca-influenced "Doh Back Back." Also around this time he began to spend at least half the year in New York City, finding an apartment in the heavily West Indian neighborhood of Jamaica, Queens. Sparrow continues to write, perform, and tour into the 21st century; in a 2001 interview he mentioned that he had been singing and performing a "Gospel-lypso" hybrid. In 2008, he released a song supporting Barack Obama's presidential campaign, "Barack the Magnificent". He also did a remake of his "Congo Man" song with fellow Trinidadian Machel Montano on the Flame on album.
Sparrow's lyrics are famous for being witty, ironic, and ribald. He sings flirtatiously of the attractions of Hispanic women in "Magarita," and of East Indian women in "Marajhin." He tells some outrageously frank tales of sexuality in "Mae Mae," "The Lizard" and "Big Bamboo." And there is humorous commentary on West Indian culture to be found in "Obeah Wedding" and "Witch Doctor." Robert Christgau called his controversial song "Congo Man" "a wildly perverse piss-take on African roots, interracial revenge, interracial sex, male-female relations, and cannibalism" ; the 1965 song was also criticized for its attitudes toward women and Africans, and was banned from radio airplay until 1989.
Sparrow also frequently comments on social and political issues in his songs. During his early career he was a supporter of Eric Williams and his People's National Movement (PNM), which formed in 1955 and led Trinidad and Tobago to independence in 1962; songs such as "Leave The Damn Doctor Alone" and "William the Conqueror" mentioned Williams directly, while others such as "Federation" (blaming Jamaica for the breakup of the short-lived West Indies Federation), "Our Model Nation" (celebrating Trinidadian independence), and "PAYE" (supporting the PNM's pay-as-you-earn tax system) echoed PNM positions. Sparrow did express discontent in 1957's "No, Doctor, No," but it was comparatively mild, and aimed at holding PNM politicians to their promises rather than replacing them.
In more recent times Sparrow continues to incorporate social issues into his music. "Crown Heights Justice" is a plea for peace and understanding in the wake of the 1991 Crown Heights Riot in Sparrow's adopted home of New York City. The themes of peace, tolerance, and concern for the poor show up repeatedly in songs such as "Human Rights" (1981), "Capitalism Gone Mad" (1983), and "This Is Madness" (1995).
|1956||Jean and Dinah|
|1966||Melda (Obeah Wedding)|
|1969||Sa Sa Yea|
|1972||Drunk And Disorderly|
|1984||Doh Back Back|
|Year||Tune #1||Tune #2|
|1956||Jean and Dinah||none|
|1960||Ten to One Is Murder||Mae Mae|
|1962||Sparrow Come Back Home||Federation|
|1963||Dan Is the Man (In the Van)||Kennedy|
|1972||Drunk and Disorderly||Rope|
|1973||School Days||Same Time, Same Place|
|1974||We Pass That Stage||Miss Mary|
|1992||Both of Them||Survival|