It was the fortune not the fame that attracted a young business school student named Camille E. Hodge to the music industry. While helping out his childhood friend, the late Emile “Milo” Francis of Milo & the Kings, distribute his first release in New York, the business savvy Camille witnessed a profit margin first hand that was tough to match. Through CAB Records, an acronym meaning Calypso At its Best, and later his own “Camille” label, his main focus was recording Calypso music. Camille developed a unique business model exporting Caribbean recordings back to the Islands. This started a trend later emulated by several other independent labels in the US.
After several decades in the music business, Camille had worked as a promoter, record label executive, distributor, road manager and everything in between. In the early 1980’s Camille closed down his Burland record shop, sold the stock, froze his label and left the Bronx, which had been his base since his arriving in New York, and moved to South Carolina.
The following interview with Camille Ellsworth Hodge was conducted in March 2012 shortly after his 80th birthday:
How was it for 15 year old to migrate to New York from the Virgin Islands? It goes without saying that the United States was a very different place in 1948.
I got the biggest disappointment in my life when I got to New York. If I had been my own man, I would have gone straight back to the Islands. What really got me about New York was when I got off the plane in La Guardia Airport I saw the people who looked like me and they had a mop and a broom or a job as a skycap. I left the Islands where the people who looked like me did everything, we were the garbage collectors and clerks in the stores but we were also the lawyers and the judges. I got to New York and I was being told that everything is equal (in the US). (Abraham) Lincoln came from a log cabin and became president and I believed all of that. They didn’t tell me this could only happen if you were white. It was a big lie. We, as people from the Islands, were not accustomed to discrimination, segregation and integration. Those words were not in our vocabulary.
Was the music business always something you had ambitions being a part of?
Music was the furthest thing on my mind. The only thing I wanted to be was a lawyer. What got me into music was that Milo, who’s the leader of Milo & the Kings – a band from the Virgin Islands, came with the a cricket team to perform in New York. The top band in Puerto Rico at the time was named Cortijo y su Combo and I mean you couldn’t tell the difference between them and Milo & the Kings. That’s how good Milo & the Kings were. For all the Spanish bands their aim was to play at the Palladium Ballroom in New York on 53rd Street and Broadway. When the man who was in charge of the music at the Palladium, his name was Catalina Colon, saw Milo & the Kings auditioning he booked them immediately. Later Catalina Colon took Milo & the Kings to the studio and recorded two 45’s with them. One was called “The Ice Man”, a Calypso tune and the other was called “La Pachanga” which was Latin dance craze song.
I was going to school at the time, studying business administration and accounting, and I was trying to help my homeboy Milo so I took Catalina’s records to the radio stations and I was able to get airplay. In the music industry if you put a record out and you get enough airplay then you create a demand and you can build the popularity of the band and that was what I was trying to do for Milo. This was before we started CAB Records.
In those days you would pay something like 7 to 10 cents to get a record pressed and they were being sold for 35 – 50 cents depending on the quantity. Imagine you pay 10 cents to press a record and you can wholesale it for 50 cents. I wanted to get into the record business because I saw the amount of records I was taking around to stores in New York for Catalina. That’s what attracted me to the business.
An interesting anecdote about Milo & the Kings was that we had them audition for the Ed Sullivan Show. I gave my professor at school a copy of the two Catalina records, a promotion photo and told him about the band. His name was Dave Spiegel and he could open doors like no other. He liked the way I carried myself and after a few days he had a set up an audition for the Ed Sullivan Show on West 57th Street at CBS. Ed Sullivan agreed to put Milo & the Kings on but the size of the band was something like 12 but the show would only take 8 and a limbo dancer. I tried to convince Milo and the band to go on as an 8-piece band and use it as a launch pad for their career but they refused. They felt it was all the whole band or nothing. I think it was the biggest mistake they ever made. People paid to be on the Ed Sullivan Show.
You mention CAB Records. Can you please elaborate on the history of the label?
At that time there was a dance venue on 125th Street (in Harlem) called Central Ballroom. Milo would play there on his off-nights from the Palladium. The owner of the place, Selwyn Joseph, and myself became good friends. I told him “Joe, this is the business we should be in, you know the record business”. Joe was curious enough to ask me to find out exactly how much the cost would be. I got deep into it and I came back to him and said “Joe, we need about $3500”. He put up the money and we agreed to be 50/50 partners. He told me “You learn the business and when you get it you’ll teach it to me”. He put everything on my end. That’s how I got into the music business and that’s how CAB Records was started.
Check out Milo & the Kings “Lazy Man”:
When we started CAB in December of 1961, we did three records with Milo & the Kings backing up. We did one single called “Dove And Pigeon” by Lord Nelson, one with Prince Galloway and we covered “Lazy Man” with Lord Spectacular on vocals. He was the Calypso singer with the Milo & the Kings. “Lazy Man” had become a big hit in Trinidad (in the original version recorded) by a Calypsonian named Mighty Dougla. Milo & the Kings also had two Latin singers in their revue to get the Rafael Cortijo sound. One was named Pedro (Maldonado) and the other one was named Miguel (Merro).
I had a list of radio stations and record stores in the Caribbean and I mailed out the promotion records. Within 10 days I was getting over-night letters, telegrams and phone calls about the one record I did not expect to hit which was “Dove and Pigeon”. When we were recording the song Milo and I thought of it as being crap. It ended up being almost a national anthem throughout the West Indies. It was unbelievable!
Can you talk about your first experience producing the actual records?
Well, when I went into the studio with the Milo & the Kings I had no conception of how a record was made. When I tell you nothing, it was nothing nothing. I didn’t know what the outcome would be but I knew that we’re going to make some records. I’m in the engineering room and the owner of the studio was very nice. It was called Belvedere Recording. It was in the ground floor of the Belvedere Hotel on West 48th Street. I’m asking the owner questions as we go along. I am novice but I’m trying to act as if I know some of these things. When we got through with the recording session I’m shocked because all I have is a 1/4 “ tape. I had to ask him “What do I do next?” “You got to make a master”. A master, what the heck is that? The owner told me I had to take the tape to another studio where they made the masters.
After the mastering process I had to go to a matrix house to get my stampers (to be used in the actual process of pressing the records). I get there and they asked me “Do you want strike-off 1-step, 2-step or 3-step for your stampers”? I think he’s talking about a dance style (Laughs). Again, I’m a novice and I’m learning as I go along. I said, “Well, explain me the difference between the different strike-offs”. When he’s finished explaining I decide to go with the 3-step because with the 3-step if the stamper breaks you can just call up the company and get a new one. With the 1-step or 2-step you might have to go back and have a new master made and all like that. Now they tell me that I need to order labels. I figured I could just go to any printer but there’s certain companies that cater to the trade.
Anyways, I went and ordered 3000 labels for each of the three records. I go to this pressing plant and the operator there asks me “How many records do you need?” I told him “Press them all” when in retrospect I should have ordered maybe 300 or 400 copies of each. Now I got 9000 records in total. Again, I’m green! (Laughs) And I’m storing all these records in my apartment.
You mentioned prior to this interview that CAB Records was of a better quality than most records being made in the Caribbean back then and that the CAB titles were selling well in the Islands. What happened around the time the label closed down?
CAB Records were doing great. We had become the premier of the Caribbean record labels. Our quality was superior to anything coming out of the Islands. (Trinidadian Calypso vocalist Lord) Melody came to us and wanted to do some recordings. I told my partner Selwyn Joseph “Joe, we don’t need him. We can build our own stars plus this man has a reputation that’s not the best. We don’t need to get involved with him”. Joe kept pushing and pushing me and finally he said, “I went along with some of the stuff you wanted to do.” My response was, “Joe, you never told me”. I felt I was pressured into it but being the kind of person I am, I said, “OK” and we went ahead and started recording Melody. I put every effort behind it. I didn’t want to be able to say, “I told you so”. I wanted it to succeed!
Melody wanted to make an album and we were only making singles at the time. I told Joe “We are not ready for an album yet”. Joe felt that releasing somebody like Melody would give us an opportunity and put us on the top. He thought Melody would help us. I didn’t think we needed to go in that direction.
Anyways, we started recording the album. Usually when we recorded singles we could go in the studio and get out of there in 3 hours. If you do an album we would have to go to the studio like 4 or 5 times. Low and behold, when we finished recording the music for the album, I got a call that Melody had just released a new album. I immediately ran down to RCA Record Distribution on 33rd or 34th Street, over by 9th Avenue. Sure enough there was a new album out by Melody and every song he had recorded with us was on that album. Our money was wasted and we had used all our resources. The company was broke.
At this point I decided that I knew the business well enough to start a new label on my own. There were a lot of labels named after the owner like (Berry) Gordy Records. There were a whole lot of them. That’s when I started Camille Records.
At what point do you purchase the Burland record shop in the Bronx, which became sort of epicenter for your label, the distribution and promotion of your involvement in the record industry?
Before Camille Records, I would operate CAB Records out of my apartment. My wife and I had a two-room apartment. We had no children at the time. We lived on the fifth floor and there was no elevator. One room was like a storage room with nothing but records in there. I used to run around to all the record shops to distribute my records and I became friendly with the man who owned Burland Records. It was located on 975 Prospect Avenue in the Bronx. There was a theater called Burland Theater next to it, a Loews-owned Theater, so I guess that’s how he got the name. We became friends and a time came where he was closed more than he was open. One day I told him “Fred, if you ever decide to sell the store, let me know”. The next day he called me to say that he was willing to sell. He sold me the store for something like $500 with stock and everything. I gave him a deposit and he handed me the keys and he walked out. A couple of weeks later we met with our lawyers and sorted out the paperwork. Later Burland moved to the Bruckner Plaza shopping center and after that to White Plains by Gun Hill Road.
The store was a hole in the wall when I took it over and if you stretched out both arms you could touch both walls. Eventually, the store next door, I think it was a pawnshop, went out of business and I decided to rent it from the landlord and break down the walls. I re-opened it completely refurbished four times the size it was. That’s how I got into Burland Records. I still hadn’t started Camille Records yet. This was still during the times with CAB Records.
What type of music would you stock in the shop? Was it mainly catering to the Caribbean market in New York?
Our slogan was “If it’s on Record, it’s at Burland”. You name it, we had it. The record companies catered to us. The trade magazines called us for listings (of top sellers) and so did radio stations. As a result the record companies knew the store. We got a lot of free merchandise, I don’t care who it was and what label they were on, any act that came into New York, we got free tickets and invites to press parties after the shows. We became one of the top independent record shops in New York.
Was the Caribbean the main market for CAB and Camille Records?
Collectively, the Caribbean was big because I serviced all the islands. New York was good, that whole area was good, but when you’re selling records in Virgin Islands, Antigua, Barbados, Curaçao, Aruba, Guyana, Panama, Surinam that makes up the main market. My biggest selling record was called “Fats, Shake ‘M Up”. We did a take on Archie from St. Croix’s “Archie, Buck ‘Em Up”.
I took this particular record to Claude “Fats” Green and I said, “Fats, listen to the lyrics of this song. It’s talking about the West Indies. It’s a good beat but we need to change the lyrics so people in New York can relate to it”. Fats was a fantastic musician by the way and every member of his band could read music. We got to the studio and this was the first time the musicians in the band had seen the song. They started playing and believe it or not, I didn’t like it. I didn’t think it was Caribbean enough.
At my record store we would always have a record blasting on the outside as people were walking by. I put this record on. We had a part one and a part two (on each side of a single). Part one was more Calypso and part two was strictly music, instrumental. Everybody was coming into the store asking for it. I realized I had something going. I decided I had to get it on the radio. In those days WLIB programmed regular R ‘n B in the morning and then they went to Gospel the rest of the day. The Disc Jockey there was Jack Walker. They called him Jack Walker the Pear Shaped Talker because of his heavy setting. He was a very nice guy (who sadly died in 1971 after being stabbed). They didn’t have no program director or no music director in those days. Back then the DJ played whatever they wanted to. I told Jack what had happened with Fats’ record at my store. Jack Walker said, “I will put it on (the air) tomorrow”. I went home that day and called all of my friends and I told them to call one of their friends, “They’re playing this record tomorrow named ‘Fats Shake ‘Em Up’. Call them and ask them to play it again and ask them what the name of the artist is and so on.” You got to know how to promote yourself! I had black people, Hispanic people and white people call in to WLIB the next day (after the played it) and they got a lot of legitimate calls as well. “Fats Shake ‘Em Up” was played like 4 or 5 times in a row and the record took off. It was the most requested record that they had ever had.
After seeing how successful the song was on WLIB I knew I had something (special on my hands). Next step was to get it on WWRL, which was the R ‘n B station in New York. I went to the station in Queens and I decided to buy some airtime advertising my store but that’s not what I was there for. I want to get my foot in the door because once that happens I know how to handle it. While I was the station I met the popular morning show Disc Jockey Enoch Gregory. He was also known as the Dixie Drifter and I asked him if he wanted to come to my shop to do a promotion event. He agreed and on a Saturday morning about a week or 10 days later we had Gregory and the singer Tommy Hunt of the record “Human” fame there. The amount of people forced us to close down the metal gate to protect the glass of the shop from breaking. It was a big success. Once the event was over I told Gregory why I had him at my shop which was to get “Fats, Shake ‘M Up” on the air. WWRL had a review board that decided what goes on the playlist. I had to wait three or four days before Gregory called me one evening and told me “We’re on”. I was strictly unknown (as a label owner) but that record went up to number three on the WWRL chart. Right after I got the call from Gregory I called my pressing plant and ordered 5000 copies of the record. I knew what was going to happen.
Claude “Fats” Greene, born in Panama, passed away on January 13, 1968. The Fats Greene Orchestra continued under the name of Music by Pritchard, named after its tenor sax player who took the role as the new bandleader. The Fats Greene Orchestra had originally been known as Mac Beth the Great. When its bandleader Mac Beth passed away in the early 1950’s Fats took it over and the Fats Greene Orchestra was born.
Why did you decide to leave the music business in the early 1980’s?
Well, number one my son was not interested in taking it over then. Also we had a couple of stick-ups and I decided this wasn’t worth it. I can name at least four different record shop owners that lost their lives in robberies. Brad Osbourne who had Brad’s Record Den on White Plains Road (as well as being the owner of Clocktower and Grand Groove Records) was one of the guys who were killed. There was another man who had a shop on 8th Avenue around 113th Street. I forgot his name right now. A West Indian guy in Brooklyn lost he life too. I decided it’s not worth it for me. Personally, I got stuck up twice. I decided it was time to phase down and get out.
What kind of transformation did the Bronx go through from when you arrived in 1948 to when you left in the early 1980’s?
When I got to the Bronx I lived on 165th and Boston Road. The area where black people lived was from Crotona Park South to about 149th Street, from Washington Avenue in the East over to about Fox Street and Southern Boulevard in the West. There were very few Puerto Ricans then. The Puerto Ricans lived in the Lower East Side.
I remember one year my wife and I saw an ad for an apartment on (one of the main thoroughfares in the Bronx called) the Grand Concourse. That morning it was raining and we went over there. We asked to see the Super. The Super was black and he told us that they didn’t rent out to… I think we were known as Negroes then. You see, black people have had all kinds of names, Negroes, coloured, Afro-American and so on. He told us that they didn’t rent out to Negroes and Puerto Ricans. I told him “What are you doing here? You are good enough to handle the garbage but people who looks like you can’t live here?” If you’re familiar with the Grand Concourse now I don’t think you can find any white people there. Back then, it was all white Jewish from one end to the other. The North–East Bronx was farmland up in the 200’s streets. There was a house every now and then. It’s totally different today. I suppose America is different too. I remember one day in school in the Virgin Islands, I told the teacher that I wanted to be the first Negro president of the United States. He told me “You will never live to see it”.
It’s only when I left the Bronx and moved to the South when I realized what he meant. Oh, my Gosh! I had to get involved. I became heavily involved in politics here in South Carolina. I served in the Democratic Party Executive Council. That’s the policy making body for the Democratic Party. The town that I live in I was called the troublemaker from New York because I refused to accept the blatant segregation that was going on.
I don’t play and I’m very outspoken. I speak up for justice not race. We weren’t taught racial hatred in the Virgin Islands. I say what I have to say to everybody in every audience because I speak justice. I was considered a racist when I moved to South Carolina because they weren’t accustomed to a black man standing up. Today, I am well respected because I have been consistent.
If anybody has contact-information for Camille recording artist Jimmy Lomax please get in touch. Many thanks in advance.
This is a 45 rpm discography for CAB / Camille Records:
Here you can read more about bandleader Milo Francis and his family, a Virgin Island legacy that also gave birth to Eddie & the Movements as well as Tremille & the Jamals.