Slinger Francisco was born in the fishing village of Grand Roy, Grenada, West Indies on July 9, 1935. He moved to Trinidad with his mother, his father having relocated there in 1937. He grew up in Port of Spain. He began singing as a small child, but his love of calpyso was discouraged while at Newton Boys Catholic School, where he sang in the choir. At the age of 14 he joined a steel band comprising neighborhood boys, and performed with the band at Carnival.He received his performing name 'Little Sparrow' during his early career, as a result of his energetic stage performances:
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
After a couple of years he changed his stage name to 'Mighty Sparrow'. On leaving school he began working for the government Control Board, but continued to perform calypso, which became the better paid of the two, and his residency at the Lotus Club made him a star locally.
His first performance as a carnival singer came in 1954 with "The Parrot and the Monkey", and in 1956, Sparrow won Trinidad's Carnival Road March and Calypso King competitions with his most famous song, "Jean and Dinah" (aka "Yankees Gone", a song celebrating the departure of US troops from Trinidad). Sparrow made his recording debut in 1956, with a live performance of "Yankees Gone" which was included in the album Jump Up Carnival in Trinidad
. His prize for winning the Calypso King title was $40. In protest of the small sum (the winner of the Carnival Queen beauty contest won $7,500), he wrote the song "Carnival Boycott" and attempted to organize other singers to boycott the competition. About half of the singers followed, including Lord Melody. 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 officially 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." He did perform at the 1957 carnival in the Young Brigade Calypso Tent, where the four songs he performed were recorded and later released on the album Calypso Kings and Pink Gin
.Sparrow went on to have local hits in 1956 and 1957 with singles such as "Jack Palance", "No Doctor No", and "Sailor Man", before beginning a musical slanging match with Lord Melody, each releasing singles attacking the other. The rivalry went on for several years. In 1957, Sparrow recorded his first album, Calypso Carnival 58
, released the following year on the Balisier label.He again boycotted the carnival in 1959, choosing instead to tour extensively, and early that year released the album Sparrow in Hi Fi
before signing a deal with RCA, for whom he recorded eleven albums between 1960 and 1964.
Taking calypso abroad
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, travelled 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 won the Road March title in 1961 with "Royal Jail" and won his third Calypso King title in 1962 with "Model Nation" and "Sparrow Come Back Home". He won further titles in the 1960s and 1970s and continued to enjoy great popularity in Trinidad. He recorded prolifically, with forty albums released in the 1960s and 1970s.In 1968 he recorded the album Sparrow Meets the Dragon
with Byron Lee in Jamaica. Their version of "Only a Fool Breaks His Own Heart" gave them an international hit, earning a gold disc in the Netherlands. In the latter half of the 1960s his recordings began to be released in the United Kingdom.He had his greatest success internationally in the 1970s, starting with the album The Best Of
, featuring live recordings in Brooklyn, New York of Sparrow favorites. In 1974 he recorded the album Hot and Sweet
for Warner Bros. in Miami, and the following year reunited with Byron Lee for the Sparrow Dragon Again
album. He had a big hit in 1977 with "Crawford", a tribute to sprinter Hasley Crawford, and that year embarked on a tour of west Africa, during which he was given the honorary Yoruba title Chief Omo Wale of Ikoyi. In 1978 he recorded the album Only a Fool
in London for Trojan Records.
As soca began to supplant calypso in popularity in Trinidad during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Sparrow embraced the hybrid of Calypso and cadence with the 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 West Indian neighborhoods in Jamaica, Queens. In 1985 he performed at the carnival's King of Kings show alongside Lord Kitchener, Lord Melody, and Black Stalin, taking the 'King of Kings' title and the $10,000 first prize. He would later win the title for a second time. His last major title came in 1992, with "Both of Them" and "Survival" winning him the Calypso Monarch title. He made an appearance at the Reggae Sunsplash festival in 1993. Although less active since the mid-1990s, Sparrow continued 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.In 2010 he left the stage in a wheelchair after a performance in Trinidad, and later that year was hospitalised after suffering an inguinal hernia while performing in Maryland. He made a full recovery and continued to tour internationally. He has been hospitalised several times with complications of diabetes. In September 2013 he was due to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Trinidad & Tobago consulate in New York, but was admitted to a New York hospital where he fell into a coma for two weeks before regaining consciousness.He returned to public performance in January 2014 with a forty minute set at a bar in Brooklyn, New York.
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 criticized for its attitudes toward women and Africans, and 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. Sparrow cleverly combined political criticism with sexual innuendo in his mid-1960s song "BG Plantain", which decried the ban levied by PM Williams on imported plantain from British Guiana (BG); plantain, a large banana-shaped vegetable, is a staple of West Indian cuisine, and Sparrow praised the BG plantain as larger, sweeter, and superior to the home-grown Trinidadian variety.Sparrow's mid-1960s hit "Sir Garfield Sobers", celebrating the great Barbadian all-rounder cricketer, who starred for West Indies teams, anticipated by a decade the knighthood which Garfield Sobers would actually receive in 1975. Sobers is generally regarded as the greatest all-rounder in cricket history. This song's first verse: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).