She was one of the few women on board the Empire Windrush yet somehow escaped the attention of most of the awaiting press when the ship docked at Tilbury 70 years ago.
This may be because Mona Baptiste had travelled first class, paying twice the fare of the majority of her fellow passengers, and did not fit the picture being relayed to the British public of hard-up West Indian workers on their way to fill the post-war labour shortage.
One photographer though managed to capture her on board posing with a saxophone and surrounded by ex-servicemen. Mona was in fact an up and coming singer in Trinidad who, having only turned 20 the day before the Windrush dropped anchor, would soon be working with leading musicians up and down the country before spreading her wings to the rest of Europe and becoming an international star.
“Mona Baptiste is hardly a footnote in British musical history but in Germany and other parts of western Europe she is still well known despite the fact she died 25 years ago,” says historian David Horsley, who recently gave a talk on her life at an event organised by Caribbean Labour Solidarity in north London.
“But it was London’s thriving black music scene in the years after the war that really set her on the road to success and saw her performing with some of the biggest names in show business.”
Born into a well to do family in the Trinidadian capital of Port of Spain in 1928, Mona was a precocious talent and from the age of 14 was singing on the radio and at dances before becoming involved in the early days of the famous Little Carib Theatre that set out to showcase the island’s rich folk culture.
Her good looks and vocal range marked her out and, encouraged by her success, she decided to try her luck in London, joining the Empire Windrush in Port of Spain on its way from Kingston, Jamaica.
Two of her fellow passengers were the celebrated Trinidadian singers, Lord Beginner and Lord Kitchener, and like them Mona found herself quickly absorbed into London’s nightclub and ballroom scene that had already fallen under the spell of calypso and highlife rhythms popularised by the capital’s small pre-war black community.
Within a few weeks of arriving in Britain, she appeared with Beginner on the BBC’s Light Programme with Stanley Black and his Dance Orchestra and was soon touring as guest vocalist with some of the most popular musicians of the day, among them Ted Heath, Edmundo Ros, Cab Kaye and Stephane Grappelli.
In 1950 she was featured on the same bill as comic Tony Hancock on the Sunday night BBC radio show Variety Bandbox, and a year later recorded her first single, Nat King Cole’s Calypso Blues, for Melodisc, a label that was cashing in on the increasing demand for black music.
Impressed, French crooner Yves Montand invited her to Paris where she appeared at top cabaret spot La Nouvelle Eve before performing in Belgium and Germany. In Germany she became such a huge success that she decided to settle there, making dozens of records – singing in German – and appearing in a number of films, including as the lead in Porgy and Bess for East German television.
From her base in Hamburg she dashed around Europe making various appearances, returning to London for Saturday night music shows Six Five Special on the BBC and the ITV’s Oh Boy in the late ’50s, as well as the Beeb’s Ken Dodd Show in 1961. Meanwhile, in 1957 she returned to the Caribbean to re-record Calypso Blues.
“Mona was hugely popular, with big record sales in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium and she lived the life of a star,” says David showing me a German film magazine from 1961 with a photo spread describing Mona’s busy daily schedule – a whirl of script reading, filming and publicity shoots.
At the height of her fame tragedy struck when her husband, Michael Carle whom she had met in London, was killed in a car crash. As a result, she devoted most of the 1960s bringing up their son, Marcel, then aged five. Thereafter, her career looked set to blossom again but in 1972 she moved to Ireland, where her new husband hailed from.
According to Marcel, he did not want her to go on tour and the marriage appears to have been an unhappy one. “It was my mother’s one mistake to marry him as it ruined her career as a singer,” he told me from his home in Austria. Whatever the case, when Mona died in 1993 aged 65 after suffering a stroke little had been heard from her for years. She is buried at Deans Grange Cemetery outside Dublin.
“It is sad that so few people in Britain know about her,” says David, “but luckily we have
Mona’s music available on CD and YouTube clips of her to show what a brilliant talent she was.”