This article is from our archives. It first appeared in The Bermudian in May 2002. It is replicated here exactly as it first appeared in print.
Roy Talbot, the last the Talbot Brothers, remembers a life of harmony.
He is the last of the Talbot Brothers, those troubadours whose lives and careers followed the path of Bermuda tourism. At age 85, Roy Talbot has outlived all his brothers and all but one sister of a remarkable musical family. He has witnessed the transformation of Bermuda by tourism, from its early beginnings to its heyday through to its eclipse.
The Talbots were part of the Bermuda migration, the forced removal in the early 1920s of about 400 fishing and farming families from Tucker’s Town, where they had lived for generations, so that it could be converted into an enclave for wealthy WASP North Americans and become the foundation of tourism.
A decade after they were forced out, the Talbots returned to Tucker’s Town as entertainers for the wealthy families that displaced them. They soon developed a following – so much so that after World War Two, they would become, to use the words of tourism historian Duncan McDowall, Bermuda’s “number one entertainment draw.”
Roy Talbot is a slender man with a quick wit and a warm smile. He still has enough energy to do maintenance work on his home, at the water’s edge on Talbot Lane at the edge of Tucker’s Town. This is Talbot territory – a grouping of houses all owned by Talbot relatives. The homestead, which was purchased by his parents, Mamie and Osmond Talbot, with part of the expropriation money they received for moving from Tucker’s Town, is now home to Talbot nephew Rodney Tucker, who with his brother Ryan, joined the group in the 1970s when the Talbot Brothers became The Talbots.
Roy Talbot looks back with pride on a life that saw the group make numerous international appearances, including on The Ed Sullivan Show, all for the cause of Bermuda tourism. If many descendants of the original Tucker’s Town families harbour bitter feelings about the forced move, Roy Talbot is not one of them.
He says: “When I was a kid, we had nothing there. A lot of boats, a lot of talk, but we had nothing. What they had down there was farmland, and most of the farms down there was held by the landowners. We didn’t have money to own land. We called it settled bondage. We were soon finding out that we weren’t the only people that had to be considered being in bondage. The whole world was in bondage.
“We were happy to get out from that type of life and future that we saw. Or that my mother saw, particularly. She saw there was no future with 10 children. Her longing was to get out…let’s see what we can do with something else. When we found that out, that we could get out, we got out.”
Like those of most of his generation, his childhood in Tucker’s Town was synonymous with hard work. “We all worked very early in life,” he says. “Each one of us was quite capable of taking a shovel, and if a pile of dirt had to be moved, it’s no heartache. We didn’t call nobody to move it. It doesn’t matter what type of mess that would be cleaned. If it’s got to be cleaned, it’s got to be cleaned. And that went a long way in life, as we came along. Those thing we stuck by.”
As is usually the case when there are so many mouths to feed, the children were required to help put food on the table. “Every day you teach the children to go and fish on the rocks,” he says. “Every day you go in the gutter and help your father to dig out potatoes. You didn’t have a digging fork small enough to dig, so you had some tough fingers. And these are actual facts. You took your fingers and see how fast you could dig out these potatoes to get a bucketful.” It was clearly back-breaking work and it explains why the Talbots felt that “getting into the entertainment field was great thing for us.” Playing music was more enjoyable than digging potatoes.
The church was the centre of their lives – McDowall says in his 1999 book Another World – Bermuda and the Rise of Modern Tourism Sunday services and singing for the crowd at Cup Match polished their voices. Part of the expropriation money brought a piano, and their mother taught them harmony.
Roy Talbot remembers the importance of family: “We had a lot of family form the west end. They made a point of coking down to church, every Easter. The adults would shoo the children away by saying, ‘Now you children get out of here before you get these germs.’ That was their favourite word. Then after a while we found out that it wasn’t that they were worried about. They were worried that we might hear a little bit of tidbits.”
He continues, “‘Now go down there and get a penny’s worth of candies. How many are you out there?’ We’d get one candy or two candies, and we’d come back and chop that up in equal bits, so you get out the old hatchet and chop those candies. They were hard candies. And you’d cut that candy in sort of an oval shape. And you’d chop it up so that no matter how many were playing, they each got their little piece. And they’d hold it up to make sure that you got it right. Little things like that made a lot of amusement for us.”
The Talbot boys were also known for their ingenuity, especially when it came to making their instruments. “We got pieces of cane. And again, my older brother Archie, he wasn’t a carpenter or nothing like that, but he certainly could figure things out. He figured out that he could make a sound if he got a hole in this cane. And he had this cane going around the house, putting holes in it, making two sounds, then three sounds, and getting on your nerves, and the grownups would be saying, ‘Put that thing away. It’s hurting my ears.'”
McDowall says the Talbot Brothers’ career got started when the manager of Mid-Ocean Club spotted Archie, singing on his bicycle, and cajoled him and his brothers onto the club stage. He became the leader of the group. Roy concurs: “There were two brothers (Austin and Archie) that started this whole thing. In fact one brother, Archie, he got the job that got us involved in the hotels, and through that, he helped the kitty at home for the rest of the younger ones that were coming along. And he got out there, and you know, he was quite a comedian in his own way. He learned to play the guitar, and then he learned how to play the saxophone, which he dropped. He joined up with a band. But then he came back home and he taught. He never was good at guitar, but at least he could strum and hold a note here and there. So the two of them started , and another fellow, a cousin, Ernest Stovell and the three of them were always together. They took that instrument and began to play.” The others, Roy, Bryan “Dick,” Ross “Blackie” and cousin “Mandy” – Cromwell Manders – subsequently joined the band. In the beginning, they preferred the intimate settings of homes and clubs to hotels.
“We didn’t play in the hotels at all until 1946,” Roy says. “Because we thought our entertainment was to make people relax, because this were the words we always got from our tourists at that time: ‘It’s so relaxing…glad we got here. Oh it’s so relaxing.’ That word was used so constantly that we thought it was an atmosphere. They’d come in high heels, long gowns to these formal dress parties. As soon as they got in there a while, you’d see somebody’s shoes kicked in the corner. Shoes off, the men and the women. There with their feet bare, they’re sitting there relaxing: ‘I hope you don’t mind.’
“So we picked up on that. People didn’t come down here to do what they’re doing back home. We had quite a few years of that entertaining before we hit the hotels.” Did they purposefully stay away from the hotels? “Oh yes, because we didn’t think that the hotels were for us, they were too formal. And we stayed away.”
McDowall wrote that the Talbots’ music “resembled calypso, but lacked drums and boasted mellifluous harmony.” Their instruments were guitars (Archie, Austin and Ross), a mouth organ (Archie), a ukulele (Dick) and an accordion (Mandy). Roy, says McDowall, became known for his ‘doghouse,’ “a crude, single-string bass fashioned out of a meat packing case. Roy’s doghouse, colourful straw hats and lyrics that caught the spirit of Bermuda soon made them “ambassadors of song,” McDowall wrote.
“They greeted the cruise ships, played on the tarmac at the airport, serenaded on the beach in College Weeks, at private parties and all the leading hotels. In the off-season they took to touring golf courses and country clubs of eastern America.”
Return visitors became the bread and butter of tourism and as the years went on, the Talbot Brothers found themselves entertaining the children and grandchildren of the first fans. They made numerous recordings and wrote many original songs, including the mildly risqué “Freckles on her Butt.”
When they toured overseas, they had their own press agent who would mail cards in advance “with our names and the clubs already booked, and he sent them out to people around the country clubs,” Roy says. “We also had a picture taken of some favourite Bermuda spot. So we got pictures of Cambridge Beaches, so when we sent Christmas cards, we had these things done on the cards, listing the advert info. Everybody came looking for us. We got a lot of cards…people would send us birthday cards.”
They appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show twice, played at the London Palladium and spent an entire three months at London’s Mayfair Hotel. The Ed Sullivan Show was, in its day, as popular as today’s Oprah – it was where many entertainers received their first mass exposure.
How did they manage not only to stay together, but achieve the great success they had? Says Roy: “Through our travels, we’ve seen people at the rocky points and we’ve been though the highest points, so we’ve had a chance to look at it. Our thing was we would always follow the good advice our mother gave us all. She used to say: ‘When you get out in that water and you feel as if you’re drowning, and a hand comes out, you’re not going to worry about what colour it is. Where it’s a white and, a black hand, a brown hand, that hand you’re going to grip, and your going to hang on to it.’ We were taught that.'”
The Talbots played well into the 1980s. Even though they have moved off the entertainment scene, they are fondly remembered by today’s musicians. Keyboardist Dennis Fox says they were “ambassadors for Bermuda. They were in contact with so many different and diverse people. They crossed the boundaries of racism which were up at the time, but with them, the boundaries were non-existent. And people still ask for them today… They were one of the mainstays of Bermuda entertainment.”
Ronnie Lopes, drummer and singer, recalled the time he had a Wednesday night at Hamilton Princess in 1978. “I’d go there on a Tuesday night to set up. I’ll never forget. One night, I got there early, and I got to see them perform. I couldn’t get over the audience; the people were looking at them like they were the Beatles.”
One legacy is the highly successful Ross “Blackie” Talbot Golf Tournament, begun 10 years ago and which has Memorial added to the title since Ross’ death in November 2000. The tournament has raised a staggering $750,000 for charity to date, and the proceeds from the most recent one, held in April, are expected to be in excess of $175,000.
Tournament organiser Clement Talbot, Ross’s son, recalled the group’s personality, character and unique calypso sounds. It has never been replicated since, he says.
And as for Roy, how would he like for the group to be remembered? “We did the best we could always for Bermuda,” he says. “From here to the Palladium in London, to the private parties we played in, we took a Bermuda setting. People thought they were in Bermuda when we walked on the set. The places that we’ve been and all the people that we’ve met, just about all religions, even the atheists.”