Bob Mitchum’s Music Career: a humble homage to Calypso and Country
Updated: Sep 10, 2020
Old Hollywood movie fans have come to expect that their idols are often not who they say they are. Poverty-stricken Archie Leach from Bristol, England, transformed himself into distinguished man of the world Cary Grant, while lowly prop boy Marion Morrison morphed into cowboy superstar John Wayne.
But one male Hollywood star managed to ‘keep it real’ for his entire career; step forward brooding, charismatic chancer Robert Mitchum, the pot smoking, couldn’t give a fuck leading man who lit up the big screen for more than 50 years in classic films such as Out Of The Past, Heaven Knows Mr Allison and The Night Of The Hunter.
In the mid 1990s, Mitchum recalled a conversation he had with old friend Humphry Bogart, who said “you know, the difference between you and me and those other guys is? We're funny.” And Bogey was bang on, Mitchum is hilarious. He never took himself or the work too seriously, and he had a damn good time in the process.
One of my favourite fun facts about Mitch is that, alongside a hugely successful movie career (he came 23rd in the American Film Institute's list of the 50 greatest American screen legends of all time - although how he didn't make the top 10 is beyond me), he also released two music albums that are surprisingly entertaining.
In 1948’s love triangle drama Rachel and the Stranger, starring Loretta Young and William Holden, Mitchum was asked to sing six original folk tunes that had been composed specifically for him. As a way of publicizing the film, Mitchum was signed to Decca Records and produced an album of the songs he sings in the movie. At this point, folk music was very much on the periphery of popular music and wasn’t a widely recognised genre.
Mitchum loved music and listened to a wide variety of styles from classical to jazz, from country to calypso. He was known to have a huge record collection and often disappeared for hours to listen to his records and smoke piles of marijuana. Friends and family recalled his generosity when it came to his singing voice; he did not require any persuasion to get up and sing at parties.
The folk album sunk without trace, and despite an attempt by Columbia Records to sign him (thwarted by his boss, Howard Hughes), he didn’t record another album for 10 years. Capitol got wind of his musical talents and tried to make something happen but it wasn’t until they got some inspiration, in the form of the next big musical fad, that Mitchum got to record his second album.
During the filming of Fire Down Below, filmed in Trinidad and Tobago with Jack Lemmon and Rita Hayworth, Mitchum embraced the Afro-Caribbean music scene and was regularly seen hanging out with local musicians and singing in their distinctive style. Locals complimented him on the natural inflections in his voice and his ability to mimic the sounds of local calypso.
Back in Hollywood, Mitchum recounted the music he grew to adore on the islands to Johnny Mercer, the founder of Capitol Records, who had been trying to make something happen with Mitchum for some time. Harry Belafonte’s ‘Calypso’ album had been a huge hit the year before (it held the number one for 31 weeks and it was the first LP album to sell a million copies).
Mitchum went back into the recording studio to record one of the most surreal Hollywood/music crossovers of all time. The resulting album, released in 1957, was called ‘Calypso – is like so…. ‘ The front cover is a striking image of Mitchum in a technicolour beach bar, drinking Jamaican rum with a dusky beauty by his side.
I love this album. It’s fascinating that a huge Hollywood star like Mitchum, was able to release a Calypso record. At the time, Mitchum was praised for his authentic Caribbean accent, which isn’t terrible, but it’s surreal listening to the album in 2020, knowing that this is a white guy singing black folk and reggae songs.
‘Jean and Dinah’ and ‘Coconut Water’ are really catchy tunes that were quickly added to my holiday playlist. Mitchum also offers love lessons in ‘From A Logical Point of View,’ singing “If you want to be happy, living a King’s life, never make a pretty woman your wife.” And he pontificates on the state of the youth of the day in ‘What Is This Generation Coming To?’ as he warbles “all the parents say their children will grow up delinquents” because they’re listening to Elvis Presley and Harry Belafonte.
Another 10 years went by, and the music bug struck him again, this time he stuck to a genre more fitting of his tough-guy image – country. That Man Robert Mitchum… Sings was released in 1967 and was described by his biographer, Lee Server, as “a hybrid of Dean Martin and Keith Richards.” It featured old classics such as ‘Little Old Wine Drinker Me’ and ‘Sunny’ plus a few original recordings too, and made it to number 35 in the country charts.
It was certainly a brave decision on Mitchum’s part to put himself out there with these two wildly different albums. Most movie stars stuck to their type, unwilling to move too far away from their perceived persona for fear of permanently damaging their carefully curated brands. But not Mitchum, he couldn’t give a fuck.