May 6, 2007 — It's said that if you remember the 60s, you weren't really there. It might be said that if you've lived on St. Thomas any time in the past four decades and don't know of Niles Nicky "Mighty Whitey" Russell, you weren't here — or at least you weren't having much fun.
Russell, 57, has been an integral part of local entertainment history since he started making it himself. In 1977, in his mid-twenties, he decided that he was ready for the great white way, or the St. Thomas version of it — Carnival Calypso Tent. Announcing himself as the "Mighty Whitey," he strode on the stage and sang his own songs, Tonight I Wearing the Crown and Move Your Muddah Ass."
Russell came in second, no mean feat for a young white guy among the established West Indian Calypsonians. He competed in 1978, as well, with the same result. But he had crossed a cultural divide and never looked back.
St. John author, sailor and radio personality Fatty Goodlander calls Russell "my favorite 'spiritual' lagoonie." He says of Russell, "He'd be a boat bum if — well, if he could afford a boat. Just imagine a guy who passes the hat among that crowd. I'd say more about Whitey, but he always sings out fearfully when he see me, 'Doan' harass me ass.'"
Storytelling comes as easily to Russell as singing. He loves to talk, to tell stories, to be around people. It feeds his amazing energy. He delights in relating one favorite.
"People still think that I won Calypso Tent," he says. "I came in second in 1977 and in 1978, but I was in line at Banco Popular one day and (the late) Gerry Hodge, Carnival Committee chair in the 70s, got into an argument about it," he says. "Gerry insisted I won, and he and the other guy got into a fistfight over it right there in the bank, both of them on the ground."
Sitting in the Frenchtown Deli, it's hard to get a few words in as old timers recognize Russell, anxious to share a few mutual memories. "I hear you mention Bamboushay, and you're right: There's nothing like that old club today," an admirer tells him. "You're one of the few who remembers, and you're still at it. That's good."
Thinking back on his arrival here at age 10 in 1961, Russell says he was a seasoned traveler before the family — parents, and sisters Nadine, Pam and Marilyn — came to St. Thomas. "We had lived in about six states already before we moved here," he says. "So I was used to meeting new people. It makes you outgoing; you're not afraid."
He got his first taste of the limelight early on. "My dad loved to get on stage and do magic," Russell says. "He had performed in World War II, entertaining the troops. When he'd do his shows, he'd bring me along. I loved it from the get-go."
Russell credits teacher Dottie Fabian for his way with a guitar. "She was my mentor," he says. "I would play and sing at All Saints, where I went to school, and at the Charlotte Amalie High School.
"After high school I played with a lot of bands, including Hank Quetel's Drifting Buckaroos. I worked at Rudy Thompson's Oasis bar and the Ship's Store, which he owned with Dick Holmberg. I'd play for $20 and all I could eat and drink. And I'd get jobs at all the little clubs around the island, like the Bamboushay. I played at 75 percent of the clubs around town. It was always good for a few bucks."
After taking music courses at the then College of the Virgin Islands, Russell moved to Texas, where he studied radio and television at the University of Houston. When he came back home, Russell launched what turned out to be a 25-year career from a pool table at the old waterfront saloon, Trader Dan's.
"I was playing with this guy, Jeff Chapman," he says. "I played him for his pants, then his shirt, and finally he says to me, 'OK, let's play for my job.'" Russell was thus introduced to Radio station WBNB.
"I went up and applied, and they said they'd call me," he says. "And they did after Jeff quit. I had a six-hour DJ shift. Then somebody else quit, and somebody else after him, and I was on full time. I was station manager and general sales manager." Bob Noble and Bob Moss owned the station in those days — legendary radio personalities themselves, the two B's in the station's call letters.
On stage, Russell plays alone with his stories and his guitar. "Over the years I've been in lots of bands," he says. "But I like to play solo. It's easier and you don't have to worry about everybody else showing up." He likes to sing what he likes to sing, and to sing it the way he likes.
"I don't necessarily sing songs the way they're written," he says. "If you wanted that, you could just buy a CD."
He has his heroes. "The Mighty Sparrow is the greatest," he says. "And Lord Kitchener, too — all those old calypsonians: Lord Nelson, Calypso Rose. Carole King is the greatest songwriter. She did all those songs for the Drifters, James Taylor — she wrote for everybody."
In 2005, Russell married fellow performer Janet Reiter of the Pop Tarts in a true island celebration at Magens Bay. "We had about 500 friends, and there must have been 50 or 60 musicians," he says. Russell has two teenage sons from a former marriage: Lancelot, 17, and Dartagnan, 19, who live in New Jersey.
Russell's career almost took a 180-degree turn last year when he decided to throw his hat in the ring for a seat in the 27th Legislature.
"I love these islands," he says. "I've lived here since I was a child. I'm sick of all the blatant cronyism, the corruption, the nepotism. I decided I could do a better job to re-instill grace and pride in our community, a return to a better way of life. People encouraged me to run."
Russell made a respectable showing at the polls for a first-time candidate, and says he doesn't regret the experience.
He is off soon for the St. Thomas Bacchanal in Melbourne, Fla., where he is an institution, an integral part of the beach party. He has played 12 out of the past 13 get-togethers for ex-islanders. He plays regularly three or four nights a week at Latitude 18, Bonnie's by the Sea, Havensight and Tickles Bar.
Now it's Wednesday night, and the performer takes the stage for his weekly gig at Tickles. Although hes been doing this for about 40 years, it's like he's doing it for the first time. Strums his guitar. Big grin. He has a donkey in his backyard.
"Move your mudda ass from outside me yard," he sings. "Move your muddah ass, me son, I'm gettin' tired."
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