Tue | Sep 26, 2017

Singers play multiple roles

Published:Sunday | August 24, 2014 | 8:00 AM
Verlando Small in performance.
Alan Magnus
Stevie Wonder
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The phenomenon in popular music of singers performing multiple tasks is well documented locally and internationally. Clancy Eccles, one of Jamaica's earliest performers in the field of popular music, exemplified this, as was chronicled in last week's Music Diaries.

Eccles achieved enormous success both as a singer and a record producer. There may have been a dozen or more such noted Jamaican performers who have elevated themselves to that level.

Dancer, actor, radio personality and recording artiste - the late John Jones wore these many hats, all at the same time. One will remember him as the charismatic pastor in the very popular Jamaican soap opera, Royal Palm Estate. He also had creditable performances in many of Father HoLung's productions, assuming the roles of dancer, singer and actor. His recordings of Poor Man and Sylvia's Mother were popular in the 1970s.

The late Neville Willoughby was numbered among several Jamaican radio presenters of the 1960s and early 1970s, who took unto themselves the additional task of being recording artistes. Adapting a somewhat patriotic stance in many of his recordings, Willoughby did I Love Jamaica and Christmas Ja, among others, while Alan Magnus, the jocular co-host of the current and very popular morning radio show on RJR 94FM, had hits with Flying Machine, Beautiful Day and I'm Gonna Be Strong in the 1970s.

On the international scene, the phenomenon of multifaceted performers in popular music was evident from as early as the 1920s when Louis 'Satchmo' Armstrong, one of the most influential jazz trumpeters of all time, decided to add his unique voice to his presentations. It was a voice that was not designed to win hearts, but somehow Armstrong managed to captivate audiences. As a singer he fashioned an approach to songs that many vocalists have envied and sought to emulate. Armstrong taught the basic lesson about singing - it's not the voice that counts, it's what you do with it.

Born into poverty in New
Orleans, Louisiana USA, in 1901 (some records say 1898), Armstrong rose
from those humble beginnings to become a masterful trumpeter and singer.
History has proven that in many instances, out of misfortune comes good
and 'Satchmo' found himself in that league when he was placed in a
reform home for boys. It was there that he received musical training on
the cornet and eventually fell in love with music.

His dream of
making a life out of music began immediately after leaving the
institution in 1914. In his earliest forays of the mid-20s, Armstrong
used his voice like another instrument, scatting unintelligible
utterances in an effort to get the jazz core of the tune. Having spanned
the full gamut of jazz, blues and swing, Armstron, in his later years,
concentrated on vocals, doing tunes like Hello Dolly,
Mack the Knife, Lazy River,
Blueberry Hill and What a Wonderful
World
, in which he saw:

"Trees of
green, red roses too

I see them
bloom for me and you,

and I say to
myself, what a wonderful
world"

Two other 'Louis',
Jordan and Prima, were also blessed with this unusual multifaceted gift
of being able to sing and blow a wind instrument alternately and are, I
believe, numbered among the top five such gifted individuals. Born in
Brinkley Arkansas, USA, on July 8, 1908, Louis Jordan, saxophonist
extraordinaire, was the single most important catalyst in the
development of rhythm and blues (R&B), which flourished in the
late 1940s and 1950s.

A musical comedian who
incorporated humorous jive in his presentations, Jordan mesmerised and
drove audiences to the brink of hysteria with his wild saxophone
playing, stirring vocals, and hilarious jive talk. A black man dubbed
'The Father of R&B', Jordan was best known for his infectious,
uptempo recordings like Ain't Nobody Here But Us
Chickens
, Caledonia and Show Me
How You Milk The Cow
.

Prima, more from the
Caucasian breed ironically, was a product of the New Orleans blues
scene, which produced most of the black blues singers. The son of
Italian immigrants, he was born on December 7, 1910, and studied the
violin for several years as a youngster before switching to the trumpet.
Combining his singing with ebullient trumpet accompaniment, Prima
wrote, conducted and inspired his band, Sam Butera and The Witnesses, to
higher levels on recordings like Closest To The
Bone
, Robin Hood,
Angelina and Just a
Gigolo
.

Prima's biggest hit was the 1958
Capitol recording That Old Black Magic, in duet with
wife, Keely Smith, 22 years his junior.

Autry DeWalt
Mixon, Jr., better known as Junior Walker, also belonged to that
exclusive fraternity of singers who blow a saxophone in their
recordings. Like Louis Jordan before him, Walker was born in Arkansas
USA, fronted his own band, Junior Walker and the All Stars, and was the
anchor for its overall success. In What Does It Take,
as he sings about the demands of love:

"I
tried in every way I could

to make
you see how much I love you

I
thought you understood.

You gotta
make me see

what does it take to
win your love for me"

It
is not surprising that Stevie Wonder, although blinded shortly after
birth, became one of the best harmonica players. It was the instrument
he first mastered, along with the drum, by age seven. He used his
adversity as an inspiration to do wonders, and by his teens, Stevie had
mastered several instruments. His debut recording for Motown Records
featured the 12-year-old genius doubling up on vocals and
harmonica.

Recently, Jamaican saxophonist, Verlando
Small, although receiving stiff opposition from one judge, admirably
demonstrated the dual tasks of singing while blowing the saxophone in
winning the 2013 staging of the Digicel Rising Stars
competition.