A legacy of falsetto
The awesome contribution made by falsetto singers to the development of early Jamaican popular music is well documented in various quarters. While the majority of early singers chose to sing in their natural voice, this select troupe, either by chance or design, showcased their vocal talent in a voice that enabled them to sing notes beyond the vocal range of the normal or modal voice. Although more limited than its modal counterpart in both dynamic vibration and tone quality, Jamaican falsetto singers, many of whom emerged shortly after Independence, have managed to carve out for themselves an ineffaceable niche in Jamaican popular music.
A diminutive form of the word 'false', the term 'falsetto' may perhaps be misleading and discrediting to singers in this group, when one considers the mellifluous tones that emanate from such groups like The Stylistics, The Chi-Lites and The Delfonics, who all boasted outstanding falsetto lead vocalists.
On the Jamaican scene, the mid-to-late 1960s rocksteady vocal group, The Techniques, were perhaps the epitome of this vocal style, which they used to great advantage in dominating the record charts during that period. Both individually and as a group, their sound was piercingly shrilling. Attracting a multitude of members and lead singers, they came and went like a procession. Yet, remarkably and magically, they managed to retain the falsetto sound despite the changes, with each lead vocalist seeming to sound like his predecessor. It was a game that fooled many, to the extent that many writers on the Internet and in books have made telling mistakes when referring to the lead vocalists for particular songs by the group.
Keith 'Slim' Smith, rated by his peers as the most talented singer in early Jamaican music, was the first lead vocalist of The Techniques, which included Winston Riley, Frederick Waite and Franklyn White at the outset. Packing a voice that many describe as 'indescribable', Smith sang in falsetto, yet it was his natural voice. Their earliest recordings for producer Duke Reid included Little Did You Know, When You're Wrong, I'm in Love and You Don't Know in 1965. They were all big ska hits, featuring the crystalline vocal delivery of Smith.
With the departure of Waite and White for other engagements, and Smith to form The Uniques, Riley, the leader, replaced Smith with Junior Menz as lead falsetto, and along with Bruce Ruffin, the trio recorded Queen Majesty, My Girl and Love is not a Gamble in 1967. Menz was next to go.
In came Johnny Johnson, who fooled many into thinking that he was Pat Kelly, as he sang lead on Travelling Man in 1968, venting his feelings with the words:
"I'm just roaming around all over this land, with just one goal in mind.
I'm still searching to find my love, hoping she will come along,
One of these days, to this travelling man."
Pat Kelly joined The Techniques in 1968 and with his falsetto lead vocals, the group perhaps enjoyed the most successful period of their existence, with the hits You Don't Care, I'm in the Mood, A Man of My Word, The Time Has Come, and There Comes a Time.
Derrick Harriott was unique in the annals of falsetto singing in Jamaican popular music, having crafted hits with both falsetto and natural voices. Asked what criteria he used in deciding on the voice for a particular song, his response was: "It just depends on the vibe I get just before doing the recording." Sugar Dandy, What Can I Do, and My Three Loves were big hits for him, using his falsetto voice, while Solomon, Do I Worry, Don't Treat Me Bad, Walk The Streets and I'm Only Human are examples of hit songs with his natural voice. Harriott, who just recently returned from an overseas tour, packed power in his falsetto, and it could be palpably felt in Sugar Dandy, as he sang:
"You're mine, you're my sugar dandy.
You're mine, you're as sweet as candy.
I love you, I need you, you're my only fancy."
Junior Marvin's 1976 hit, Police and Thief, exhibited a fierce but beautiful falsetto. Written by Marvin and Lee 'Scratch' Perry, it revealed the realities of a society in turmoil:
"Police and thieves in the streets, oh yeah,
fighting the nation with their guns and ammunition.
scaring the nation with their guns and ammunition.
From Genesis to Revelation, what the next generation will be, hear me.
All the crimes committed day by day,
No one tries to stop it in any way.
All the peacemakers turn war officers, hear what I say."
Ken Parker is perhaps best remembered for his late 1960s Studio One cover of the William Bell song, My Whole World is Falling Down. He followed up with the Paul Simon's song, The Choking Kind, and almost conquered Jamaican falsetto vocalising, with the release of the 1968 unstoppable rocksteady cut, True True True, on the Treasure Isle label. He also worked with several other local producers, before migrating to England in the early 1970s.
Cedric Myton, affectionately known as 'Congos', did his early work with Prince Lincoln in the early 1970s, and later formed the group, The Congos, whose album, Heart of the Congos, is widely regarded as one of the great reggae classics. Myton's falsetto is prominently heard in his 1970s recording, Row Fisherman Row.
Bunny Brown became one of the big names of the 1970s, after outstanding performances as lead vocalist of the group The Chosen Few. Going the solo route, his powerful falsetto voice earned for him several hit recordings, while his backup work for other artistes was exemplary.
If ever there was a man who could be compared to Slim Smith, in terms of a natural falsetto voice, it must be Cornel Campbell. His recordings of Queen of the Minstrel and Stars, for producer Clement Dodd, are immortal gems that validate this fact. In later years, he had hits with Natty Dread in Greenwich Town, Gorgon, Duke of Earl, Rope In and Boxing Around, rated as one of his best recordings.