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Phyllis Dillon brought good cheer with her sweet sound

Published:Sunday | December 21, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Rocksteady queen Phyllis Dillon.
'Welcome to Jamaica,' says Audrey Cooke (left), promotions manager of Star Tour Car Rental, to Jamaican songbird, Phyllis Dillon, who arrived on Tuesday, May 28, 1991, for the double award-winning 'Babycham's Get Ready Rock Steady' at the National Arena on Saturday, June 1, 1991.
Phyllis Dillon digs deep as she unleashes yet another one of her classics.

Christmas was particularly special in the life of the late great female singing sensation, Phyllis Dillon, as she was born in the midst of the Christmas and New Year's celebrations. By the end of this week, December 27 to be exact, vintage music lovers will be observing her 70th birth anniversary, an important milestone.

From her childhood days, singing was one of her dearest passions and pastimes, and this activity she frequently enacted with her siblings and cousins in and around her hometown of Linstead, sometimes manifesting itself in contests, which she seldom lost. These musical urgings followed her into her teenage years, her voice gradually attaining more 'sweetness' as the years went by. If ever a voice could be described as being 'sweet', then this must be it. It's a voice that has been described by many musicologists as the most melodious in Jamaican popular music. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, so it is said, and likewise the proof of a sweet voice is in the listening, and Dillon proves this in the titled rocksteady cut, One Life To Live - one of her more enduring and melodious pieces, as she sings:

'I only have one life to live

and I'm gonna live it.

I only have one love to give

and I'm gonna give it.

No matter what he is,

he touches me and make me his.

Now we're in love.'

As the melody continues, she went on to reinforce her point with:

'Win or lose, this is my game to play.

Right or wrong, I'll play it my way.

And if I make mistakes

It's my own heart that breaks.

I've got to find my own way of life, myself alone.'

It was perhaps an ode to her conviction of becoming a star, regardless of the obstacles.

Contrary to what is printed elsewhere, Dillon was in fact born on December 27, 1944, in Linstead, Jamaica. In an interview from New York this past week with Phyllis' sister, Blondell, she again confirmed the date. Blondell was in Jamaica in October of 2009 as well, to receive, on behalf of her sister, the Jamaican honour of Order of Distinction.

Early start in music

Growing up in Linstead, Dillon attended the Linstead Primary School in the town, which was more noted for its markets and distinguished women with looks to go along. Like many others, she was soon drawn into singing in church and at school concerts. It wasn't long before her talent for singing was discovered, leading to her becoming a vocalist with the Vulcans band, a popular aggregation based in Linstead.

She was certainly on her way to justly be numbered among that batch labelled 'distinguished women with looks to go along'. The band performed gigs at venues across the island, and as the vocalist, Dillon honed her musical talents to the max, wooing audiences at places like The Tropical Theatre, now The Emanuel Apostolic Church, along Slipe Road in Kingston; The Glass Bucket Club in Half Way Tree, and at various venues along the north coast.

Taking full advantage of these exposures, Dillon focused on her dream of becoming a star. This dream became a reality when her melodic voice caught the attention of the great bandleader and master guitarist - the Trinidadian-born Lynn Taitt, who happened to be at one of the band's performances. Taitt, who had ties with the legendary producer Duke Reid and his Treasure Isle recording studio set-up at 33 Bond Street in Kingston, promptly took her to Reid for an audition.

This dramatic turn of events took place in the early to mid-1960s, when things were in full swing at Treasure Isle with stars like Alton Ellis, John Holt, and groups The Techniques and Melodians kicking up a storm. No doubt, Dillon was inspired by the heroics of these stalwarts. She had in her armoury a song she had written about a guy she was in love with titled Don't Stay Away. Producer Duke Reid recorded it for her, backed by Tommy McCook and The Supersonics band in late 1966, and it became a big hit all over Jamaica. In their book, Reggae Routes, Kevin O'Brien Chang and Wayne Chen described the record as "Perhaps the finest female performance in Jamaican music. Phyllis Dillon's delicate phrasing of the innocently naive lyrics,

'If you knew how much I love you,

how much I need you

you wouldn't stay away.

If you knew you were my one desire

You set my soul on fire,

you wouldn't stay away', melds with the effortless rhythm to create reggae's most haunting evocation of girlish first love."

Success and stardom

The success of Don't Stay Away had the immediate effect of propelling the young female sensation into the limelight, while giving the town of Linstead another reason to be proud of themselves. They were all proud and happy people, except for her father, Altamont Dillon, who was not supportive of her getting into secular music, and more so, her staying out late at night, which her performances demanded. Phyllis, however, proved him wrong.

Her migration to the United States (US) in 1967 didn't prevent her from returning at intervals to record some of her biggest hits. Most of them were recorded for Reid, while she resided in the US, between 1967 and 1971, making it one of the unusual occurrences in Jamaican music. They included a 1940s song, written by Albert Dominguez, titled Perfidia, and the bawdy Don't Touch My Tomato. There was also the monumental success of The love a woman should give a Man, and a reggae gem titled Love was all I Had, which seemed clearly out of class, as she melodiously delivered the lyrics:

'There were no chains to bind our hearts together.

There were no mountains to keep us far apart.

Love was all I had, love was all I gave.

Oh what a feeling I've had since you're gone'.

Dillon was virtually out of the music business for over 30 years, after migrating, as she pursued a career in banking. She had a partial revival in the 1990s after being invited by local promoters for stage shows in Jamaica. She died from cancer on April 15, 2004.