Fri | May 24, 2019

Unsung heroes A good time to reflect

Published:Sunday | January 4, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Lord Flea (at front).
Laurel Aitken
Vere Johns

One of the most prominent features of early Jamaican popular music has been the existence of the unsung heroes artistes who have made more than ordinary contributions, but have not been duly recognised or rewarded.

As we enter 2015, it is perhaps a good time to reflect on the contributions made by some of these early pioneers to the development of Jamaican music and, by extension, reggae.

Too long have Jamaican music authorities been laid-back in giving tangible rewards, albeit posthumously, to the pioneers who, in some cases, have gone a long way in creating the earliest impression to foreigners about Jamaica as a gifted musical paradise contributions which, to say the least, became important cornerstones on which Jamaicas musical popularity was built. We have to begin to realise that Jamaican popular music did not begin at Independence, but perhaps a decade earlier.

Long before Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, Dennis Brown and others, there was Lord Flea, whose contribution cannot be described in lesser terms than limitless.

Flea, a flamboyant calypsonian singer and guitarist, created a first for Jamaica, when in 1957, he and his band, Lord Flea and his Calypsonians, featured in two full-length movies in the United States Calypso Joe and Bop girl Goes Calypso, thus becoming Jamaicas first international movie stars. Along with Harry Belafonte, Flea was credited with helping to start the calypso craze in the United States, with him endearing the hearts of music-oriented Americans, giving them a tantalising calypso glimpse of this little musical paradise.

Early performances

Flea, who was born Norman Byfield Thomas in the early 1930s, had very humble beginnings at Percy and Regent streets, a few metres west of the Kingston Public Hospital. He formed his first band in Back-o-wall, now a part of Tivoli Gardens, and later ventured into nightclub work. It was while performing at the Glass Bucket Club in Half-Way Tree, during the mid-1950s, that he was spotted by the American entrepreneur, Bill Saxon, who took him to Miami under a six-month contract. Flea already had under his belt a few vocal cuts for producers Alec Durie and Ken Khouri, and these he held dear to his heart, as he ventured on to foreign shores.

Flea, who insisted that his music was mento, again created history, when he was signed by the larger-than-life Capitol Records, who were eager to capitalise on the calypso craze fad. The union produced the album Swinging Calypsos, and included the popular cuts Shake Senora and Naughty Little Flea, from which Flea derived his stage name. He died from Hodgkins disease at about age 26.

Another of the unsung heroes was the Cuba-born Laurel Aitken, who moved with his parents to Jamaica at age 11 in 1938. After winning a Vere Johns Opportunity Knocks talent competition, he soon became obsessed with the smoothness of Nat King Cole and the boogie-woogie style of Louis Jordan. He also had a penchant for calypsos which he performed to visitors in Kingston Harbour on behalf of the Jamaica Tourist Board in the mid-1950s.

Aitken migrated to the United Kingdom in 1960 and continued his musical exploits there by masterfully dishing out some quality recordings that helped to popularise Jamaican ska. Playing a pivotal role, Aitken became the first Jamaican entertainer to expose Jamaicas ska to the outside world, and was rightly dubbed The Godfather of Ska. The release in the United Kingdom of his two-sided hits Little Sheila and Boogie in my Bones in 1958 was historic, with the former becoming the first Jamaican record to be released and distributed abroad on the new upstart label, Island Records, founded by the Jamaican-Englishman Chris Blackwell.

The mento era is deeply embedded in Jamaican music culture, holding pride of place as being Jamaicas most indigenous music form, by virtue of it being derived from the slave plantation system. Mento is also Jamaicas first commercially recorded music, yet the main exponents of the genre are seldom mentioned, never rewarded and remain relatively unknown.

Caught in the wrong

Count Lasher may perhaps be the best known because of the popularity of The talking parrot an amusing commentary on the dangers of infidelity in the presence of a parrot. Lasher was particularly perturbed as he related the episode:

I nearly lose my life in Spanish Town

through a talking parrot that was around.

At a married womans home I stole a chance.

The man came while we were in romance.

As he rushed in the house, the girl rushed out,

and in the heat of the excitement, the parrot shout,

Hey Danny a man inside

search well, be gone and hide.

Danny search all about,

for a fellow went inside, he aint come back out.

The duo of Alerth Bedasse and Everard Williams first performed as street singers who blocked roads in the vicinity of the Coronation Market, before Bedasse formed his Chins Calypso Sextet about 1953, releasing dozens of mento hits, mostly written by Williams, and which drove dance fans to the brink of hysteria.

Williams, a schoolteacher with extraordinary writing skills, penned dozens of songs about events and issues during the mento era for various artistes. Bedasse, with whom I had an interview in 2005, described him as a genius who could write a song in glowing poetry, about almost any event, in virtually no time. When a controversy developed concerning some of Williams suggestive lyrics, he was quick to react with Calypso Opinion:

Calypso must be important fe true,

that it throw some people in a stew.

Some say that the words are very rough,

while many say that its good enough.

Vere Johns, however, remains the most unsung Jamaican music hero of all times. He single-handedly, through his Opportunity Hour Talent Shows, unearthed such talents as Millie Small, John Holt, Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Hortense Ellis, Alton Ellis, Derrick Harriott, The Blues Busters, Derrick Morgan, Lascelles Perkins, Bunny and Skully, Higgs and Wilson, Laurel Aitken, Wilfred Edwards, Jimmy Tucker, Girl Satchmo, Lloyd Parrow Clarke, Roy Richards, Rico Rodriguez and others, without any appropriate attendant reward.