‘Little Wonder’ Smith was an unsung hero
The story of unsung heroes in early Jamaican popular music continues unabated. These are the people who have made invaluable contributions to the development of the island's music, but of whom very little is known or who have never been given the recognition they deserve. Jamaica's reggae music has now been established as an international phenomenon, and that whole process can be traced back to many of Jamaica's early boogie and ska recordings, with one of the main ingredients of their success being the record producers.
Their role was crucial to the making of a record. Generally, record producers were responsible for providing and paying the musicians, booking and paying for studio time, arranging rehearsal and recording sessions, doing all the general financing for the manufacture of the records, and sometimes even having an input in the arrangements on the recording.
Aspiring artistes therefore saw them as an indispensable component in the outcome of their recordings. On the producer's roster, names like Clement 'Sir Coxson' Dodd, Duke 'The Trojan' Reid and several others are well known, but if a name like Clifford 'Little Wonder' Smith was mentioned in this category, one would perhaps entertain some feelings of misgiving. Yet, Smith's role as a record producer was crucial to Jamaica's popular music.
Smith, like many other early producers, owned a sound system - his was called Little Wonder - and operated from his electronic shop at 163 Spanish Town Road in West Kingston.
He produced what was easily one of the most popular recording in the history of early Jamaican popular music. Cast in the R&B mould, Worried Over You, written by Keith Stewart and sung by Stewart and Enid Cumberland, epitomised the beauty of Jamaican R&B music during the pre-ska era of the island's music. It was in 1960 that Stewart brought this tear-jerking and heartbreaking love song to Cumberland, and after winning a few times on the Vere Johns talent shows at the Palace Theatre with the song, the duo began performing in clubs and places of entertainment.
According to Cumberland, who is now in her 85th year with a brain as sharp as a razor: "It was at one of these shows that Mr Clifford Smith heard us and recorded us soon after at Ken Khouri's Studio on Marcus Garvey Drive. It became a big hit and spent 21 weeks on the top 10 charts - seven weeks at number one," she told me in an interview last Wednesday. The recording, which had the incomparable Trenton Spence group in attendance, saw Keith and Enid pairing in sweet sentimental harmony, the heartbreaking love verses:
If you didn't love me, dear,
why didn't you let me know?
Darling, you've left me in tears
and I don't know what to do.
I should have known from the start
that you're not meant for me
that you would break my heart
and leave me here in misery.
Ever since you left that night,
my heart is aching for you.
There's nothing I do that can be right,
Cause I'm worried over
If you didn't need my care, why didn't you let me know?
Darling, I just can't resist to tell you, I don't know what to do.
The recording was Smith's first major success as a record producer, and it launched his entertainment career. But Little Wonder Smith didn't stop there. He ventured into a mode of record production that literally revolutionised that industry - he became the first of the early producers to release the records they produced to the public, and for airplay. The general practice at the time was for producers, many of whom were sound system operators, to play their productions exclusively on their sounds, using the recordings to compete against their rivals.
High drama ensued after producer Duke Reid refused to release two songs for Derrick Morgan in 1959. In an interview with Morgan, he explained: "I did two songs for Duke Reid in 1959, but Duke never used to release records. What he did was play it on his sound, mainly for competition. When I heard of Wonder doing recordings and releasing songs, I run to him and recorded Hey You Fat Man."
Morgan was, in fact, peeved by Reid's indifference, and in his anxiety to have his recordings released to the public and on the radio, sought the help of sound system operator and businessman Clifford 'Little Wonder' Smith, who had been releasing songs.
Fat Man, a bluesy number released by Smith in 1959, launched Morgan's career and became a big hit all over Jamaica. It further established Smith as one of Jamaica's top record producers at the time. Morgan's action, however, infuriated producer Reid, who sent men to take Morgan to his studios. A deal was eventually struck, which saw Duke beginning to release Morgan's songs. Some eight years later, 'Fat Man' again entered the history books, when a re-recorded reggae version for producer Lydford Anderson spurned the highly successful pop-a top series of records at the close of the 1960s.
Smith also produced Eric 'Monty' Morris' first recording, This Great Generation, sung in duet with Derrick Morgan; Lloyd Clarke's double, I woke up this Morning and Now I Know the Reason; Keith and Enid's Send Me; Anette and Shendley's The First Time We Met; and Album of My Memory by The Magic Notes.
Smith migrated to the US in the 1970s, and first worked in a hospital before starting his own shipping business in the Bronx. Coming from a musical family, the multitalented Wonder boy, Smith, in his later years, got into another phase of the music while in New York, when he ventured into gospel singing. Among dozens of gospel recordings he did was one that took us back to The Garden of Eden. The lyrics ran in part:
Adam, where art thou?
Adam, where art thou?
Adam hiding himself from God.
After a prolonged battle with prostate complications, Smith died in 2013.