The Music Diaries | Derrick Harriott hits in different voices
Three distinct phases to his career - two with the Jiving Juniors and one as a solo artiste; two different voices that created hits for nearly three decades. These are credentials that belong to only one man in Jamaica's popular music history: the legendary Derrick Harriott.
Harriott had hits using both his tenor and falsetto voices for nearly three decades. Like many of Jamaica's successful singers in early popular music, Harriott began with a group before making the transition to solo artiste.
However, he took a different route from his contemporaries in making that transition as he performed with the group, The Jiving Juniors, in two different phases of their existence - one phase in Jamaica and the other in New York.
Although using two different line-ups (Harriott sang with both sets), the group managed to retain its characteristic sound, while Harriott had hit recordings with both sets. Harriott said that in order to differentiate between both sets, he labelled them The Jamaican Jiving Juniors and The New York Jiving Juniors.
The genesis of the original Jiving Juniors (the Jamaican set) was rooted in the duo 'Sang and Harriott' (Claude Sang Jr and Derrick Harriott), two musically inclined schoolmates at Excelsior High School, where Harriot's uncle, Wesley A. Powell (popularly know as WAP), was headmaster.
Temporarily capturing a piano from the main assembly hall, the duo would, often create a stir during class-time as they sought to sharpen their musical skills. At times, it didn't go down too well with WAP, who didn't temper his punitive actions of issuing detentions to the duo because of family ties. But it became very interesting when the very headmaster who issued detentions turned around and included the duo in concerts and fundraising events for the school.
With the overwhelming response of schoolmates and fans, Harriott's confidence grew to the extent that he began to fancy his chances of winning on the popular 'Vere Johns Opportunity Hour Talent Show'.
He made a bid in 1955 with the popular American R&B song When You Dance by the Turbans. Harriott narrowly missed the final round but was determined and entered two years later with his schoolmate, Claude Sang Jr, who sang and played piano along with Harriott's vocals. They went on a winning streak thereafter, earning for the duo their biggest payday. With the 'Vere Johns Opportunity Knocks' (a radio show), and Bim and Bam shows around the island giving them worthwhile exposure, the duo soon set their sights on the recording studio.
Sang and Harriott made their debut with Lollipop Girl at the Stanley Motta Studio. The recording, which contained only vocals by Claude Sang Jr and Derrick Harriott, piano, backups by Sang Jr, and handclaps by Harriot and a friend, became so popular that several sound operators jostled to get a hold of it. According to Harriott, the Maxfield Avenue-based sound Thunder-bird, who secured the first copy, had to lift the record needle several times in order to appease music fans.
The departure of Claude Sang Jr on an overseas study course in 1958 prompted Harriott to form a group which he called The Jiving Juniors. The quartet consisted of Eugene Dwyer (bass), Maurice Wynter (tenor and clown acts), Herman Sang (piano and vocals), and Harriott (lead vocals). Their performances were spiced with comic situations in which Wynter was mainly the star.
In the meantime, the hits continued to flow with My Heart's Desire, Answer Me, Darling, and Over The River, known to some as I'll Be Here When He Comes, a number-one hit for producer Clement Dodd in 1961.
Buoyed by the services of two Australian musicians on guitar and drums, along with an exhilarating trombone solo by the Jamaican trombonist Rico Rodrigues, Over The River, sung by Wynter, Dwyer, Sang, and Harriott (using his tenor voice), was a 'bluesy' ska number that became a favourite at dancehalls across Kingston.
Despite positive reactions to their shows and recordings, Harriott decided to migrate to New York in August of 1959 following persistent urgings by his mother but kept returning at intervals to Jamaica to do recordings, which explains Over The River and a redo version of Lollipop Girl for producer Duke Reid in 1960.
Although trying his hand at several jobs, Harriott ensured that he allocated time for his music career. It resulted in the formation of The New York Jiving Juniors in New York in 1962. He was lucky to find Claude Sang Jr, who had migrated there earlier. Another great bass singer, Winston Service, from the great Downbeats singing group in Jamaica, replaced Dwyer, while Valmont Burke, son of the famous cricket umpire Perry Burke, replaced tenor man Maurice Wynter. The quartet created ecstatic scenes with their singing and clowning acts at parties, clubs, and graduations across New York City before entering the Mirasound Recording Studios, which recorded the great hits of Paul Anka, to do a set of recordings.
Two of Harriott's biggest hits - Dandy and Don't Treat Me Bad (the former using his falsetto voice and the latter his tenor voice) - were recorded there with the group and the illustrious Mirasound Studio Band, with the great saxophonist Buddy Lucas playing a vital role.
Harriott had, in fact, gone solo in the midst of moving from one group to the other. I Care, using his tenor voice, was his first solo release in 1961-62. Other hits using that voice included Solomon, Do I Worry, Been So Long, Walk The Streets, Have Faith In Me, Close To Me, I'm Only Human, and Skin To Skin.
Harriott's falsetto voice elevated him into the top 10 charts with hits such as What Can I Do, Sugar Dandy, and My Three Loves. Unlike many others, Harriott packs power in his falsetto and it can be palpably felt in Sugar Dandy as he sings:
"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."