The Music Diaries | Everard Williams, relatively unknown among the greats
Songwriting is one of those aspects of Jamaican popular music that has been given scant respect. More often than not, it is the singers and the musicians that get the credit for the success of a recording, while the composers live in obscurity. Outstanding singers like Bob Andy, Bob Marley, and Horace Andy are, however, held in perpetual reverence for their songwriting skills, while a name like Everard Williams, who has done so much in that area, is relatively unknown.
Williams was an integral cog in the wheel of fortune that attended the mento era, which the Music Diaries has been focusing on for the past two weeks. He was an exceptionally skillful songwriter who penned the majority of mento hit recordings (80% of them), during the golden years of that genre (1951-1956). To my mind, he could easily rank alongside the very best the nation has produced. I would place him a shade ahead of the rest in terms of the way he presented his stories.
Williams's compositions were, almost invariably, social commentaries based on events or conditions that existed at the time like the plight of tenants living in poor conditions, gambling, poverty, obeah, illegal activities, duppies (ghosts), sexually charged women, love affairs gone sour, and notorious characters. His humour, ambiguity, and informativeness go unchallenged in the history of Jamaican popular music.
Alerth Bedasse, leader of the Chin's Calypso Sextet, the premier mento ensemble of the day that benefited from Williams' writing, described him as "a genius who could write a song in glowing poetry, about almost any event, in virtually no time".
Williams was a schoolteacher by profession. He spent 15 years in Cuba, returning to the island in the late 1940s to do street-singing with a partner. When that partner left, Bedasse replaced him in 1949 and the duo created ecstatic scenes along Spanish Town Road, in the vicinity of the Coronation Market, until Williams decided to write a song called Night Food for recording purposes.
Williams's most prolific stint was with The Chin's Calypso Sextet, for whom he wrote all their recordings. In addition to the Chin's recordings, Williams wrote almost all the recordings for Harold Richardson and the Ticklers, including Healing In The Balm Yard, Glamour Gal and Parish Gal, along with Hubert Porter's Monkey Talk and Dry Weather House in which Williams depicted the plight of tenants living in poor conditions, especially when it rains, yet having to contend with ruthless landlords:
"When the rainy weather was raising cane
The dry weather house couldn't stand the strain
All the house began to leak
And the whole foundation squeak
Dry weather house, them no worth a cent
Man shouldn't pay, someone pay mi rent".
In the obeah-tinged recording, Healing In The Balm Yard, Williams created a girl named Jackie who "wanted to give Lor swell feet
Because she said the gal dress too sweet.
The Balmer say, You bring a cock
And a white calico frock
For the healing in the Balm Yard".
In the recording Night Food, Williams's ambiguous writing skills are brought to the fore as he leaves listeners to decipher exactly what is Night Food:
"I really thought that I was wise
Till a woman made me realise
That of a proper knowledge I was nude
For I did not know what they call night food.
The woman said,
Inside I have some nice night food
I hope you are in the eating mood.
This sounded to me now very strange
As she didn't visit the kitchen range".
Boogu Yagga Gal warns about the dangers of migration to relationships:
"A gal was crying till her eyes turn red
Cos her boyfriend gone to England, it is said.
With a Bible, he made her take an oath
But just before he landed, a man was in her boat."
Williams's composition of Red Tomato is a fairly straightforward double-meaning recording, with unique imagery. The Chin's Calypso Sextet plays and Bedasse sings:
"In a garden was a red tomato,
Surrounded by some bush
And to reach that red tomato,
You always got to push
The bushes were very stubborn
Wouldn't let the red fruit go
They say anyone to pick the fruit
Then the right size stick must show."
These and dozens more compositions by Williams were laced with suggestive lyrics. He came in for intense criticism from some quarters for his lyrics, but it seemed that that was what music fans loved. Bedasse humorously related to me how then Minister of Trade and Industry - Wills O. Isaacs - danced vigorously to the very songs he attacked in Parliament. According to Williams, responding to criticism on Night Food, "The response to this record was very great as thousands upon thousands of the record were sold both here and abroad. I am a poor man, and that is my way of making a living, and I thought that I was giving real entertainment to the public because they accepted it".
Mento music nonetheless remains one of the main drawers for tourists, either at the airport, a hotel pool or bar, or on a cruise ship docked in the harbour. Therefore, Williams's contribution to Jamaica's music and culture cannot be taken too lightly because it formed the basis for the perpetuity of one of Jamaica's national treasures: mento.
In one of Williams's most popular compositions - Big Boy and Teacher - the boy requested from teacher, information about a character named Catty:
"Is Catty high, is Catty low?
Will Catty stand up to any blow?
Is Catty deep, is Catty wide?
Is Catty something that I can ride?"
After persistent questioning, teacher got fed up with the boy and explained that:
"Catty is the same as Pussy Cat
That is sleeping on the mat."
With a huge resurgence of Carnival celebrations expected this year, calypso and soca music will imminently be placed in the limelight, and since mento is widely considered by foreigners as Jamaica's calypso, we can easily see the connection, which perhaps makes this presentation particularly timely.