The Music Diaries | Jimmy James among greats to lay Ska, Rocksteady foundation
Very little focus has been placed on the pre-ska era of Jamaican popular music. Yet, the era has produced several outstanding entertainers who have helped to lay the foundation for ska, rocksteady, reggae and dancehall that followed.
Earliest on the scene were people like Owen Gray, Lascelles Perkins, Jackie Edwards, Laurel Aitken, Theophilus Beckford, Millie Small, Higgs and Wilson and The Jiving Juniors. Jimmy James, who seemed to have taken a different route to success, was on the scene some five years before ska was born, and about that same length of time, before Jamaica gained Independence in 1962. He was one of the earliest of Jamaica's successful singers, but strangely enough got into the business fortuitously.
James and Ernie Smith seemed to have had similar experiences, having entered the business with no intention of becoming singers, but as fate would have it, both men became successful and lasting vocalist for years. Armed with a song he had written, titled, Bewildered and Blue, James approached producer Lyndon Pottinger, around 1958, with the hope of finding someone to sing and record the song. Herman Sang, a member of the Jiving Juniors singing group, was the man doing audition on the day James arrived, and according to James, "everybody a write songs them days, so I tell Sang 'don't think sey me is any singer, I just write the song for somebody to sing it', and him sey, 'what yu a sey Jimmy? Just come inna the studio and sing the ting man. I tell you what you do; you come and sing it and whoever is going to sing it, will hear what you do and pick up on it'. The next thing I know, I hear it a play on the radio. The man dem con me man", James told me in an interview I had with him over 10 years ago while he was on a visit to Jamaica. Bewildered and Blue became a big hit for James at the closing of the 1950s. Any poet of repute would be proud of the lyrics:
"I don't know just why I miss you
Maybe it's the gypsy tune
With its wordless wistful embers
As it left me reaching for the moon
It could be the wayward echoes
In your laughter gay and warm
As it filled your mouth with dearness
And created a tender storm
Bewildered bewildered, am I over you
Bewildered bewildered, lonely and blue".
James' follow-up hit, for the same producer - Come To Me Softly in 1960, was a timeless masterpiece with a Latin touch. James seems emotionally charged as he sang:
"Come to me softly, while stars gleam above
Walk with me quietly, then whisper your love
Cause that's when I'll tell you how much I love you
With not only my lips, Ooh no no no
But with all of my heart".
James was born in Brown's Town, St Ann, in 1939, grew up there, then came to Kingston and attended St George's College (STGC) for about four years, before returning to the country. His entry into the music business came close on the heels of his departure from STGC.
On the strength of his two hits, along with Shirley, Thinking of You, My Request and Swinging Down The Line, James was offered a residency as a vocalist with The Vagabonds band. Not in his wildest dreams did James envisage what was awaiting him when the band was offered a 6-months contract in 1964, to perform mainly to Jamaicans at Town Halls in the United Kingdom. Six months turned into a year, and a year turned into years, and James still lives in the United Kingdom after 53 years. According to him, "We went on tour with no intention of staying, but in the six months, The Vagabonds broke out over there big time, so we ended up staying", James told me in an interview some 10 years ago. From Town Halls, the band graduated to the bigger nightclubs and hotels, and became the first Jamaican band to go behind the Iron Curtain. They became, as it were, pioneers in the propagation of Jamaican Ska in Britain. The people just wouldn't let them go. The band, however, broke up in the mid-1970s and for some time James went solo on nightclub dates, before forming his own band with the same name. With the band, he had a hit with a cover of Neil Diamond's Red Red Wine and in 1976 he entered the U.K., top 20 singles chart twice with I'll Go Where The Music Takes me and Now Is The Time.
What is most amazing is that James, now in his late 70s, continues to tour consistently, doing clubs in England and across Europe. In addition, he works with the Carnival Cruise Line, which takes him all over the world.
Speaking to James from his home in Kenton, London, England this past week, he admitted, "Travelling can be stressful at times, but always exciting. I also had the greatest pleasure of sharing the stage with the late Ben E. King, on what was probably his last tour of the U.K., in 2013". James has just completed an album dedicated to his memory, and is set for release soon.
"I'm very happy that I am still able to entertain the many fans who come to see me, no matter what, and I am most thankful to the Almighty for this wonderful career", James concluded.