The Music Diaries | Ernie Smith rakes in the hits
The 1967 recording of I Can't Take It introduced Ernie Smith to Jamaican music fans and the Jamaican record-buying public as a man with a voice of steel. The recording - a slow ballad - faced stiff competition from a barrage of rocksteady hits that were prevalent at the time, but prevailed as 'a slow creeper' to become a big dance hall favourite during the slow segment. It is now 50 years since the song was recorded at the Federal Studios - a significant milestone that also belongs to Ernie Smith's recording career, which began with that song.
Born at the Victoria Jubilee Hospital in Kingston on May 1, 1945, with the name Glenroy Anthony Smith, Ernie, as he is affectionately called, reached another important milestone this month with the celebration of his 72nd birthday. His earliest recollections are in May Pen Clarendon and St Ann, where he moved back and forth, depending on where his father got a job. In the process, Smith attended infant and primary schools in both parishes before attending the York Castle High School.
Musically, his earliest inspiration came from his guitar-playing father, who, upon realising his son's early penchant for playing musical instruments, bought him a guitar and taught him a few chords at about age 12. Before acquiring his gift, the younger Smith habitually stole a play from a guitar and a harmonica, which his father sometimes brought home after gigs.
"He left it (the guitar) in the house and went to work and I started messing around with it. One day, I tuned all the strings and it played a chord, and I knew I was hearing music," Ernie told me in an early 2000s interview.
After leaving high school, Smith put together a band called The Vandals in 1965 and was the guitarist with the group. He picked up the hand-drums later and was fairly competent on the piano, which he practised at high school. Smith also began to show an interest in songwriting. But despite all his musical inclinations, he still did not see himself becoming a singer until a strange hand of fate led him into
that arena with his composition and first recording, I Can't Take It.
The fact that the recording did not initially take seemed to have led Smith away from the recording studio for three years and into the area of life insurance. Two other recordings - How About You and Twentieth-Century Paces - also did not take off on that debut session. However, with a renewed energy, Smith returned to the Federal Recording Studios in 1970 and surfaced with his self-penned number-one hit, Bend Down.
Later that year, he had another number-one hit with Ride On Sammy, which warned: "You can't work, work, work all day, and play, play, play all night."
Asked in my interview to disclose who Sammy really was and the nature of his action, Smith responded: "I was kinda talking to myself 'cause I was working five days a week and playing music six nights a week, and it didn't take away any time from the girls".
Two more chart-toppers, One Dream and Pitta Patta, followed in 1971 and 1972, respectively, before Smith unleashed the award-winning Life Is Just For Living, also in 1972. Originally done as a Red Stripe Beer commercial, the recording created history by becoming the first reggae song to win an international award, taking top honours at the Tokyo World Music Festival in Japan in 1972. With a peppy reggae feel, it encouraged inebriety as the lyrics ran:
Be like a star
Leaning on the bar
Rapping with my pals
Rapping with my gals
Bottle in my hand
Living cause I can
Life is just for living.
Smith was rewarded with the Badge of Honour for meritorious service from the Government of Jamaica for his effort.
Other hits followed, including All for Jesus and Duppy Gunman in 1973 and 1974, respectively. By that year, Smith became one of the most popular musicians in the land. But when he released We De People/The Power and the Glory in 1976 - with the stinging lyrics
"As we fight one another for the power and the glory
Jah Kingdom gone to waste.
We de people want to know just where we're going
Right now we hands are tied,
Tied behind we back, while certain people if and button"
- the Government of the day saw it as an attack on the system and banned it, along with Bob Andy's Fire Burning and Max Romeo's No Joshua No.
Fearing reprisals during political turmoil and a state of emergency at the time, Smith relocated to Florida and Canada, going back and forth while doing a few albums in his one-man-band drum-set style. He also wrote some songs for a musical by film director Perry Henzell before returning home for good in 1989. Back in Jamaica, Smith continued to play gigs, stage shows, and private parties.
A major turning point in his life came with his marriage to his long-time schoolmate Janet, who became his manager and business partner. Together, they put on the 1997 show - After 30 Years Life Is Just For Living - and released a 31-track album for the show.
Ernie Smith O.D. wrote almost all his recordings and several for other artistes, including Ken Lazarus' Hail The Man and Tinga Stewart's 1974 festival song winner Play The Music. He continues to record and perform on stage shows at home and abroad.