The Music Diaries | Stranger Cole says age is just a number - The 70-odd year old veteran still musically strong
Last Monday, Stranger Cole celebrated a birthday.
Now in his seventh decade on earth, Cole's schedule seems to be more hectic nowadays than it was during his early career. His energy and friskiness on stage, assisted by a petite frame, belies his age and he seems to see no end in sight to his career.
To Cole, age is just a number, and he wishes to keep it that way, without going into any specifics about his age, as I spoke to him from his Washington Gardens residence, recently. With that in mind, the ska legend continues to tour extensively, while being in constant demand for overseas shows, which has taken him to various corners of the globe. Just this past Tuesday, Cole returned from a successful tour of Germany, where he performed alongside the early Jamaican ska songstress, Doreen Schaeffer, in a show dubbed, 'This is Ska'.
Cole says, "I should be leaving again soon for two shows in Canada on July 1 and 3, commemorating their 150th anniversary, and then I'll be back there, along with other Jamaican artistes, for an award on August 6 in celebration of Jamaica's Independence."
On the topic of Jamaica's independence, it conjures up very fond memories for Cole, as it was about that time in 1962 that Cole burst on to the music scene with the recording Ruff And Tuff - one of 12 number one songs he told me that he wrote and recorded. He was forthright as he warned in the recording:
"Why lie and try to bite the hand that feeds you,
for the good you do lives after you."
Strangely, though, it was the only number one song that Cole did as a solo artiste. All his other number one hits were done in duet with Ken Boothe, Gladstone Anderson and Millicent 'Patsy' Todd.
Cole's entertainment career stretch way back to a day in 1961 when the lanky 16-year-old auditioned for producer Duke Reid with the nursery rhyme song, In And Out The Window. The Duke wasn't impressed, thinking that Cole would do better as a songwriter or singing in duet, and so the recording was passed to Eric Monty Morris, who did a fairly good job on it.
The following year, Cole was back in studio to record Ruff and Tuff. The recording, a hard-driving ska number featuring Baba Brooks on trumpet and Charlie Organaire on harmonica (or what Jamaicans called mouth-organ), reached number one on the Jamaican charts and became one that was most associated with Jamaica's inaugural Independence celebrations. On that same recording session, Cole partnered with Millicent 'Patsy' Todd to record another monster ska hit, titled When I Call Your Name. It was on the back of these songs that Cole built his extraordinary career. He also recorded a number of early successful pieces like Artibella and Home, in tandem with Ken Boothe for other producers.
Cole's association with Boothe, was key to both men's musical development. Cole became primarily a duet singer, while Boothe relied heavily on Cole for early guidance and development. It was at Denham Town, where both grew up, that their close association began, with music being the uniting force. School concerts and graduations were like happy preludes to them getting into studio together. But the big turning point, in more ways than one, came when Cole took Boothe to Studio 1 in 1964 to record in duet with him, World's Fair - a song Cole wrote about a big Industrial Fair that was taking place in New York at the time. It reached number one on the Jamaican charts, and was indeed the launching pad on which Boothe built his illustrious career at Studio 1. Cole, on the other hand, was more concerned with doing his own productions, writing his own songs and being independent, and so decided against staying with Studio 1.
One of the earliest of Cole's post-studio 1 recordings was the slow-tempoed ska, Come Back, backed by Byron Lee and The Dragonaires, done in duet with Patsy Todd and produced by Ken Khouri on his Kentone record label. Other producers, like Prince Buster and King Edward, got a piece of the action, before Cole settled into a relationship with the female producer Sonia Pottinger in 1967. That association yielded the beautifully crafted rocksteady ballads - Tonight, Tell It To Me, Your Photograph and Give Me The Right. The last piece was particularly stirring as Cole sang in duet with Todd:
"Give me the right to say you're mine
Cause I need and I love
And I want no one but you
Give me the right to call your name
Cause I need and I love and I want no one but you."
He returned to Duke Reid in the mid-1960s and gave him Yeah Yeah Baby, again with Patsy Todd, and later when rocksteady got in full swing, pianist Gladstone Anderson joined him on Just Like A River - a massive hit in England. The duo followed up with Seeing Is Knowing, Now I know and Pretty Cottage.
Other major contributions by Cole to the Jamaican music industry included his introduction of Justin Hines and the Techniques group to producer Duke Reid; piloting the early career of The Mighty Diamonds and introducing them to Randy's Studios; writing several number one songs for other artistes; and doing backing vocals on Alton Ellis' You've Made Me Very Happy, Errol Dunkley's Movie Star and Slim Smith's Ain't Too Proud To Beg.