The Music Diaries | Winston Riley’s contribution to J'can music transcended boundaries
Winston Riley's contribution to the Jamaican entertainment business transcends the boundaries of just being the leader and vocalist with the successful 1960s rocksteady vocal group The Techniques. Riley's stretch spanned an unbelievable 40-odd years, during which time he had further achievements as a record producer, businessman, and was a source of inspiration to his sons, who continued his legacy.
The younger generation of music fans will, no doubt, be familiar with recordings like Tenor Saw's, Ring The Alarm, Super Cat's Boops, and Sanchez's Loneliness, yet not realise that these were all produced by Riley.
Riley's production skills were put on show as early as May 1971 when he rewrote the history books by pushing Dave and Ansel Collins' Double Barrel to number one on the UK singles chart, the second Jamaican recording to have done so, following Desmond Dekker and The Aces' Israelites in 1969.
But Riley's contribution to Jamaica's music didn't stop there. He exhibited supreme leadership qualities as a founding member of the Techniques, writing, organising, and doing music arrangements for the group during their formative years. The youngster's earliest exposures were at school concerts put on by his alma mater, Kingston Senior School (now Kingston High School). There, he performed, on occasions, alongside Slim Smith, Franklin White, and Frederick Waite, a combination that would later become known as The Techniques.
After leaving school, they decided to stay together as a group and performed regularly at Edward Seaga's Chocomo Lawn in west Kingston, one of the hot spots for stage shows during the 1960s. The exposure helped to sharpen their musical harmonies and prepare them for the recording studios, which was now uppermost in their minds.
After an inauspicious start at Federal Records, Stranger Cole, a seasoned ska campaigner, introduced the group to producer Duke Reid, and they did their first set of recordings, beginning with Little Did You Know in 1965, featuring Slim Smith on lead vocals and Winston Riley as leader, with backing by The Baba Brooks band. Other ska hits followed, including I'm In Love, When You're Wrong, You Don't Know, and What You Gonna Do.
'THE SOUND IS ME'
Amid continuous line-up changes between 1965 and 1968, Riley remained the only constant member, while others drifted in and out like a procession. According to him, no fewer than 20 persons were, at one time or another, members of the trio. Asked in an interview I had with Riley on KLAS Sports Radio in 2005 if there was ever a time that the group broke up, he responded, "Whilst I'm around, the group is always alive, because I'm the sound, and the sound is me".
Riley was adamant that he must maintain the Techniques' falsetto sound: "Creating the same sound using different members is one of the most difficult tasks as a producer because if you don't maintain the sound, you can't maintain the group," he said.
The original quartet, having been disbanded, Riley reformed the group in 1967 with new members Junior Menz, Bruce Ruffin, and himself, putting out the big rocksteady hits Queen Majesty, My Girl, and Love Is Not A Gamble, the latter cut written by Riley. When lead singer Menz migrated, a banker named Johnny Johnson temporarily replaced him on Travelling Man: "He (Johnson) was at Duke Reid that day while the song was being recorded, and I just asked him to come in," Riley remarked. Johnson did a commendable rendition as he sang:
"I want to stop roaming around, searching to find a love
And hoping someday she will come along to this travelling man."
Later, Riley joined lead singer Pat Kelly and Bruce Ruffin to reel off the hits You Don't Care, There Comes A Time, Man Of My Word, and The Time Has Come, while Winston Francis aka Billy Cole sang lead on Go Find Yourself A Fool.
According to Riley: "The 1980s was, however, the biggest time of my life. I ruled the dancehall as a producer with hits like Loneliness by Sanchez, Ring The Alarm by Tenor Saw, Hold A Fresh by Red Dragon, Bad Boy by Courtney Melody, and my composition, Boops, by Super Cat."
In addition, Riley, who also did backing vocals on most of his productions, produced Stamina Daddy, which his son, Kurt, a famous radio disc jock, had a hand in producing and writing. Agony by Red Dragon and Young And She Green by Johnny P and Thriller U were also big productions for Riley.
Born on May 14, 1943, Riley had several attempts on his life, the last of which he did not fully recover from. He passed away on January 19, 2012.