The Music Diaries | Reggae music icons fittingly awarded by JaRIA
The Jamaica Reggae Industry Association's (JaRIA) annual awards included the names of several outstanding Jamaican entertainers and industry insiders whose contribution can justly be described as inestimable. I think the association ought to be congratulated for the choice of the awardees, and in particular, those whose works are relatively unknown and consequently place them into a category that I would choose to call 'Unsung Heroes'.
One such individual among the awardees was Vere Johns, who was awarded for his extraordinary impact on the reggae industry as a promoter. It is important that people understand and recognise the important role that people like Johns has played in the embryonic stage of Jamaica's popular music.
Over the years, very little effort has been made by the relevant authorities to disseminate information and give true recognition to Johns, and so when the JaRIA takes on that responsibility, it is most welcomed.
With all the good intentions, the JaRIA may have sought to eulogise Johns through his citation, but real justice can never be done to Johns' work unless and until we delve a bit deeper into his career.
Johns was responsible for unearthing some of Jamaica's most outstanding talents through his talent show - The Vere Johns Opportunity Hour. The names that came under Johns' promotion run like an unending roll-call of would-be luminaries. They included Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, Alton Ellis, John Holt, Millie Small, Derrick Harriott, Derrick Morgan, Lascelles Perkins, Wilfred Jackie Edwards, Adina Edwards, Alan Magnus, Jimmy Tucker, The Blues Busters, trombonist Rico Rodriguez, and others. They all came, almost kneeling at his feet, hoping for an opportunity to make a living through music.
Born in Mandeville, Jamaica, in 1893, some of the lesser-known facts about Johns are: His shows acted like an audition for record producers looking for talent to record. His shows were funded straight from his own pocket. He temporarily migrated to the United States in 1929 in search of better job opportunities. While there, he wrote for several newspapers, denouncing the treatment meted out to blacks. He had his own column in the Jamaica STAR, writing about similar topics. He started his talent show with his wife, Lillian, in Savannah, Georgia but moved it to Kingston, Jamaica, in the early 1940s after receiving threats from white extremists. Johns served in World War 1, returning as a decorated soldier. He paid the travelling expenses for several aspiring artistes seeking 'greener pastures', and he entered the movie world in 1955, playing a role in the adventure thriller Man Fish.
The JaRIA Honour Awards show, which took place last Sunday, February 25, at the Courtleigh Auditorium in New Kingston, also honoured Ken Williams for his extraordinary impact on the reggae industry (media); Count Suckle and Klassique for extraordinary impact on the reggae industry (sound system); Bobby 'Digital' Dixon and Geoffrey Chung for their exceptional contribution to the reggae industry (producer); Barry O'Hare and Lynford Marshall aka Fatta, for their extraordinary impact on the reggae industry (engineer); Brent Dowe and Frankie Paul for their exceptional contribution to the reggae industry (posthumous); Lloyd Lovindeer for his exceptional contribution to the reggae industry as a songwriter; Steel Pulse for their exceptional contribution to the reggae industry (band); The Tamlins for their exceptional contribution to the reggae industry (duo/group); Rondell Allen and Sam Wisdom received iconic awards for their contribution to gospel music; Nadine Sutherland for being an iconic female artiste in the music industry; Rodney Price aka Bounty Killer for his extraordinary impact on the reggae industry (mentorship); The Hon Olivia Grange, minister of culture, gender affairs, entertainment and sports, received the lifetime achievement award for a lifetime dedicated to the music industry; TBA for the breakthrough artiste of the year and song of the year; Winston Rodney aka Burning Spear and Manley Buchanan aka Big Youth both received iconic male artiste awards.
Saxophonist Dean Frazer and bass player Jackie Jackson were both awarded for their exceptional contribution to the reggae industry as musicians. Jackson is, perhaps, the other honoree who could justly be considered as an unsung hero - one who has made an extraordinary contribution to the reggae industry, yet remains relatively unknown insofar as his work is concerned. Jackson was the main man behind the success of Alton Ellis's larger-than-life watershed recording of Girl I've Got a Date in the mid-1960s. The introductory bassline created by Jackson, and which ran throughout the entire song, was what 'carried' the song and made it sound the way it did. It was a pioneering effort as far as Jamaican rhythms were concerned. Jackson's bass-playing heroics have also been immortalised on almost every hit recording that came out of the Treasure Isle Studios at 33 Bond Street in downtown Kingston.
But that is only one-third of the story and one-third of Jackson's influence. Some four years after, the bassline again surfaced in the Harry J-produced instrumental recording, Liquidator, which reached number one on the Jamaican charts and number nine on the British charts.
Perhaps the biggest twist to the story came when The Staple Singers recorded I'll Take You There in 1971. Containing the identical bassline as Liquidator, the recording soared to the top of the Billboard charts in February of 1972. A court suit filed by Johnson to recover damages for illegal use of the song's bassline, made little or no progress.