The Music Diaries | Derrick Morgan's many hats
One of the least known facts about Jamaica's popular music is the multiplicity of roles played by Derrick Morgan in helping to lay the foundation for the establishment of Jamaica's music and ultimately placing it on the international music map.
Dubbed 'the King of Ska', Morgan wore an unbelievable number of hats, some of which he achieved in his later years while being visually impaired. Vocalist, talent scout, audition man, music consultant, and songwriter, Morgan was responsible for jump-starting the careers of Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, and Desmond Dekker by auditioning and passing them while he was working as an audition man for the Chinese-Jamaican record producer Leslie Kong and his Beverley's label. With one shot, he brought Leslie Kong into the music business as a record producer as well.
Cliff came to Kingston from St James as a 14-year-old searching for a recording contract and ended up at Kong's Beverley's restaurant, situated at the intersection of North and Orange streets. He turned to Kong for assistance with a song he had written and wished to record. But it was a risky business because if the song flopped, Kong, who was a novice to the business, stood to lose pounds running into double figures. He sought guidance from the more seasoned campaigner - Morgan - who eventually helped Cliff with getting his first song, Hurricane Hattie, recorded.
Kong was on his way as a record producer, Cliff was on his way as a recording artiste, and Morgan further enlarged his stature as a recording artiste with two recordings for Kong - Be Still and She's Gone. Morgan earlier had stints with producers - President Bells, Duke Reid and Clifford 'Little Wonder' Smith - who gave him his first release, The Fat Man, in 1959. It was a most unusual situation because it was not Morgan's first recording.
But before his days at Beverley's and while enjoying a successful start in the music business, Morgan was approached by Prince Buster who was also seeking help in setting up a record production and recording business. According to Morgan, who I interviewed on KLAS Sports Radio, "One day, on my way home, I met Buster, who asked me to help him out by doing some songs and starting a business. I helped him and later went with him to studio. He recorded They Got To Go and I did Shake a Leg, and then I took Monty Morris with me and he did Humpty Dumpty, and that's how we became friends", Morgan recalled.
The King of Ska
Morgan and Morris grew up together at a place called 'Big Yard' in Orange Lane in the vicinity of the fire station along Orange Street in downtown Kingston. They were the best of friends, and Morris was perhaps the first to benefit from Morgan's heroics when he took Morris into the studio and recorded with him Now We Know and Nights Are Lonely for producer Clifford 'Little Wonder' Smith in 1959. A few years later, Morgan assisted Justin Hines and The Dominos, and Millicent Todd (Patsy) - his main duet partner - to get into the music business.
In the meantime, Morgan was having a successful career as a recording artiste, racking up hit after hit, mainly for producers Duke Reid and Leslie Kong. His efforts were rewarded with seven songs occupying the top seven positions on the charts all at once, a feat that remains unchallenged in Jamaica's music history and one that earned him the title 'The King of Ska'.
Morgan and Prince Buster travelled to England in 1963 to sign a contract with Melodisc Records for the distribution of Jamaican recordings in the United Kingdom on the Blue Beat record label. It helped immensely in popularising Jamaica's music in the Diaspora, and, generally, on the international scene.
Returning home, Morgan joined the rocksteady craze with Tougher Than Tough, Greedy Girl, Do The Beng Beng, and I Am The Ruler.
In 1967, he helped Bunny Lee establish himself as a record producer and entered another phase of music - this time as a rapper on the instrumental recording A Thousand Tons Of Megaton for producer Lee. The following year, he turned his attention to producing artistes, writing, and setting up his own record label - Hop Records - on which he had successful pieces by The Consomates, The Viceroys, and Lloyd Robinson and Devon Russell, whose recording of Red Bumb Ball was one of the biggest hits at the time.
That same year, Morgan was responsible for the hugely successful pop-a-top series of songs, where the rhythm of his re-recorded version of Fatman was extensively used. He placed second in the festival song competition of 1972.
Having completely lost his sight by 1998, and everybody thinking that he was finished, Morgan created history by composing three winning festival songs between 1998 and 2002. Speaking to him from his home in Clarendon this past Thursday, he said that he recently returned from an overseas tour to London and Rome, where he performed to packed houses. He said that he would be embarking on another tour in a few weeks time to Germany, London, Spain, and Sweden. And come to think of it, Morgan celebrated his 78th birthday just a few weeks ago - a truly amazing man!