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The Music Diaries | The birth of the Reggae Explosion

Published:Sunday | December 9, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Lester Sterling did the saxaphone on ‘Bangarang’, with Stranger Cole on vocals.
Legendary producer Lee 'Scratch' Perry.
The lone female producer of the 1960s, Sonia Pottinger.
Producer Bunny Lee

The recent announcement that Jamaica's reggae music has been added to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) list of cultural treasures that must be safeguarded, is welcome news for Jamaica and the Jamaican music industry. Dalton Harris' triumph in the 2018 'X Factor' competition and the current celebrations surrounding the third anniversary of Kingston being declared a creative music city by UNESCO seemed perfectly timed to coincide with that momentous announcement. All in all, they have helped to push Jamaica's reggae music further into the international spotlight.

Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and Frederick 'Toots' Hibbert have been widely touted as the artistes most responsible for launching reggae into that international spotlight. But before them, there were those who laid the foundation - the producers, the studio (sound) engineers, the artistes, and the musicians. Without them, the genre certainly would never have achieved that level of success. And so, they are worth mentioning.


Early Producers


Some standouts were Clement 'Coxsone' Dodd, Arthur 'Duke' Reid, Leslie Kong, Bunny Lee, Lee 'Scratch' Perry, Clancy Eccles, and the lone female, Sonia Pottinger. They organised rehearsals, paid for studio time, paid the musicians and stood the cost for the final product. During the 1960s, they paid artistes £20 to £40 per recording. The risks were, therefore, very high since there was no guarantee that any song would be a hit. All things considered, producers were an indispensable cog in the wheel of fortune for reggae in the early days.

After going through the motions in early 1968, reggae was in full blast by the middle of the year. Clement Dodd may have been spot on in claiming the crown for producing the first reggae recording. Speaking to Keble Drummond, lead vocalist of the 1960s Jamaican vocal group The Cables, who recorded Baby Why, he stated emphatically, "We did Baby Why in March of 1968. There was no other recording around at the time with that shuffling organ sound that signalled the transition from rocksteady to reggae. Everything else with that shuffle rhythm came after including Larry and Alvin's Nanny Goat." Both recordings were produced by Dodd. Baby Why charted at No. 1 for six weeks that year.

Another recording that laid a strong claim to be among the first set of reggae recordings, is Bangarang, which was also recorded in 1968 and featured Lester Sterling on saxophone, and Stranger Cole on vocals. Once again, it was an organ shuffle played by Glen Adams that made the difference. And once again, another pillar was being laid in the foundation on which reggae music was built.

According to producer Bunny Lee, "I was upstairs Treasure Isle Studios preparing for a recording session with sax man Lester Sterling on a foreign instrumental named Bongo Chant, and I heard that Stranger Cole was downstairs. So I called him up to put a few words to the song, and the rest is history." Bangarang became a No. 1 hit in Jamaica in 1968. One of Jamaica's most respected musicologists, Rodquel 'Blackbeard' Sinclair, puts Bangarang's release at somewhere in the middle of 1968.

The Chinese-Jamaican producer Leslie Kong, who entered the production business almost by accident, pioneered the careers of Desmond Dekker, Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, The Maytals, The Melodians, Ken Boothe, Delroy Wilson, and others, that helping to propel them into the international arena. With four of his productions reaching the top 20 of the British charts and several others featured in the blockbuster Jamaican movie The Harder They Come, Kong was on the verge of international stardom when he died suddenly from a heart attack in 1971. Gladly, though, his job was accomplished.


The name 'Reggae'


Apart from stating that his Feel The Rhythm was one of the first reggae songs, producer Clancy Eccles laid claim to giving the genre its name. According to Steve Barrow in his liner notes for the Trojan album Clancy Eccles and Friends, Clancy, while in a dance one night, called out to a so-called 'good-time girl' with words to the effect of, "Hey, Streggae, come make we reggae," and somehow, the name stuck. And that's just one of many versions.

Some of who the musicians who backed some of the biggest hits in early reggae were: Jackie Mittoo; Winston Wright; Aubrey Adams on keyboard; Gladstone Anderson on piano; Joe Isaacs, Hugh Malcolm, Winston Grennan, and Paul Douglas on drums; Brian Atkinson, Jackie Jackson on bass; Hux Brown, Eric Frater on guitar; Johnny Moore, Bobby Ellis on trumpet; Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso, Lester Sterling, and Val Bennett on saxophone; Vin Gordon on trombone, and Denzil Laing on percussion.

Sound engineers Sid Bucknor and Sylvan Morris, worked with Coxsone before the latter moved on to Harry J. studio. The Australian Graeme Goodall gave yeoman service to several entities, including RJR's and JBC's studios. Lynford Anderson worked with RJR and West Indies Recording Ltd; Errol Thompson with Coxsone, Randy's and Joe Gibbs' studios; Cuttings with Treasure Isle studios; and Dennis Thompson with Randy's.