Fri | Jan 24, 2020

Ernie Smith got hooked on ‘harmless pleasure’

Published:Thursday | May 16, 2019 | 12:18 AMSade Gardner/Gleaner Writer

Today The Gleaner continues High Note , a five-part series exploring the substance abuse culture in reggae and dancehall, with singer Ernie Smith sharing his story of alcohol abuse, and beating the habit.

“It made me feel better when I was playing, but after a while it just wasn’t fun anymore,” singer Ernie Smith told The Gleaner as he reflected on his years of alcohol abuse.

This year marks 26 years since he decided to put down the bottle, and the Ride On Sammy singer says he has not looked back since.

Embarking on a music career in the 1960s, Smith explained that he would share rum and coca-cola with his bandmates before a performance, and said he continued the habit after being told he gave a better performance while under the influence.

For Smith, at the time, it was just harmless pleasure.

“The guys said I sounded better after having it. Though I would get a couple of beers with them after a gig, drinking for me was never a social thing, it was more about the music.”


So intertwined with the music, that he landed a commercial deal with Red Stripe in 1972, and wrote the popular single, Life Is Just For Living.

“After I did the commercial, they used to send me like a case of beer every week, needless to say where that went,” he said. “After a while, it got to a point where I really didn’t feel good doing it anymore, and that was about in the 1980s going into the 1990s.”

He said his alcohol use did not affect his songwriting ability nor golden baritone voice, but noted the nightmare for him started with dreadful headaches, and even instances where he drank himself sick.

“I remember going to Cayman and they had a drink called ‘the special’ and it was white rum, ramona and 7up. I woke up about 3:00a.m. one morning and started drinking that and my God, I couldn’t work that night. I fell down and was throwing up, and I couldn’t get up out of it.”

Then came the bill collectors.

“It was cheaper not to drink,” Smith said in a chuckle. “Yes, I was still paying the bills, but the bills were late and that wasn’t cool at all, because people started calling me up and I didn’t have it to give them. That was embarrassing, those were the bare bones. I couldn’t handle it anymore.”


Smith said he decided to clean himself up in 1993, and said he succeeded through a supportive circle, instead of going to a rehabilitation centre.

“It wasn’t hard for me and I couldn’t believe how easy it was to stop, because I was really stuck on the drinking,” he said. “I couldn’t believe how much fun I was still having with music when I wasn’t drinking. Some people just have to look into themselves.”

He added that it is important for substance abusers to surround themselves with people who will hold them accountable, quoting lyrics from Kenny Rogers’ Sweet Music Man, noting: You’re a hell of a singer and a powerful man...but you surround yourself with people who demand too little of you…”

“It’s important to listen to other people, because other people can see you better than you can see yourself; and the ones closest to you are the ones you don’t want to hear it from, but they will tell you the most truth,” Smith stated.