Vintage Voices | The formation of Jamaica’s recording industry
The formation of the Jamaica recording industry marked the beginning of the road that led to the success of reggae music internationally. It came right on the heels of a noticeable downturn in mento music, Jamaica’s first commercially recorded music, and the island’s most indigenous music form.
Mento, which was very popular in Jamaica between 1951 and 1956, cannot be taken lightly either. It had a major influence on the genres that followed, and remains a popular draw for tourists entering the island.
The formation of the industry owes a lot to the pioneering efforts of entrepreneurs Ken Khouri, Stanley Motta and Ivan Chin, all of whom owned stores in Kingston, and all of whom began recording local artistes in Jamaica. From all accounts, Stanley Motta seems to be the earliest to have done so. Noel Simms, one half of the popular duo Bunny and Skully, confirmed this in a 2004 interview with me for radio, years before this column started. “We were searching for a studio to record our first song, Another Chance, in 1953, and we ended up at Stanley Motta at the corner of Hanover and Laws streets in downtown Kingston. It was the only recording studio in the island of Jamaica at the time,” he said.
Another Chance, a recording moulded in the American R&B-boogie style, came in the midst of the mento craze, and was a noticeable departure from the norm, which featured a flood of mento recordings pouring out of Stanley Motta’s studio from as early as 1951. Lord Fly (Bertie Lyons) seems to be the first to have recorded for the Motta’s Recording Studio (MRS) label, which became the main recorder of mento music for the next two years. Mento group, the Ticklers featured prominently with Glamour Gal, Don’t Fence Her In and Healing In The Balmyard in 1952, a song which became Jamaica’s first big hit. It states:
“A girl named Jackie wanted to give
Lor swell feet.
Because she said the gal dress too
The balmer say you bring a cock
and a white calico frock,
for the healing in the balmyard.”
Ken Khouri, Motta’s big rival in the early recording business, although not as involved as Motta was with mento, played a far more significant role in bringing about the formation of the Jamaica recording industry, sometime around 1957. Khouri provided the facilities for many record producers, including the Studio 1 boss Clement Dodd, Duke Reid the Trojan, Little Wonder Smith and others, all of whom did not yet own a studio, to record and bring to prominence promising talents like Ken Boothe, Alton Ellis, Delroy Wilson, Ernie Smith, Eric Monty Morris and John Holt. Khouri’s facilities, which later became Federal Records, helped in no small way to kick-start Jamaica’s recording industry.
The third pioneer of this type in this era, Ivan Chin, was an exceptionally brilliant electronic engineer who operated during the mento period. Unlike virtually all others, he did his own recordings using his own cutting machine at his premises along Church Street in Kingston. At his instigation, The Chin’s Calypso Sextet was formed with a mandate to record two songs per month at 18 pounds per occasion. According to Alerth Bedasse, leader of the ensemble, “We did over 30-odd songs for Mr Chin in the evenings after the store is closed and the street is quiet. We would congregate around a mike and a cutting machine placed on a table and sing and play until he was satisfied that he got what he wanted.” Chin’s productions, done on his ‘Chin’s’ label in 1955, became somewhat of a yardstick by which mento was measured during that era.
Renowned recording artiste, record producer and businessman Derrick Harriott, along with the vintage duo, Bunny and Skully, also lay credible claims to being worthy contributors to the kick-starting of the Jamaica recording industry with the first recordings in the post-mento period. “Claude Sang and myself went to Stanley Motta and recorded a demonstration disc of Lollipop Girl in early 1956. It started the craze of recording as one of the first Jamaican contemporary recording,” Harriott revealed in a 2006 interview.
Skully, whose correct name is Noel Simms, however claims that, “When we recorded Another Chance and I Love You, there weren’t any Jamaican recordings around other than mento.”
But after all is said and done, former Prime Minister Edward Seaga claims that he was the prime catalyst in the industry’s formation. Speaking on the topic ‘The Origins of Jamaican Popular Music’ at The University of the West Indies’ School for Graduate Studies and Research on February 28, 2002, Seaga said: “As I did not indulge in removing original labels to disguise song titles, I began to reveal the true identity of foreign recordings. One such revelation was very rewarding – a record that was given a suggestive blank title – Beardman Shuffle was very popular and in great demand.” Seaga’s investigations revealed that the correct title was Live It Up by Ernie Freeman. He went on to explain, “I imported a quantity and flooded the market. My ability to identify anonymous records sent a signal to sound system operators to find another way to get unique records which they could use exclusively to establish themselves as champions. To do so, they would have to record and produce records themselves. This became the impetus that drove the big sound system operators into major record production. Thus, the Jamaica recording industry was born.”