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Ernie Smith makes unintended recording debut

Published:Sunday | May 23, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Ernie Smith - File

'I Can't Take It' done after failing broadcasting audition

Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer

Ernie Smith did not intend to record a song on the day in 1967 when he took time off from his accounting job at Reynolds (bauxite company) in St Ann and came into Kingston. He was making another attempt to get into radio broadcasting after Gladstone Wilson got the nod over him for a slot on JBC.

So it was on to the then only other radio option in Jamaica, RJR. He did not get the job, but Smith had a whole day off in Kingston and he had a song, I Can't Take It.

It was not a new song, but Smith said it had never come to Kingston before. He was part of a band, The Vandals, in Claremont, St Ann, and it was his 'one song' that he had been singing for about three years previously. The tale of love lost was not written from a specific experience and he had no intention of making music a career, simply enjoying himself.

Before accounts, Smith had been a teacher for all of five weeks, teaching Spanish (in which he has an O'Level distinction) and health science. Then came Reynolds and he was making enough money to put together a band, but "I sure knew I wasn't going to be doing accounting my whole life".

Ironically, it is his signature baritone which got him interested in radio but convinced him he would never really be a singer. "After my voice broke, I swore I would never sing again," Smith said. He was 14 years old.

"It went deep and stayed deep. But I was doing all the programmes at school and doing verse, so I figured I would use my voice," he said.

a surprise

RJR figured different and, with hours on his hands and a song in his head, Smith headed to Federal Records in the hope that someone would sing it.

"I decided I was not going to go back to that accounting office," he said. At Federal, he told Richard Khouri that he had a song and maybe they could get someone to sing it. Khouri sent him into the studio and Smith met Conroy Cooper to whom he told the chords. "He learnt it pretty quick. No big deal," Smith said.

So Smith was singing, Cooper was playing keyboard, Paul Khouri was playing imaginary instruments, filling in the parts. And Smith got a surprise.

"They said there is a band coming in at 2 p.m. Why don't you stay and sing it," he said.

And he did, Ernie Ranglin arranging, Cooper on piano, Brian Atkinson on bass, Joe Isaacs playing drums and Lyn Tait on guitar, plus a horn section. It was a crack outfit but Smith was not intimidated. "Remember, I was singing the one song with my band," he reminded The Sunday Gleaner.

It was a two-track recording facility, one for the band and the other for the singer. The band knocked off the song in good order and left. New to recording, "It was a few times before I got it right".

When he was finished, he was asked the name for the record and said Glenroy Smith, his given name.

"They said that would look funny on an album cover," he recalled, chuckling. He had another name, as he had been trying repeatedly to play the Ernie Ranglin solo on The Wailers' It Hurts to Be Alone. Some people jokingly called him 'Ernie' because of that and that was the name Smith gave them and by which he is known.

On the strength of that single, he was signed to a three-year contract and he went back to St Ann and waited to hear I Can't Take It on the radio.

"I waited and I waited and I listened to the radio and I heard nothing and then one day I am sitting in the car in Claremont, waiting on my father. All of a sudden I hear it on the radio. I feel my heart pounding like I was onstage. It was amazing," Smith said, his eyes sparkling as he looked back 42 years. "Wow!"

The next time he heard it was when some girls were listening to the radio while he was passing and I Can't Take It was on. "They said, 'Ernie that is you'," he said.

Modest sales were reported for the song, which is the first track on his career-spanning double CD, After 30 Years ... Life is Just for Living. Eight years after Ernie Smith recorded I Can't Take It, it was done over by Johnny Nash, the renamed song Tears on My Pillow a huge success for the American singer.