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Derrick Morgan the guiding hand of popular music

Published:Sunday | February 26, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Derrick Morgan. - File

Top Jamaican ska band of the 1960s, the Skatalites, was credited by The Music Diaries as being responsible for the backing of almost every ska recording that became a hit. But quite ironically, Derrick Morgan, OD - the man who at one time had seven recordings in the top 10 of the Jamaican music charts, a record that is unlikely ever to be broken, and who became known as the king of ska - was seldom backed by this aggregation.

It may be true to say that, at times, his backing band did consist of some Skatalites members, but as a total unit, they were almost never present.

Morgan's early recordings were almost invariably backed by a Duke Reid all-stars band or by The Drumbago All Stars, one of the first backing bands of that era.

Morgan's success in the music business, however, was not limited to his hit recordings. He was something like a music consultant to a number of artistes and producers, having been in the business before many of the others. He was the singer, above all others, who aspiring artistes sought to emulate.

On a wider scale, Morgan became the single most important individual in early Jamaican popular music, having brought a number of prominent entertainment personalities into the business almost singlehandedly.

In an interview I had with Morgan, he confirmed that he auditioned and passed Jamaica's two great musical icons, Bob Marley and James Chambers, better known as Jimmy Cliff, as well as the internationally famous Desmond Dacres (Dekker), when they all went to producer, Leslie Kong, seeking assistance with recording their first songs - Judge Not, Hurricane Hatti and Honour Your Mother And Father, respectively.

Derrick to the rescue

In the process, he coached and helped Kong to set up his Beverley's Record Label and himself as a producer, having only been a businessman who ran a restaurant business at the corner of Orange and North streets in downtown Kingston. Earlier, while he was with producer Duke Reid, Morgan assisted Justin Hines and The Dominoes, and Millicent Todd (Patsy) to enter the music business. In the early 1960s when Prince Buster was having difficulty with setting up his music business, it was Derrick who came to his rescue.

In the 1970s, Derrick was also instrumental in assisting Bunny Lee on the road to becoming a top-class producer.

In later years, while visually impaired, Morgan wrote three festival songs within a five-year period - Neville Martin's Jamaica Whoa (1998), Stanley Beckford's Fi Wi Island A Boom (2000), and Devon Black's Progress (2002) - a truly amazing feat.

Morgan was actually born in the parish of Clarendon, but joined his mother in Kingston at the age of three. He told me in an interview that his earliest ambition was to become a stenographer, but an eye defect from birth jeopardised this dream.

Doctors advised that his eye sickness was incurable, and it would deteriorate as he became older.

influence of R&B

While in Kingston, he attended Allman Town Junior, Kingston Senior, and a private school before becoming fascinated with the New Orleans rhythm and blues music being played around him. These influences fired his imagination and, in 1957, led the tall, ambitious and musically inclined 17-year-old to the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour - a popular talent show at the time. Riding on the wind of that success, Morgan was drafted by the popular comedy duo of Bim and Bam to perform at the shows the two did around the island.

In due course, Morgan heard about the larger-than-life sound system operator and record producer Duke Reid, who was auditioning artistes to record on his Treasure Isle record label, and decided to give it a try. On the day of the recording session, Reid selected two of Morgan's songs for recording - Lover Boy and Oh My Love.

Despite being very popular, they were not released initially, either for airplay or to the public, the producers of the day endeavouring to maintain exclusivity by playing them only on their sound systems.

Morgan was annoyed because he wanted to hear his recordings on the radio. He heard about L.S. Little Wonder Smith, and in the hope that he would release his songs recorded one titled Fat Man. It was released, creating the unusual situation where Morgan's first release was not his first recording.

The success of Fat Man precipitated Morgan's return to the Duke and the release of several top-10 hits, some in duet with Patsy, the first of many female singers to accompany him.

Morgan suddenly became much-sought-after by a number of producers seeking to cash in on his popularity.

One such producer was Sir Clement 'Coxson' Dodd, for whom he recorded Leave Earth and Wee Wigger Shuffle.

For Buster, he recorded the bluesy ska Shake A Leg and Come On Over, which helped to popularise Buster as a producer. Morgan, however, soon left Buster to record for the Chinese producer Leslie Kong.

One of the recordings he did for Kong was the perennial ska favourite Forward March, which triggered a controversy between both entertainers, when Buster claimed that a saxophone solo used in that recording was copied from one he did earlier. Morgan also recorded for Kong other cuts such as Be Still, Sunday Monday, Travel On, and The Hop, as well as an album titled Forward March, one of the first to be released by a Jamaican artiste.

Distribution in England

It was about this time that Morgan travelled with Prince Buster to England to sign a contract with Emile Shalit, tying up an agreement for the distribution of Jamaican records on the Blue Beat record label there.

On his return to Jamaica, Morgan recorded Miss Lulu and Troubles for Buster, and Two Of A Kind, I Wish I Were An Apple, and Don't Call Me Daddy for Duke Reid.

He then took a self-imposed hiatus before returning in the mid 1960s to record a few cuts for Coxson and Joe Gibbs. Morgan then joined the rocksteady craze with Tougher Than Tough, Court Dismiss, and Judge Dread In Court in response to Buster's Judge Dread. Further hits - Greedy Girl, Do The Beng Beng, and I Am The Ruler - followed for producer Kong in the late '60s.

By the turn of the decade, Morgan had turned his attention to producing, writing and setting up his own label, Hop Records, on which he had successful pieces by The Consomates, The Viceroys, and Lloyd Robinson and Devon Russell, whose Red Bumb Ball was one of the biggest hits at the time.