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The rise of duets

Published:Sunday | March 4, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Jamaican popular music comes to the fore in twos

One of the significant features of early Jamaican popular music was the prevalence of singing duos, which consisted mainly of two sets: the male/female combination, and the all-male combination.

This phenomenon emerged at the birth of Jamaica's popular music, which occurred towards the end of the 1950s and continued into the early 1960s. The music associated with it was mainly influenced by American blues and was almost always a combination of slow blues ballads patterned from the doo-wop styles of artistes like Shirley and Lee and Marvin and Johnny, Jamaican uptempo blues, ska and rocksteady.

Of the two sets, the all male combination, though not necessa-rily more popular, was more predominant, and in this, the first of a two-part series, I will be looking at this set.

One of the earliest Jamaican recordings to make an impact in this set, and perhaps the one that is best remembered by vintage music enthusiasts is Muriel by the duo Alton Ellis and Eddie Parkins (Alton and Eddie).


Moulded in the doo-wop style, the song literally set the standard by which all other recordings of this type were judged. Alton, who won several contests as a dancer on the Vere Johns talent shows of the 1950s before turning his thoughts to singing, told me in an exclusive interview that a friend who lived a few blocks from him on Seventh Street in Trench Town, requested that they form a duo since there were so many foreign harmonising duos around and that was what was taking the market.

So they started to practise toge-ther. At first, they were highly criticised, but with the passage of time they gradually improved to the extent that one neighbour was heard to comment 'oonu just sound like oonu singing now', and in Alton's own words "we took it from there when a friend wrote some words give me. I put melody to the song and went to Coxson (Clement Dodd) and gave him his first hit."

This was Coxson's first hit for commercial purposes recorded in 1957.

"When I went to England 10 years later (1967), Muriel was still a big hit there," said Ellis.

The duo followed up with two more creditable pieces in the same style for the Coxson label (there was no Studio One then), namely You Are My Heaven and Yours, and for Randy Chin's Randy's label, Let Me Dream and Love Divine.

But perhaps the most influential and successful male vocal duo in early Jamaican music was the Blues Busters - Lloyd Campbell and Philip James. Born March 9 and December 31 respectively in the year 1941, they met at infant school in Montego Bay, sang at school concerts and later performed together in north coast nightclubs during their teens, before being brought to Kingston in search of better opportunities by Noel Simms of the group Skully and Bunny. After recording their first song, Little Vilma, for producer Micky Obrien in 1960, they made a dramatic entry into Coxson's stables with the self-penned enthralling ballad, There's Always The Sunshine in 1961.

The bulk of the Blues Busters work was, however, done for producer Byron Lee. Hits such as How Sweet It Is, Soon You'll Be Gone, I Cant Believe You're Gone. Done Take Your Love Away, I Wont Let You Go and Behold, were all backed by Lee's Dragonaires.

In addition, they became Byron's resident vocalists, which afforded them the opportunity of touring extensively with the band during the 1960s and 1970s, gaining international recognition and consistent commercial popularity. They both migrated to the United States in the late 1960s and died there - Philip at age 48 and Lloyd at age 50.

Then there was Joe Higgs and Roy Wilson (Higgs and Wilson), who debuted in 1959 with Mannie Oh for producer and former Prime Minister Edward Seaga. It became a landmark recording. According to Mr Seaga, with whom I had an interview some years ago, this was the first Jamaican hit recording, outside of the mento genre, to be recorded on vinyl.

The duo followed up with the 'twin bombers' How Can I Be Sure and Beg A Reward for Coxson.

Another startling revelation is Skully and Bunny's claim to having done the first Jamaican recording in popular music outside of the mento genre. And we have to be very careful not to confuse that with the first post-mento recording.

According to Skully, the recording titled Another Chance, was done in 1953 while mento was still in full swing. Produced by a rich Indian named Baba Tewari, it was recorded at Stanley Mottas studios, situated at Hanover and Laws streets in Kingston at the time.

historic duet

The pair of Larry Marshall and Alvin Leslie (Larry and Alvin) is in the record books as being the main contenders for the title of being the first reggae-recording artistes with Nanny Goat in 1968. They followed up with Mean Girl and Your Love, all for Dodd.

The Clarendonians, Peter Austin and Ernest Wilson from Clarendon, was equally impressive at Studio One with a string of hits - Sho Be Do I Love You, You Won't See Me, You Can't Be Happy, Rude Boy Gone A Jail and Rudie Bam Bam, all done in the ska and semi-ska styles.

In the meantime, Ken Boothe, in tandem with Stranger Cole, recorded World's Fair, and Uno Dos Tres for Coxson and Duke Reid, respectively, among others.

While Boothe went solo, Cole, with a penchant for singing in duet, found a worthwhile partner in pianist turned vocalist, Gladstone Anderson, to record the hard-driving rocksteady song, Just Like A River in 1968.

Other popular male duos of that period were Ruddy and Sketto (Little Schoolgirl); The Mellow Cats - Lascelles Perkins and Noel Simms - with Rock A Man Soul; The Mellow Larks - Basil Gabbidon and Lloyd Robinson with We're Gonna Pray; Joe While and Chuck Josephs with My Love For You and Every Night; Andy and Joey - Reuben Anderson and Joanna Dennis - with You're Wondering Now; The Tenors - Ronnie Davis and Lloyd Rickets - with Pressure And Slide and others which time nor space will permit me to mention.