Jamaica's musical creativity (Part 1)

Published: Tuesday | September 25, 2012 Comments 0

By Gordon Robinson

Recent radio discussions rekindled interest in Jamaica's popular music history.

Important clarifications resulted. First, 'Bunny' Goodison conducted a master class outside his jurisdiction (normally holds court every Sunday on 'Rhythms') which conclusively exploded the myth that ska evolved from mento. Ska's origins grew from attempts to reproduce black America's bluebeat. Early results ('shufflebeat') needed quickening up for Jamaican dances. That process, led by legendary saxophonist Tommy McCook with arrangements by genius trombonist Don Drummond, found inspiration in New Orleans' jazz.

But ska, essentially an instrumental vehicle, ended up being too quick. As Goodison recounted, McCook's feedback from the dances condemned ska as too tiring. It needed slowing down. But that involved trial and error, so authentic rocksteady wasn't immediately produced. Prince Buster, Desmond Dekker and the Aces, the Clarendonians and others recorded several songs in the 'Rude Boy' mould which involved more 'slow ska' than genuine rocksteady. Eventually, as Clement 'Sir Coxsone' Dodd once told me, the eureka moment came by accident when the horns men took an unannounced vacation.

Real Rocksteady

In 1966, Sounds and Pressure/Take it Easy made rocksteady public, but the best example of the authentic rhythm is 1967's aptly named Real Rock, featuring the legendary Donat 'Jackie' Mittoo, a recording Dodd has called his crowning achievement. It's a little-known fact that the bassist on that seminal recording was world-renowned crooner Boris Gardiner.

But nobody set out to 'create' anything. The songs were simply reflections of artistes' personal experiences and their desire to honour their artistic influences. The 'jump blues' influence is well documented. But, just as in the United States where blues and country fused in one decisive Sun Records session to become rock 'n' roll, 'cowboy' music also had profound influence on Jamaica's fledgling industry.

Jamaicans were huge country music/cowboy movies fans. Country legend Johnny Cash had a dream that inspired him to introduce Mexican horns (unthinkable in country music) in Ring of Fire, one of his biggest hits written by second-wife-to-be June Carter about their illicit affair. Almost immediately, Don Drummond copied the unique passage in his own ('Music is my') Occupation.

John Denver's Take Me Home, Country Roads inspired Frederick 'Toots' Hibbert's reggae cover. Olivia Newton-John's 1974 country cover of the obscure David Gates composition Everything I Own (first recorded by 'Bread') inspired Ken Boothe's incorrectly titled Anything I Own. Ken's version, which reached number one on the British pop charts in 1974, inspired Boy George of Culture Club to re-cover it in 1987. His version also reached number one on the British pop charts.

Remember a young Clint Eastwood couldn't find work in Hollywood? In Italy, his collaboration with Sergio Leone produced a cowboy trilogy (derisively called spaghetti westerns' back home), which became cult favourites in Jamaica. Local showings of The Dollar Series (A Fistful of Dollars; For a Few Dollars More; and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) provoked this vinyl testimonial by King Stitt:

This is the days of wrath; Eastwood.

I am The Ugly One.

If you want me meet me at the big gundown.

I am Van Cleef. Die! Die!! Die!!!

Artistes in a hurry

It's also an example of artistes hurrying expression to the detriment of accuracy. In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the 'ugly one' was played by Eli Wallach, not Lee Van Cleef. Ken Boothe himself was guilty (including with Everything I Own) of rushing to record before learning lyrics. In 1967, British pop sensation Sandie Shaw's Puppet on a String won the Eurovision Song Contest.

I wonder if one day that you'll say that you care.

If you say you love me madly, I'll gladly be there

like a puppet on a string.

Love is just like a merry-go-round

with all the fun of the fair. One day I'm feeling down on the ground;

then I'm up in the air.

Are you leading me on?

Tomorrow, will you be gone?

Ken's 1968 Studio One cover ruined the lyric but was a smash hit regardless:

"I wonder if one day that you'll say that you care.

If you say you love me gladly, I'll gladly be there

like a puppet on a string.

I'll be just like a merry-go-round with all the fun in the air.

One day I'm feeling down on the ground; then I look in the air.

Are you leading me on?

To call out, will you be gone?"

Boothe's superior vocals, with Mittoo's creative arrangements, ensured their version far outstripped the original. Nobody noticed the lyrical gaffes.

Peace and love.

Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.

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