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The Melodians stand the test of time

Published:Sunday | October 28, 2012 | 12:00 AM
The Melodians-File

If ever there was a rocksteady vocal group which one could compare with the Techniques, it must be the Melodians. They resembled the Techniques in terms of numerical composition, harmony, melody and genre, but differed in terms of sound and line-up consistency. Whereas the Techniques displayed a high-pitched falsetto sound, the Melodians exhibited their precise harmonies with a baritone-like sound.

Unlike the Techniques, the Melodians maintained a consistent line-up of the identical trio throughout the life of the group, and had the advantage of possessing two exceptionally talented lead singers in the persons of Tony Brivett and Brent Dowe, plus an excellent harmoniser in Trevor McNaughton, whose only lead singing role with the group was on No Sin At All.

With hits spanning the late 1960s and early 1970s, both groups, to a large extent, stuck to the theme of love, hypnotising dancehall fans and popular music lovers, sending them into a frenzy whenever they performed.

The Melodians, however, had notable exceptions to that trend in recordings like the Duke Reid- produced Everybody Bawling - a song about the plight of the poor, in which they said:

'They bawling for love,

Their hands on their heads, not a money in their pockets,

Nothing they do can change this kind of living'.

Another recording by the Melodians which deviated from the theme of love, and which perhaps was offering a solution to the problems in the previous song, was Let's Join Hands (Together):

'Let's join hands together,

Let us all be one, brother,

Live good and good will follow you,

Hate no man and no man will hate you'

went the lines.

In a 2005 interview I had with the group's leader, the late Brent Dowe, he expressed unrestrained pride in asserting that unlike many other popular artistes of the day, all members of the Melodians came from a different side of the west.

Brivett was from Back-O-Wall, now Tivoli Gardens; McNaughton from downtown Kingston; and Dowe from Greenwich Town.

The trio came together in 1962 and did the rounds, performing at Kingston's amateur talent contests, and the Vere Johns talent shows before getting into recording.

Dowe explained their genesis: "In the 1960s, it was mainly groups. Tony was a good singer and I was a good singer too, so we decided to join together and start rehearsing behind this big wall, they call Back-O-Wall, and then we first recorded in 1966 for Clement Dodd, a song called Lay It On." And that's exactly what they did during a career that spanned the rocksteady and reggae eras.

The Melodians were more than mere business partners, they were genuine friends, and even during years of inactivity, maintained constant communication that augured well whenever they were called on to do shows.

Their stay with producer Clement Dodd was short-lived. Dowe's explanation for their ephemeral stay with Dodd was rather laconic: "A thing did go on between Mr Dodd and us. It was a dangerous thing, and we had to leave."

And so, after doing four cuts in all for Dodd, they moved to his arch-rival in the production business, Duke Reid, in 1967. It was there that they created waves on the Jamaican music scene by recording some of the best quality music this nation has ever heard. On Reid's Treasure Isle label, the trio produced music that has remained classic in the rocksteady genre.

all about harmony

Operating as a team, the Melodians wrote many of their recordings with valuable assistance from a friend named Ranford Cogle. Their first recording for Reid was an adaptation of the Viola Wills disco-flavoured hit, I'll Get Along Without You, featuring Dowe's lead vocals.

They switched lead vocals on the second song for Reid, You Don't Need Me, with Brivett doing the honours, while the third recording, Come On Little Girl, featured all three in unison. This versatility demonstrated the group's penchant to rotate lead vocalists based on the nature of the song - something unique in Jamaican three-part vocal harmony.

"At the time, the whole emphasis was on harmony, not the lead singer. Harmony was the thing," Dowe explained.

"That's why I had to sing in the background many times," he added.

The group had two other top-10 hits at Treasure Isle in 1967, Expo '67, a song referring to an exposition taking place at the time, and You've Caught Me Babe, led by Brivett. All songs were backed by Duke Reid's house band, Tommy McCook and the Supersonics. Brivett also sang lead on the celebratory Swing And Dine, written by Bibi Seaton of the Gaylads, and the nursery rhyme Little Nut Tree, while Dowe led on No Nola, a song with an incessant hard-driven beat.

All three were produced on the Gayfeet label by the only female producer in early Jamaican music, Sonia Pottinger, to whom they had defected in 1968.

more money = movements

The common trend of artistes moving from producer to producer, triggered by better payment, continued with the Melodians when they heard that Leslie Kong was paying 30 pounds and more per song.

Dowe described him as the most honest producer he worked with.

The association brought them international success with Sweet Sensation and the religiously anthemic Rivers Of Babylon - a landmark recording lifted from Psalm 137 verses one, three and four.

Selling over 75,000 copies in the United Kingdom alone, its sombre mood, hypnotic spell and spiritual vibration touched the hearts and souls of many, and inspired Bony M's disco version.

It was a one-of-a-kind recording which, in terms of its beat, could barely find a place in reggae and was miles away from rocksteady.

It may very well have been one of the last, if not the last, recording produced by the Jamaican-Chinese before his untimely death in 1971.

With the passing of Kong, the fortunes of the group declined.

Dowe, however, went on to have a successful solo career, while Brivett had a hit with Don't Get Weary.

While still together, the members of the Melodians began forming associations with other artistes to better manage their business affairs.

The move was short-lived, but it did produce the 1968 chart-topper It Comes And Goes.