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Songwriters form the base of Jamaican popular music

Published:Sunday | February 16, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Bob Andy
Ernie Smith
Jimmy James

Songwriters have often been treated with scant regard and recognition for their contribution towards the success of recordings. More often than not, it is the singers - and the musicians, to a lesser extent - who are mentioned whenever a recording hits, while the writer dwells in the realms of the unknown.

Truth be told, there have been many instances in Jamaican popular music where the performer and the writer are one and the same person, and in such cases, authorship recognition is more instant.

Jamaica has a rich tradition of songwriting genius in both categories that stretch way back to the mento era of the early 1950s and extend forward to the present dancehall period.

Whereas an overwhelming majority of current-day deejays and singers write their own songs, many of the earlier artistes had their songs written for them.

There were persons at that time who just entertained a certain level of egotistic pride in writing songs solely for the purpose of having them sung by others.

There have, however, been unique cases in Jamaica's popular-music history where writers ended up singing the very songs they intended others to do.

Two remarkable examples are those of Ernie Smith's I Can't Take It, a 1967 ballad, and Jimmy James' Bewildered and Blue, an extraordinary R&B cut, almost a decade earlier.

Smith, endowed with a voice of steel befitting a radio announcer, had, in fact, come to Kingston from the country, seeking a job in that field.

When that fell through, he reached for a contingency plan. That plan came in the form of a song he had written for someone to record.

Taking it to Federal Recording Studios along Foreshore Road (now Marcus Garvey Drive), he presented it to producers Ken and Paul Khouri.


But things took a dramatic turn, as Smith related to me in an interview years ago.

"I basically presented myself as a songwriter because I didn't see myself as a vocalist. I told them I had this song, and could they get somebody to sing it? They said, 'There's a band coming there at 2 o'clock. Why don't you just stay and sing it?' And that's how I got into the business," said Smith.

The tear-jerking ballad not only launched Smith's career, but became a sure hit with audiences all over the island.

Its effect was felt abroad, some seven to eight years later, when Johnny Nash did a lovers' rock cover version under the title Tears on My Pillow.

It was for Smith, an unfortunate title change which created some royalty mixup, since there was another song with that same title by the group Little Anthony and the Imperials.

In Jimmy James' case, he presented his composition of Bewildered and Blue to producer Lyndon Pottinger of Tip-Top records.

Inter-cepting him on one of his visits to Jamaica, he said, "Dem time deh, everybody a write songs, so when I write the song and went to Herman Sang, I told him, 'I just write the two songs. Don't think me is any singer.' Him say, 'Come into the studio and sing it for me, and whoever is going to sing it will hear what you do and pick up on it.' When I go in there, the man dem trick me, and the next thing, I hear it on the radio." James went on to record for the same producer the very rhythmic ballad, Come to Me Softly, before migrating with the Vagabonds band to the United Kingdom in 1964.

Keith Anderson (Bob Andy) has, over the years, been widely accepted as one of Jamaica's best songwriters.

He wrote Ken Boothe's early piece, I Don't Want to See You Cry, a song which put the singer on the road to success. Andy also wrote Marcia Griffiths' early recordings, jumpstarting her career.

Those songs included Mark My Word, Melody Life, Tell Me Now, and her first hit, Feel Like Jumping.

Andy also wrote Delroy Wilson's 1966 semi-rocksteady tearjerker, It's Impossible, in which he had Wilson pleading:

Wherever you may be, I hope you'll hear my song

And maybe you'll realise and know that you were wrong

'Cause I can't love another, no matter how I try

'Cause it's impossible.

Two years later, he wrote for Griffiths and himself the romantically charged Coxson-produced hit, Always Together.

Rewinding to the mento era of the early 1950s, we find the story of a man named Everard F. Williams who wrote for various artistes some 80 per cent of mento hit recordings.

Although his writings have never been fully ventilated, they cannot be taken lightly, as they form the basis for the perpetuity of one of Jamaica's national treasures - mento music, Jamaica's first commercially recorded popular music, and its only indigenous brand.

Williams' lyrics were mainly informative social commentaries, laced with humour and ambiguity and delivered in flowing poetry:

When the rainy weather was raising cane

The dry weather house couldn't take the strain

All the house began to leak

And the whole foundation squeak.

Dry weather house, them no worth a cent

Man shouldn't pay, someone pay mi rent.

It is estimated that Williams wrote some 50 songs for The Chin's Calypso Sextet, The Ticklers, Hubert Porter, Count Lasher and others.

His humour, ambiguity and suggestiveness is particularly poignant in the recording, Big Boy, where the title character questions his teacher.

Is catty high, is catty low?

Will catty stand up to any blow?

Is catty deep, is catty wide?

Is catty something that I can ride?

Williams then concludes the recording with the teacher's response:

Catty is the same as pussy cat

That is sleeping on the mat.

It would perhaps take some half-dozen articles to delve into Williams' heroics as a songwriter for other artistes, but his take on Monkey's refusal to accept humans as their descendants is very interesting:

Human, don't you call my name

Human, you should be ashamed

Human, some things that you do

No well-thinking monkey would ever do.