Wed | May 22, 2019

Ernie Smith - an unwilling star

Published:Sunday | February 23, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Ernie Smith

When Ernie Smith recorded the slow ballad I Can't Take It, at the Federal Recording Studios in 1967, he had to convince himself he was a singer of sorts. Smith went there with no intention of singing the composition himself, but rather to find someone to sing it.

He had done little or no singing before, except for a few stints with the band, The Vandals, which he formed in Claremont, St Ann, after leaving school, and for which he was guitarist.

Smith's earliest inspiration came from his guitar-playing father, who bought him a guitar and taught him a few chords when he was 12 years old, after realising his son's inclination and potential.

Prior to acquiring his gift, the younger Smith was in the constant habit of 'stealing a play' from a guitar and a harmonica, sometimes brought home by his dad after playing gigs.

This was to be the beginning of a self-teaching course, which followed Smith throughout his career.

Born Glenroy Anthony Smith in Kingston, Jamaica, in May 1945, Ernie, as he was affectionately called, remembers moving between May Pen and St Ann, depending on where his father got a job.


Named Ernie after his mentor and idol Ernie Ranglin, perhaps Jamaica's most accomplished international guitarist, Smith, with his guitar as his constant companion, repeatedly used Ranglin's instrumental from the Wailers' early recording, It Hurts To Be Alone. That fact is what forced the moniker to stick.

Interestingly, Ernie Ranglin was one of the musicians who turned up on that fateful afternoon at the Federal Studios, and coincidentally did the musical arrangements for the song.

Also present was the Trinidad-born guitar genius, Lynn Taitt; basist Brian Atkinson; drummer Joe Isaacs; and keyboardist Conroy Cooper.

The recording, described in music circles as 'a creeper', was a painful love song that marked the birth of Smith's career as a songwriter and vocalist.

That pain is almost palpable.

I can't take it, I'm so lonely, gee, I need you so

I can't take it, oh, I wonder why you had to go.

But baby, every night I wake up crying

tears on my pillow, pain in my heart and you on my mind.

The fact that the recording did not take off initially, may have led to Smith's hiatus from the recording studios, during which time he ventured into life insurance for approximately three years, resurfacing in 1970 with his self-penned No. 1 hit, Bend Down, which was produced by Richard Khouri at the same studios as his debut recording.

It was Smith's fourth recording, as he had also recorded How About You, and Twentieth Century Paces on his debut session.

Smith followed up in December 1970 with Ride On Sammy, another No.1 hit, which warned Sammy:

You can't work, work, work all day, and play, play, play all night.

Being curious as to who Sammy really was and the nature of his action, I posed the question to Smith in an interview. His answer was parabolic, but concise.

"I was kinda talking to myself, cause I was working 5 days a week and playing music 6 nights a week, and it didn't take away anytime from the girls," he said.

His imagination

All of Smith's early hit recordings were written by him and had an underlying story, though sometimes they were a creation of his imagination.

Sammy was followed by One Dream (1971), Pitta Patta (1972), and the landmark, Life Is Just For Living (1972), the first reggae song to win an international award, taking top honours at the Tokyo World Music Festival in Japan in 1972.

For his efforts, Smith received the badge of honour for meritorious service from the Jamaican Government.

Originally done as a Red Stripe Beer commercial, it was particularly fitting for its purpose:

Be like a star

leaning on the bar

rapping with my pals

rapping with my gals

bottle in my hand

living cause I can

life is just for living

The dreadlocked Smith created a mind-boggler for the religiously uninformed, with his recording, All For Jesus (1973). My interview sought ventilation on this matter, and Smith was equal to the task.

"All knowledge reconciles. The Christ spirit, whatever you call it, exists. It's light as feather and heavy as lead, because I believe all mankind is on a movement towards the one. When you look at the whole bunch of different religions, I relate it like a whole lot of different phone lines a come to one place - one Almighty splice, and we're still all connected."

By 1974, Smith was perhaps the most talented and popular musician in the nation. His Duppy Gunman, in that year, was a big hit all across Jamaica.

"I had a brethren who usually ride with me and help me with my stuff, and just drop him off and going home with this woman, but it felt like him was still sitting there, and I said it to the lady, and she said, 'It must be a duppy'. And then I said, 'Or a gunman'. Once I hear those two things, a song come into my head, and I just go home and start writing," said Smith.

Smith had several other jolly-sounding hit recordings during the decade, but when he recorded the stinging song,We De Poeople Power And The Glory, in 1976, the Government of the day saw it as an attack on the system and banned it.

Fearing reprisals during the political turmoil, and a state of emergency in 1976, Smith relocated to Florida and Canada, performing in a one-man-band, drum-set format, while releasing a few albums.

He returned home in 1989, after a 13-year self-imposed exile, and has since been in constant demand on the hotel circuit and at corporate functions.