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Important women in Jamaica's music lauded

Published:Thursday | March 10, 2016 | 12:00 AMRoy Black
Millie Small
Marcia Griffiths

Now that 11 females have won their seats in the recently concluded local general elections, it has again brought into sharp focus, the important role that women have played in the past, and their continued emergence as a dominant force in various spheres of Jamaican life. And from the look of things, it will continue for some time.

As we celebrated International Women's Day last Tuesday, we observe that top administrative posts have been their area of main focus, but sports and music have also produced several outstanding Jamaican women. Merlene Ottey, Grace Jackson, Veronica Campbell Brown, Sherone Simpson, Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce and Juliet Cuthbert Flynn, who recently entered the political history books, are just a few of the names that have done Jamaica proud in sports, while Millie Small, Myrna Hague, Marcia Griffiths, Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt, Carlene Davis and Lorna Bennett, have contributed immensely in helping to shape the island's popular music. More than any other, music is the area that has sold Jamaica's name to the world.

Millie Small may perhaps be the most important name in that story, and the most important in Jamaica's popular music as well. She was the first Jamaican to truly expose the island's music to an international audience. She did so in 1964 with a remake of Marjie Day's 1957 hit, My Boy Lollipop, which rose to No.2 on the British charts and topped the charts in several other European countries. In the process, Small became an international star almost overnight, and opened the floodgates for several other singers to cash in on Jamaica's new-found music craze - ska, or what some called blue beat. Suddenly Jamaica's name was on the international music map and began to be looked at as a simmering musical paradise

Born October 6, 1946 (some sources differ), Small came from humble beginnings in the Gibraltar district of Milk River in Clarendon, Jamaica. According to her brother - Leebert Small, who I interviewed some years ago, his sister displayed no inclinations for singing until age 12. It was at that age that the pint-sized youngster left Clarendon to reside in Kingston, where she performed on the popular Vere John's Opportunity Hour talent show. Her performances led her into the recording studios, where she announced here presence with Sugar Plum - sung in duet with Owen Gray, and We'll Meet, in tandem with Roy Panton, the latter topping the Jamaican charts at Independence. Music mogul, Chris Blackwell, who discovered her talent, was on the verge of taking her to England to help set up his Island Records business. Panton must have had premonitions of her intended departure, as he sang in the first stanza:

"No matter where you run and hide dear I know we'll meet, we'll meet

I know your love for me is strong dear

That's why we'll meet".

Small then replied in the song with:

"I don't care what you say or do

I know I'm going away from you".

While on English soil, Small had other hits in duet with Jackie Edwards, along with the hit singles - Sweet William and Oh Henry.

While Small was creating waves in England in 1964, a young nine-year-old female talent named Marcia Griffiths was on stage at the Carib Theatre to make her entertainment debut. She was taken there by Phillip James, one-half of the popular Jamaican singing duo - The Blues Busters, to perform on an Easter morning stage show put on by Byron Lee and The Dragonaires. Her performance earned her a visit to Studio 1, where she recorded a song titled, Wall of Love. Her first hit, however, came some years later with, Feel Like Jumping, in 1967, written by Bob Andy and arranged by music maestro, Jackie Mittoo. A deluge of hits followed for the label. But it was her cover recording of Nina Simone's, Young Gifted and Black (a Harry J - produced 1971 hit) in duet with Andy that took the world by storm after it topped the U.K., charts. With several other hits under her belt and a musical lifespan of over 50 years, Griffiths has epitomised 'woman power' in reggae music and has been duly assigned the title, 'Reggae Queen'.

Phyllis Dillon, her Linstead-born contemporary and 10 years her senior, was perhaps the most talented of them all. Although not having as many hits, Dillon proved her mettle with the Duke Reid - productions, One Life to Live, Love that a woman can give a Man and Don't Stay Away, rated by many as the best performance by a female in Jamaica's popular music. Whenever it is played, it almost invariably elicit listeners to join the chorus when she sings:

"If you knew how much I love you, how much I need you, you wouldn't stay away".

Alpharita Constantia Anderson, who later married Bob Marley, first came to prominence at Studio 1 as a member of The Soulettes. She recorded hits there and with other labels, before joining her husband as a member of the I-threes, to do backing vocals along with Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffiths, for his 1970s albums for producer Chris Blackwell. It is an incontrovertible fact that their input contributed immensely to the success of the albums.

Hortense Ellis, may perhaps be the earliest of the female pioneers in Jamaican popular music who we remember on International Women's Day. Like her brother, she began her career by performing on Vere Johns talent shows. She was twice awarded the honour of Jamaica's best female vocalist in 1964 and 1969.

Dawn Penn, with an amazing story, connected with the ever popular No, no, no, you don't love Me, in 1967. After disappearing from the music scene for some time, she re-emerged in the early 1990s with a remake of the song for producers Steely and Clevie, which became a big hit at home and abroad.

Other notable female singers in the popular music field of Jamaica's music, included Carlene Davis, now a gospel singer, Cynthia Schloss, Sheila Hylton, Adina Edwards, Pam Hall, Sophia George, J.C. Lodge and Nadine Sutherland.