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The Music Diaries | Group-singing trend, a hit in the 1960s

Published:Thursday | April 20, 2017 | 12:00 AMRoy Black

Last Sunday's Music Diaries highlighted the role played by several Jamaican rocksteady groups in helping to establish the genre as the most rhythmically pleasing music form experienced by Jamaicans. The beat, which had its heyday between late 1966 and mid-1968, saw The Heptones, The Maytals, The Wailers, The Techniques, The Paragons, The Jamaicans, The Gaylads, and The Melodians, headlining the three-part harmony thrust that permeated rocksteady music.

Each had its peculiar style, with The Melodians demonstrating the unique characteristic of alternating two lead vocalists to suit a particular song in the persons of Brent Dowe and Tony Brivett. They proved to be as melodious as their name suggests, with classics like Little Nut Tree, You Don't Need Me, I'll Get Along Without You, You've Caught Me, Rivers Of Babylon, Expo 67, and Swing and Dine.


Musical explosion


While all of this was happening, three-part and four-part harmony groups were also creating a musical explosion during the 1960s. Headlining that explosion were The Drifters, The Four Tops, The Temptations, The Impressions and The Supremes. The last four came to prominence during the early-mid 1960s, while The Drifters who came a bit earlier, proved to be the most popular American group at the turn of the decade. An earlier set of Drifters were fired in 1958 by manager George Treadwell, for what was described as unruly behaviour, and their place taken by The Crowns (renamed The Drifters), and consisting of Ben E. King, Charlie Thomas, Doc Green, and Elsbeary Hobbs. The group's first recording in April of 1959, There Goes My Baby, was an instant million-seller - one of the first R&B recordings to include a string section in the arrangements. They followed up with three other million-sellers by 1964 then created history that same year when both sides of one record went to No.1 on the Jamaican charts. Those recordings were the danceable Under The Boardwalk and the somber waltz I Don't Want To Go On Without You.

The Impressions, who were also on their second stint, regrouped in 1961, with Curtis Mayfield at the helm. Gypsy Woman, written by Mayfield, kick-started a phenomenal run of hits that included I'm The One Who Loves You, Minstrel and Queen, Grow Closer Together, and the anthemic People Get Ready, from which Bob Marley lifted lines to populate his song of the millennium, One Love, One Heart.

Unlike many of their contemporaries, The Four Tops entered the fray as seasoned campaigners, having spent a decade together doing doo-wop recordings before joining Motown Records in 1963. Their first recording, Baby I Need Your Loving, a year later, stood out as one of the pillars on which the institution was built. By 1965, the group, with Levi Stubbs as leader, had shot Motown into perpetual prominence with hits I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch) and The Same Old Song.


Inspired Jamaicans


Several early Jamaican groups have acknowledged the inspiration that they received from American groups in the 1960s. Bunny Wailer, a surviving foundation member of the legendary Wailers, touched on this aspect in his CD Box set, Musically Speaking, when he said: "This desire had developed in us because of our respect and admiration for groups such as Little Anthony and The Imperials, The Platters, Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, and The Drifters."

The Temptations, boasting the astonishingly talented lead singer, David Ruffin, came on strong from 1965 with My Girl, Since I Lost My Baby, Beauty Is Only Skin Deep, I Wish It Would Rain, and the soul screamer Ain't Too Proud To Beg, the last two being successfully covered in Jamaica by Pat Kelly and Slim Smith, respectively.

The Temptations' labelmate The Supremes (Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard) maintained the group-singing tradition of the 1960s powerhouse of popular music when they placed six consecutive singles - Where Did Our Love Go, Baby Love, Come See About Me, Stop In The Name Of Love, Back In My Arms Again, and I Hear A Symphony - at No.1 on the US Billboard R&B singles chart in a 12-month period beginning in 1964 .

With Cindy Birdsong replacing Florence Ballard in later recordings, the group had no less than 10 number one-singles by 1967, making them the most popular Motown act - and perhaps the most popular female group ever in the history of popular music. Their influence spread as far as homeland Jamaica, where The Soulettes and The Gaylettes benefited.