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The Music Diaries | Jamaica's unsung musical heroes went above and beyond

Published:Thursday | August 17, 2017 | 12:00 AMRoy Black
Laurel Aitken
Vere Johns

Although some may not agree that Vere Johns' contribution to nation building was enough to make him a candidate for national hero, there can be no denying that he laid a very important pillar in the establishment of reggae music through his talent shows of the early 1950s to the early1960s, as outlined in last week's article.

By extension, Johns became a prime catalyst in the success of the Jamaica tourism industry, reggae music being one of the main driving forces that attract tourists to the island. He was nothing short of being the first in a long line of persons that I would choose to call unsung heroes - persons who have made lasting contributions to Jamaica's entertainment industry, but remain relatively unknown, unrecognised and unrewarded.

Long before anyone knew about Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh and Dennis Brown, Norman Byfield, better known as Lord Flea, made Americans stop and look at Jamaica as an emerging musical melting pot for popular music. Very few knew about Flea's exploits, which could be expressed in no lesser terms than 'amazing'. A flamboyant and exciting calypso singer-guitarist, he became the first Jamaican to appear in a full-length movie - Bop Girl Goes Calypso - in 1957, establishing him as Jamaica's first international superstar. Flea and his band were also credited with creating a calypso explosion in the United States in the 1950s, chalking up new house records while becoming one of the first non-American performers to record for the larger-than-life Capitol Records. The result was the album Swinging Calypsos, now considered a collectors item.

Mento, a music genre sometimes referred to as calypso, also had its fair share of unsung heroes, with songwriter extraordinaire Everard Williams being perhaps the most outstanding. Williams wrote approximately 80 per cent of the mento hits that became Jamaica's first commercially recorded music. His lyrics mirrored the mood of the people in rhymed rhythmic poetry that told stories of current events and conditions like poverty, gambling, obeah, illegal activities, love affairs, notorious characters, and the plight of tenants living in poor conditions, like a leaking house. For example, in his composition Dry Weather House, Williams wrote:

"When the rainy weather was raising cain

The dry weather house couldn't stand the strain

All the house began to leak

And the whole foundation squeak."

Williams' contribution to Jamaica's music and culture has to be taken seriously, because it formed the basis for the perpetuity of mento which, in itself, has elements that later influenced reggae music.

Moving overseas for a while, we find, the Jamaica-born Thom Bell, whose songwriting, producing, music arranging and conducting skills was largely responsible for the success story of The Delfonics, The Stylistics, The Spinners and New York City vocal groups. Bell also wrote and arranged songs for Lou Rawls, Jerry Butler, Billy Paul, Dionne Warwick, Ronnie Dyson and The O'Jays. He is generally credited with creating the '60s and '70s Philadelphia style of soul music, termed, 'Philly Soul'. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1943, Bell migrated with his parents and siblings to Philadelphia Pennsylvania, near the end of that decade.

Another unsung hero was the Cuba-born Laurel Aitken, who made Jamaica his home from age 11 after migrating with his parents from the Spanish-speaking island in 1938. Aitken recorded mainly revivalist and calypso songs, before migrating again - this time to the United Kingdom (UK) in 1960. There, he continued his musical exploits by releasing a set of quality recordings that helped to popularise Jamaican ska music. In the process, he became the first Jamaican's entertainer to expose Jamaica's ska to the outside world. He was rightly dubbed, 'The Godfather of Ska'.

The Alpha school band's contribution to nation building is well documented in Jamaica's music history. But could that success be achieved without the work of Sister Mary Ignatius Davies? The answer is a resounding 'no' by insiders and music aficionados. Although many know about her, very few are aware of her heroics that inspired the young musicians to reach the pinnacle of musical stardom.

Herein lies the work of another unsung heroine. One of the first to identify potential greatness, Sister Ignatius coached, inspired and guided, would-be stalwarts like Dizzy Reese, Wilton Gaynair, Joe Harriott, Johnny Moore, Tommy McCook and Don Drummond, who all went on to achieve greatness. She was an integral part of the band arrangements. According to present bandmaster Sparrow Martin, "She was so versed, she could tell you when you're playing a wrong note."

Musicologist Steve Leggett, describes Jamaican singer Joe White as one who has had an unsung career, issuing several brilliant singles through the ska, rocksteady and early reggae eras, including 1967s, Rudies All Around, 1968's Everynight, which sent Sonia Pottinger on the road to success as a record producer, and an amazing version of My Guiding Star for Studio 1. He also had successful stints singing in duet with Chuck Josephs, especially on the recording My Love For You which, to my mind, was the first Jamaican waltz in popular music. In addition to other commendable cuts like Sinners and When You're Young, White recorded an album in 1972, demonstrating his prowess with the harmonica.

Jamaica, perhaps, produced the largest number of unsung heroes in relation to its population, and we'll be looking at others in future articles.