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Vintage Voices | Dancing to the beat of early music pioneers

Published:Sunday | October 6, 2019 | 12:00 AMRoy Black
Millie Small
Laurel Aitken

Jamaica’s earliest music pioneers on the international circuit were Owen Gray, Laurel Aitken, Wilfred ‘Jackie’ Edwards, Millie Small, and the calypsonian, Lord Flea. The name ‘Millie Small’ may perhaps be the best known owing to the immense popularity of her recording My Boy Lollipop, a remake of Barbie Gaye’s 1957 blues single. Sadly, though, despite their valuable contributions, the others remain relatively unknown to most Jamaicans, especially the younger generation.

England-born, Jamaica-bred music mogul Chris Blackwell has been given most of the credit for Small’s popularity, having taken her to England in 1963, ostensibly to improve her career but seemingly to help set up his Island Records Company. “When Mr Blackwell wrote to my parents and they said ‘yes’, I just went away and sat by myself. I’d always dreamed about going to Britain, but when it happened, I could not believe it,” she reminisced.

But digging a little beneath the surface, one will realise that Owen Gray, one of the earliest pioneers, played just as important a role in getting Small’s career off the ground. He told me some years ago that he was the first to take her into a studio. And according to Laurence Cane-Honeysett, a renowned researcher and writer on Jamaican music, “Dodd, the Studio 1 boss, placed her in the care of Owen Gray, a singer with a slew of hits to his name”. Gray worked on Millie’s technique and timing before assisting her in duet on a handful of Shirley and Lee-sounding sides that included Sit and Cry, Do You Know, and the bluesy ballad Sugar Plum. The latter became a big hit on the Jamaican charts in early 1962.

Gray, in the meantime, did solo recordings for the label dating back to the late 1950s. On The Beach, released in 1959, is said to be his first. It is perhaps the first recording that sang the praises of a sound system, Sir Coxsones’ Downbeat:

“Come down to the beach.

I was dancing to the music of Sir Coxson,

The Downbeat on the beach.”

He also recorded the unstoppable blues number Please Let Me Go and others for Blackwell’s Island (R&B) label that gained for him a following among skinheads in the United Kingdom (UK), where he moved to in 1962. Demonstrating his versatility, Gray played the very thrilling introductory piano solo on the Folks Brothers’ Oh Carolina.

Small’s My Boy Lollipop peaked at number two on both the UK singles and the US Billboard Hot 100 charts in 1964 while selling some seven million copies worldwide. Considered the recording that made the world stop and look at Jamaica as an emerging music powerhouse, it remains a popular draw at parties and dances and on radio networks.

Some rate Edwards as Jamaica’s first superstar, having placed four No.1 singles on the Jamaican charts in less than a year – between 1961 and 1962. Blackwell spotted his potential and took him to England to assist with setting up his Island Records. He proved to be the greatest contributor to Blackwell’s plans by becoming his chief songwriter, in addition to doing recordings and assisting with record deliveries. Edwards’ compositions impacted charts throughout Europe. But perhaps his crowning achievement came in 1966, when two of his compositions, Keep On Running and Somebody Help Me by the Spencer Davis group, climbed to the top of the UK pop charts.

Laurel Aitken was the earliest of the pioneers to expose Jamaica’s ska and home-made boogie songs to the UK market. He migrated there on his own ticket in 1960 in search of greener pastures and quickly built a huge following in the West Indian expatriate communities. Boogie In My Bones, Little Sheila, Judgment Day, Boogie Rock, Lonesome Lover, and You Left Me Standing ( I Remember) spread his message far and wide. By the late 1960s, Aitken was dubbed ‘The Godfather of ska’, releasing close to 130 singles, but soon expanded his style to include rocksteady and reggae.

Lord Flea, an exciting Jamaican calypsonian with extraordinary vocal and guitar-playing skills, made an indelible imprint at Kingston nightclubs like Adastra, Success, and Desperanza and recorded a few songs for businessmen Ken Khouri and Alec Durie in the mid-50s before being spotted and offered a six-month contract by American club owner Bill Saxton to do resident duties at his Florida venue. In almost no time, Flea was creating a calypso firestorm in America, establishing new house records with his band, Lord Flea and his Calypsonians. Widely accepted for popularising the calypso craze in America, Flea was perhaps the most unsung hero of Jamaican popular music.

A 1957 review by Billboard magazine stated that “Flea has a dynamic drive” and that his album, Swinging Calypso, produced “attention-grabbing sides which can stir action at all levels”. The album was historic, having been the first to be done by a Jamaican group for the larger-than-life Capitol Records.

Flea didn’t stop there. He extended his reach into the movie world, becoming the first Jamaican entertainer to appear in two full-length movies, Bop Girl Goes Calypso and Calypso Joe in 1957. He thus established himself as Jamaica’s first international superstar ahead of Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, and others. Two years later, the calypsonian fell victim to the malignant Hodgkin’s disease at the tender age of 27.