Pioneer Owen Gray grateful for JaRIA Award - But says he should be getting far more acknowledgement as honours list is unveiled
The Jamaica Reggae Industry Association (JaRIA) Honour Awards, the annual Reggae Month prestigious curtain-closer, will this year see 27 awards spread across 18 categories, as the organisation pays tribute to the stalwarts for their yeoman service. ‘Extraordinary’ and ‘exceptional’ are words that pop up frequently on the list, as many of the awardees are being honoured for either their extraordinary impact on, or their exceptional contribution to, the music industry.
With Reggae Month taking a virtual route this year, the Sunday, February 28 ceremony, usually a lavish, red-carpet affair, also goes online. Heading the list of awardees is pioneering singer Owen Gray, who was among the first handful of artistes to capture international attention when he migrated to England in 1962. In fact, Gray is credited with grooming Millie Small, after Studio One producer Sir Coxsone Dodd, took Small under his wings and asked Gray, who had a number of hits to his name, to tutor her. Her first song, Sugar Plum, was a duet with Gray.
“I am the first one that started this. I am grateful for the Lifetime Achievement Award. I don’t see it yet, but I am thankful that the organisers thought about me. However, I should be getting more. I should be getting something like an OD, and an Icon Award,” the 81-year-old Gray, who was certainly not shy to speak him mind, told The Gleaner from his UK home.
A robust-sounding Gray listed his songwriting credentials and the singers with whom he worked. “I trained Mille [Small] to sing. I used to win all the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour contests, and that was before Mille came on the scene. I wrote songs for Wilfred ‘Jackie’ Edwards and also for Laurel Aitken, who was the first Jamaican singers to go to England,” Gray said.
Gray’s friend and colleague, Winston Francis, another Jamaican pioneering singer who also resides in England, told The Gleaner that he was happy that Gray was finally being recognised. He shared similar sentiments, but said that hopefully, this JaRIA Award is just the beginning of things to come from the Jamaican Government.
“I am really elated that they are offering this to Owen. He’s been here from the start and is one of the pioneers of reggae music in the UK, [but] has never been considered for anything. About 10 years ago, some artistes here decided to do something to honour Owen and Dimple Hines, and they asked the Jamaican high commissioner here to make the presentation. However, Owen thought it was an OD from the Government, and when he found out that it wasn’t he was very disappointed,” Francis told The Gleaner. “I hope he gets everything this year, including the OD.”
Also numbered among JaRIA list of distinguished 2021 awardees are Stephen ‘Cat’ Coore, cellist and guitarist; engineers Shane Brown and Orville ‘Rorey’ Baker; Mafia and Fluxy; Handel Tucker; musician and songwriter Harold Butler, Icon awardees Luciano, U-Roy, Phyllis Dillon, Blues Busters, George Banton, Change, British reggae band Aswad, Count Shelly Lloyd and Coxsone Sound System
Dub poet and radio personality Mutabaruka and music website Reggaeville are in line to be recognised, and so, too, are the organisers of the street dance, Rae Town Sundays.
JaRIA’s posthumous awards for 2021 go to acclaimed hornsman Ronald ‘Nambo’ Robinson, Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee, Winston ‘Bopee’ Bowen, guitarist Dalton Browne, and popular radio personality Tony Young.
The Gregory Isaacs Foundation will this year recognise the man who has, for decades, worked behind the scenes designing covers for reggae albums, Orville ‘Bagga’ Case.
As usual, the public will vote on two awards – Breakthrough Artiste of the Year and Song of the Year. The winners will be revealed on the night of the awards function.