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A queen among men - Sonia Pottinger OD stands tall in male-dominated field

Published:Sunday | March 18, 2012 | 12:00 AM

The contribution made by women to the 50-year-old independent Jamaican nation in the field of popular music is phenomenal.

That contribution was particularly highlighted in the media and elsewhere on International Women's Day, March 8.

Women were, for the most part, contributors as vocalists, with legends like Millie Small, Marcia Griffiths, Hortense Ellis, Cynthia Schloss, Phyllis Dillon, Judy Mowatt, Sheila Hylton, Millicent 'Patsy' Todd, Rita Marley, Carlene Davis, Lorna Bennett, Nadine Sutherland, Tanya Stephens and J.C. Lodge headlining a galaxy of female stars being paid their due.

But one woman who chose not to go that route in her quest for musical glory was the late Sonia Pottinger OD.

Although being blessed with a good voice, she chose to venture into music production. In this area she created history by being the only female producer of popular Jamaican music during its early years, and this she did with distinction, despite having to face fierce competition from male stalwarts like Clement 'Coxson' Dodd of Studio One, Duke Reid of Treasure Isle Records, Leslie Kong of Beverley's Records, Randy Chin of Randy's Records and Vincent Edwards on his King Edward Label.

Pottinger emulated them in some instances but certainly surpassed them in others.

In order to fully grasp the achievements of this female musical legend, one has first, to understand the role of producers in early Jamaican music.

critical role

That role was critical to the making of the record and included the overall financing and arrangements associated with the manufacturing of the disc.

The arrangements included: making arrangements and paying for studio time, having a say in the arrangement of the music, organising musicians for the recording session, arranging for airplay and distribution after manufacture and, in some cases, acting as manager for the artistes. Sonia Pottinger was all of these packaged in one.

Pottinger was born Sonia Eloise Durrant in St Thomas on June 21, 1931 and grew up in Kingston where she attended St George's Girls' School, Denham Town High, and a commercial school.

Upon completion of her education, Durrant worked as an accountant before getting married at 21 to Lyndon Pottinger - a well-established record producer who already had a number of hits under his belt.

This association inspired Pottinger to drift into the areas of music production, while assisting her husband. As the 1950s drew to a close, her obsession with music grew significantly and by 1965 at age 34, she had fully made the transition into music production on her own, opening her record shop at 37 Orange Street in Kingston.

Her gracious and ebullient response to artistes requests for sponsorship, coupled with a keen ear for music, fostered an ability to spot a winner easily, and as such attracted the cream of the crop singers of the rocksteady and early reggae eras (mid 1960s-early 1970s) to her stables.

career launcher

The recording that launched her career was the slow, romantic 1966 ballad, Everynight, by Joe White and Chuck. Recorded at Federal Recording Studios, it became a massive hit that rode high on the Jamaican charts for months and in the process attracted her first major award.

Pottinger's subsequent emergence as a producer of repute coincided with the birth of the rockstready beat in 1966 and she duly stamped her class on the Jamaican music scene, producing such sweet-sounding rocksteady gems as That's Life and Stay A Little Bit Longer by Delano Stewart, Lady With The Starlight and Say You by Ken Boothe, Build Me Up and Close To You by Brent Dowe, Little Nut Tree, Swing And Dine, and Nola by the Melodians and Hard To Confess and ABC Rocksteady by The Gaylads - all on her Gayfeet and High Note labels.

There was hardly an instance where any of these songs didn't reach the top ten charts, and all were distinguished by clean, vibrant rhythms supervised by Pottinger and performed by the best rocksteady band in the land - Lynn Taitt and the Jets.

With a catalogue as long as from here to eternity, Pottinger extended her wings into the area of gospel music production, the multiplicity of which was unrivalled anywhere in the history of Jamaican music.

Her gospel productions, which were mainly of the revivalist-handclapping type, done on a label she specifically designed for this purpose, named Glory, formed the basis of the music in such churches.

The Man From Galilee, Home Once More, Someday by Otis Wright, Turn Your Radio On by Claudel Clarke, and The Comforter Has Come by Alton and Otis, were just the tip of the iceberg in terms of quantity, and were big sellers and favourites among churchgoers at the time.

In an interview I had with Pottinger in 2008 and which forms the basis of this article, she stated that she bought the rich Treasure Isle catalogue of Duke Reid in the mid 1970s. Discrepancies, however, developed when others claimed they had also bought it. The matter was settled through a Supreme Court ruling, making her the rightful owner.

A deep lover of music with a sharp business sense, operating in a male-dominated field, Pottinger continued to blaze a trail by putting out some remarkable recordings during the 1970s.

Culture became one of her latest clients with the roots recording, Natty Never Get Weary. Marcia Griffiths also did one of her best selling albums for Pottinger, titled Naturally, in 1977-78, and followed up with the equally impressive Stepping Out Of Babylon.

Winston Samuels, Delroy Wilson, Alton Ellis, The Ethiopians, The Conquerors and others recorded for her up to the mid 1980s when she retired from music production. She then moved into sewing and ceramics, producing some beautiful pieces which I had the privilege of observing when I visited her.

Alzheimers and Diabetes affected her health in later years. She fell ill in late October 2010, became progressively worse and died on November 3 that same year at the age of 79.

A deep lover of music with a sharp business sense, operating in a male-dominated field, Pottinger continued to blaze a trail by putting out some remarkable recordings during the 1970s.