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Stranger Cole, prolific, brilliant

Published:Sunday | July 1, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Stranger Cole is easily one of the longest-serving entertainers in Jamaican popular music.

His entertainment career stretches as far back as 1961 when he auditioned for producer Duke Reid with his composition In And Out The Window. But the Duke wasn't impressed, believing that Stranger would do better as a songwriter or singing in duet.

That first composition - a tuneful patchwork of nursery rhyme fragments, was instead successfully recorded by the more colourful, Eric 'Monty' Morris that same year.

Cole's recording career would not be delayed for long, as the following year the Duke again summoned the lanky 17-year-old to the studio, allowing him the opportunity to wrap his voice around his composition, Ruff An Tuff, which raced to the top of the charts and became one of the recordings most associated with Jamaica's inaugural Independence celebrations.

The recording was powered by two beautiful instrumental solos by Charlie Organaire on harmonica and Baba Brooks on trumpet. During that session in the studio, Cole also recorded another big top-10 hit with Millicent 'Patsy' Todd called When I Call Your Name.

Cole thus began a trend that was peculiar to him - that of singing in duet. He told me in an interview that all his No. 1 hits (12 in all), were done with other people, with the exception of Ruff And Tuff. His penchant for harmony singing, he claimed, inspired that desire.

Earlier in 1961, he had the undistinguished and unreleased recording Freedom Land in duet with Roy Panton for Treasure Isle and recorded Artibella in tandem with Ken Boothe for producer Chief Seven.

The moniker 'Stranger' got stuck shortly after birth when a family member remarked that he didn't resemble any member of his family. He was in fact born Wilburn Theodore Cole, 67 years ago on a date in June which almost coincided with the writing of this article - day no. 26 to be exact.

started as a dancer

It was at Pouyatt Street in Jones Town where he was born and Denham Town where he grew up, that he developed a love for writing songs. This artistic gift, he first managed to put on display, vocally at school concerts and graduations.

But strangely enough, Cole entered the entertainment business, not as a singer but as a dancer on the Vere Johns Opportunity Talent Shows, winning a number of contests with the late Hortense Ellis as his partner.

Cole's early years with Reid were phenomenal. It was an incredible stint in which he was something like a talent scout, introducing Ken Boothe, Justin Hines and The Techniques ( Winston Riley, Frederick Waite, Franklin White, Slim Smith) to Duke Reid with the perennial cut, Little Did You Know, in 1965.

Between 1962 and 1970 he wrote several No.1 hits for other artistes, while doing backing vocals for a few. In addition Cole was instrumental in piloting the early career of The Mighty Diamonds, who he introduced to Randy's Studio with Oh No Baby.

In the meantime, his personal hits flowed in a veritable deluge of consistency out of the Treasure Isle Studio during the early 1960s: When I Call Your Name and Yeah Yeah Baby with Patsy Todd, Uno Dos Tres, We Are Rolling On and Hush Baby with Ken Boothe, and solo pieces Stanger At The Door, Oh I Need You and Run Joe were hot numbers.

Stranger's writing ability again came to the fore when he penned the bluesy ballad Sugar Plum for Owen Grey and Millie Small in 1961. But perhaps his greatest move in assisting other artistes came when he took Ken Boothe to Studio One and recorded one of the biggest ska hits of that era - Worlds Fair. It was indeed the launching pad on which Boothe's illustrious career was built.

Cole's stay at Studio One was, however, short-lived, and he branched out into his own production and did work for other producers.

Ken Khouri got a piece of the action with the slow-tempoed Come Back with Patsy Todd, and there were other pieces for Prince Buster and King Edward before he settled into a relationship with Sonia Pottinger's Gay Feet label in 1967.

rocksteady ballads

It yielded the soulfully beautiful rocksteady ballads Give Me The Right, Tonight, Tell It To Me, Your Photograph and Down By The Train Line, all in duet with Todd.

With The Conquerors backing him, Cole pleaded for peace and sanity in Drop The Rachet, and was kind enough to give Duke Reid a small taste of the pie with Yeah Yeah Baby.

Cole continued singing with others when pianist Gladstone Anderson joined him on Just Like A River (1968), a massive hit in England, Seeing Is Knowing, Now I Know, and Pretty Cottage at the turn of the decade.

Forming his own label (W&C) in collaboration with another singing sensation, Delroy Wilson, they hit hard with I Want To Love You.

By 1968 Jamaican music had gone through a drastic change, evolving into what became known as reggae, and Cole figured prominently in this transition when he claimed, along with others, that he did the first reggae song - the Bunny Lee produced Bangarang.

Becoming very itinerant, Cole spent most of the 1970s and 1980s abroad, where he continued to be a prolific producer, even while devoting much of his time to charity work, for which he was awarded the keys to the city of Compton, California; A 1995 nomination for the Marcus Garvey Humanitarian award in New Orleans, Louisiana, and a 2001 Icon award from Canada for his contribution to music.

Cole did extensive fundraising shows for the eradication of AIDS in California and was a leading force behind collecting donations for victims of Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. In addition, Stranger has received many other awards at home and abroad for his contribution to the development of Jamaican music, while he continues to record occasionally.

Today Stranger Cole is numbered among the hottest and most-sought after Jamaican vintage artistes on the international circuit.