Vere Johns is Santa
It’s December, and so the winter holidays are right around the corner. It’s a time of celebration, so why not celebrate Vere Johns, that Santa himself whose show, the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour, gave the world a gift by launching so many musical careers?! Here is our Santa, or a sketch of him, in 1961 in the same newspaper, the Star, where he had his column in which he discussed various aspects of Jamaican culture and life–everything from politics to medical care to labor issues to the mistreatment of the “bearded men.” The column was called “Vere Johns Says” and he always spoke his mind, sometimes eliciting readers to write in their opposing thoughts and maybe throw a barb or two.
In the column from which the illustration above was taken, Johns weighs in on the “gifts” that he would like to give to local leaders in the year before his country would gain their independence. And when I read about the “referendum” I can’t help but cue up Lord Creator’s “Independent Jamaica” in my musical mind.
This is a pretty typical Vere Johns column, and I think it’s interesting in light of the independence on the horizon. On the “crossroads” Jamaica certainly was during this time. And Vere Johns was involved as conduit or a discriminator and analyst of the events, just as he was with the musical acts that came across his stage. He presented this cultural revolution as it was happening, a conduit of the music that would go on to change the world.
Here is Vere Johns and his wife, the lovely Lucille whose idea it was to host a variety show on the stages of the movie theaters the Johns managed.
This is the same Lucille Johns who appeared with Margarita (Anita Mahfood) in the film “It Could Happen to You” which I had the pleasure of sharing with Margarita’s daughter last week. Incidentally, Margarita won the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour herself in 1952 at the age of 12. Below is an excerpt from my book Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music that sheds a little light on this powerhouse couple.
Ask any vocalist from the 1950s and 1960s where they got their start and they will often tell you that they either participated in or attended the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour. This talent show was responsible for launching the careers of a great percentage of Jamaican vocalists during the time when studios were looking for talent. It was a test, a rehearsal, a springboard for further success. They began the show in April, 1939. After the first show, Lucille told a reporter, “Everybody wishes to be a singer,” and she was nicknamed “Lady Luck.” The Daily Gleaner, July 25, 1939 gave a review of the Opportunity Hour series which had just wrapped up for the season. It stated, “At the close of Friday night’s finals of the popular all-Island ‘Opportunity Hour’ at the Palace Theater, Mr. Vere Johns and his popular wife ‘Lady Luck’ received tremendous compliment for their very laudable efforts of unearthing the talent of Jamaica in the entertainment world and for the undoubted success achieved. . . . with the close of the ‘Opportunity Hour’ we say to Mr. and Mrs. Johns ‘THANK YOU!’ We hope Friday night’s close will not bring an end to such fine efforts. We hope that with Friday night’s close the work of unearthing Jamaica’s talent will continue by this pair, and we hope that by their effort bigger and greater things will be achieved for Jamaica in this respect.” If ever there was a statement of prophecy, this was it.
Music historian and journalist Roy Black said of the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour, “It goes without saying that stars such as Millie Small, John Holt, Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Alton Ellis, Hortense Ellis, The Blues Busters, Derrick Harriott, Derrick Morgan, Lascelles Perkins, Higgs and Wilson, Bunny and Scully, Laurel Aitken, Wilfred ‘Jackie’ Edwards. Jimmy Tucker, Girl Satchmo, Lloyd ‘Sparrow’ Clarke, and musicians Roy Richards, Charlie Organaire, and Rico Rodriguez, who all came under his wing, played significant roles in shaping Jamaica’s popular music. They came in droves – hopeful actors, dancers, tricksters, singers, kneeling at his feet for an opportunity to become popular entertainers. There was hardly a performer who grew up in Kingston who didn’t come into his fold. To them it seemed that only one man held the key to the door of success. The city’s famous theatres – The Palace, at the corner of East Queen Street and South Camp Road; The Majestic, which faces Maxfield Avenue from the Spanish Town Road intersection; and The Ambassador, along Seventh Street in Trench Town – were the venues that Johns found logistically convenient to host these shows. The events took on a carnival atmosphere following auditions held mainly in the hometown of the aspirants. With the winners being decided by crowd reaction, competition was fierce and intense.”
Black describes how the idea for the talent show came about. It was a team effort with his wife who also acted as emcee of the events alongside her husband. Black states, “According to Colby Graham, who did extensive research on Johns, the idea for a Vere Johns talent show was born out of a request by the boss of the Savannah Journal newspaper with whom Johns worked, to devise a strategy to boost attendance at cinemas. With the help of his wife, Lillian, they came up with the idea for the show which began in Savannah, Georgia, in 1937, before the couple moved the event to Jamaica in 1939. In the late 1940s, he began a long-running STAR newspaper column ‘Vere Johns Says,’ mainly on the topic of music. But half the story has never been told as, in the 1950s, Johns added another dimension to his already illustrious career where he was a talent scout, impresario, journalist, radio personality, elocutionist and war veteran, by venturing into the world of movies. He played roles in the 1955 adventure thriller Man Fish, which also featured Eric Coverly, and returned a year later in the 26-minute documentary, It Can Happen To You, in which he played the role of a father of two sons who had syphilis.” That film was the same documentary in which Margarita (Anita Mahfood) portrayed a rhumba dancer who performed in a club as patrons watched and caroused with one another.
Not only did Vere Johns encourage other performers to have a career through his talent show, but he himself was a performer on stage and screen. He even dressed up as Santa Claus at some of his holiday shows. He and Lucille performed a comedy radio show in 1943 called “Razzle Dazzle.” Lucille was also a stage actress, “Lady Luck,” who conducted the talent show band and sang at the talent performances. In 1940 on New Year’s Day, Lucille danced in a troupe that performed a production of “Show-Boat,” which was described as a vaudevillian presentation. An article in the February 18, 1941 issue of the Daily Gleaner states, “The cast of ‘Pagan Fire’ stage presentation at popular Majestic tomorrow night is hard at work and will be ready to give of their best. They comprise the following: Mrs. Vere Johns (Jungle girl)—returns to the Jamaica stage and will be seen in two dance specialties . . . Vere Johns (Chief Crandall)–veteran actor and director in a stirring dramatic role. . . . ‘Pagan Fire’ is an original playlet by Mr. Vere Johns. Place: Kango Isle in the South Seas. Production and direction by Mr. Johns, dance sequences by Mrs. Johns.” In 1943 Lucille Johns wrote a play called “Fool’s Paradise” that was directed by Vere Johns. It was performed at the Ward Theatre and was billed as “A Rich Action Packed Drama of Our Every Day Life in 3 Acts.”
Lucille and Vere Johns had served as supporters, mentors, and directors to the Caribbean Thespians, a group of actors from various theaters around the city. An August 5, 1941 Daily Gleaner article stated, “Vere Johns, well known locally for his many talents, has been heard only too infrequently in the one role in which he excels as a truly great artist. Vere Johns is a Shakespearian actor of extraordinary power. His grip and understanding of the dramatic possibilities of the Shakespearian tradition will amaze and delight his audience, sustaining at the same time the lyrical beauty of the Elizabethan English,” showing that both Vere and Lucille were greatly involved in the theater community.
Another article from the Daily Gleaner on June 22, 1939 with the headline “Play at Palace,” detailed another one of the plays presented by the Johns that Lucille herself had written. “’When a Heat Wave Hit Breadnut Bottom,’ a one-act comedy written by Mrs. Vere Johns and directed by her husband, and in which both took leading parts, was presented, at the Palace Theatre last night to a very appreciative audience. Like their ‘Opportunity Hour’ progammes, this presentation was a further endeavour of Mr. and Mrs. Vere Johns to present to the Jamaica public, Jamaica talent, and they succeeded in no uncertain way in this respect. Throughout its 40 minutes duration, the presentation was followed with interest, interspersed with the applause of the audience. Apart from Mr. and Mrs. Johns, outstanding performers in the play were little golden-voiced Frederick Stanley, who sang three very delightful songs, little Lester Johns (son of Mr. and Mrs. Vere Johns), and Ranny Williams, who as Tom, the headman of Mass Charlie’s (Mr. Vere Johns) plantation did justice to his part.” Lucille and Vere also had at least one other son, Vere Johns Jr., who went on to emcee in 1984 for the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour where Bunny and Scully performed. This event took place at the Odeon Theater and Vere Johns Jr. was billed as the “Ace from Outa Space.”
Here is a link to the article I cite from Roy Black, the legendary music columnist: VERE JOHNS