It is with sadness that we learn of that John Bradbury, drummer for The Specials, has died. Bradbury joined The Specials just after their first tour when they were still known as the Coventry Automatics and they supported The Clash. Bradbury replaced Silverton Hutchinson who left the band when he decided he didn’t want to play ska and instead wanted to play roots reggae. When Jerry Dammers asked Hutchinson to play differently, Hutchison, who was known to have a temper, packed up his drums and simply left. The rest of the band chose to replace Hutchison with John Bradbury, also known as Brad. Bradbury was a friend of those in the group as well as a housemate to Dammers in 1975.
Back in the 1990s, Neville Staple told me that John Bradbury and all of the members of the band were crucial to the sound of The Specials. He remembers the writing process during those days. “You might have a rough backing track or a rough idea and then you get the rest of the guys, the drummer, you might give him an idea of what the beat is or he’ll probably know anyway. You just click in on it,” he says. Many of the songs were written by various members of the band, but Staple says there was always one leader. “With a band you need somebody who’s like, there’s one. You can’t have four or five people making decisions. At the end of the day, it’s going to come down to one. So Jerry, he started the band and so he had a bit more say and he was doing most of the writing then anyways, but to say he was the leader, well it was his band when it started and then everybody started to get more of their influence in,” Staple says.
Of John Bradbury, Horace Panter wrote on his Facebook page, “It feels very strange to know that I will never work with my ‘other half’ of The Specials’ rhythm section again. Brad jokingly referred to me as ‘the glue’, the man who held it all together, but he was the backbone, the bedrock of the music, and he was responsible for its signature sound, that tightly stretched snare and highly original style that he called ‘attack drumming’. He drew on the drive of Northern Soul but had the jazz influences of ska and the sensuality of reggae. He always played like his life depended on it, always on the money, always in the pocket. To have been able to play music with him has been an absolute privilege and the fact that I’ll miss him is the height of understatement. Thanks Brad, you played great!”
After The Specials broke up, Bradbury was a member of The Special A.K.A. and he co-wrote the classic song “Racist Friend” with Jerry Dammers and Dick Cuthell. The song was released in August 1983. The song begins:
If you have a racist friend,
Now is the time, now is the time for your friendship to end.
Be it our sister
Be it your brother
Be it your cousin or your uncle or your lover.
If you have a racist friend,
Now is the time, now is the time for your friendship to end.
Be it your best friend
Or any other
Is it your husband or your father or your mother?
Tell them to change their views
Or change their friends.
Now is the time, now is the time for your friendship to end.
My personal favorite song by The Specials with John Bradbury on drums and Rico Rodriguez on trombone (he also died earlier this year) is Ghost Town. Below is my analysis of this crucial song in an excerpt from my book Ska: The Rhythm of Liberation:
In early 1981, the Specials met in a small studio in Leamington to record a song that best captured the zeitgeist of the ska revival. “Ghost Town,” a song with an eerie, haunting, discordant sound whose words echoed the violence on the streets, was serendipitously and coincidentally released the same time as massive rioting took place in across the country. The song’s words, “Can’t go on no more, the people getting angry,” prophetically paralleled police randomly stopping and searching people in Operation Swamp, so named because of Thatcher’s comments about people being “afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people of a different culture.” Most of the 943 people that were searched in six days were black. As a result, rioting broke out in Brixton, Coventry, and literally dozens of other towns and neighborhoods. Hundreds of people were arrested and people were murdered in racist attacks. “Ghost Town” was ska music’s version of the Sex Pistols’ no future. It was more than a warning—it was a declaration. The song reached number one on the charts. “Music didn’t cause the riots, of course,” says TV Smith, vocalist for the Adverts in Thompson’s book. “But songs like ‘Ghost Town’ helped make people aware that there really was something wrong with the country, and when you realize something is wrong you want to do something about it.” Lynval Golding opined, “”It’s terrible when you have a song like that and you see that, gradually, it’s all coming true. . . . It’s a bit frightening when you predict something’s gonna happen, it’s always horrible when you actually see it’s coming true.”
In many ways, “Ghost Town” was the end of the ska revival because it threw in the towel. It was the last single the original lineup of the Specials would record together, as members split up to try their hand at other bands, projects, and genres, and the Specials were the seminal ska revival band. But “Ghost Town” also threw in the towel because the aim of the ska revival, the aim of Jerry Dammers, had succeeded, because the West Indian immigrants were no longer sitting down accepting “No dogs, No blacks.” Through the revolution and rioting they were standing up and demanding to be recognized as equal. They were no longer West Indian immigrants—they were British citizens.
A couple of weeks ago I posted the lost chapter of Ska: An Oral History and mentioned how I was unable to use an interview from Prince Buster in my book because negotiations with his manager proved unfruitful. I have decided that it is wrong to leave this important piece of history buried because of money. So I use this platform to post the interview since there is no money to be made here. There is no money to be made in publishing academic books either, which is why his manager did not want to grant me permission. So hey, it is almost two decades after I conducted this interview on a microcassette tape over the phone, and it is time it sees the light of day, for the good of Jamaican music history, because Prince Buster is a legend who deserves our respect and admiration for all he has contributed. I’ve included a few photos along the way for your visual pleasure.
Prince Buster Interview with Heather Augustyn, 7-14-1997
I was in a dance troupe and would sing solo. I used to have problems going to school in the day because I stayed up so late at night. I paid less attention to singing and was more into boxing and wanted to be in fights but really there was no money in boxing. You’d get punched up and then there was no money. So I leave that and go back to singing and started recording. From day one, I started for me. [See post on Prince Buster’s boxing days HERE]
Tom the Great Sebastian had a hardware store and he’d play music there all day long on Fridays and Saturdays. They used to play rhythm and blues at the time imported from America. I used to hear a lot of rhythm and blues. I used to play at Tom’s and Coxsone came around one day and asked if I would help him, because of my popularity and a lot of people followed me at the time and I helped Coxsone. Coxsone took off by himself but I was the one who used to help Coxsone to find who were the artists on the records that Duke Reid played at the dance. Duke Reid was his competitor. But in those days they would scratch the labels off the record so you could read nothing. But Tom didn’t do that, and when I was at Tom’s, I read the names on the label and I identified the players who played and tell to Coxsone the labels they were recording on in the United States and he’d buy these records and bring back and the agreement was that a certain portion would be for me. But every time he came back he had something to fix or something to do, I didn’t get my work. So knowing I was the one keeping up his sound system, I went off and did my own sound system and challenged Coxsone and Duke Reid and dethroned them and became king of sound system.
I had tried to get a visa to come to the United States to buy some rhythm and blues by going into the farm work program. I passed every test and the morning we were supposed to leave, one of the inspectors took me out of line. Very disappointed was I so I went back to my friends, everybody thought I was going to leave—I was telling everybody when I came back I was going to have these recordings because I knew the nae of the artists and what to look for. And that didn’t work, so I went to Drumbago who played a club and I asked him to come with me and play a march, similar to a procession. I would wander off in processions to the beat of the drum, and that is what I did. I get together with Drumbago. I put the march on the track and I asked him to put the accent on the one and the three and I had Jah Jerry come up with the strum of the guitar and I had Rico Rodriguez do the ‘pop pop pop’ on the tenor sax [sic. Rico was trombone–see photo below] and recorded the sound that took over Jamaica. And that was called ska.
Understand that rocksteady is a child of ska and reggae is a child of rocksteady. So that makes ska the grandfather of reggae. Because Bob Marley said it quite plain. He said ‘I feel it in the one drop.’ My thing from day one was the one drop. Everybody knows, that what Drumbago play, the one drop. And he and, ‘I feel it in the one drop,’ and to this day, his alto sax player who alone tells that Drumbago was where the ska jump come from.
I was called that [Prince Buster] from day one. I was born in a riot. There was a man who was fightin’ for the working class because in Jamaica, I was born in that day and they name me after him. He became the prime minister and they name me from him. Sir Alexander Bustamante, national hero of Jamaica. He is also cousins to the Manleys. I was born Cecil Campbell, but they call me Prince Buster. But to this day people call me Cecil “Prince Buster” Campbell.
There were all of these political divides in Jamaica and on a similar scale, you tend to forget what happened then because the divide is so huge now. We had some violence, but compared to now, it was nothing. The politicians will do nothing to stop it. That’s part of the thing, you know, we hire them and employ them to go and find a better solution for the country and they go there and cannot do nothing to stop the violence and then the violence affect the economy and the country now is in a drain because of the violence. It becomes a hostile environment and then people think twice before they put their money in. So I am still asking them to do something about it, to this day, to do something about it regardless of political affiliation and they don’t do it. I’m up and down there. I’m from the people. I was called The Voice of the People. I have championed the voice of the people. That put me with many clashes with governments in Jamaica.
The music was born from the people and Kingston is where the music came from, that is the area and ska was laughed at by Duke Reid, Coxsone, and the more well-to-do people up on the hill who at that time could profit from the American imports. Even the radio station gave us a hard time promoting ska because they had their thing going with the manufacturers of the American imports. People got licenses and started pressings in Jamaica, so most of the DJs had a good thing going with the manufacturers. We didn’t have much money to give them and we had a hard fight with the disc jockeys on the radio station to promote ska. Ska took over by the will of the people. People started writing to the station, they want to know why they’re not hearing this and that constant barrage converted them. And today I hear a lot of people praising that ska is good, but now they must remember we adapt ever since then. The people went through it and today even those hypocrites have done it.
A rude boy was like a disobedient child. There were criminals but a rude boy was a little disobedient, yah?
Derrick is my friend, you know? Derrick used to sing for a man named Hi Lite. Smithy was his name, but we call him Hi-Lite and at my shop he was about three or four miles away from me. I started making hit after hit after hit and Derrick came down to the shop because we had a lot of young singers we were bringing along. And he sang ‘Hey Fat Man’ and all that but we said we could do better with him than ‘Hey Fat Man,’ so he joined the group with us and we took him to the studio and we made records. Then at a later date he used one of my songs. He encouraged one of the members of my band to play with Beverley’s, a person who do recordings, so I called him a ‘Black Head Chinaman.’ He went back and said I’m a ‘Blazing Fire’ and then I said ‘Praise and No Raise’ and we keep on saying to each other. Our competitiveness is in support of the music. We will compete with each other. Derrick Morgan would come to the back of my shop. I counted him close to me. We had a war but we didn’t have a physical war. I don’t remember ever talk to Derrick that hard for a war, you know, more than for the music, to get things done, but still today we still compete with music. He said it too. We argue about some things but it was always a friendship because with me, he’s got a voice to speak and it’s a democratic kind of thing.
I came out in the society for the people, so I had government banning my songs from the radio. I had the other part of society fighting me as a rebel. And the rest of the singers didn’t have this—they just compete with sounds. But I guess that’s why the people of Jamaica respect me, because they knew, as young as I was, the spirituality was in me and the love of God could stand up against everybody–government, Duke Reid, Coxsone—I stood up to everybody. It’s the great love I have for God.
[About new ska bands] I love them. These are the younger people now and they’re putting new energy into the things. At their age, they’ve got the young appearances for the audience now. I greatly appreciate that.
The winter holidays are upon us, so why not take a look at holiday traditions in Jamaican culture and how these relate to ska? Then, make sure to get your vinyl ready because I have a fairly comprehensive list of holiday-related Jamaican tunes, some ska, some post-ska, for your festive parties! I’ve also included a few clips throughout to keep you dancing as you read!
First of all, here is a little primer on holiday traditions and history in Jamaica, which is very important to ska history, as you will see. Much of the showmanship and competition found in the music industry in Jamaica today and throughout the last century can be traced back to the pomp and swagger of the Caribbean festivals where music and performance combined in a flamboyant display of prowess. These festivals, Carnival in Trinidad, and Jonkunnu in Jamaica, were celebrations that took place during the height of the Great Revival (spiritual traditions that stemmed from African religions–Pukkumina, Zion, Kumina, etc.) and continue today. Jonkunnu in Jamaica has its origins in the Carnival celebration in Trinidad, which, in turn, had its origins in the Masquerade celebrated by Europeans. Carnival began at Christmas time and lasted sometimes until Ash Wednesday. Celebrations included feasting and processions through the streets, the biggest of which took place on Shrove Tuesday, or the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.
These processions were called canboulay, a derivation of the French words cannes brulees, which translates as burning canes. Slaves carried burning canes as torches to light the way during the night when a plantation owner’s crops caught fire. Slaves from nearby plantations were summoned to help extinguish the fire. Taken to the field by a driver with a whip, the slaves carried flaming torches to light the way. Canboulay processions draw elements from these events, utilizing participants with whips who emulate the slave master, masked characters representing people and animals, in an entertaining lampoon of life. The content of these processions, these marches, were serious, but the tone was lighthearted and enjoyable.
One of the main displays in canboulay during Carnival is kalinda. Kalindas were stick fights, similar to the art of dula meketa in Ethiopia or mousondi in the Congo, and were tests of strength and skill. During Carnival, a group or band of some two dozen men were led by a “big pappy” who directed his crew through the streets until they encountered a rival group. In a spirit of camaraderie and competition, each group threw out boasts to one another, stating their prowess and challenges frequently set to song which was called kalinda, since the warlike song and the stick fight itself were part of the festival procession. Fighters chose their sticks carefully, visiting a region in Trinidad called Gasparillo to select a stick made of Baton Gasparee wood. They then prepared their stick by singeing it over a fire until the bark came off, then they rubbed coconut oil into the wood. The stick was ready to use and when horns or empty bottles were sounded, the bands assembled accompanied by instrumentalists, singers, and dancers who performed a dance called a belair, or bele. The display involved the participation of all and the boasting was competitive in a respectful, boisterous, convivial manner. This spirit of competitive camaraderie continued in the days of sound system clashes in the 1950s and 1960s as producers attempted to one-up each other to appeal to the crowds. And ska recording artists, following the lead of the big pappies, also threw down challenges to each other to boast of their talent–Derrick Morgan and Prince Buster is a classic example, as are the boasts and challenges between producers like Coxsone, Duke Reid, Prince Buster, and King Edwards.
Due to the perceived threat of riot and revolt, canboulay and kalindas were banned by the government and police. The masks used by characters in the procession were also banned in festivals in 1840 by the British governor. Drums and fiddles, associated with Africa, were considered heathen and therefore instruments of the devil, plus they were loud and disturbing late at night. Open letters in local newspapers called the revelers “savages” and spoke of celebrations as “orgies” full of “crime” and “barbarism.” The people resisted, but they were squashed by military troops and were forced to either conform to the establishment or they simply adapted the festival in ways to elude the establishment.
In Jamaica, this festival was called Jonkunnu, named after John Conny, a powerful leader of the Guinea people in the early 1700s. The British spelled his name John Canoe, hence the name Jonkunnu. The white planters allowed their slaves to celebrate this secular festival which took place during the Christmas season. Elaborate street parades began on the island as early as 1774. Like Carnival, Jonkunnu involved masked characters. Performance and music always went hand in hand. The leader of the festival wore cow horns, a cow tail, and sometimes carried swords or wore a mask with tusks. This character was John Canoe. Other characters included those mocking the military, aristocrats, police, sailors, the devil, Horsehead, Jack-in-the-Green, Pitchy-Patchy, Belly Woman, Warrior, Red Indian or Wild Indian, Koo-Koo or Actor Boy, King and Queen, and Red-Set and Blue-Set Girls. These characters did not remove their masks in public, nor did they speak or sing.
Those who did provide the vocal and instrumental accompaniment for the procession included a band of drummers, bamboo fife, banjo, and metal grater performers. Tambour-bamboo bands also provided percussion by banging together lengths of bamboo or using one to knock on the ground. Since they were hollow they produced varying tones. Soon musicians sought other items for their percussion as well, especially since the stick bands were prohibited by the British government. Participants used household items such as spoons, bottles, and metal pans. In Trinidad, this progression soon led to the use of oil drums which were crafted to produce different notes and tones, and the steel bands were born. But everyone was a participant. Jonkunnu was not a spectator event. Everyone performed, everyone played, everyone danced, and this custom was always a part of the people’s music.
The Burru, a group of men who became influential to ska musicians through their association with Rastafarianism, emerged during the days of slavery on the island. Bands of Burru, African drummers, were permitted by slave owners to play drums and sing for the workers in the Jamaican fields to raise the slaves’ spirits—not for emotional reasons, but to impose more productivity. After slavery was abolished, the Burru could not find work and so they congregated in the impoverished areas of Kingston. Their drumming style, like the African vocal styles, exhibited a call-and-response format with a drum leading the rhythm, followed by “licks” from the answering drums.
Each Christmas season, the Burru men gathered to compose their own music with words about local events or about people in the community who had committed an act of wrongdoing. They worked on these songs starting in September and then on the holiday they traveled throughout the community, in a procession not unlike Jonkunnu, going from home to home, playing their bamboo scraper, shakka, and rhumba box for percussion, singing their songs which were intended to purge the evil of the previous year before the new one began. Although the music was composed during the months previous to the event, they also improvised on the spot, a practice that musicians continued in the decades that followed. Because the Burru were mischievous in their songs, and because they lived in the slum areas of the city, they were mistakenly considered by many to be criminals or undesirables. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Burru came to live with the Rastafarians at camps throughout the island’s mountains, especially in Kingston, and the music of the Burru combined with the spirituality of the Rastafarians, as both groups found solace together from society’s rejection. These camps became a refuge for musicians as well during the ska era since they were a place for uninhibited musical communion, a place for performance without restriction or limitations, and a place for retreat from the hardships of oppressive life. The Burru drumming became a part of ska music as Prince Buster recorded “Oh Carolina” using Count Ossie and his drummers who were informed by the Burru tradition.
So, how can you enjoy this tradition this holiday season? Well queue up a little ska, rocksteady, and reggae–here is a list I compiled using the Roots Knotty Roots database, thanks to good friend Michael Turner. If you prefer something more contemporary, I would recommend Toasters Christmas Ska which is a killer selection of 11 holiday songs and it is available on colored vinyl from Jump Up! Records here: http://www.jumpuprecords.com/christmaska/
Here’s one of my personal favorite holiday selections from the incredible Byron Lee and the Dragonaires album Christmas Party Time in the Tropics–super fun stuff!
And for those who want to bring a little island flavor to the snow, here you go!
Admiral Bailey, Christmas Style
Al Vassel, Happy Christmas
Albert Morrison, Santa Claus is Coming to Town
Alton Ellis, A Merry Merry Christmas
Alton Ellis, Christmas Coming
Amlak, Christmas Is Here
Angela Stewart and U Brown, Gee Whiz It’s Christmas
Aquizim, Merry Christmas
Arcainians, Christmas In Jamaica
Barrington Levy and Trinity, I Saw Mommy Kiss A Dreadlocks
Black Crucial, Christmas Time
Black Pearls, Babe In Bethlehem
Black Pearls, Christmas Joys
Bob Marley and The Wailers, Christmas Is Here
Bob Marley and The Wailers, White Christmas
Boris Gardiner, The Meaning Of Christmas
Cables, Christmas Is Not A Holiday
Cables, White Christmas (When Christmas Is Here)
Carlene Davis, White Christmas
Carlene Davis and Trinity, Santa Claus (Do You Ever Come To The Ghetto)
Carlos Malcolm and His Afro Jamaican Rhythm, Good King Wenceslas
Carlos Malcolm and His Afro Jamaican Rhythm, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
Carlton Livingston, Long Cold Winter
Cassandra, What Do The Lonely Do At Christmas
Cedric Bravo and Rico Rodrigues, Merry Christmas
Charmers, Merry Christmas Blues
Charmers, Long Winter
Chatanhoogatin, Christmas Reggae
Cimarons, Holy Christmas
Cimarons, Silent Night White Christmas (Medley)
Claudelle Clarke, Franking Scent and Merry Christmas
Coco Tea, Christmas Is Coming
Cornel Campbell and The Eternals, Christmas Joy
Count Lasher and Lord Tanamo, Christmas Time
Culture, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Cutty Ranks, Christmas Time
Danny Dread, Winter
Dennis Brown, Trinity, Dhaima, Mighty Diamonds, Christmas Rockers
Denzil Dennis, Christmas Message
Derrick Harriott and The Tamlins and Joy White and Reasons and U Brown, Christmas Songbook
Desmond Dekker, Christmas Day
Desmond Tucker, Oh Holy Night
Devon Russell, After Christmas
Diane Lawrence, Have A Merry Christmas
Diane Lawrence, Ring The Bell For Christmas
Dicky Roots, Christmas Rock
Dillinger, Christmas Season
Doreen Schaeffer, Wish You A Merry Christmas
Eek A Mouse, Christmas A Come
Eric Tello, A Child Is Born (When A Child Is Born)
Father Richard Ho Lung, Christmas Mento
Frank Cosmo, Merry Christmas
Frank Cosmo, Merry Christmas
Frankie Paul, Christmas Time
Gable Hall School Choir, Reggae Christmas
Gaylads, Christmas Bells Are Ringing
Gladstone Anderson, Lights of Christmas
Glen Adams, Christmas Rock Reggae
Glen Brown, East Christmas Song
Glen Ricketts, This Christmas
Granville Williams and Orchestra, Santa Claus Is Skaing To Town
Granville Williams and Orchestra, Silver Bells
Heptones, Christmas Time (Give Me)
Home T 4, Rock It For Christmas
Home T and Trinity, Dub It For Christmas
Hopeton Lewis, Happy Christmas
Horace Andy, Christmas Time
I Roy, Christmas Dubwise
Inventor and Studio One Band, Caribbean Christmas
Iron Phoenix, Natty Dread Christmas
Jackie Edwards, Bright Christmas
Jackie Edwards, White Christmas
Jackie Mittoo, Christmas Rock
Jackie Mittoo, Joy Joy (Ghetto Child)
Jah Walton, DJ Christmas
Jamaican Folk Singers, A Christmas Carol
Jamaican Folk Singers, John Canoe Medley (Christmas A Come, Tenk Yu For De Christmas)
Jays, Dancehall Christmas Medley
Johnny Clarke, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
Judge Dread, Christmas In Dreadland
Judge Dread, Merry Christmas Mr. Dread
Junior Soul, Christmas Party
Karl Bryan, Christmas Version
King Everald, Santa Claus
King Kong, Nice Christmas
Kingstonians, Merry Christmas
Kojak, Christmas Style
Laurel Aitken, Rock Santa Rock
Lee Perry and Sandra Robinson, Merry Christmas Happy New Year
Little John, It’s Christmas Time
Little John, Save A Little For Christmas
Lord Creator, Merry Christmas To You
Lord Kitchener, Party For Santa Claus
Lord Nelson, Party For Santa Claus
Lucy Myers, Christmas Day
Maytals, Christmas Season (Christmas Feeling)
Maytals, Happy Christmas (Christmas Song)
Mel Turner and Souvenirs, White Christmas
Methodist Male Voice Choir, A Christmas Medley
Methodist Male Voice Choir, Silent Night
Michael Palmer, Christmas Time Again (Happy Merry Xmas)
Michael Powell, Christmas Time
Mikey Dread, Herbal Christmas Gift
Miss Misty, Merry Christmas
Mr. and Mrs. Yellowman, Where Is Santa Claus
Mutabaruka, Postpone Christmas
Neville Willoughby, Christmas Jamaica
Neville Willoughby, J.A. Xmas Day
Nicodemus, Winter Wonderland
Nora Dean, Merry Christmas
Norma Isaacs, Christmas Time
Norman T Washington, It’s Christmas Time Again
Norman T Washington and Lloyd Clarke, Happy Christmas
Nyah and The Sunflakes, Merry Christmas
Nyah and The Sunflakes, White Christmas
One Blood, The Christmas Present
Pablove Black and Bagg, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
Palemina, Faith D’Aguilar and Cedric Brooks, Santa Ketch Up Eena Mango Tree
Pat Rhoden, Christmas Song
Pat Rhoden, It Must Be Santa Claus
Phillip Fraser, Rub A Dub Christmas
Raymond Harper, White Christmas
Reuben Anderson, Christmas Time Again
Rhythm Aces, Christmas (C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S)
Richard Ace, Christmas Reggae
Rio Guava, Christmas Day Is Coming
Robert French, Have A Merry Christmas
Roman Stewart, Christmas Affair
Roman Stewart and Glen Brown and Dean Beckford and Charley, Christmas Song
Ruddy Grant and Sketto Richard, Christmas Blues
Ruddy Thomas, Roots Christmas
Ruddy Thomas, What A Happy Christmas
Rupie Edwards, Christmas Rush (Christmas Parade)
Sammy Dread, Christmas Jamboree
Sheridons, Merry Christmas (And A Happy New Year)
Sheridons, Silent Night
Shorty The President, Natty Christmas
Sir Jablonski, Merry Christmas Day
Sonie and Pretty Boy Floyd, It May Be Winter Outside
Steve Golding, Strictly Rock Christmas
Sugar Minott, Christmas Holiday
Sugar Minott, Christmas Jamboree
Sugar Minott, Christmas Time
Tappa Zukie, Red Rose (Archie The Red Nose Reindeer)
Teddy Davis, Christmas Bells
Tim Chandell, Christmas Time
Tony J and The Toys, Christmas Dragon
Top Grant, A Christmas Drink
Trinity, Video Christmas
Trinity and the Mighty Diamonds, Christmas Carol
Triston Palmer, Christmas Jamboree
Tyrone Evans, International Christmas Medley
Ugliman, Christmas Boogie Christmas Is Here)
Vibrators, Merry Christmas (Merry Christmas Is Here)
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