I wrote the following article for the Vinyl Record Collectors’ Association’s magazine for their 20th anniversary Annual Memorial Day Collectors’ Sit-In in Kingston, Jamaica. Special thanks to my great friends Charlotte Smikle and Roberto Moore for their assistance in allowing me this opportunity, and helping me to research and edit!
I have been spending almost every waking moment finishing my latest book with my co-author Adam Reeves and am pleased to report that it will be out later this summer, so get ready for Alpha Boys School: Cradle of Jamaican Music which is coming in at nearly 400 pages! It has been three years in the making. Which is why I have had little time for blogging lately, so this week I offer the words of Hedley Jones on the history of the term, “Riding a Riddim.” Mr. Jones, as you may know, is an electrical engineer and the inventor of the electric guitar with a wood body. One of his inventions can be seen at the Jamaica Music Museum in Kingston, and you can read more about him in my blog post HERE.
Here is Hedley Jones’s take on the term, “Riding a Riddim” from the Jamaica Gleaner, December 17, 1999.
At the same time that a number of artists were traveling to the United States for the World’s Fair in New York, as well as appearing in New York City for Jamaican Independence Day celebrations, and promotions in Miami and New York for the next dance craze, the ska, some of those same musicians were appearing on Jamaican televisions, performing and even winning awards. Here is an article from July 17, 1964 that shows a few musicians who had won a “Silver Star” from the Star Newspaper, presented by Edward Seaga, who was then the minister of development and welfare, the same post he had in selecting the large crew of musicians to the U.S. The article reads as follows:
Carlos Malcolm and his Afro-Jamaican Rhythms, Lord Creator, Pluggy and Beryl and Ranny Williams–winners of the Week-End STAR awards for 1963–received their Silver STars from the Minister of Development and Welfare, the Hon. Edward Seaga, last Friday afternoon. Making the presentations in the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation studios, where the function was televised, Mr. Seaga commended the Gleaner Co. Ltd., publishers of the STAR, for what he said was ‘a wonderful idea’ which would be something for artistes to work towards each year. The popular arts had lacked encouragement for a long time but the Minister assured his listeners that ‘a lot of things are happening.’ The Managing Director of the Gleaner Company, Mr. S. G. Fletcher, introduced the artistes to the Minister. Carols Malcolm and his Afr0-Jamaicans, received the ‘Oscar’ as the best band; Carlos received the award for the best individual instrumentalists; Lord Creator, the best male singer; Pluggy and Beryl, best dance team; and Ranny Williams, the best comedian. The winner of the award for the best female singer–Totlyn Jackson–is off the island and was unable to be present. Mr. Fletcher explained that the Company felt that good performances which were pleasing to the public should be recognized. He hoped the awards would be an encouragement to the artistes. The award-winners performed in a brief but entertaining show. Pictures on this page show the artistes as they appeared on the TV screen following the presentation. Mater of Ceremonies was Fred Wilmot. The programme was a presentation of the Jamaica Information Service.
Here are a few of my favorite Lord Creator and Carlos Malcom tunes.
Okay, so maybe this blog title is clickbait, but it’s only done to bring attention to the challenges that women in early Jamaican music, like Hortense Ellis, experienced in the 1960s and beyond. This is a topic I have addressed in my book, Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music, and Hortense Ellis was an artist who was perhaps most vocal about being treated unwell. Over the years we have heard plenty about artists not feeling that they were paid their due, but Hortense Ellis was frequently not paid at all! And she had nine children and so her work, her labors and talent, were of even more importance. Her recordings put food on her table, so she had to fight for what was hers.
One of my good friends recently shared this Star Newspaper article with me. He knew I had long championed the career of Hortense Ellis and was further frustrated this past February when attending the Trenchtown Music Festival after hearing Alton Ellis’s son, Christopher Ellis, give a roll call of the musicians who came from Trenchtown, yet he omitted his own aunt!
I have previously written about Hortense Ellis HERE so you can have a read.
But here is the text transcribed from that Star Newspaper article from September 2, 1966:
Singing in the bath tub usually leads to nothing but shouts of protest from the neighbours or starts the dog howling in the backyard. But for Hortense Ellis, it has led to a very successful singing career. Now known as Jamaica’s first lady of song, Hortense has gone just about as far as a girl can in local entertainment circles and now she wants to go abroad.
Brother Alton Ellis, himself a popular vocalist, was the one who first got Hortense into the show business world ,by introducing her to the ten popular Vere Johns Opportunity Hour Shows.”
I pause here to note that though she may have been introduced to the talent show by her brother, animosity was created in the family when she beat him! That’s right, in the grand championships, Hortense took first place and Alton took second! And her oldest daughter told me that this rivalry continued throughout her life. Alton never seemed to get over it, according to her daughter. That story is in Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaica Music.
Back to the article:
“And it was through these shows that bandleader Byron Lee heard her sing and signed her up for some stage shows that really got her career going. The stage show fans really took to Hortense and when she recorded ‘I’ll Come Softly’ it was at the top of the hit parade for a month.
Since then, Hortense has been on nearly every local stage show and has been among the supporting artistes at shows starring the most famous names in show business–names like Ben E. King, Doris Troy, Patty [sic] LaBelle and the Blue Bells, Mamie Harvey, Solomon Burke and Dionne Warwick.
Patty [sic] LaBelle had for a long time been a favourite of Hortense and when Patti heard her sing, she gave her considerable encouragement. But Solomon Burke was even more enthusiastic about Hortense’s talent. He said that she only needed a little more experience to be a big hit. He advised her to go to the United States and ‘try to make the big time.’
‘But I’m weak to help myself,’ she confesses sadly. ‘I need a manager to help me.’ Hortense loves show business. But hates the way the artistes are often treated by some of the promoters.
‘I have a special love for my fans,’ she told me. ‘And I love the excitement of stage shows. I usually have to have six songs ready when I go on because they always want an encore. So although I want to leave Jamaica now to get some experience I would never leave here forever.’
I asked her if she thought she could make a living here without having to go abroad.
Don’t want to pay
You can make a living here, but we are not treated fairly by some of the promoters. They don’t want to pay us. We see a full house at a show and then they tell us that they didn’t make enough at the gate to meet expenses. They say that most of the people crashed the gate and got in free. Maybe the Government could do something for us instead of letting us suffer under local promoters.’
I reminded her of the Tops in Local show, which was put on by the artistes and backed by a loan from the Ministry of Development and Welfare.
‘Yes,’ said the young vocalist, ‘but we had to pay back the money and there wasn’t anything left. They should have helped us with more shows.’
Promptness at rehearsals was something promoters were always claiming the artistes ignored, and I asked Hortense about this.
‘When you are not paid for a job and not given a proper contract and no one seems interested in you, you don’t have any impetus to turn up.’
And this is why Hortense is now looking for someone to help her as a manager or promoter.
Speaking for herself and her fellow artistes she said: ‘If we know there is someone interested in us, we will be prompt and turn up for every rehearsal and do anything he wants, as long as we get a fair deal. What they are giving us now is not even taxi fare. We are being trampled.’
Back in 2014 I blogged about the “pop-a-top” style after Derrick Morgan told me about his foray into this rhythm, and there was much debate about the validity of this music–whether or not it was a proper genre, if it was simply a rhythm, or if it was even something less than that. You can read the original post HERE. There was was decent discussion that took place in the comment section after the blog post, though the debate occurred mainly on the Pama Forum.
I had read David Katz’s interview with Lynford Anderson in Solid Foundation on this topic. Katz states, “The wacky ‘Pop A Top’ voiced by Anderson under the alias I did ‘Pop A Top,’ the first talking record in Jamaica, was another early quirky deejay disc. On this one Anderson attempted to mimic the bubbling sound featured on an advertisement for Canada Dry ginger ale over an adaptation of a popular New Orleans R&B number. As he explains: ‘I did Pop-A-Top, the first talking record in Jamaica–you can put that in any book. I heard the commercial–the guy said “Pop A Top.” Then I had this rhythm, “South Parkway Mambo,” a very old song by Dave Bartholomew. The instrumental version I was trying to re-create didn’t work, so we didn’t touch that tape for years. Once I got it out, Lloyd Charmers stated playing “pup pup pup pup pup pup” [on the organ], so I said: “Oh, Pop A Top!” That’s how the song came about. The tune became a big hit, so eventually we had about 13 different versions of it.'”
I had the opportunity to talk to Derrick Morgan again on March 17, 2017 via phone, I decided to inquire again about pop-a-top, and below is our conversation on this subject.
Heather: Could you talk to me about pop-a-top, what is it and how was it created?
Derrick: Pop-a-top was created by Lynford Anderson. I did the song Fat Man in that rhythm for him. Then he got Ansel Collins doing the organ shuffle style and they call it pop-a-top. That’s how the pop-a-top came in. They were trying to find a different style of reggae, or a different name for reggae music, and they call it pop-a-top. Bup bup BOOP, bup bup BOOP, bup bup BOOP. That’s pop-a-top.
Heather: You recorded a number of songs in that style, right?
Derrick: Not many. I do Fat Man and John Crow Skank, but the rest of them is mixed, they mix it different like pop-a-top.
Heather: Were there others who recorded in that style?
Derrick: There were quite a few rhythms with the same shuffle, that organ shuffle, that pop-a-top shuffle, but it wasn’t for long.
Heather: And when did this happen–was it after rocksteady, after reggae?
Derrick: It was after rocksteady. Then the reggae came in and Bunny Lee and Lynford Anderson wanted to change the name to pop-a-top, but it only hit in England with a few tunes, like Fat Man.
Enjoy these pop-a-top tunes!
Derrick Morgan and I talked about other topics, such as how he discovered Bob Marley, female vocalists, his 14 children and their involvement in the music industry, the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour, and a day in the life at a recording studio, all of which I will bring to you in next week’s blog post! Please
This INTERVIEW on NPR’s “Tell Me More” show is a favorite of mine. Former Prime Minister Edward Seaga talks about the history of popular Jamaican music and his role in this important era where ska was in the spotlight. He talks about the songs “Oh Manny Oh,” “My Boy Lollipop,” “Wash Wash,” “Police and Thieves,” and others, as well as the artists behind them.
This interview was promotion for Seaga’s collection, “Reggae Golden Jubilee” that he put together in 2012 for the 50th anniversary of independence. It’s a four CD set and it has 100 songs from Theo Beckford’s “Easy Snapping,” to Shaggy’s “Boombastic,” which has been featured in just about every children’s animation film since 1995.
I’d highly recommend this collection because in addition to a choice selection of music curated by Seaga, there is also an outstanding liner note booklet with articles by Dermot Hussey, John Masouri, a preface from Christopher Chin, and track-by-track text from Daddy Lion Chandell, Donald Clive Davidson, and Roy Black. There’s plenty from Seaga himself in the liner notes as well.
The organizers of the Global Reggae Conference at the University of the West Indies Mona really outdid themselves this year with a stellar selection of scholars from around the world presenting their research and work on a variety of topics related to dancehall, as well as films and events related to Jamaican music and culture.
I had the pleasure of presenting a paper entitled “Rhumba Queen: The Original Women of the Dancehall” and I profiled the importance of rhumba dancers Daisy Riley, Margarita, and Madam Wasp. I was pleased with the level of interest in these women and I am considering developing this paper into a small book that talks about these women and others, as they literally and figuratively drew the spotlight to Jamaican music. My colleague and friend Nina Cole presented her research which she is furthering on the authenticity of the Jamaican sound system in her native Los Angeles. She was wonderful, both as a presenter and a researcher and I am in awe of her work and look forward to her continued research.
One of the highlights of the conference was a performance from the legendary producer and DJ King Jammy! I had the pleasure of visiting King Jammy at his studio in Waterhouse last year, touring the interior of the ground zero of creativity. What a warm spirit. His smile is contagious. This man lights up when he talks about music, and he is still at it, working with Chronixx and Bounty Killer and Shaggy, to name a few. Well the legendary King Jammy performed with another Jamaican music DJ, David Rodigan! And it was at 10A no less! This is the site of the filming of The Harder They Come! It was Perry Henzell’s house and is now Justine Henzell’s house, and it was festooned by a small portion of Maxine Walters’ collection of 4,000 signs advertising for dancehall events, a selection of which are featured in her popular and praise-worthy book, Serious Things A Go Happen: Three Decades of Jamaican Dance Signs. Read more about her work HERE and HERE.
Here are clips of that historic performance from King Jammy and David Rodigan! I wasn’t able to get more because I was too busy dropping legs!
The screening of Rick Elgood’s Pimento and Hot Pepper: The Story of Mento Music was a real treat and I would encourage anyone who has the opportunity to see this fantastic film which features interviews from a number of mento artists, many of whom have now left this earth, as well as the esteemed Dr. Daniel Neely. Elgood’s passion for Jamaican music is deeply felt throughout this crucial piece of film that has preserved history and celebrated the genre that led to all Jamaican music to follow. To read more about this film, which should be making film festival rounds soon, click HERE
Elgood and mento expert extraordinaire Dr. Daniel Neely, along with Dr. Matthew Smith, Professor in History and Head, Department of History and Archaeology, The UWI, Mona, and Roy Black, music historian and Jamaica Gleaner journalist, also led a wonderful discussion and a screening of Pimento and Hot Pepper at the Institute of Jamaica, organized by Herbie Miller and Roberto Moore, on February 4th and 5th, 2017, followed by a performance by the Jolly Boys! Here is a clip from that performance.
The sweet man who called me Sis Heather, Ronald “Nambo” Robinson, has died today, January 25th at the age of 67.
According to Howard Campbell in the Daily Gleaner, “Trombonist Ronald ‘Nambo’ Robinson, a prolific session musician who worked with reggae’s greats, died this morning at his St Andrew home. He was 67. Robinson’s wife, Marcia, told the OBSERVER ONLINE that he died at 1:00 am but did not give a cause of death. From East Kingston, Robinson started his career with Mystic Revelation of Rastafari. He was a founding member of the 809 Band, which also included his longtime friend, saxophonist Dean Fraser; singer Desi “Desi Roots” Young and bassist Michael Fletcher. Robinson was also a longstanding member of Sly and Robbie’s Taxi Gang. He played on several of the duo’s biggest hit songs such as Baltimore by The Tamlins and Bull Inna The Pen by Black Uhuru. Robinson got his big break in the late 1970s by playing on Survival and Confrontation, two of Bob Marley’s albums. Buffalo Soldier, Trench Town and Wake Up And Live are among the Marley songs Robinson played. Ronald “Nambo” Robinson is survived by his wife and three children.”
For his own bio, Nambo wrote, “My name is Ronald ‘Nambo’ Robinson, and I am a veteran musician, vocalist, percussionist and recording artist in Jamaica. I am recognized among my peers as one of Jamaica’s foremost trombonists. I have recorded with various artists such as Bob Marley, Dennis Brown, Jimmy Cliff, Lauryn Hill, Gregory Isaacs, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Beres Hammond, Shaggy, and Buju Banton. Also I performed live with Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, The Four Tops, Lloyd Parks and We the People, The Tony D’Acosta Affair, The Boris Gardener Happening, Light of Saba and Mystic Revelation of Rastafari. This vast array of experience not only made me a true expert in composing reggae music, but also exposed me to genres such as jazz, classical and rhythm and blues. I have recently launched a series of shows that feature young Jamaica musicians. The purpose of this effort is to showcase these talented young musicians while celebrating the various genres of indigenous music such as Mento, Ska and Rocksteady. I have launched solo projects with the release of four album/CDs, titled Reggae in my Bone, Nambone Ska, Nambo Sing and Play and Raw Roots Rock Reggae. Along with that, I perform regularly at studio sessions for many of the island’s contemporary artists.”
Enjoy listening above to the beautiful Nambo on trombone with the drumming of the Mystic Revelation of the Rastafari.
And below is a nice example of Nambo’s beautiful voice.
This past Monday, January 16th we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and the legacy left by this powerful man. MLK had visited Jamaica three times during his lifetime. Former Prime Minister Hugh Shearer paid tribute to MLK in December, 1968 when he presented the Marcus Garvey Prize for Human Rights to MLK’s widow, Mrs. Coretta Scott King at the National Arena. Shearer told the assembled crowd, “Three times in. his short public life he found time to visit Jamaica. He came here to rest and to write; and he told us he was happy here. Addressing, and here I quote him, ‘his brothers and sisters of this wonderful island’, unquote, we heard him say that in the light of many unpleasant and humiliating experiences with which he had to live, he was always glad to feel like somebody, and here I quote him: ‘in Jamaica I really feel like a human being.’ unquote. (Applause). He was proud to say ‘I am a Jamaican’.
The following is an excerpt of a speech delivered at the University of the West Indies, Mona during one of those visits. This university is the site of the 5th annual Global Reggae Conference which will take place next month, February 9-11th. Below that is a clip of Max Romeo’s Martin Luther King.
This year has been catastrophic with the deaths of so many of the world’s beloved musicians. This week I received word of yet another. The daughter of Jamaican guitarist Keith “Bumps” Jackson informed me that he passed away on November 7, 2016.
Earlier in the year I had written about Mr. Jackson, (see blog post here) looking for him to write about him for his work with Byron Lee as a member of the Dragonaires and as leader of his own band, Bumps Jackson and the Caps. I was able to locate him after his daughter reached out to me and fortunately I interviewed Mr. Jackson just months before he died so that I preserved his history (in my book on Byron Lee, which is complete and will be available in 2017).
But Bumps Jackson’s contributions in music will always live on, in his music. In the words of his daughter, “My Dad remained a true musician right up to his departing. We learned so much about his music endeavors: played with George Benson, hired as a band director for Patti Labelle, and even asked to play with the Afro-Cuban band Mongo Santa Maria, but always wanted to say true to his reggae roots!”
I share here both some photos of Bumps Jackson that his daughter sent to me, as well as clips to his music where you can celebrate Mr. Jackson’s life by enjoying his talent on guitar, as well as his skill at composing and arranging.