Sonia Pottinger–Phenomenal Woman

Sonia Pottinger and Tony Verity

Sonia Pottinger and Tony Verity

The death of Maya Angelou this week made me think of a Phenomenal Woman in Jamaican music who will be featured prominently in my book Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music that will be available this summer. Maya wrote, “Men themselves have wondered / What they see in me. / They try so much / But they can’t touch / My inner mystery. / When I try to show them / They say they still can’t see.” These words were personal to Maya, but they were about all of us women, and certainly about this Phenomenal Woman, Sonia Pottinger.

I was amazed when researching Sonia that articles on many of the important men in music appeared in the newspaper archives, but nothing on Sonia. Not unless you count the articles on her wardrobe. There were plenty of articles on the style of dress that she wore to social events, but nothing on her business success. She was a female producer, the first female producer, in a sea of men, in a man’s world. It was ruthless in the fight to establish identify in post-colonial Jamaica, and there were many victims. But Sonia was no victim. When her husband, record producer Lindon O. Potting, was unfaithful to her (certainly not uncommon for a record producer), she left him, divorced him, and took over the business. Phenomenal Woman. She grew the business, she treated artists with kindness and fairness. She heard their talents in a way that was unique to a woman. She had a woman’s touch. This is precisely why many artists, plenty of women but also plenty of men, came to Sonia as a producer. They trusted her. To understand what that really means is impossible without recognizing the climate that existed during this era in the music industry. It was every man for himself. Sonia was a Phenomenal Woman.

I would like to post this article that Howard Campbell wrote when she died. It gives some more biographical information about her. Perhaps to truly know her is to listen to the artists that she produced. You can hear her legacy in the recordings.

From the Daily Gleaner, November 7, 2010, written by Howard Campbell, Gleaner Writer:

SONIA POTTINGER, who blazed a trail as reggae’s most successful female music producer, died Wednesday evening at her St Andrew home. She was 79 years old. David Plummer, the youngest of Pottinger’s four children, told The Gleaner that his mother had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in recent years. He did not say if it caused her death. Bornin St Thomas, Pottinger was introduced to the music business by her husband L.O. Pottinger, an engineer who had relative success as a producer in the mid-1960s. She went on her own during that period, scoring a massive hit with Every Night, a ballad by singer Joe White. Pottinger had considerable success in the late 1960s with her Tip Top, High Note and Gay Feet labels. She produced Errol Dunkley’s debut album, Presenting Errol Dunkley, and hit songs by vocal groups like The Melodians (Swing and Dine), The Gaylads (Hard to Confess) and Guns Fever by The Silvertones. In 1974, Pottinger bought the Treasure Isle catalogue and operations of pioneer producer Arthur ‘Duke’ Reid. She had even more success in the era of roots-reggae, producing chart-toppers by Marcia Griffiths (Hurting Inside and Stepping Out of Babylon) and Culture (Natty Never Get Weary). Errol Brown, Reid’s nephew, was engineer for many of Pottinger’s productions in the 1970s. He said she was no pushover in the studio.
RESPECT “She loved the music … loved it too much,” Brown said. “She knew what she wanted in the studio, and had a lot of respect for the musicians.” Musicologist and sound-system operator, Winston ‘Merritone’ Blake, said Pottinger was a sharp businesswoman in a male-dominated field. “She did her thing differently. She was always very dignified,” Blake said.
Pottinger is the latest death in local music. Singers Lincoln ‘Sugar’ Minott and Gregory Isaacs, two giants of lovers rock reggae, died in July and October, respectively. Sonia Pottinger is survived by three of her children: Sharon, Ronette and David as well as 11 grandchildren.

The Monkey Tambourine Tree

The Monkey Tambourine Tree that once stood at Alpha Boys School.

The Monkey Tambourine Tree that once stood at Alpha Boys School.

I am beyond excited to write this week’s blog post! I have stumbled across a photo of the Monkey Tambourine Tree, also called the Dibby Dibby Tree, that once stood at the Alpha Boys School. I was looking through some old issues of the Jamaica Journal that I recently purchased off of ebay for the fun of it, and located in the May-July 1987 issue was an article titled “The Search for Africa’s Baobab Tree in Jamaica.” This photo appeared on page 6, and I thought, could this be the tree? The one that Don Drummond practiced under that I had been told about by various Alpharians? I posted my inquiry on Facebook and had my hopes confirmed–this is the tree!!!

My friend Ronald Knight who was an Alpharian and a member of the band says, “Yes it was. We used to do our musical theory lessons under it every morning, the buildings you can see was where instruments were kept. And to the right of the tree,out of sight was the printing & bindery buildings. It brings back some memories , that tree ….” Alpharian Charles Simpson confirms, “Its back of the printery and binding shop right of the old band room,” and Rico Rodriguez also agrees, this was the tree!

Why is this so exciting for ska fans like me? Well I would like to talk about it by including the following information which is an excerpt from my book in the chapter entitled, The Monkey Tambourine Tree. Had I discovered this photo before it was published, this certainly would have been included in the chapter. I get chills thinking of Don D practicing as a child under this tree. I can picture him there, I can almost see his ghost.

From Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist:

How did Don Drummond develop such musical skill at such an early age? Certainly Reuben Delgado had a big hand, Drummond’s classmates and mentors like Carl Masters had a hand, but truthfully, it was Drummond himself who took the opportunity he was given and made the most of it. Instead of playing games like other boys, instead of going to class to further develop his math or reading skills, Drummond spent time, on his own, under a tree, practicing. Winston “Sparrow” Martin recalls Drummond’s discipline for music when they were both students at Alpha. “I came here when I was nine years old and Don Drummond was on his way out. He was a man who liked to stay by himself. There used to be a tree by the band room when I used to be here called the Monkey Tambourine Tree and he used to sit there practicing, or if he not practicing he would be looking at a piano book. He practiced the trombone out of a piano book, because the piano has the melody and the harmony so you practice that and he would play the part of what the piano played. On the piano you have something called the treble section and the bass section so he would play the bass section,” says Martin. A monkey tambourine is a specific style of wood tambourine. The tree that Martin and others referred to as the Monkey Tambourine Tree was also called the Dibby Dibby Tree by Sister Ignatius and others after a slang term meaning bad quality.

Winston “Sparrow” Martin channels Don Drummond playing the trombone where the Monkey Tambourine Tree once stood. Photo by Heather Augustyn

Winston “Sparrow” Martin channels Don Drummond playing the trombone where the Monkey Tambourine Tree once stood. Photo by Heather Augustyn

Headley Bennett also remembers Drummond practicing and studying under the Monkey Tambourine Tree. “We meet him at Alpha. He never used to play games with us. He just sit under the tree and watch the games. And he used to read a lot. He used to read a lot about leaders, like the Russian leaders and German leaders. He used to read those kind of books. And I used to look at him and tell him that I don’t really understand those books. He need the knowledge, you know? But they were too high for him, for his age, you know. He was around 14 or 15 years old and we were the same age. We played cricket, football, baseball. He sat under the tree and watched us. And he always smilin’, you know? When we see him under the tree he smiled. He used to practice more than any one of us. When we finished class at three or four o’clock, he practiced every evening when he’s not watching games. He practiced very hard, more than us. We were in the band together with Reuben Delgado. He was a very strict band leader. Drummond was quiet. You could not get him to talk too much. He don’t want to discuss nothing. You don’t have to talk about nothing at all. He used to read a lot, that’s how he tried to gain more knowledge,” says Bennett. It was during this time that Drummond was fitted for glasses since he was found to be extremely nearsighted. His glasses were very thick, like magnifying glasses.

Martin says that Drummond even began skipping classes to practice on his own and the administrators allowed it since he was so skilled at music. Walking the path on Alpha’s campus from an area of overgrowth and debris that used to house the old band room, Martin recalls, “When he was going to school, we take our instruments from here and walk to the practicing area. But when we leave the practicing area and come back to put all the instruments away, Don don’t put his instrument away yet. He sit down under the tree and practice, so when the bandmaster come in, Mr. Delgado, he would still stay there, with his instrument but he would have the piano music in his hand.”

Bandmaster Winston “Sparrow” Martin gestures to where the band room stood during Don Drummond’s time at the school. Photo by Heather Augustyn

Bandmaster Winston “Sparrow” Martin gestures to where the band room stood during Don Drummond’s time at the school. Photo by Heather Augustyn

Drummond spent time studying classical music in the classroom, but on his own he listened to jazz on the radio and he started to compose songs of his own. “Don Drummond didn’t want to play classical music, he wanted to play jazz music and he practice jazz music, so a lot of guys do that when they’re older, they want to go into jazz, the Louis Armstrong, the J.J. Johnson, all these type of jazz musicians we used to hear about,” says Martin.

Pop-A-Top

From the Daily Gleaner, November 17, 1968

From the Daily Gleaner, November 17, 1968 advertising “Tonight popatop at Ding-Ho Club.” Perhaps a reference to the drinking contest–as in “pop a top” off the bottle, or a nod to the popular style?

This week we take a look at the short-lived style called “Pop-a-top” which existed from around 1968 to 1970. It seems that Derrick Morgan was the originator of this style, or so he says, which features an upbeat tempo in some tunes, in others is slower. The feature that makes it pop-a-top is the keyboard. It is, what I would describe, a sound like a carnival carousel—not a calliope, but the organ. Other have identified the sound as a “bubble organ.” It is a novelty style. It was neato, didn’t last long, and you can really only listen to it in small doses.

Here’s what I was able to gather historically about pop-a-top. The only editorial I could find in the Daily Gleaner archives didn’t come from the era of poptop, but from years later in an article about Derrick Morgan. “By 1968 . . . Morgan was responsible for the hugely successful pop-a-top series of songs, when the rhythm of his re-recorded version of Fatman was extensively used.” So perhaps it was around 1968 when this phenomenon started, and it seems to have ended completely by 1970, as far as I can tell.

Here’s what Derrick Morgan told me back in 1996: “You have to remember, ska music is a foundation. What is ska? It is the guitar and the piano. That is what you call ska. And rocksteady is the same guitar and piano but it is the bass and the drum that changes and make it slower and we call it rocksteady and still we didn’t like the name rocksteady and we try for another one. We try for another one. ‘Pop-a-top, pop-a-top,’ you know? We tried that one but it did not last long. I only made ‘Fat Man’ with pop-a-top rhythm. It took off a little in England but it didn’t last for long so we have to go ahead looking for another name,” says Morgan who then spoke about reggae.

I have learned after a healthy debate on the Pama Forum, that the term “pop-a-top” comes from a Canada Dry commercial at the time that may have inspired the style of music. Pop a top means to pop the top off the bottle, or as some have pointed out, to pop the pop tab off the can. Some music aficionados are careful to point out that this was not a genre, not a subgenre, and instead was a style of reggae or maybe nothing at all. You be the judge. I am throwing this out there for discussion which is why I include it as a blog post, not a scholarly dissertation–it is fascinating to me, and I hope it is for you too! Have a listen and chime in below.

Here is a list of pop-a-top tunes compiled by my great friend and collector Si Gains (thanks Si!). Have a listen and add yours to the list:
Sour Ofrus, “East Me Up Officer” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NoCPDSZmoYE

Andy Capp “Popatop” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ts-TrLH2PEw

Derrick Morgan “Fat Man” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZ8InkIPgXQ&list=PLR9vn98_oC5o9efhMwGVVkfhPa9v6cwDu

Ernest Ranglin “Pop-A-Top” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXALNnfNsSE&list=PLR9vn98_oC5o9efhMwGVVkfhPa9v6cwDu

Fitzroy & Harry “Pop a Top Train” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsZFD6Rl1g4&list=PLR9vn98_oC5o9efhMwGVVkfhPa9v6cwDu

The Maytones “Billy Goat” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIra8QTbKgs

Joe Gibbs and the Destroyers “Nevada Joe” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=315LlD3oqm8

The Creations “Mix Up Girl” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cey-8dIRdII

Also, Foundation Ska fans and friends – I’m giving away a pair of tickets to The Apple Stomp on May 31 and June 1 at Irving Plaza in New York! Time to go crazy and skank the weekend away to the music of ska heavy hitters The Toasters, Big D and the Kids Table, Stubborn All Stars, Five Iron Frenzy and many more!

Just share this post on Facebook and Twitter for your chance to win a weekend pass to  NYC’s best ska festival. One lucky winner will be chosen on May 21- don’t want to take a chance? You can buy tickets now at http://bit.ly/AppleStomp

Ezz Reco, Boysie Grant, and Beverly Mills & The Launchers

Ezz Reco

Before Millie Small hit the UK big with her hit “My Boy Lollipop,” Ezz Reco (birth name was Ezzard Reid but could there be a cooler showbiz name than Ezz Reco?!), Boysie Grant, and a woman named Beverly along with a band called The Launchers broke into the British market with Jimmy Cliff’s tune, “King of Kings.” Cliff had recorded his iconic song in 1963 and Ezz Reco did it in the UK in 1964. The B side of Ezz Reco’s version was a song called “Bluebeat Dance” to try to capitalize on the blue beat trend, and they also recorded “The Bluest Beat,” “Please Come Back,” “Little Girl,” all in 1964 for Columbia, and then in 1968 recorded “Return of the Bullet” and “ZZ Beat” on Blue Cat.

Ezz Reco & The Launchers, as they were billed, toured with Roy Orbison and were joined by Jamaican saxophonist Johnny Hope. Reco was a drummer and both Boysie Grant and Beverly Mills were vocalists. On Ezz Reco’s page of the playbill for the tour it reads, “What does Blue Beat sound like? It’s a lazy, medium-tempo sound, with a slight blues inflection. Front-line instruments, playing behind the vocal, stab out riffs on the beat with the insistent thump of a locomotive tackling a gradient. How did Blue Beat happen? Explains Boysie, “Back home in Jamaica we were dancing the Twist long before Chubby Checker was leaping about. By the time it became popular all over the world it was stale for us and we started looking around for something else. We have a gathering called pokamania [sic]—a revival dance—where the congregation shuffle their feet and shout eh-eh-eh-eh on the beat behind the preacher’s sermon. It’s a movement we have been doing for generations and from this grew the Blue Beat dance and the music to fit it.”

Kind of an interesting history, don’t you think?! Talk to 100 people and you will get 100 versions as to how it all started, but there is something behind the history—the connection to folk music is critical, and the connection to American rhythm & blues, so it definitely has some validity.

ezz

Boysie Grant also chimed in on blue beat’s popularity in the Daily Gleaner on March 17, 1964, the first article that the newspaper had published about ska despite the fact that it had existed for some time. But ska, you see, was a “downtown music,” until Byron Lee and the Dragonaires bridged the class divide. In the article entitled, “The Ska Hits London—but they call it blue beat,” (the text of which can be read here: http://skabook.com/foundationska/2013/12/origins-word-ska/) Boysie Grant appears with Ezz Reco in a photograph that is not preserved well enough to reproduce here, but the caption reads, “Here are the two men in the hit parade, Boysie Grant with the small moustache and brown hat and Ezz Reco with the big moustache and black hat. Boysie does the lion’s roar at the beginning of ‘King of Kings.’ Ezz has lots of gaps and bits of gold in his smile. He used to be a boxer, is a very cheerful man and laughs the whole time. Boysie is delighted that his native Jamaica is producing something other than rum. ‘Ezz and I,’ he says, ‘Ezz and I are the greatest and the prettiest and the most authentic.’ They will soon be joined in the hit parade by a girl called Millie. She sings ‘My Boy Lollipop.’”

I am wondering if the Beverly who sings with this group, Beverly Mills, is the same Beverly that Kenroy Fyffe told me sang with him in the Spanishtonians on “Rudie Get Plenty” and others (not “Stop That Train” which is misappropriated to them but is actually the Webber Sisters). Kenroy couldn’t remember anything else about Beverly including her last name and didn’t know of any other recording she did, so if anyone knows anything about Beverly Mills, please contact me.

I wanted to also include an article in the Daily Gleaner that appeared on August 16, 1971 with the headline “Boysie Grant is Alive!” as an example of early death hoaxes, just when you though the internet was the culprit!! Kidding, but the article is interesting. It states, “Boysie Grant, rumoured to have died in 1958, breezed into the GLEANER, offices on Tuesday, ‘large as life and very much alive and kicking.’ Some old timers on the entertainment scene may remember Boysie from back in the 50’s when he played the stage shows night club circuit, and held a 15-minute slot on radio as leader of the vocal group the ‘Four Keys.’ He was also a member of the “’Ivy Graydon’s Orchestra.’ He left Jamaica in 1955 for Connecticut, USA to check out what opportunities the States had to offer. He remained there for only a year before going on to England, and a tour of the Continent with the Perez Prado Show. Returning to London after three months, he played the hotel and night club circuit. In 1963, Boysie did his first recording on a 45 rpm — “King of Kings/Blue Beat Dance” with another Jamaican vocalist Beverley Mills, and backed by Ezz Reco and the Launchers. Ezz Reco, leader of this group, then exponents of the “Blue Beat,” is Jamaican ex-boxer Ezzard Reid, who migrated to the UK more than 20 years ago. Boysie is said to have been one of the first promoters of Jamaican music in England — the Blue Beat is an adaptation of the Ska. He now does solo night club performances, singing mainly ballads, blues and soul numbers. With regard to the rumour about his alleged death, Boysie says that he has no idea how this began. By now, he says, most of his friends must at least be convinced that he is very much alive —“they took a lot of convincing though,” he said with a smile. He was accompanied here by his wife, the former Mary Lundy a Jamaican nurse residing in England. Boysie says they plan to remain in the island for an indefinite period.”

Here’s a link to that tune, “King of Kings” so you can hear Boysie do the lion roar, look out Katy Perry! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6_IbY4cLLU

 

Ronnie Nasralla

From the Daily Gleaner, August 23 1968

From the Daily Gleaner, August 23 1968

Check this out–Ronnie Nasralla from Ronnie & Jeannette fame, the dancers who taught us how to do the ska through, quite literally, an advertising campaign, is featured on this advertisement for a shoe store. If you read the ad copy, his “Dancing Feet” were featured on the television commercials for the store and this is the winner of the contest to guess whose feet they were. How awesome is this?!

A few words about Mr. Nasralla who is a lovely man and lives today near Atlanta, Georgia and is 83 years old, lucid as ever. He wrote a book called Lessons to Learn that I would HIGHLY recommend. It’s written well and is enjoyable and informative. He talks about his family upbringing, his foray into theater and dance, and, of course, how he helped to promote ska at the request of his good childhood friend, Edward Seaga.

Ronnie Nasralla explained to me a few months ago how he came to showcase the ska with Seaga and Byron Lee. “Let me tell you how it started. One day, Eddie Seaga, who was my close friend, called me. Eddie Seaga was friends with my sister. He was my sister’s boyfriend and he used to come by my house and I help him with his political campaign. Advertising was my forte. So I did all the advertising for the government, Eddie Seaga at that time. I help him with all his promotion. He told me he heard a music that was breaking out in Western Kingston called ska and he asked if I could promote it for him, so I said, ‘Well, I’d like to learn about.’ And we organized and I said, well Byron Lee is the best person to promote it. So we get together with Byron Lee down in Western Kingston and I learned the ska music. Eddie organized a dance at the Chocomo Lawn in Western Kingston—it’s an outdoor nightclub. And Byron played there and all the ska artists performed with Byron and it was a sensation. He [Seaga] said to me, ‘Ronnie, move around the crowd and see what they are doing on the dance floor and see if you can come up with a brochure about how to dance the ska. So I did that, saw the people dancing around and came up with a brochure about a week after, how to dance the ska, give them different steps in the ska, and something that they could use to promote ska worldwide. That brochure was used by the government, they put it in all the record albums and it was sent all over the world and I was asked to go to the states and promote the ska with somebody and I got Jannette Phillips to dance with me. Jannette was a dancer, a belly dancer, a friend of my sister. We took pictures doing the different steps and the brochure was produced and given to the government and it was put in all the ska albums,” says Nasralla.

skaaaaaaaaa

Jannette Phillips, who married business mogul Raymond Miles in November, 1965, doesn’t speak about her days as a ska dancer. She works at her husband’s company, Sun Island Jamaica, but says she doesn’t “want to relive that part of her past. It was a long long time ago.”