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.