I had the honor of seeing Eric “Monty” Morris perform in Chicago last weekend on October 25 2014 as as he performed one of his many hits, “Sammy Dead,” I got chills realizing I was witnessing history come alive. Here was the same song that Morris sang 50 years ago, backed by Byron Lee & the Dragonaires, at the World’s Fair in New York! I couldn’t believe I was hearing it, seeing it, in the flesh, right in front of my eyes! Eric “Monty” Morris is the ultimate performer, giving the crowd all of his hits, dancing like a man half his age, and perhaps even imbibing in a bit of rum off stage, I espied! I thought I would devote today’s Foundation Ska blog post to the legendary Eric “Monty” Morris so we can further appreciate this pioneering vocalist.
Morris was vocal about the World’s Fair and Prince Buster, as I noted in my blog this past January: statement on ska impasse. Morris and Prince Buster must have mended fences, however, because Morris went on to record again for Prince Buster, as he had since 1961. Here is a photo of Eric “Monty” Morris from that article:
And here are a few more photos I took of Morris really cutting a rug!
Below are two excellent articles on Eric “Monty” Morris.
From the Jamaica Gleaner, September 12, 1998:
There was one name which stood out when it came to Ska and that name was Eric ‘Monty’ Morris. Like so many of this compatriots however, Monty left Jamaica’s shores at the height of his career to seek greater fortune overseas. But Monty soon dropped out of sight and much to the consternation of his host of fans, the man who had dubbed ‘Mr. Ska,’ was nowhere to be found when the music he had helped to popularise internationally, started its great resurgence. With the revival of Heineken Startime in 1996, the demand for Monty Morris reached heightened proportions and promoters/producers MKB were besieged with requests to bring home the man who had monster hits like Humpty Dumpty, Sammy Dead, Say What You’re Saving, Money Can’t Buy Life, A Little More Oil In My Lamp, Penny Reel, Solomon Gundy, Muma No Fret and Pack Up Your Troubles. MKB exhausted their farflung list of contracts but carne up with few leads. In fact, at one time there were rumours that Monty had gone to the Great Beyond, but the search continued until just three weeks ago when a call from a Miami source came up trumps – Monty Morris had been located.
A frantic call to California confirmed that Monty was alive and well and was more than ready to end his 25-year absence from the local stage. . . . The uninitiated might ask who is this Monty Morris. Monty, like so many of Jamaica’s musical greats grew up ‘downtown’. He recalls the many hours be spent harmonising with his boyhood friend Derrick Morgan, so it was no surprise that Monty, following successful appearances on the famous Vere Johns talent shows, was backed by Derrick on his very first record, This Great Generation, done for Hilite Records.
He later recorded for Prince Buster, a link which resulted in some of his biggest ska hits. Monty’s talent also extended into the reggae idiom and his recordings included his own original Say What You’re Saying which was not only a personal hit, but was later recorded by Dennis Brown whose version also made it big both locally and internationally and Little John in the mid 80s.
Monty was also in great demand as a stage performer and no list of artistes for the many stage shows which were a feature of the day, would be complete without the dynamic ‘Mr. Ska’. His recordings have continued to thrill lovers of Jamaican music over the years.
From the Sunday Gleaner, May 19, 2013, historian and journalist Roy Black writes the following:
Eric “Monty” Morris seems to be the forgotten ska superstar. This perhaps has a lot to do with his disappearance from the Jamaican music scene somewhat early, as he migrated to the United States. In a relatively short period, between 1961-1969, Morris majestically crafted several outstanding hit recordings in the ska and rocksteady mould. Oil in My Lamp, Humpty Dumpty, Money Can’t Buy Life and Sammy Dead were early pieces that set the stage for what was to follow. Drawing on lyrics mainly taken from traditional nursery rhymes and employing a slowed-down ska beat, Morris’ advent was truly significant. He was the first real ska superstar, pre-ceding others like Delroy Wilson, Stranger (now Strangejah) Cole, Lord Creator and Jackie Opel.
Morris arrived on the scene at 15 years old in 1959, singing with Derrick Morgan on the Little Wonder Smith produced recordings Now We Know and Nights are Lonely. In an interview with Derrick Morgan, he told me “I used to live in a big yard named Orange Lane, off Orange Street. Monty lived there too. We became childhood playmates and began singing and knocking old cans and cars until one day when I went to record what would become my first release – Oh My Love is Gone – I took Monty with me. We recorded those two songs”.
Monty Morris was born in Kingston on July 20, 1944, and grew up at Orange Street and in Trench Town, attending Alvernia Primary School. His meeting and close association with Morgan, four years his senior, was extremely crucial to his future career. When their focus shifted to music seriously, entering a talent competition occurred to them. This led them to the very popular Vere Johns Opportunity Hour talent competition, at the Palace, Ambassador and Majestic theatres in Kingston during the late 1950s.
Morris didn’t win, but the exposure provided the springboard from which he launched his career and precipitated his first set of hit recordings. His next move, to producer Prince Buster, was another important step. Again taken there by Morgan, who was fulfilling a request by Buster for help in setting up his business, Morris seized the opportunity to record the 1961 nursery rhyme based song, Humpty Dumpty. Backed by the Drumbago All Stars, the slowed-down, ska-tempo song rode the higher echelons of the Jamaican charts for that year and set in motion a ska craze that took deep root in Jamaica’s music history. His follow-up, Money Can’t Buy Life, with emphasis on the off-beat, was equally impressive and somewhat changed the whole nature of Jamaican music up to this point.
Morris, an unsung hero of immense musical talent, wrote almost all the songs he recorded, adding his words to the nursery rhymes where required. Every song seemed to have a message, backed by a traditional nursery rhyme, but he somehow lacked the determination and dedication necessary to make it to the top in a competitive music arena. Morris became the first forgotten ska superstar. His songs show a man in various moods. There is Monty the storyteller, expressed in Sammy Dead, Humpty Dumpty and Solomon a Gundy. There is Monty the lover, with songs like the Clancy Eccles produced Say What You’re Saying and Tears in Your Eyes, in which he declares:
It was the tears in your eyes
That made me realise
That a man like me should never
be in love with you
There is Monty the preacher, who warned about “ungodly people” in the recording of that same name, and reinforced it with a Duke Reid produced track:
What a man doeth this day
Stands in his way
What you sew, that’s what you will reap
What you reap, that’s what you will eat
Morris also warned men against falling prey to the guiles of women. On the recording Temptation Monty claimed:
It’s a thing I don’t like
It’s a thing that always stirs strife
Nature provided everything
For man to live like a king
Don’t tempt me to do the things I
don’t want to do
Strongman Sampson was perhaps one of his best-known recordings during the ska era. In it, he depicted Sampson as being:
The strongest man in the days of olden
Until a woman take it from him.
Solomon was wise, (he claimed),
he had seven wives.
Be careful of her lies
She will also paint her eyes
Just to get you in misery
Morris had several other popular ska recordings during that era, which included Pack Up Your Troubles, In and out the Window, Eena Balena, For Your Love and Into This Beautiful Garden. In 1964 Morris was included in a contingent of singers, musicians and dancers sent to the New York World’s Fair to help promote and expose the new dance craze and music, ska, to the American public. The tour was built around Morris and his two big hits with Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, Sammy Dead and Oil in my Lamp. Morris’ contribution was enormous, as he spread ska’s popularity while establishing the foundation for the succeeding genres to build on.
As the 1960s wore on he recorded for a number of other producers, including Leslie Kong, Byron Lee, Duke Reid (who did the bulk of his works), and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry in 1969. A year earlier, Morris had adjusted his arrangements to suit the new rocksteady beat to record a popular and frequently covered song in Jamaica’s music history, Say What You’re Saying.
However, Morris didn’t survive the transition to rocksteady and reggae, as he migrated in the early 1970s to the USA, returning occasionally in later years to perform on oldies shows in Jamaica. One of these performances was at the Mas Camp Village, then on Oxford Road, New Kingston, on Saturday, June 11, 2005. He also performed at that venue on Saturday, April 24, 2004.
Eric Morris, the man who entertained thoughts of creating something different from the regular fast ska beat, the man who thought he could use simple nursery rhyme lyrics to disseminate his messages but was somewhat disinterested in reaching the highest level, is still alive and lives abroad. He may be the forgotten ska superstar, but with his string of enduring hits, hopefully someday this anomaly will be addressed and Monty Morris will receive the true recognition he deserves.