Name That Tune

sammy-dead-comic

“Sammy plant piece a corn dung a gully, an ’ it bear till it kill poor ole Sammy. Sammy dead, Sammy dead, Sammy dead oh. Sammy dead, Sammy dead, Sammy dead oh.”
Eric Monty Morris sang the now-classic “Sammy Dead” at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York backed by Byron Lee & the Dragonaires, thereby helping to introduce audiences outside of Jamaica to the sounds of ska. Morris attended with others like Jimmy Cliff, Prince Buster, Millie Small, and an entourage of dancers.

Eric Monty Morris is still quite a showman, and a few years ago I had the pleasure of seeing him perform in Chicago. Here is a photo of Mr. Morris that I took during that performance.

montyIn addition to “Sammy Dead,” Eric Monty Morris is known for his songs “Oil In My Lamp,” “Penny Reel,” “Into This Beautiful Garden,” “Live As A Man,” “What You Gonna Do,” and one of my personal favorites, “Solomon Gundy.”

Roy Black wrote the following article on Eric Monty Morris in the Jamaica Gleaner, May 19, 2013:

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, preceding 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 Kingson during the late 1950s.

THE LAUNCH
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 offbeat, 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.

TRANSITION TO ROCKSTEADY
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 disinteresed 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 some day this anamoly will be addressed and Monty Morris will receive the true recognition he deserves.

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