Ska, Rocksteady, and Boxing?

Bunny_grant

Bunny Grant

Alton Ellis’s classic 1965 song Dance Crasher features the following lyrics in a warning to rude boys to mash up sound system dances:Don’t break it up, please don’t make a fuss, go to a gym, get yourself in trim, be a prize fighter, instead of a dance crasher, let me tell you, be a gentleman, you could be a champion, like Mr. Bunny Grant.”. Ever wonder who Bunny Grant was and why boxing was such a big deal in this Alton Ellis song? I mean, sure we know about dance crashers and rude boys, but boxers?

Ever wonder who Bunny Grant was? Reggae Archives tells us that “Leslie “Bunny” Grant was a Jamaican light-welterweight boxing champion active during the early 1960s. Whilst there have been many Jamaican-born boxers on the international scene before and since, most fought under the flag of an adopted country such as USA, Canada or Great Britain. Grant was revered in Jamaica largely because he fought as a Jamaican.”

The Jamaica Gleaner, on November 7, 1999, in a series of the 20 Greatest Jamaican athletes of the Century, profiled Bunny Grant. Here is the feature:

BUNNY GRANT has the distinction of being the first Jamaican boxer to fight for a world title.

He fought the American champion Eddie Perkins for the world junior welterweight boxing title at the National Stadium on April 18, 1964, but lost in a unanimous points decision.

In 1962, Grant held as many as four titles simultaneously – the Latin American junior welterweight title, the British Empire lightweight title (renamed the Commonwealth title) and the Jamaica lightweight and welterweight titles.

On August 5, 1962 – on the eve of our Independence from Britain – Grant did Jamaica proud by winning the Commonwealth lightweight title, defeating the Englishman Dave Charnley inside the newly-built National Stadium. It was a fitting Independence gift.

By virtue of his outstanding exploits in the ring that year, Grant at age 22 was named Jamaica’s first ‘Sportsman of the Year’ by the Machado Foundation.

During his heyday, the boxer whose real name is George Leslie Grant, was not only a genuine crowd puller but a role model to young aspiring sportsmen as well. He was immensely popular.

Blessed with a fast pair of hands, good footwork and a punishing left jab, the man who fought eight world champions in the lightweight and welterweight divisions in a career spanning 15 years, ended with a professional ring record of 102 fights, 86 wins, 10 losses and six draws.

After his memorable victory against Charnley, Grant defeated the world number three lightweight Doug Vaillant of Cuba in his next fight at the National Stadium months later, out jabbing and out punching his opponent for his biggest win.

Other notable bouts were his loss to the highly ranked Carlos Hernandez of Venezuela in 1963, which for a time set back his bid for a crack at the world title, and his victory over fellow Jamaican Percy Hayles for the local welterweight title in the early 70s, this inside the National Arena.

Significantly, Ring Magazine, in its ranking for February 1965, named Grant as the number one contender for Carlos Ortiz’s world title. Between 1963 and 1968, he was consistently ranked in the top 10 in the junior welterweight division.

For his outstanding contribution to boxing, Bunny Grant was inducted to Jamaica’s Sports Hall of Fame on October 21.

Okay, okay, so enough about Bunny Grant, still what’s the big deal with boxing? Well boxing was hugely popular in Jamaica and still is today. Boxers were admired for their strength, skill, and sport and so they were idolized by Alton Ellis and others. Sister Ignatius taught her boys at the Alpha Boys School the sport of boxing by sharing films of the greats, instructing the technique as the boys watched. Local theaters like the Ritz screened fight films, like Rocky Marciano vs. Don Cockell. The Jamaica Boxing Board of Control (JBBC) was established as early at 1929 by Jamaican national hero Norman Manley, one of the leaders responsible for negotiating Jamaican independence. Manley even served as president of the JBBC during its infancy.

Today, the outstanding Minneapolis band the Prizefighters have paid homage to this tradition and to Ellis by naming their band after this cultural affinity as they revive the sounds of 1960s Jamaican ska—definitely check them out at theprizefighters.net.

My interest in boxing and ska came as I researched Don Drummond since Anita Mahfood, also known as Margarita, was married to a boxer before she became involved romantically with Drummond. Margarita was married to boxer Rudolph Bent. They had two children together, Suzanne and Christopher. Rudolph Bent was known as the Dark Destroyer. He was born in Belize, which was then called British Honduras and he fought his first professional fight on July 13, 1952 against Jimmy Pollard in Belize City. Rudolph Bent left Belize for Jamaica in 1955 to continue his career and he met Margarita and they had their first child in 1959 getting married afterward and then having a second child two years later.

Perhaps Bent’s most famous moment in his boxing career came on October 20, 1965 when, at the age of 33, he fought against Boxing Hall of Famer Sugar Ray Robinson in Robinson’s final fight. Robinson, who was 45 years old at the time, won his 174th and final victory in a third-round knockout of Rudolph Bent in Steubenville Ohio. Bent had just come off of a 13 fight losing streak when Robinson won. Robinson’s purse for the fight was $500. It was not Bent’s last fight, but his string of loses definitely signaled the end of his career.

You can read more about Bent, see photos of him, and hear about the abusive relationship he had with Margarita before she divorced him and moved in with Don Drummond while her kids were sent away to Belize. My book is available at skabook.com and here are a few recent reviews:

Heather, just letting you know that the Don Drummond book is the best book I have ever read on the subject of Ska. It is so well researched and informative! I particularly liked reading about Graeme Goodall and The Caribs, the Australians who helped pioneer the genre. Keep up the good work, can’t wait to read your next book! cheers, Steve Douglas, guitarist with The Resignators, www.theresignators.com

Well researched. By reg69 on October 22, 2013 For the avid or casual reader on the subject of early Jamaican music this is a must read.Writer has come up trumps here ,cannot have been an easy task extracting information on D.Drummond in his native land. So thank you Heather for sticking your neck out , it must have been a daunting task. On behalf of reggae fans worldwide , thank you.

This man is back !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! By Darren Powell on November 2, 2013 Meticulously researched & beautifully put together – a wealth of new information on a musical giant & a revelation in terms of Margarita Mafood.

Through dozens of interviews Heather Augustyn’s book paints a vivid and at times traumatic picture. She never shrinks from dealing with the cycles of violent abuse and the stigma of mental illness. Her book demands that we learn from the lessons of the past so that we might react differently in the future. Let’s face it, Don Drummond was not alone. He joins a host of stellar artists and musicians who have dealt with depression and psychosis, some of whom were able to deal with it, others who weren’t. In the end ‘Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist’ leaves us no place to go but the music and that my friends takes us to those Far East melodies, those groundbreaking compositions… minor masterpieces… that allow his melancholy genius to shine. Roll on Don Cosmic… Ungu Malungu Man! –Paul Brad

Ska Takes Center Stage at the Palace Theater

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This is the interior of the Palace Theatre today in downtown Kingston. It’s hard to imagine that this outdoor movie theater was once not only host to some of the most legendary Jamaican ska and music artists, but this is the very stage that launched their careers. The Palace Theatre was home of the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour, a talent show akin to American Idol or The Voice.

Vere Johns was a theater manager. After serving for many years in the newspaper industry, Johns turned to offering crowds a variety show on nights when the spaghetti westerns and musicals weren’t flickering through the tropical nighttime air. The idea for a variety show came from Vere Johns’ second wife, Lillian Margaret May Johns, who thought that entertainment competitions would bring in extra money on off nights. The competitions took place here at the Palace Theatre and because the show was so successful, it was then replicated at the other theaters Johns managed, the Majestic, Ward, Carib, Queens, Gaiety, Ambassador and others.

The Vere Johns Opportunity Hour featured dancers, instrumentalists, vocalists, comedians, and even performers on bicycles as well. Ten acts appeared on each bill and admission was less than a shilling. Vere Johns auditioned performers each Tuesday and Thursday at 3 p.m. Winners were selected based solely on audience approval—who received the loudest applause at the end of the night won the show. Needless to say, this form of selection allowed plenty of opportunity for corruption, such as packing the house with one’s own friends or supporters, or paying off people to clap for a chosen artist. After the artists performed, Vere Johns stepped onto stage and held the cash prize of two pounds over each person’s head until the audience responded with the appropriate level of applause. Sometimes after a performer won, audience members approached the winner in a threatening manner to demand part of the spoils. If a performer won or came in second place, they returned the next week to perform again, so the corruption continued. Winning the popular talent contests assured success in the musical circuit. The experience was done more for the exposure than the money.

So who are these legends who got their start here on this stage? They include Desmond Dekker, Alton Ellis, John Holt, Laurel Aitken, Bob Andy, Derrick Morgan, the Wailers, and Anita Mahfood. In 1997 Derrick Morgan told me, “I started at the age of 17 at a talent show in Jamaica at the Palace Theater by imitating Little Richard, singing ‘Long Tall Sally’ and ‘Jenny Jenny’ that night at the contest. At the contest I sang first. From there, there was a comedian in Jamaica called themselves Bim and Bam and they started taking me around doing stage shows. That was in 1957.”

The stage at the Palace Theatre today should be a museum, a landmark to the music launched here, but instead it is in a terrible state of disrepair. While on this spontaneous tour of the interior in February of this year, the owner told me that there is a remote possibility they will remodel the theater, but it is more likely it will be razed due to safety concerns and expense. The original movie projector is still in the projection booth, a relic of the past, but the ghosts of the early ska era still flicker on the stage, and in our hearts and minds.