The Original Specials?
What’s In a Name
We all know that words can have multiple meanings and that context is everything. As a student and teacher of rhetoric, I will refrain from digressing here, but suffice to say that when The Specials in the 2Tone era chose their name, the word “specials” was a reference to the one-off acetate recording (later called the dubplate) that sound system producers would use to test on their audience to determine reception. If the crowd liked it, they pressed vinyl for sale in their shops. It was special because it was one-of-a-kind until the other recordings followed. This was apropos for the 2Tone band because they were one-of-a-kind, others did follow, and they also paid respect to the Jamaican ska influence.
But prior to The Specials in the 2Tone era, and prior to specials in the recording and sound system era, there was another Specials–Doc Bramwell and the Specials. They were sometimes billed at Doc Bramwell and the Specials, sometimes as Doc Bramwell and the Springfield Specials, and sometimes as Doc Bramwell and the Springfield Special Orchestra. Doc Bramwell was born Oscar Bramwell in 1907. He was a trumpet player and band leader for this 11-piece orchestra. The first record of their performance was in a Daily Gleaner advertisement in the December 21, 1938 issue on the very same page as an article titled “Capone Held ‘Dangerous'” on the gangster that would go on to inspire Prince Buster and subsequently The Specials in the 2Tone era. But Doc Bramwell’s orchestra was originally called “His Bournemouth Boys” since they performed at the Bournemouth Beach Club in southeastern Kingston (the site is still undergoing reconstruction today). They also performed that holiday season as Doc Bramwell and His Band as well as Dob Bramwell and His Swingsters at the Lucas Cricket Club for “invited guests only,” and in this era of segregation, one can only assume what that means.
They performed dance music and orchestra music for tourists and the wealthy who came to visit Jamaica which was still a British colony for another two-plus decades. They were especially popular at the Springfield Beach Club since tourist liners like the S.S. North Star would arrive and deliver instant clientele looking for a “jolly time.”
What did the term “Specials” mean for Doc Bramwell’s band? The following article explains the nomenclature:
So CHEERS! Maybe I’ll name the next band The Green Gras-ska-ppers!
Original Sound Clash
Doc Bramwell and The Specials rose to fame through winning competitions–against other orchestras. That’s right, it was the original sound clash! The first one took place, according to the Daily Gleaner on March 23, 1939, at the Carib Theatre. The article stated, “Springfield Club’s orchestra, ‘Springfield Specials’ proved their worth as one of Jamaica’s best orchestras on Sunday morning when they won a contract to appear at the Carib Theatre during the summer season. Altogether three orchestras went up to the Carib on Sunday for auditions, but it was not difficult for the judges to choose the best. Playing with their usual mastery of the difficult modern swing-tempo, the Specials came through, with flying colours, especially in their interpretation of Jamaican melodies. The specials will appear two or three times a week at this theatre with native shows; and it is believed that the Carib management will also bring down American entertainers sometimes for the amusement of their public. These also will be accompanied by the ‘Specials.'” The rest of the article provided information on the identity of the judges.
The next sound clash (to be clear, it wasn’t called that, as this is a modern moniker) took place when Doc Bramwell and The Specials performed at the Palace Theatre in a contest judged by public applause which was billed as the “Knockout Orchestra Contest.” The Specials faced off against Swaby’s Pep Wizards.
Here is how reporters promoted the competition:
The Specials won that round and went on to the next elimination:
The Specials were named victors, moving on to face Steve Dick and His Orchestra on April 20, 1939, all the while playing on tour ships and at the Springfield Beach Club. Unfortunately, they lost that round, but boy, what a ride! Still, they performed all that summer at the Carib Theatre and the Springfield Beach Club.
If you’re thinking that this competition sounds a little like the Vere Johns’ Opportunity Hour, you’re not that far off base. Vere Johns and his wife Lillian “Lady Luck” Johns started their talent show competition in Savannah, Georgia in 1937, bringing it back to Kingston in 1939. Who performed backup music for many of those talented youngsters looking to get their start on the Palace Theatre stage during Opportunity Hour? Why none other than Doc Bramwell and The Specials themselves.
They also performed at the Glass Bucket, at gala events for nurses, and alumni events for local high schools. At Sea View Park on November 11, 1941 they gave patrons a “night of Jump, Swing, and Jive!” They performed multiple times a week, every week from 1939 through 1943. In 1944, however, Doc Bramwell, whose band was now billed as the Jive Gentlemen, performed only sporadically. Whereas he would perform five times in two weeks, Bramwell only performed five times in that one year. 1945 seemed to pick back up for Doc Bramwell whose band was now known as the Gay Caballeros and they performed at the Palmerston Club on East Queen Street. He played up until the week before his death. Doc Bramwell never married and died at Kingston Public Hospital at the age of 39 on November 19, 1949 of a perforated gastric ulcer which became blood borne causing toxemia. The newspaper account from the Daily Gleaner on November 11, 1946 follows: