I was so sad to learn that legendary tenor saxophonist and Alpha Boys’ School alumnus Bobby “Little Bra” Gaynair died on June 23, 2021. Bobby and his wife Anne, who died a few weeks before him on May 8th, both became friends of mine and were two of the kindest people on the planet. I knew something was amiss when I wrote them a letter this past March and never heard back, which was not typical. Though Bobby, whose full name was Ferdinand Hagerfield Gaynair, would have been 93 this August, it still came as a shock to hear the news since he was such a vibrant character. He was warm, funny, and a hell of a musician.
In 2017 I was honored to be part of a team including Roberto Moore and Herbie Miller who advocated for Bobby Gaynair to receive the Order of Distinction for his “outstanding contribution as a pioneer in the development of popular Jamaican Music. That advocacy was successful and Bobby flew to Jamaica for the award. I cried watching footage of Bobby receiving his medal and declaration during the National Honours and Awards Ceremony on October 16, 2017 at the King’s House in St. Andrew.
I have devoted an entire chapter to Bobby Gaynair in the book Alpha Boys’ School: Cradle of Jamaican Music which I co-authored with Adam Reeves, and I have donated my recorded interviews with Bobby Gaynair to the Archives of African American Music and Culture at Indiana University where they are being transcribed and digitized for public use and historic preservation.
The following is the material I wrote which was submitted to Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport, Hon. Olivia Grange by Roberto Moore and Herbie Miller.
Bobby “Little Bra” Gaynair
Born Ferdinand Hangerfield Gaynair, in Kingston, Jamaica on August 15, 1928 to Mary Foster and Fitz Henry Herbert Gaynair, “Bobby,” as he was called, was the baby of the family. His brother Wilton was the middle child, while sister Joyce Veronica (pet name Blossom) was the oldest. When he was just seven years old, his father died of diabetes, which meant that his mother was left unable to properly care for the three children. He entered Alpha Boys School in 1937 at the age of 10. His brother, Wilton, was 12 years old and entered at the same time. “We went together. My sister was taken away by my relatives. She was about 15,” he recalls.
Because of his love for music, Bobby was immediately drawn to the band. “I was allowed to listen in the evenings to the band practice. They had a little bungalow and the band practice there. The music was so nice. They were playing classical music, overtures. The leader of the band was a very good musician, and a former member of the military band, Mr. George Neilson. They practiced in the evenings, every day. I listened to them and I was so amazed hearing the sousaphone and the trombone and clarinet and trumpet. I was a rookie and Mr. Neilson asked me how old I am and if I like music and he said I was one year too young, I have to wait. I was so disappointed. But he said, what else can you do? I said I can do dancing. He said if you can do dancing that means you’ve got music in your head. So I make a couple movements, dancing, and everybody, the bandleader, like my movements and they give me a pet name that never leave me. They call me Go Go Walk,” he says with a laugh.
Brother Wilton was old enough to enter the band, and soon Bobby was old enough to join as well. “My first instrument was a clarinet too, just like my brother. But I got sick with a bad foot. We were playing a ball game and I had damage and I couldn’t go to band practice for a while. They had engagements out and I had to stay home. So during that time, we got another bandmaster, Tulloch come in. When I was able to move around and was good enough to practice, him say now you go and pick up that baritone saxophone. It was a baritone saxophone I learned on. Everybody thought it was too big for me. I had to learn from the rest of the guys in the band and I was self-taught. After Alpha I played an alto sax. I play the clarinet, the saxophone, the piano, the guitar, and I can play the flute. I’m versatile,” he says. While still at Alpha, Bobby began performing outside of the school, as did many members of the band. He says that while still a student he performed with Carlisle Henriques’s band, a large 18-20-piece orchestra comprised largely of Alpha Boys. The band played every Friday night at the Carib Theatre, which Bobby describes as like “Carnegie Hall” in that one had to be very good to play there. Henriques, whose nickname was Tuby because he was “short and stubby,” was not a musician, says Bobby, only a manager, a booker, and an organizer of the band. He says that Henriques frequently came to Alpha to hear the band, loved them, and took them out to play. Not only did this conglomeration of boys play at the Carib, but they also, according to Bobby, played at Vernam Air Force Base, an American military airfield during World War II. Here they played at the base’s club, entertaining U.S. soldiers.
When Bobby graduated from Alpha, his first job was with the Redver Cooke Orchestra. He says that he stayed with this band for “several years” and performed all over the island. He also performed at the Palace Theatre with The Commandos, an orchestra led by Delroy Stephens. Bobby also performed for other bands, filling in for his brother when Wilton left Jamaica for Europe. “He followed in his brother’s footsteps,” says Anne. “When Wilton went off to Germany, Bobby moved into his position as a horn player with all the best bands. Tower Isle, all the hotels up and down the coast. Wherever Wilton went, Bobby was next in line. They would audition other musicians like Tommy [McCook] and when they got to Bobby, he got the job.” Bobby performed with guitarist Fitz Colash, Don Drummond & His All-Stars, Baba Motta, Cecil Lloyd and His Orchestra, and others.
Bobby Gaynair made a number of recordings including “Blockade” with Johnny “Dizzy” Moore and Rico Rodriguez; and “Schooling the Duke” with Don Drummond and Johnny “Dizzy” Moore; and “First Gone (Going Home)” with Count Ossie and Rico for producer Harry Mudie. Wife Anne says, “That song ‘Oh Carolina,’ Don Drummond was really instrumental in writing that, from what I can gather from Bobby. Bobby was the one that was with them doing the repeater drum.” He performed on a number of Skatalites tunes and was a member of Clue J & His Blues Blasters, playing on songs like “Milk Lane Hop” with fellow Alpharians Dizzy Moore and Rico Rodriguez, and for Prince Buster on “My Queen.” He says, “I played music to survive with the different bands, on and off because it wasn’t regular. You get a job when there’s an engagement. With all of that, I survived.” Gaynair was also a member of Lynn Taitt’s band, The Sheiks, but not before he left the stage for the hills for a number of years to live in the Wareika Hills.
While living in his shack in the Wareika Hills, Bobby says that one day he was approached by a manger of The Sheiks in front of all the bredren. He recalls, “One of my friends, the manager of The Sheiks, came in the camp and asked me if I could come to the Teachers Convention to entertain the teachers. But they had to go through government and make sure we weren’t subversive. Me, who was in the bottomless pit, was the most dangerous, because I was a drug user—that is what they call marijuana, a drug. So they had problem taking me through immigration and I had my beard on so I couldn’t hide, I had my full-grown beard. But he liked me and he asked me to come and I look at the brothers and it was like the Father, without any warning, was just taking me out of the bottomless pit to a paradise. The Father is so great. I didn’t even get a break to make the proper arrangement because I had to leave everybody, just went. You couldn’t get a passport in those days with beard on your face, but I was passed through so quickly. All I had to do was be civil and quiet and humble when they question me. The time was so short to leave Jamaica, I didn’t even get the time to take a good shower. Coming from out of the dirt, I was like a little worm. There was a lady I left in Jamaica and she was pregnant with my last daughter. I have three daughters, two in America and one in Jamaica.”
Bobby Gaynair left Jamaica in July, 1964 to tour as one of 228 people, the majority of them members of the Jamaica Women Teachers Federation, for a tour of Canada, the United States, and Mexico. He applied for a working permit to stay and work in Canada. In the subsequent years, Bobby Gaynair rarely performed, though he did have a stint with the band Earth, Roots & Water in the late 1970s. He met his wife Anne in Toronto and they married. Anne had two children from a previous marriage which Bobby helped to raise, and Bobby has a total of four children—Annette, Rose, Paul, and Jacqueline. Anne and Bobby have been married for 45 years and they live in Sydney, Nova Scotia near where Anne was born in Cape Breton. Bobby remained close to his brother Wilton throughout his life and even helped to raise Wilton’s son. But the allure of touring never appealed to Bobby, only the music. Anne says, “Bobby didn’t want to travel. He said, no, I’ve had enough of that. Bobby’s radical with the system. He always got away from it, he couldn’t stand the politics. He just wanted to play his horn.” Bobby still performs regularly, every day. He says, “It’s too late to turn back now!”
Read my blog on Bobby Gaynair’s recollections of Anita “Margarita” Mahfood at Count Ossie’s Camp here:
Click on the following links to read more about Bobby Gaynair: