Satchmo, Girl Satchmo, and Jamaica

I had the pleasure of attending the annual Chicago Architecture Foundation’s open house on October 17th and visited a number of fascinating sites, but none as incredible as the site of the former Sunset Cafe. According to the WBEZ website (that’s Chicago’s National Public Radio station), “The Sunset Cafe, also known as The Grand Terrace Cafe, was a jazz club in Chicago, Illinois operating during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. It was one of the most important jazz clubs in America, especially during the period between 1917 and 1928 when Chicago became a creative capital of jazz innovation and again during the emergence of bebop in the early 1940s. From its inception, the club was a rarity as a haven from segregation, since the Sunset Cafe was an integrated or “Black and Tan” club where Afro- and Euro- Americans, along with other ethnicities, could mingle freely without much fear of reprisal. Owned by Louis Armstrong’s manager, Joe Glaser, the venue played host to such performers as Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Johnny Dodds, Bix Beiderbecke, Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa and, above all, Earl “Fatha” Hines and his orchestra’s members: Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughan.”

As I stepped up into the area that is now the manager’s office at the Ace Hardware that inhabits the building, I realized that this was the stage, the exact same stage where Satchmo had performed, along with these other jazz heroes and heroines. Chills. Here are a few photos that show what it looks like today. The original artwork that appeared on the back of the stage wall is still there, although it has been covered in places with fixtures, like a vent and cabinetry.



There was also a large sign in the front of the store that they had removed from storage for the open house, a sign that advertised the brunch at the Grand Terrace, which was the second incarnation of the Sunset Cafe. My jaw dropped when I saw the musical performer advertised as Sun Ra. I asked the docents on duty at the site, but they had no idea who Sun Ra even was! Herman Poole “Sonny” Blount (he wasn’t known as Sun Ra until 1952), settled on Chicago’s South Side in 1946. He performed at “Chicago clubs such as Kirk’s Grand Terrace, the Vincennes Lounge, Parkway Ballroom and Budland,” according to the University of Chicago.


Anyway, back to Satchmo. Having just combed through Star Newspaper archives all summer long, and having written about Girl Satchmo (Kentris Fagan) for Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music, I thought about Louis Armstrong in Jamaica. I knew he had performed on the stages in Kingston and throughout Jamaica, just as he had on this stage in Chicago, although in Chicago his manager owned this stage so Satchmo was more of a regular here instead of a visiting musician. I went back through some of my records and found that Satchmo indeed did visit Jamaica, a number of times, and because Satchmo was born in New Orleans, and Jamaicans were able to receive radio transmissions from New Orleans radio stations on a clear night, and because jazz was prevalent throughout Jamaican clubs, Satchmo was very popular in Jamaica. His films, like High Society, were screened at theaters like the Rialto.

When Satchmo first visited Jamaica in 1957, it was big news. The Daily Gleaner ran stories on his every move–when he came into Palisadoes Airport, where he would appear, etc. He stated in the article below, “I have met several Jamaican musicians in the United States and it’s a pleasure to be here.” One of the greeters at the airport was none other than Ken Khouri of Federal Records.


Satchmo and his wife Lucille were greeted by the mayors of Kingston and Montego Bay, gossip columnist Kitty Kingston revealed that he was serenaded at the airport by a calypso band and hounded by fans for autographs at the Myrtle Bank Hotel where he stayed, and after his last performance during his 1957 visit, the ambassadors to the American consulate on the island, gave him a private party at their Barbican Heights home.

That calypso band who regaled Satchmo with Caribbean tunes? None other than Lord Tanamo and Count Lasher!


Satchmo returned to Jamaica in 1960 to perform again, and he always remained popular.


When Louis Armstrong died, it was front page news in Jamaica.


It was in 1962 in London that Louis Armstrong met Girl Satchmo, Kentris Fagan, but it wasn’t the first time. A caption in the Star Newspaper on June 28m, 1962 beneath a photo of the two together states, “Satchmo and his girl imitator: In London last month for a Daily Mirror party, world-famous entertainer Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong meets for the second time the only known female imitator of his unique style of singing. Jamaican-born Kentris (Girl Satchmo) Fagan is all smiles as they pose for the camerman. First meeting was in Jamaica in 1957 when Kentris was emerging from Mr. and Mrs. Vere Johns “Opportunity Hour” and “Opportunity Knocks” shows. She has been very successful in England and on the Continent and her records have been smash hits. Kentris expects to be in Jamaica for the Independence Celebrations.”


You can read all about Girl Satchmo in my book. She was quite a phenomenon and after her career imitating Satchmo, she used her vocal abilities to record a number of gospel records. Here’s a small excerpt:

In the late 1960s, Girl Satchmo then turned to a different label for her recordings and she partnered with Tommy McCook and the Supersonics for producer Duke Reid on Treasure Isle in Jamaica, and Fab and Trojan in the U.K. The songs, “I’m Coming Home” and “Take You For a Ride,” still featured her gravely growl that punctuated her natural singing style. But Girl Satchmo was more than a novelty act—she had real talent, real business acumen, and a real conversion. In 1971 she founded her own record label, Kangaroo, and released her own single, “Crazy But Good” as Girl Satchmo and Reggae Kings. She produced the song as well. The same year she put out the song “I Found Out Pt. 1” with the B side, “I Found Out Pt. 2” as Girl Satchmo which she also produced.
Girl Satchmo toured Germany and had immigrated to England by the end of the 1960s. She had been traveling there since the mid-1960s when Vere Johns paid her way to England since she was very close with Johns and his wife. She once wrote them a letter saying, “Thanks to you and Mrs. Johns for all I am today. You brought me up and made me an artiste.” Girl Satchmo traveled back and forth between England and Jamaica to perform. She performed in London at the St. Pancras Town Hall and numerous nightclubs, but she returned to Jamaica in the early 1970s as noted in a Daily Gleaner article on August 1, 1971 with the headline “Girl Satchmo for Independence jump up.”


Stanley Motta, Recording Pioneer


Stanley Motta is always mentioned as an early pioneer in the ska industry since he had the first recording studio on the island, although they were not pressed there–Motta sent the acetates to the U.K. for duplication. But Motta began the recording industry in Jamaica. His recording studio was opened in 1951 on Hanover Street and his label, M.R.S. (Motta’s Recording Studio), recorded mostly calypso and mento. Motta’s first recorded in 1952 with Lord Fly whose birth name was Rupert Lyon. It is to be noted that in his band on these recordings were Bertie King on clarinet, an Alpha Boys School alumnus who would go on to have a successful jazz career in Europe, as well as Mapletoft Poule who had a big band that employed many early ska musicians and Alpha alumni. Motta also recorded artists like Count Lasher, Monty Reynolds, Eddie Brown, Alerth Bedasse, Jellicoe Barker, Lord Composer, Lord Lebby, Lord Messam, Lord Power, and Lord Melody (good Lord!).


There is a strong ska connection too. While I originally thought and posted that Baba Motta was Stanley Motta’s little brother and got that misinformation from Brian Keyo (here: http://www.soulvendors.com/rolandalphonso.html), I have been corrected by mento scholar Daniel Neely, as you will see from his fantastic and helpful comments below. They, in fact, are not related. Baba Motta was a pianist and trumpeter who also played bongos at times. Roland Alphonso performed with Baba Motta and Stanley then employed Roland to play as a studio musician for many of his calypsonians. Baba Motta had his own orchestra based at the Myrtle Bank Hotel. Baba Motta also recorded for his brother Stanley Motta with Ernest Ranglin. And other ska artists who recorded for Stanley Motta include Laurel Aitken and Lord Tanamo. Rico Rodriguez also says he recorded for Stanley Motta. Theophilus Beckford also performed for other calypsonians that Motta recorded, playing piano before he cut his vital tune “Easy Snapping” for Coxsone, the first recognized ska recording.


So who was this Stanley Motta character and what was his interest in Jamaican music? Well as most Jamaican residents know, Motta was the owner of his eponymous business that sold electronics, camera equipment, recording equipment, and appliances. They also processed film, if you remember that! Motta started his business in 1932 with just two employees. Motta’s grew to hundreds of employees over the years and they sold products from Radio Shack, Poloroid, Hoover, Nokia, and Nintendo, to name a few. Stanley Motta was born in Kingston on October 5, 1915. He was educated at Munro College and St. George’s College. He was married twice and has four sons, Brian, David, Philip, and Robert.


Motta chose to get into recording perhaps because it was a new industry for the island. And as a businessman, he saw that there were tourists who flocked to Jamaica with spending money, and in an effort to capture some of that money, he began recording to send them home with a souvenir. Many of these calypso and mento recordings for MRS were intended to be souvenirs, a take home example of the sounds enjoyed while on the north coast beaches. In fact, later Motta would serve on the board of the Jamaica Tourist Board from 1955 to 1962, so this was a focus for Motta. He recorded 78s, 45s, but also 10 full-length LPs including “Authentic Jamaican Calypsos,” a four volume series targeted at tourists upon which Roland Alphonso is a featured soloist on the song “Reincarnation.” In short, Motta was an entrepreneur, so his interest in recording came from a vision to fill a need, and he quickly moved on into more enterprising endeavors when he saw that need was being met better by others, like Federal Records, a physical pressing plant, and he chose to focus on his retail stores instead, stores which are still in business today.


Motta was also involved in broadcast, but not as you might think. In 1941, after viewing a program that was broadcast on NBC, Motta was so moved by the content of the program titled “Highlights of 1941,” that he wrote to NBC to obtain a recording of this broadcast. He secured the one-hour program which he then showed for audiences at the Glass Bucket Club and he used donations from the screening to support war funds. The program dramatized many of the events of the year interspersed with real footage of Pearl Harbor and the milestones leading up to World War II.


Motta was likely also a supplier for many sound system operators, as you can see from the advertisement above. He sold amplifiers, speakers, and all types of recording equipment so without his influence, the face of Jamaican music would not be the same, in many ways. Share your stories, memories, and research on Stanley Motta here and keep the dialogue going!


Here are a number of links to more information on Stanley Motta and his recording legacy: