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Hortense Sings the Blues

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Okay, so maybe this blog title is clickbait, but it’s only done to bring attention to the challenges that women in early Jamaican music, like Hortense Ellis, experienced in the 1960s and beyond. This is a topic I have addressed in my book, Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music, and Hortense Ellis was an artist who was perhaps most vocal about being treated unwell. Over the years we have heard plenty about artists not feeling that they were paid their due, but Hortense Ellis was frequently not paid at all! And she had nine children and so her work, her labors and talent, were of even more importance. Her recordings put food on her table, so she had to fight for what was hers.

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One of my good friends recently shared this Star Newspaper article with me. He knew I had long championed the career of Hortense Ellis and was further frustrated this past February when attending the Trenchtown Music Festival after hearing Alton Ellis’s son, Christopher Ellis, give a roll call of the musicians who came from Trenchtown, yet he omitted his own aunt!

I have previously written about Hortense Ellis HERE so you can have a read.

But here is the text transcribed from that Star Newspaper article from September 2, 1966:

Singing in the bath tub usually leads to nothing but shouts of protest from the neighbours or starts the dog howling in the backyard. But for Hortense Ellis, it has led to a very successful singing career. Now known as Jamaica’s first lady of song, Hortense has gone just about as far as a girl can in local entertainment circles and now she wants to go abroad.

Brother Alton Ellis, himself a popular vocalist, was the one who first got Hortense into the show business world ,by introducing her to the ten popular Vere Johns Opportunity Hour Shows.”

I pause here to note that though she may have been introduced to the talent show by her brother, animosity was created in the family when she beat him! That’s right, in the grand championships, Hortense took first place and Alton took second! And her oldest daughter told me that this rivalry continued throughout her life. Alton never seemed to get over it, according to her daughter. That story is in Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaica Music.

Back to the article:

“And it was through these shows that bandleader Byron Lee heard her sing and signed her up for some stage shows that really got her career going. The stage show fans really took to Hortense and when she recorded ‘I’ll Come Softly’ it was at the top of the hit parade for a month.

Since then, Hortense has been on nearly every local stage show and has been among the supporting artistes at shows starring the most famous names in show business–names like Ben E. King, Doris Troy, Patty [sic] LaBelle and the Blue Bells, Mamie Harvey, Solomon Burke and Dionne Warwick.

Patty [sic] LaBelle had for a long time been a favourite of Hortense and when Patti heard her sing, she gave her considerable encouragement. But Solomon Burke was even more enthusiastic about Hortense’s talent. He said that she only needed a little more experience to be a big hit. He advised her to go to the United States and ‘try to make the big time.’

‘But I’m weak to help myself,’ she confesses sadly. ‘I need a manager to help me.’ Hortense loves show business. But hates the way the artistes are often treated by some of the promoters.

‘I have a special love for my fans,’ she told me. ‘And I love the excitement of stage shows. I usually have to have six songs ready when I go on because they always want an encore. So although I want to leave Jamaica now to get some experience I would never leave here forever.’

I asked her if she thought she could make a living here without having to go abroad.

Don’t want to pay

You can make a living here, but we are not treated fairly by some of the promoters. They don’t want to pay us. We see a full house at a show and then they tell us that they didn’t make enough at the gate to meet expenses. They say that most of the people crashed the gate and got in free. Maybe the Government could do something for us instead of letting us suffer under local promoters.’

I reminded her of the Tops in Local show, which was put on by the artistes and backed by a loan from the Ministry of Development and Welfare.

‘Yes,’ said the young vocalist, ‘but we had to pay back the money and there wasn’t anything left. They should have helped us with more shows.’

Promptness at rehearsals was something promoters were always claiming the artistes ignored, and I asked Hortense about this.

‘When you are not paid for a job and not given a proper contract and no one seems interested in you, you don’t have any impetus to turn up.’

And this is why Hortense is now looking for someone to help her as a manager or promoter.

Speaking for herself and her fellow artistes she said: ‘If we know there is someone interested in us, we will be prompt and turn up for every rehearsal and do anything he wants, as long as we get a fair deal. What they are giving us now is not even taxi fare. We are being trampled.’

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Giving Thanks

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In the United States we celebrate Thanksgiving on November 24th this year, a holiday that according to history.com was designated by Abraham Lincoln. “In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies. For more than two centuries, days of thanksgiving were celebrated by individual colonies and states. It wasn’t until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November.”

So in honor of this holiday when people from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon will break bread together with family and friends in a tradition of community, love, and unity, let us give thanks, and skanks, with some Jamaican tunes of thanks. Here’s a selection of songs of thanks, and though the artists may be thanking and praising Jah, we too can celebrate this spirit this time of year and always, by being kind to each other and embracing one another in love and unity. Feel free to chime in below and add yours to the mix–after all, that’s what this post is all about.

Bob Marley–Give Thanks and Praises

Hortense Ellis and General Roy–Give Thanks

Derrick Morgan and The Scorpions–Give Thanks

The Abyssinians–Satta Massagana (Give Thanks)

Sugar Minott–Give Thanks & Praises

The Versatiles–The Thanks We Get

U Roy–Give Thanks Continually

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Pata Pata Patsy

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So thrilled to see that Pasty Todd will be performing with Stranger Cole, her longtime vocal partner after Derrick Morgan, in Minneapolis May 13-15th accompanied by Phil Chen, Dennis Sindrey, and the Prizefighters! I will be there for sure! More information on this show is located here. So today let’s celebrate that talented woman who was one of the few, along with Millie Small, Yvonne Harrison, Hortense Ellis, and a small handful of others, to break the gender barrier in the 1960s. I found the lovely photo above of Millicent “Patsy” Todd in a 1969 issue of Swing Magazine in the National Library of Jamaica archives in Kingston this past February. And the following is the chapter of my book, Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music, which I have written on Patsy, which you can purchase here:

Pata Pata Patsy:  Millicent Todd

Millicent Todd was just a teenage girl when ska hit the town. She was born on September 23, 1944, grew up in Fletcher’s Land in West Kingston and was Prince Buster’s next door neighbor. She attended All Saints School and left at age 14. Although she wasn’t raised in a particularly musical home, and the Catholic Church she attended didn’t have much to offer in the way of music since the program was still presented in Latin in those days, she did listen to the music coming from America. “I’m somebody who liked to listen to the radio, and I really got interested in this group, Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers. I used to hear them singing and I used to sing after them,” she says.

Her mother, Miss Kitty, realizing Millicent’s talent, helped to get her daughter’s start. Miss Kitty approached Derrick Morgan on Orange Street and told him of her daughter’s talent although today Patsy says she has only heard the story from Morgan and didn’t know the details. “Derrick told me the story because I didn’t know anything about it. He said he saw this woman and she told him she had a daughter that could sing. And I saw this guy came to my gate, knock on my gate. I’m looking at him and he’s saying he’s Derrick Morgan, and I say to myself, ‘So?’ And he said, ‘I heard you can sing,’ and I’m looking at him wondering what he’s talking about. And he said, ‘Could you sing something for me?’ and I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘I just want to hear something.’ And I did. But as far as I’m concerned, I didn’t know who this guy was, what he wanted. Somebody just come appear to you, telling you he hear you can sing and if you would do a song with him. And at first I was kind of, something ain’t right here. But then he told me a story about another artist that the song was about, and this guy, I hated him, still do. And when he said that, I was ready to sing that song. And I did. And we have this producer, Duke Reid, God rest his soul, a nice man, and he start shooting up the place. My God! I was so scared! I ran! And they said, ‘No! That’s a good thing! When he hears something that he likes that’s going to make a hit, this is what he does!’ So that experience was great for me and after that it was history. The song was ‘Love Not To Brag,’” says Patsy. The man who inspired the song was Eric “Monty” Morris who grew up with Morgan and was known to be boastful. He and Morgan were vocal competitors. Millicent recalls the scene after the take, “We have this producer, Duke Reid, God rest his soul, a nice man, and he start shooting up the place. My God! I was so scared! I ran! And they said, ‘No! That’s a good thing! When he hears something that he likes that’s going to make a hit, this is what he does!’ So that experience was great for me and after that it was history.”

patsy1Derrick and Patsy in their early years.

            Millicent was young and the music industry could be an unkind environment, especially with so much skilled talent, professional musicians in the studio and producers wanting to get one take down on acetate for play at the sound system days later. “It was hard. Very hard,” says Millicent. “I was 15, 16 years old. And it was hard because you didn’t have a say. I didn’t get the chance to go to rehearsal and things like that. I would go to the studio and my partner would tell me, ‘This is so-and-so and so-and-so,’ and I would write it down, and I would sing from the paper, that was it. I don’t remember what it was, what I did or how much record I did. I didn’t have a say, to say to the musicians, ‘Would you play this,’ or “Would you play that.’ They would kill me. You just take what they give you and that’s it. The musicians that we had were great musicians. I think they could play with anyone in this entire world. They knew music, they knew what they were doing. They were absolutely fantastic. But they were very egotistical. You know, it was either just them or nothing. The problem when you have a band that every musician in that band could be the leader, it’s very hard. That’s how great they were,” Patsy says.

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Millicent Todd

            She was young, innocent, naïve, but her talent transcended. Graeme Goodall recalls her work in the studio. “I loved her dearly. She was a very nice person, very pleasant to work with, very polite. She was not so much a leader, but she was very very good and she, like most of the vocalists of the day, understood that this was her big break,” Goodall says. Derrick & Patsy continued to record hit after hit as a duo, including “Feel So Fine,” “Are You Going to Marry Me,” “Crying in the Chapel,” and countless others. Perhaps the most well-known song the duo recorded was “Housewife’s Choice” in 1962 for producer Leslie Kong. This song was originally named “You Don’t Know How Much I Love You,” but Marie Garth, legendary radio host, had so many housewives call in to the station to request the tune that she renamed it and future pressings reflected this name change. The song also became popular in the United Kingdom as West Indian immigrants played the tune which was released on the Island Records label. Derrick & Patsy were a hit. They were the perfect boy-girl duo singing sweet songs of love and romance. They were so big that when popular American artists came to perform in Kingston, so too did Derrick & Patsy as part of the Jamaican spectacular. They performed at shows with Ray Charles, Ben E. King, and Sammy Davis Junior. Derrick would record with a number of female vocalists in duets including Gloria Franklin (who also performed as Gloria & the Dreamlets), Naomi Phillips (who also recorded with Doreen Shaffer), Hortense Ellis, Paulette Morgan (Derrick’s sister), Yvonne Harrison (also called Yvonne Adams), and Jennifer & the Mohawks (Jennifer Jones).

patsy3Derrick Morgan performs in Chicago in 2013. Photo by Heather Augustyn.

            When Derrick Morgan left to go to England to try his hand at success overseas, Patsy was approached by another singer with the offer to perform duets. She recalls, “Stranger [Cole] came to talk to me. He said that Duke Reid sent him and he said he wanted to do some record and the only way that Duke Reid would record him if I sang with him. And it kind of hit me off guard because Derrick was in England, and I said to him, ‘I don’t know about that, I have to think about it,’ and then I saw this guy really needed to do this. He believed he could make himself better and do something that he love and getting paid for it, you know, a charge was in him. And I said okay, I tell him yes. And that’s how Stranger Cole and I came about.” One of their biggest hits was the song, “When I Call Your Name,” which they recorded for Duke Reid. Other classics include, “Down the Train Line,” “Yeah Yeah Baby,” “Give Me the Right,” “ Love Divine,” and plenty more. The tunes were also classic boy-girl duets, inviting and harmonious. Most were recorded in 1964 for Sonia Pottinger and Duke Reid. Stranger remembers his days with Patsy. “Mr. Reid was the one who asked me to sing with her. He told me to go to her and asked me to sing with her. So ‘When I Call Your Name’ we recorded and we do many many more songs together. She was not shy, she was much braver than I. She make hit record before I do, with Derrick Morgan, so she was a more limelighted artist than I was. I think that was a blessing for me to have a lady with more hit songs before me. I am very lucky to sing with her, and I think she is very lucky to sing with me,” says Stranger.

            Patsy wasn’t just a duo artist. She was also an artist in her own right—Queen Patsy. At a time when women weren’t doing much solo work at all, Patsy paved the way for strong female vocalists. One of these tunes, “A Man is a Two Face,” is not a ska or rocksteady song, but true to the American R&B tradition with soulful vocals, music by Lynn Taitt & the Jets. The lyrics offer advice from a mother to a daughter that she shares with other women about how a man will smile and sweet talk but leave you singing the blues in the night. It was not the submissive songs of innocent love she sang with Stranger and Derrick. It was a song of empowerment and knowledge and sisterhood. It was Patsy’s take on “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” both in sound and in spirit. She was physically without a man by her side as in her duos, and she, as a solo artist, was all woman. Her voice transforms in this song from her duos. She is no longer the little teenager—she is informed, guiding, warning. The flip side of this recording on Sonia Pottinger’s Gay Feet label is “It’s So Hard Without You” where Patsy sings that there is nothing she can do without her man, so what do we make of this paradox? Certainly these songs reflect the emotions women feel in relationships—the phases and complexities.

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Stranger Cole performs in Chicago in 2012. Photo by Heather Augustyn.

            Two of the other solo songs that Patsy recorded for Producer Sonia Pottinger were “Fire in Your Wire” and “Pata Pata Rock Steady” which were unique in their content. “Fire in Your Wire” is a soca tune originally written by Calypso Rose of Tobago, another pioneering woman, whose lyrics are the typical sexual innuendo of calypso and soca, but certainly not typical of those sung by a female up to this point. “Pata Pata Rock Steady” was also a song written by a female artist in 1957 by Dorothy Masuka for singer Miriam Makeba, both South African artists. “Fire in Your Wire” and “Pata Pata Rock Steady” were songs that showed Patsy’s take-charge side and celebrated the creativity of other women. Of “Fire in Your Wire,” Patsy says, “I wanted to prove a point that I could do other styles. I would take chances to see what I could do. I never had a say in any of the songs I sang with the duets, so this was an opportunity to try different things.”  “Pata Pata” was not the only Miriam Makeba song Patsy covered. She also recorded “The Retreat Song,” also titled Jikele Maweni, which had a distinct African feel, especially since it was sung in the Xhosa (KOH-suh) language whose lyrics tell of a vicious stick fight. Not the typical teenage love song.

Patsy traveled overseas to share her talent, to the U.S. with Byron Lee & the Dragonaires and to Belize. She sang on over 100 recordings. But she left it all behind in 1969, as the music left ska and rocksteady behind. She simply grew tired of the industry and moved to New York to start a new life. Since the Legends of Ska Concert, organized by Brad Klein in Toronto in 2002, Patsy has occasionally returned to the stage to perform, alongside her duo partners, Stranger and Derrick Morgan, as well as on her own.

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Memories of Chocomo Lawn

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This week I am asking for you, the reader, to share your memories of Chocomo Lawn, should you have the experience in your past. Even better, if you have photos of Chocomo Lawn, then or now, I would be very interested in hearing from you. This site was a “ground zero” of ska, as were other sites such as Forrester Hall, Orange Street, Brentford Road, and many more. Chocomo Lawn was/is in West Kingston and was the headquarters for Edward Seaga during his early years in politics. In a Daily Gleaner article on December 23, 1967, Seaga held a holiday party for thousands of children in West Kingston, and he held the fete at Chocomo Lawn. The article read, “About 4,000 children were given a Christmas treat at Chocomo Lawn, Wellington Street, on Thursday afternoon sponsored by the West Kingston Constituency Committee and the Hon. Edward Seaga, Minister of Finance and Planning. This was the fourth Christmas treat for children of the area since Monday. Mr Seaga assisted by Miss Veronica Carter handed out the gifts at all the treats. Mr. Seaga announced that a special feature of this year’s Christmas treat for the constituency application forms for admittance to two youth camps for boys in the area
between 15 and 16 years were available at the constituency headquarters. To close the series of treats a special dinner for 1000 old people of the area was given yesterday afternoon, Supt. Joe Williams of the Denham Town Police was special guest.”

Years before this charitable gathering, Seaga, had come to West Kingston as a site of culture where he would study and cultivate the music–music of the revivalist religions (kumina, pukumina) and ska. In a Jamaica Observer article on March 21, 2004, former Kingston mayor Desmond McKenzie recalls this era at Chocomo Lawn. The article states, “A decisive turning point in the lives of the residents, particularly the young people in Western Kingston, came with the arrival of Edward Seaga, McKenzie remembers. He would make an awesome impression on them and under his tutelage some would rise to national prominence, notably “Babsy” Grange, Daphne Hurge, Samuel Dreckette, the late reggae superstar Dennis Brown, Winston Bopee who was lead guitarist for We the People band, the Techniques, among others. Seaga had entered West Kingston on grounds that he was researching culture and revivalism in the area. . . .  They were also thrilled by the way Seaga could move to the beat of the revival drums. Seaga eventually bought out Victor’s Pop Band that gave birth to the Techniques. Many young Jamaican talents were nurtured there. Young upcoming stars such as Jimmy Cliff, Marcia Griffiths, Delroy Wilson, Count Prince Miller and the like played at Chocomo Lawn, the cultural centre that Seaga developed. Such was the reputation and prestige of the place that ‘anybody who was anybody played the Chocomo Lawn.'”

One of these “anybodys” was Byron Lee & the Dragonaires who came to Chocomo Lawn, along with Ronnie Nasralla, to learn about the ska. Until then, like most other bands on the island, Lee and his group were playing in the American rhythm and blues styles that were popular at dances and in clubs. Other bands, like Carlos Malcolm, performed jazz. Each club, each studio, was an incubator of sounds from the Caribbean, America, and Africa, but at Chocomo Lawn, the scene was ska and Seaga encouraged his friends to come for a listen, to help spread this new sound. In a Daily Gleaner article, October 25, 1980, the writer chronicles a celebration of Seaga’s imprint on the culture. “Mr. Seaga mentioned such names as Jimmy Cliff, Ken Boothe, Stranger Cole, Toots and the Maytals, Hortense and Alton Ellis who he said always frequent Chocomo Lawn in Western Kingston — the place where ska was born. He said that as Minister of Finance and Planning in the JLP government, he tried to popularise ska internationally allowing Jamaica to be known as a country of creative people. After the ska, he said,
there was the rock steady, then reggae from which super stars like Bob Marley were born. Mr. Seaga said that Jamaican music today was acclaimed internationally, ‘It began as a little seed planted at Chocomo Lawn in Western Kingston, nurtured into a bigger tree and blossomed so that the entire world can see its beauty,’ Mr. Seaga said. Mr. Seaga paid tribute to Byron Lee and the Dragonaires who were celebrating 25 years in the music field. He said they have helped to spread Jamaican music abroad more than any other artistes in the country.”

Though I’m sure the above text will cause some debate. For every person who claims they are the one who started ska, there are an equal amount who feel they know who started it. This is good! This speaks to the passion of the music! There is ownership and pride! So those who may have memories to share of one of these sites of creation, Chocomo Lawn, please share your thoughts here and if you have photos, please contact me at haugustyn@yahoo.com. I am researching this time period and would very much like to hear your oral histories!

You can read more about the connection between Chocomo Lawn and ska here.

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Skatalites Go Into Orbit

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The following article appeared in the June 27, 1964 issue of the Star Newspaper with the headline, “Skatalites Go Into Orbit.” The article by Lloyd Davis states, “Whether it was ska-ing ‘On Broadway,’ painting a ‘Ska-trait of my love’ or just plain ‘I’m in the mood for Ska’ there was something for every taste at Bournemouth on Wednesday night when Tommy McCook and the Ska-Talites went into orbit. It was just the shot in the arm the Bournemouth needed to revive this once popular night spot. The dance floor was a sea of heads bobbing up and down in ska tempo. Any physical training instructor would have been proud of the hand movements. It seems as if diets will be out soon, for the Ska could well pull that extra pound from the tummy area. Jamaicans all know of ‘Carry go, bring come’ but wait until you hear it set to music in the Ska beat. It’s a different kettle of fish. For the past few weeks, the band have taken over Bournemouth and have kept the place alive. Roland Alphonso on tenor sax, Don Drummond on trombone (when he sits in), leader Tommy McCook on tenor sax, Lloyd Brivett [sic.] bass, Lloyd Knibbs [sic.] drums, Johnny Moore trumpet, and Lester Sterling, alto sax and trumpet combine to produce a sound that’s great.”

Tommy McCook is the man who launched them:

“In 1962 a young musician returned to his island home after spending a few years in England and the United States. This young man, having wide experience in jazz music, linked up with a local group of jazzmen and started to make a name for himself. He was Tommy McCook. Tommy, who was then an authentic jazz musician and an increasingly popular artist, was invited by Messrs. Coxon [sic.] and Randy, to do recording for them, but for McCook, jazz was not to be given second place for SKA (which at the time was of very little significance). Roland Alfonso [sic.], who was doing recording for Coxon [sic.] and Randy left the island and also a vacant space for a recording artist which could only be filled by someone as proficient as Tommy McCook. It was at this stage that he decided to enter the recording scene and he did so with terrific force. One of his first record releases was ‘DOWNBEAT’ which was a hit, and he then went on to make his next hit ‘Road Block,’ a Ska instrumental. This release projected McCook to the front rank of leading recording artists where he was in constant demand by Ska Lords like Randy, Tip Top, Duke Kid [sic.], and Prince Buster. Today Ska as it should be played is produced by the talented musicians who are not attached to any particular band. Tommy McCook is one of these musicians. He realised that the Ska boom was being heard all over Jamaica and in other parts of the world and he organised his fellow musicians and formed a new Group called the SKATALITES. The SKATALITES have made four public appearances so far and have made a good impression.”

skatalites-at-uwi

This article, which appeared in the Star Newspaper just two days later on June 29, 1964, provided a photographic account of one of those performances that the Ska-Talites made at the University of the West Indies, presumably at Mona. The top left photo shows Tommy McCook performing with the caption, “Tommy McCook, leader of the Ska-Talites, intent on his interpretation as the Skatalites play for the University’s undergrads.” The next photo bears the caption, “Press along, in various stances, ska-ites ‘dig the hot beat’ of Tommy McCook and the ‘Ska-talites.'” Below a photograph of a woman doing the “Wash Wash” appears, the song that Prince Buster made famous at the 1964 World’s Fair with the dance moves to correspond. Two ska dancers appear above the caption, “Getting With It, two respond to the ‘Skatalites’ keen sound during ‘Ska-talites Night’ at the University Students’ Union.” The two photos at the bottom feature a group shot of the band with the caption, “The men with the big sound: ‘The Skatalites’ at the Students’ Union of the University of the West Indies on Wednesday night last ‘Skatalites Night’ during the University’s ‘Festival Week.’ From left Johnny Moore (trumpet) Lord Tanamo (guitar), Roland Alphonso (Tenor Saxophone), Loyd Knibbs [sic.] (drums), Lester Sterling (alto saxophone), Lloyd Brevet [sic.] (bass), and leader Tommy McCook. Absent on the night was Don Drummond.” The next photo features a dancer with the caption, “‘Oh, Ah Can’t Take No More,’ this ska-ite seems to say.”

Don Drummond’s absence, incidentally, could be due to a number of circumstances. One, he could have been struggling with mental health issues, though he was not likely in Bellevue at this time, but more likely is a second scenario–while Don Drummond was certainly a member of the Skatalites, and a crucial member at that, he was also a widely recognized solo performer as well. In fact, that same month he headlined as a solo performer at Johnson’s Drive-Inn where he was billed as “Mr. Ska himself.” He appeared that same night with Margarita “Rhumba Queen,” so the point is that it is possible that Drummond may have had another engagement, or he simply turned this engagement down. We can only speculate with educated guesses at this point. Six months after this performance, Margarita would be dead, murdered at the hands of Don Drummond.

skatalites-tour

The following article appeared in the Star Newspaper the following month on August 20, 1964 with the headline, “The Ska-talites to tour Island.” The article reads, “Tommy McCook and the Ska-Talites will be performing in a series of stage shows at the Appleton ‘SKA-TA-RAMA’ presented by J. Wray & Nephew Ltd. at certain theatres. The Ska-Talites will be accompanied on the tour by The Maytals (with their theme song ‘Pain in My Belly’) and Maria Cordero, Dominican Republican rhumba dancer. Opening in St. Ann’s Bay in the Seville Theatre Monday August 31; Highgate, Movies Theatre, Tuesday, September 1; Port Antonio, Delmar Theatre, Wednesday, September 2; Old Harbour, Reo Theatre, Thursday, September 3. Kingston, Majestic Theatre. Sunday, September 6; Duncans, Crest Theatrem, Monday, September 7; Santa Cruz, Santa Theatre, Tuesday, September 8; Mandeville Tudor Theatre, Wednesday, September 9; Linstead, Theatre Royal, Thursday, September 10; and into Kingston at the Ritz Theatre Sunday, September 13. Other supporting artistes will be Hortense Ellis, Pluggy and Beryl, Ranny Willians, Alton Ellis, Don Drummond, Roland Alfonso [sic.], Sonny Bair, Delroy Wilson and other top local artistes. There will be free bottles of Appleton Rum given away to lucky ticket holders at each theatre.”

Below are two advertisements from these Ska-Ta-Rama shows.

Daily Gleaner, September 2, 1964:

skatarama2

Daily Gleaner, September 3, 1964:

skatarama

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Vere Johns is Santa

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It’s December, and so the winter holidays are right around the corner. It’s a time of celebration, so why not celebrate Vere Johns, that Santa himself whose show, the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour, gave the world a gift by launching so many musical careers?! Here is our Santa, or a sketch of him, in 1961 in the same newspaper, the Star, where he had his column in which he discussed various aspects of Jamaican culture and life–everything from politics to medical care to labor issues to the mistreatment of the “bearded men.” The column was called “Vere Johns Says” and he always spoke his mind, sometimes eliciting readers to write in their opposing thoughts and maybe throw a barb or two.

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In the column from which the illustration above was taken, Johns weighs in on the “gifts” that he would like to give to local leaders in the year before his country would gain their independence. And when I read about the “referendum” I can’t help but cue up Lord Creator’s “Independent Jamaica” in my musical mind.

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This is a pretty typical Vere Johns column, and I think it’s interesting in light of the independence on the horizon. On the “crossroads” Jamaica certainly was during this time. And Vere Johns was involved as conduit or a discriminator and analyst of the events, just as he was with the musical acts that came across his stage. He presented this cultural revolution as it was happening, a conduit of the music that would go on to change the world.

Here is Vere Johns and his wife, the lovely Lucille whose idea it was to host a variety show on the stages of the movie theaters the Johns managed.

vere-johns-and-lucille-johns

This is the same Lucille Johns who appeared with Margarita (Anita Mahfood) in the film “It Could Happen to You” which I had the pleasure of sharing with Margarita’s daughter last week. Incidentally, Margarita won the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour herself in 1952 at the age of 12. Below is an excerpt from my book Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music that sheds a little light on this powerhouse couple.

Ask any vocalist from the 1950s and 1960s where they got their start and they will often tell you that they either participated in or attended the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour. This talent show was responsible for launching the careers of a great percentage of Jamaican vocalists during the time when studios were looking for talent. It was a test, a rehearsal, a springboard for further success. They began the show in April, 1939. After the first show, Lucille told a reporter, “Everybody wishes to be a singer,” and she was nicknamed “Lady Luck.” The Daily Gleaner, July 25, 1939 gave a review of the Opportunity Hour series which had just wrapped up for the season. It stated, “At the close of Friday night’s finals of the popular all-Island ‘Opportunity Hour’ at the Palace Theater, Mr. Vere Johns and his popular wife ‘Lady Luck’ received tremendous compliment for their very laudable efforts of unearthing the talent of Jamaica in the entertainment world and for the undoubted success achieved. . . . with the close of the ‘Opportunity Hour’ we say to Mr. and Mrs. Johns ‘THANK YOU!’ We hope Friday night’s close will not bring an end to such fine efforts. We hope that with Friday night’s close the work of unearthing Jamaica’s talent will continue by this pair, and we hope that by their effort bigger and greater things will be achieved for Jamaica in this respect.” If ever there was a statement of prophecy, this was it.

Music historian and journalist Roy Black said of the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour, “It goes without saying that stars such as Millie Small, John Holt, Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Alton Ellis, Hortense Ellis, The Blues Busters, Derrick Harriott, Derrick Morgan, Lascelles Perkins, Higgs and Wilson, Bunny and Scully, Laurel Aitken, Wilfred ‘Jackie’ Edwards. Jimmy Tucker, Girl Satchmo, Lloyd ‘Sparrow’ Clarke, and musicians Roy Richards, Charlie Organaire, and Rico Rodriguez, who all came under his wing, played significant roles in shaping Jamaica’s popular music. They came in droves – hopeful actors, dancers, tricksters, singers, kneeling at his feet for an opportunity to become popular entertainers. There was hardly a performer who grew up in Kingston who didn’t come into his fold. To them it seemed that only one man held the key to the door of success. The city’s famous theatres – The Palace, at the corner of East Queen Street and South Camp Road; The Majestic, which faces Maxfield Avenue from the Spanish Town Road intersection; and The Ambassador, along Seventh Street in Trench Town – were the venues that Johns found logistically convenient to host these shows. The events took on a carnival atmosphere following auditions held mainly in the hometown of the aspirants. With the winners being decided by crowd reaction, competition was fierce and intense.”

Black describes how the idea for the talent show came about. It was a team effort with his wife who also acted as emcee of the events alongside her husband. Black states, “According to Colby Graham, who did extensive research on Johns, the idea for a Vere Johns talent show was born out of a request by the boss of the Savannah Journal newspaper with whom Johns worked, to devise a strategy to boost attendance at cinemas. With the help of his wife, Lillian, they came up with the idea for the show which began in Savannah, Georgia, in 1937, before the couple moved the event to Jamaica in 1939. In the late 1940s, he began a long-running STAR newspaper column ‘Vere Johns Says,’ mainly on the topic of music. But half the story has never been told as, in the 1950s, Johns added another dimension to his already illustrious career where he was a talent scout, impresario, journalist, radio personality, elocutionist and war veteran, by venturing into the world of movies. He played roles in the 1955 adventure thriller Man Fish, which also featured Eric Coverly, and returned a year later in the 26-minute documentary, It Can Happen To You, in which he played the role of a father of two sons who had syphilis.” That film was the same documentary in which Margarita (Anita Mahfood) portrayed a rhumba dancer who performed in a club as patrons watched and caroused with one another.

Not only did Vere Johns encourage other performers to have a career through his talent show, but he himself was a performer on stage and screen. He even dressed up as Santa Claus at some of his holiday shows. He and Lucille performed a comedy radio show in 1943 called “Razzle Dazzle.” Lucille was also a stage actress, “Lady Luck,” who conducted the talent show band and sang at the talent performances. In 1940 on New Year’s Day, Lucille danced in a troupe that performed a production of “Show-Boat,” which was described as a vaudevillian presentation. An article in the February 18, 1941 issue of the Daily Gleaner states, “The cast of ‘Pagan Fire’ stage presentation at popular Majestic tomorrow night is hard at work and will be ready to give of their best. They comprise the following: Mrs. Vere Johns (Jungle girl)—returns to the Jamaica stage and will be seen in two dance specialties . . . Vere Johns (Chief Crandall)–veteran actor and director in a stirring dramatic role. . . . ‘Pagan Fire’ is an original playlet by Mr. Vere Johns. Place: Kango Isle in the South Seas. Production and direction by Mr. Johns, dance sequences by Mrs. Johns.” In 1943 Lucille Johns wrote a play called “Fool’s Paradise” that was directed by Vere Johns. It was performed at the Ward Theatre and was billed as “A Rich Action Packed Drama of Our Every Day Life in 3 Acts.”

Lucille and Vere Johns had served as supporters, mentors, and directors to the Caribbean Thespians, a group of actors from various theaters around the city. An August 5, 1941 Daily Gleaner article stated, “Vere Johns, well known locally for his many talents, has been heard only too infrequently in the one role in which he excels as a truly great artist. Vere Johns is a Shakespearian actor of extraordinary power. His grip and understanding of the dramatic possibilities of the Shakespearian tradition will amaze and delight his audience, sustaining at the same time the lyrical beauty of the Elizabethan English,” showing that both Vere and Lucille were greatly involved in the theater community.

Another article from the Daily Gleaner on June 22, 1939 with the headline “Play at Palace,” detailed another one of the plays presented by the Johns that Lucille herself had written. “’When a Heat Wave Hit Breadnut Bottom,’ a one-act comedy written by Mrs. Vere Johns and directed by her husband, and in which both took leading parts, was presented, at the Palace Theatre last night to a very appreciative audience. Like their ‘Opportunity Hour’ progammes, this presentation was a further endeavour of Mr. and Mrs. Vere Johns to present to the Jamaica public, Jamaica talent, and they succeeded in no uncertain way in this respect. Throughout its 40 minutes duration, the presentation was followed with interest, interspersed with the applause of the audience. Apart from Mr. and Mrs. Johns, outstanding performers in the play were little golden-voiced Frederick Stanley, who sang three very delightful songs, little Lester Johns (son of Mr. and Mrs. Vere Johns), and Ranny Williams, who as Tom, the headman of Mass Charlie’s (Mr. Vere Johns) plantation did justice to his part.” Lucille and Vere also had at least one other son, Vere Johns Jr., who went on to emcee in 1984 for the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour where Bunny and Scully performed. This event took place at the Odeon Theater and Vere Johns Jr. was billed as the “Ace from Outa Space.”

Here is a link to the article I cite from Roy Black, the legendary music columnist: VERE JOHNS

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Anita Mahfood - Margarita, Uncategorized

Margarita–Ambassador of Reggae

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I have long continued the argument that Margarita was a champion, an ambassador, of the Rasta drumming that would go on to become the foundation for the reggae rhythm, and without her, it is possible that reggae would not be the same today. I have found now evidence in the Star Newspaper that furthers this argument.

In my book, Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the Greatest Trombonist, I write: Her relationship with the brothers and sisters in the hills was strong, and so when she performed one time on stage, she refused to dance without the accompaniment of Count Ossie and his group, which were once known as the Rastafarian Repatriation Association of Adastra Road in Eastern Kingston and later became known as The Mystic Revelation of Rastafari. Verena Reckord writes, “The group got its first legitimate stage break in the late fifties. It was an occasion when the late, famous rhumba queen Marguerita (Mahfood) insisted that she would not appear on a Vere Johns variety show (Opportunity Knocks) at the Ward Theatre on Christmas morning unless Ossie’s group was on the bill. Johns was wary then about using Rastas on his show, but Marguerita was his star attraction. He had no choice. Count Ossie and his drummers were hired. They were a hit. They soon became regulars on Vere Johns’ show and other functions.” Margarita was the one who introduced Rasta music into mainstream culture, as well as the jazz musicians who accompanied them which is why Miller calls her a “seminal figure in the island’s musical and cultural growth.” In Helene Lee’s work The First Rasta, Brother Royer, a member of Count Ossie’s camp, credits Margarita with helping Rasta music come to the mainstream through her tenacity. Despite Norman Manley’s demand that “Anywhere you see Rastaman, you have to lock them up,” Margarita refused to perform unless Count Ossie and his drummers performed, and it was only after the “people got crazy about the new sound,” says Royer, that Rastas were from then on welcomed onto stages. “Great girl! Our Helen of Troy!” said Royer of Margarita. She was more like the Josephine Baker of Jamaica.

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So imagine my delight when I found an article in the Star Newspaper, August 22, 1961 that mentioned the exact performance that Reckord referenced! The article reads: African Drums at Palace Hour. Fans who attend the Palace Theatre tomorrow night will see and hear for the first time on a stage Count Ossie and his African Drums, the band whose sounds have taken Jamaica by storm. They will also hear the famous “Carolina” which held the Number One spot on the Hit Parade for son long. Featured in the fast moving “Swingaree” which will be presented between two full length films at regular prices will be: The renowned Blues Busters fresh from the North Coast, the famous Wilfred Edwards, golden-voiced Lascelles Perkins and top favourite Hortense Ellis. Coming in from Montego Bay will be Phonso the Great. For variety there will also be Creative Dancer Margarita, Caribbean Rhumba Queen Yvonne Davis 9Just back from Nassau), whirlwind dancers Pam Pam and Colleen and Jamaica’s leading comedian, the inimitable Bam. The Drum sounds will also feature songs by Skitter and Winston and trombone selections by Rico Rodriques. All roads will lead to the Palace tomorrow night. –C.A.T.

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The performances were a hit with crowds of the Palace Theatre, according to a Star Newspaper article on Monday, August 28, 1961. The article entitled “‘Swingeree’–A Big Hit,” reads: Upwards of 2,000eager fans thronged the Palace Theatre last Wednesday night to witness the first appearance of Count Ossie and His African Drums, with some of the island’s top entertainers. Scores had to stand and hundreds were turned away. The show was good to the last drop and every item was a winner from Compere Vere John introduced the opening number to Wilfred Edwards’ last song. First came Lascelles Perkins with two numbers and he was followed by Pam Pam & Colleen in a whirlwind dance number. Then Hortense Ellis gave out with “I am not a know it all” and got two encores, after which Count Ossie and the Sounds took over. The fans rocked to the favourite ‘Carolina’ sung by Skitter & Winston, swayed with Rico and his soulful trombone, moaned with Bobby Gaynair and his golden sax and enjoyed “Babylon gone.” Comedian Bam kept the audience in stitches for about eight minutes. Hit of the evening was the dance done to the curvesome Margarita to the beat of the African drums in colourful costume. She received an ovation. Then came the Blues Busters and the audience just wouldn’t let them go even after three numbers. Caribbean Rhumba Queen Yvonne (Electric Eel) Davis also made a tremendous hit with the fans as she gyrated in superb rhythm. Finally Wilfred Edwards closed the show with three favourite selections. ‘Swingeree’ featuring Count Ossie & His African Drums will be seen at the Odeon Theatre, Half Way Tree, tomorrow night at 8.40 o’clock between two great films. It will also be presented at the Gaiety Theatre on Thursday night at the same hour. Supporting stars for these two shows will be The Blues Busters, Margarita, Hortense Ellis, Pam Pam & Colleen and top Comedian Bam. –C.A.T.”

Credit is due to Prince Buster for first recording the drums of Count Ossie that formed the backbone for reggae, but credit is also due to Margarita, Anita Mahfood, for bringing these drums to the stage, where their sounds mixed in the air, knowing no boundary between upper and lower classes. Until this time, and long after this time, the Rastafari were persecuted and considered the outcasts of society. But Margarita championed their cause and their creativity. She used her status as a headlining dancer, a woman from a wealthy family, and her talent to help bridge the class divide by introducing their sounds to the stage. Just a few days later, on September 8, 1961, a photo of Count Ossie and his drummers appear with the caption “Bearded Sounds.” The following month an advertisement for a show at Adastra Gardens appears for Count Ossie, calling his sound “Strange Music from Africa.” All of this was amid article after article of horrible treatment of the Rastafari, headlines claiming they burned babies as a sacrifice, were lunatics, and were murdered, were common during these years. Here are a few of them, and only a few, from 1961 and 1962:

I post these to put into context what Margarita did by supporting the drums of Count Ossie. She took a great risk. Prince Buster may have brought the drums to the studio, but Margarita brought them beyond the hills, beyond Orange Street, to the audiences that viewed the Rastafari as these articles present them. She was a true renegade and a heroine and we owe her a great debt.

Uncategorized

Jamaica’s Threat to the Beatles–the Zodiacs?

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One of my all-time favorite Jamaican songs, or songs period, is Renegade by The Zodiacs, recorded for Duke Reid in 1965. I could never find too much on this band, whose sound I think is pretty tight and polished, so that surprised me, as I would have thought they’d be destined for greatness. Then I stumbled across this article in a Star Newspaper during my recent lock-up in the National Library of Jamaica. They should have put me in there and thrown away the key! I could have been there for years! Anyway, The Zodiacs, who are Winston Service, Dellie Delpratt, Eugene Dyer, Roy Robinson, and Claud “Junior” Sang, were once considered “Jamaica’s threat to Beatles.” Although that may seem like a surprising claim now, with 20/20 hindsight, it was a claim made by others, like Prince Buster (no surprise there either!) as many musicians tried to take on the big guns!

This article, dated April 17, 1964, reads: The Zodiacs have come a long way in a comparatively short time. Former members of the JIVIN’ JUNIORS, the Zodiacs–five in number–are the only pro-singing quintet in Jamaica. Formed a year ago, the group made its first appearance with Carlos Malcolm and his Afro Jamaican Rhythms and was featured with this band for some time. The Zodiacs got a feature spot on the Chuck Jackson show and were popular with the audience. They have been making an impression on show fans with their antics and clown-singing in their recent performances so much that they are spoken of as Jamaica’s threat to the world popular BEATLES. Although they are keener on stage and night club appearances, the Zodiacs are also interested in the record industry, and have a disc entitled, “Daddy’s Gonna Leave,” backed with “No Greater Love.” –Jackie Estick.

According to the Roots Knotty Roots database, “Daddy’s Gonna Leave” was recorded for producer Winston Sinclair on the Zeeee label, the only song on this label, with the song “If You Need Someone” on the A side. Other songs by the Zodiacs include “Cry No More” for Prince Buster in 1967; “Down in the Boondocks” and “Slow Slow Ska” for Ernest Ranglin, dates unknown; “Little Girl” for Leebert Robinson in 1966; “Pearly Gates” for Prince Buster in 1964; “Who’s Loving You” and “Walk On By (Renegade)” for Sam Mitchell and Keith Scott (Scotty) in 1967; and of course, the classic “Renegade” in 1965 for Duke Reid.

The Zodiacs had been performing live since at least 1963. In May, 1963 the Zodiacs performed with Mighty Samson, Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, the Blues Busters,  Count Prince Miller, Jimmy Cliff, Tony Gregroy, Keith Lyn, Pluggy and Beryl, and others with Tony Verity as emcee at the Carib Theatre. They continued to perform at various venues throughout Kingston in 1963 and 1964. An advertisement in the Daily Gleaner on December 10, 1965 showed a photo of the Zodiacs and listed one of the members as Gino Dwyer, instead of Eugene Dyer, and John Service instead of Winston Service. Spelling and mistakes in names, and well, almost everything during this era, were common!

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This album was produced by Ernest Ranglin, and a Daily Gleaner article, January 16, 1966 stated, “A locally-recorded and pressed RCA Victor album
titled RANGLIN PRESENTS THE ZODIACS should also prove popular but more so amongst the younger set. The Zodiacs burst on to the showbiz scene only six months ago and are currently riding high with the song “What Will Your Mama Say” which was written by one of the trio’s brothers. Federal Records’ Musical Director Ernie Ranglin has got a Big Band feeling behind the dozen selections recorded. Three numbers are instrumentals with the James Brown hit “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” giving Organist Leslie Butler an opportunity to exercise his tremendous talent Current standards like “Follow Me” and “She’s Gone Again1′ show that the boys know how to project a distinctive style.

An article in the January 2, 1966 Daily Gleaner featured the Zodiacs in a small article with a photo that talked about their appearance on Teenage Dance Party (TADP). The article states, “TADP HITS THI ROAD WITH FEDERAL RECORDS. Caught in a real holiday mood, is this lively group who took part in one of two special TADP Hit-The-Road programmes from Record Plaza at Tropical Plaza recently. Pictured with “MR. TADP”.JBC announcer Roy Hall, are (from left) Winston Service, one of the Zodiacs singing group, Ernest Raaglin, well-known Jamaican guitarist and Musical Director at Federal Records, Pamela Blyth, one of Federal’s fastest recording stars, Buddy llgner whose, latest LP was featured on the programme and Claud Sang, Jr., another of the Zodiacs. The show was sponsored by Federal Record Mfg Co. TADP is heard over JBC-Radio daily (except Sundays) from 4.00 to 5.00 pm.”

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They performed in July, 1966 at the National Arena along with Hortense Ellis, the Jamaicans, the Techniques, Derrick Harriott, the Granville Williams Orchestra, Count Ossie and the Maytals in an independence celebration.

A Daily Gleaner article on July 4, 1969 revealed that the band had broken up. In an article on Zodiacs singer Claude Sang, Jr., the journalist stated that Sang had gone on to form a band called the Pace Setters in 1967 which performed soul music. It stated that the Zodiacs continued to perform live at clubs after the Ernest Ranglin recording until they broke up because members of the Zodiacs got married and left. Claude continued with a solo career in London.

Uncategorized

First Lady of Song–Hortense Ellis

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If ever there was a talent worthy of recognition that hasn’t had an ounce of it, it’s Hortense Ellis. This is why I feature Hortense Ellis on the cover and devote a lengthy chapter to her in my book Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music which has just been released and is available at skabook.com. I hope you will check it out, as there are dozens of women featured prominently in this book, which was a labor of love for the past two years.

But on to Hortense Ellis. The following are excerpts from this chapter in my book–a chapter I call, “The First Lady of Song.”

“I’m the very first female singer in Jamaica. I’ve been through the R&B, rocksteady, and ska eras. When I began my singing career, there was no Marcia, no Rita, no Judith, there were only singers like Totlyn Jackson and Sheila Rickards, and they were jazz and cabaret singers. I was the first, whose voice was heard on the radio all over the island,” said Hortense Ellis to Jamaica Gleaner reporter Claude Mills in 1997 just three years before her death. She was born on April 18, 1941 in Trench Town. Owen “Blakka” Ellis, Jamaican comedian and Hortense’s nephew remembers, “I lived on first street with my mother’s family but I’d visit my dad who lived on third street.” His dad was Leslie Ellis, Hortense’s brother. There were also Alton Ellis, the successful vocalist; Irving; Mertlyn; Lilieth, who went by the nickname Cherry; Veronica; and Hortense, who went by the nickname Tiny. Their father, Percival, was a railroad worker, and mother, Beatrice, ran a fruit stall. “It was a musical family, but more of a musical community than household,” says Blakka. “Trench Town was designed with very small houses so everything spilled out into the yard and onto the streets. And Hortense was not so much a singer in those times but was more a comedian. She would be going wonderful spectacles imitating people, doing a belly dance, more a humorist than a singer in the early days. Yes.”

When Hortense turned 18, she decided to try her hand at showbiz, not as a comedian, although there would have been room for that in Jamaica’s pantomime and variety show venues, but as the singer we know and love. She got her start through the same means as so many other great musicians and artists, the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour. Blakka says, “She won Vere Johns. It was like a monthly competition and she won one month and Alton won another month, then she won the grand finals over him.” The song that Hortense Ellis wowed the crowds with in 1959, the same crowd that cheered her on the loudest to win her the championship, was “I’m Not Saying No At All,” by Frankie Lymon, and according to writer David Katz, it was Alton Ellis who chose the song for her to sing. She continued to compete at the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour and racked up six semi-finals and four finals. “I used to perform at the Majestic Palace, Ambassador, and Odeon Theatres in the 50s at the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour, but I began singing professionally in 1961,” she said.

Before she recorded a single tune, Hortense had her first child, Christel, in 1960, but she was already singing on the stages of Kingston. “She had me in 1960 and she told me she sang Saturday night and she had me the next morning at five o’clock. She was 19 when she had me,” Christel says. Then in 1961, Hortense Ellis recorded her first three songs for Coxsone Dodd on his Worldisc label—“Eddie My Love” and “Loving Girl” billed as Hortense Ellis and the Blues Blasters, and “All By Ourselves (All By Myself)” billed as Lascelles Perkins and Hortense Ellis. It was her ability that made her desirable. “She had a massive massive range, a very very high pitch and she could come down to a deep baritone,” Blakka says. Christel says, “She was a beautiful singer. Anybody I tell Hortense Ellis was my mother, they say, ‘That girl could sing!’ I remember one time she got an award, the First Lady of Song.” That award, given by the Jamaica Star, came in 1964, but she had been using the moniker on her advertisements a year earlier while performing at the State Theatre with the Mercuries.

You can read more about the life of Hortense Ellis in Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music, including her struggles of balancing a career and being a mother–she gave birth to nine children (eight girls and one boy)! Hortense Ellis died on October 1, 2000 of a lung ailment from years of smoking. Her funeral was held on November 9, 2000 at the Andrew’s Seventh Day Adventist Church on Hope Road in Kingston. Bunny and Scully, Ken Boothe, Stranger Cole and Alton Ellis gave musical tributes at the service and Desmond Young, president of the Jamaica Federation of Musicians, Marcia Griffiths, and Derrick Morgan were in attendance along with dozens of others. Her legacy lives on in her music and in the spirit of Jamaica.

Enjoy my favorite Hortense Ellis song, “Woman of the Ghetto,” a remake of the Marlena Shaw tune by the brilliant Clive Chin.

Theophilus Beckford

Easy Snappin’ Theophilus Beckford

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I always thought they called him Easy Snappin’, not because his song was arguably the first ska song, but because Theophilus was too hard to say! Kidding of course, but I would like to take some time to look back on Easy Snappin’, or Theo, or Theophilus Beckford, that talented pianist to whom we really owe a debt of gratitude. He helped to launch a genre.

Theophilus Beckford was born in 1939 in Trench Town, the same neighborhood that gave us Bob Marley, Alton Ellis, Hortense Ellis, and even DJ Kool Herc! His father was a skilled pianist but Beckford learned to play piano in school and was also self-taught. He performed in the style of the popular artists of the day—American R&B like Roscoe Gordon and Fats Domino. But he didn’t start recording in this style since the only real recording being done on the island at this point was from Stanley Motta who recorded calypsos. So Beckford recorded for Motta on a number of calypsos and as the recording industry developed when Ken Khouri established Federal Records, Beckford was able to develop the style he loved—American R&B which evolved into ska.

Many will argue that “Easy Snapping” was a boogie shuffle tune, and there is something to be said for that. But Easy Snapping features a more punctuated piano rhythm that is less slippery than the shuffle beat, and it also features brass, so it can easily be argued that it is the first ska song. Some say that it is neither R&B nor ska, it is somewhere in the middle, so it a way it is the Lucy of evolution, the missing link. Whatever your take, it is evident that this song, and this artist, are essential to the creation of ska and the genres that follow.

“Easy Snapping” was recorded for Coxsone at Federal Records in 1956 for Studio One’s first ever recording session. Michael Turner writes in Beat magazine in 2001, “The song was recorded for Coxson Dodd in 1956 at Federal studio, but at the time recordings were pressed onto soft acetate for sound-system use only. Three years later the commercial release of records in Jamaican began . . . ‘Easy Snapping’ was released late in the year and its lazy intonation and emphasis on the offbeat made it a massive hit, and presaged the development of a unique Jamaican sound.”

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The song was an immediate hit and stayed on the charts for 18 months. It was also released in the UK on the Blue Beat label. Of course, Beckford received no royalties from this song even though it was used in a European jeans commercial later on. The song on Coxsone’s Melodisc label is credited to Theophilus Beckford, Clue J and His Blues Blasters while the Blue Beat version is credited to Theophilus Beckford, Clue J and His Blues Blasters, Trenton Spence and His Orchestra. The B side of both releases was the tune “Going Home.” He recorded others for Coxsone as well as Simeon Smith who was better known as “Hi-Lite.” He performed piano as a studio musician for hundreds of recordings. According to Mark Lamarr, “As pianist in Cluett Johnson’s Blues Blasters and as a session musician, he played on countless cuts for Prince Buster, King Edwards, Leslie Kong, Duke Reid and Coxsone Dodd.”

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Growing frustrated with receiving no pay from Coxsone and others, Beckford established his own label in 1961, King Pioneer, and he released many of his own tunes—perhaps the first DIY guy! He became producer on his label for artists such as Frank Cosmo, Daniel Johnson, Keith Walker, Lloyd Clarke, Wilfred Brown, the Greenbusters, the Meditators, the Pioneers, Toots & the Maytals, and Eric Monty Morris & Patsy Todd on the duet “Don’t Worry to Cry.” Michael Turner writes, “Approximately 50 songs came out on this label between 1962-66, and most of these were strong works exhibiting the many styles and flavors of ska.”

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In later years, after ska and rocksteady and reggae was considered “oldies music” or “granny music” by Jamaican youth when dancehall took over, Beckford was able to eke out a meager living by performing at gigs anywhere he could find. “Things are rough on my side and I am surviving through the will of God and the love for the music,” said Beckford in a Jamaica Gleaner article in 2000. “Today as I listen to music on radio and sound system and recognise that I created some of these tunes. I feel strongly that I am not given full recognition for my work.” A year later, Theophilus Beckford was dead.

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On February 19, 2001, Beckford went to resolve a dispute with a man in Callaloo Mews. After leaving the residence, the assailant “chopped” Beckford in the back of the head with an axe, according to the Jamaica Gleaner, and he was killed. His son Lloyd stated, “What kind of society is this where a 65-year-old man can be so brutally murdered and to think that it is someone who is well known and has contributed to the development of his country.” Certainly, Beckford has left a legacy. He is to be respected for his contribution to the development of the Jamaican music. The Guinness Book of Who’s Who in Reggae credits Theophilus Beckford with creating “the feel and soul of ska.” Let’s give credit too.