The Music Diaries: Early Jamaican Record Producers Played Vital Role

Sonia PottingerWhenever the title ‘Record Producer’ is mentioned in early Jamaican music, the names that comes most readily to mind are Clement Dodd of Studio 1, Duke Reid of Treasure Isle Studios, Leslie Kong and his Beverley’s records label, Prince Buster and his ‘Voice of the people’ label, Bunny Lee who distributed his productions on ‘Striker’ and other labels, and Sonia Pottinger, the only female in that business at the time. She distributed her productions mainly under the ‘Gay Feet’, ‘Hi-Note’, ‘Tip Top’ and ‘Glory’ labels. These six producers headlined the pack in the record production business of early Jamaican music during the late 1950s and up to the end of the 1960s. They were perhaps the best known ones to Jamaican music enthusiasts at the time, but there were several others whose contributions were almost or equally important.

Record producers played a very important role in Jamaica’s popular music at the time, given the responsibilities they had for financing and managing various aspects relating to the finished product – the actual vinyl recordings of the songs. Duties such as the arrangement of rehearsals, booking and arranging studio time, acquiring backing musicians, having a hand in the arrangement of the recordings and paying for the pressing of the records, fell heavily in the lap of these entrepreneurs, who could benefit financially if the recording made a hit, but if it flopped, it could spell financial disaster. So it was a tricky business, as there was no guarantee that a recording would hit. Other early producers on the scene included, President Bells who had a hit with Derrick Morgan’s In My Heart; Clifford ‘Little Wonder’ Smith, who released Morgan’s first hit, Fat Man; Vincent Edwards, who distributed the classy instrumental, Shank-I-Shek featuring Baba Brooks and Lyn Taitt; and Ken Lack, who had an extraordinary output of quality recordings on his ‘Caltone’ label, that included the Heptones’ first hit, Gunmen coming to Town. Lack also released quality recording for The Clarendonians, The Tartans, The Pioneers, The Emotions and saxophonist Tommy McCook.

The role played by Chinese-Jamaicans, with the likes of Ivan Chin from the Mento era, Vincent ‘Randy’ Chin, Joseph Hookim from Channel 1, Byron Lee, Leslie Kong of ‘Beverley’s, and Justin Yap on his ‘Top Deck’ label, remains one of the most significant feature of early record production in Jamaica’s music history. Recordings produced by Yap have become collectors’ items, not only for Jamaicans, but for others, from places like South America, Germany, The United Kingdom and Japan. To them, the label immediately conjures up images of quality and meticulousness, which were the trademarks of Yap’s productions. He didn’t record many sessions or many sides, but he ensured that every note of music counted. The Skatalites band, featuring Don Drummond, Tommy McCook, Jackie Mittoo and Johnny Moore, was one of his headliners with immortal gems like, Confucius, Ringo Rides, The Reburial, Chinatown, Lawless Street, Return of Paul Bogle and Love in the Afternoon, in late 1964. Vincent ‘Randy’ Chin came to prominence as a record producer in 1963 with successful productions on his Randy’s label for Alton Ellis and Eddie Parkins (Alton and Eddie), Lord Creator, The Maytals, Ken Boothe, Stranger Cole and John Holt. Chin went on to establish the now world-famous, New York-based, VP Records in the late 1970s. Joseph Hookim, after constructing the Channel One Studio at 29 Maxfield Avenue, Kingston13 in 1972, revolutionised reggae with his productions of Fade Away by Junior Byles, All I have is Love by Gregory Isaacs, and a series of hits by The Mighty Diamonds that included, Right Time, Africa, Back Wey, Have Mercy, and the revolutionary song, I Need a Roof, which was earlier done for Studio1 by Sugar Minott.

The Channel One imprint also included the hits, Woman is like a Shadow by The Meditations; Satisfaction and Up Park Camp by John Holt; Truly and Yaho by The Jays; Ballistic Affair and Without Love by Leroy Smart and It’s a Shame by Delroy Wilson. Byron Lee, better known for his exploits as a jump-up calypsonian and later as a soca ambassador with his band, Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, proved his worth with the classic R&B love song, Behold (also done in the ska style) by the Blues Busters. Because I’ll have you to be, to be my bride”.
Among others, Toots and the Maytals, known then as Maytals, also came under Lee’s fold with the number one hits, Daddy and It’s You, in 1964-65, and followed up with Never You Change, If you act this Way and My New Name. Lastly and most importantly in the list of Chinese-Jamaican producers was Leslie Kong, who launched the careers of Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and Desmond Dekker. Kong, the best known Jamaican record producer overseas, was on the verge of international stardom, through his involvement with the then upcoming movie, – The Harder They Come, when he was unceremoniously cut down by a heart attack in 1971.

Perhaps Joel Gibson (Joe Gibbs) as a record producer could match stride with any of those headliners through his work with artistes like Dennis Brown, Errol Dunkley, Roy Shirley, Lee Perry and Peter Tosh. The roll call of early Jamaican record producers seems an unending one, with other distinguished contributions being made by Derrick Harriott, Bunny Lee, Prince Buster, Edward Seaga, Harry Johnson, J.J. Johnson, Winston ‘Niney’ Holness, Phil Pratt, Lloyd ‘King Jammy’ James, Vincent Edwards, Lloyd ‘Matador’ Daley, Clancy Eccles, Harry A. Mudie, Rupie Edwards, Winston Riley and others – all of whom will be showcased in next week’s article.