❉ Sonia Pottinger’s seminal reggae collection let loose on CD, with 34 rare bonus tracks.
“‘Hits of 77’ showcases this inspirational woman’s quality as producer of music, her nous in spotting talent and musical trends, not to mention her foresight in identifying and releasing potential hit songs.”
‘In a competitive realm dominated by men, she excelled through an individualised approach to record production.’
Record producer David Katz was speaking in 2010 following the death of Sonia Pottinger. The inspirational woman who created a long line of Jamaican classic records during the 1960s and 1970s. Sonia launched a series of labels during this period, including High Note Records, which enjoyed success with artists such as Bob Andy, Culture and Marcia Griffiths.
In 1977 Sonia decided to showcase contemporary Jamaican sounds by releasing a compilation album of the island’s biggest reggae hits of the year – only re-recorded by Kingston’s finest new vocal talent. Unusual, but typical of Sonia’s refreshing approach to the business. Hits of ‘77’ featured ten tracks and was released on Sky Note Records in the UK at the time. Given the blueprint for the original release one could be forgiven for being slightly sceptical. Hit songs, released on a compilation album, but re-recorded by lesser known artists. It smacks of cheap, Top of the Pops and K-Tel compilations. You know, the kind you’d hear in a department or DIY store back in the day. However, the quality and performance, plus the presence of legendary musicians such as Ansell Collins, Tommy McCook and Sly Dunbar on the backing tracks, made this release a quality issue.
Doctor Bird Records, a division of Cherry Red Records, has released the original album on CD for the first time, together with thirty-four bonus tracks recorded during 1976-77. As ever, a detailed, informative booklet accompanies the sounds.
Sonia Durrant (later Pottinger) was born in Leith Hall, Jamaica in 1931. The youngest of three children, she moved to Kingston at a young age to go to school at St George’s Girls School. After studying secretarial work and accountancy she met and married Lindon Pottinger, with whom she formed a business partnership selling cycles and cycle parts, as well as establishing a store selling patties.
Lindon started producing records in 1961, working with local acts and eventually setting up his own recording studio at home. Lindon Pottinger was the first black person in Jamaica to own and operate a studio. Ever the entrepreneur, Lindon set up the Tip Top Record shop and distribution centre in the Orange Street area of central Kingston, the epicentre of Jamaican music.
Lindon sold his recording equipment to Arthur ‘Duke’ Reid in 1964, and the following year he and Sonia separated. Sonia, faced with having three children to bring up, launched several record labels just as the rocksteady movement was getting into gear. They were called Gay Feet, Excel, Pep and, crucially High Note. Sonia scored an early hit on Gay Feet with Every White and Chuck. It remained in the Jamaican charts for several months.
Sonia had very good instinct and foresight about what a hit might sound like. As rocksteady took hold and became increasingly popular, Sonia enjoyed a run of success on the island. The Ethiopians (The Whip), The Gaylads (ABC Rocksteady) and Ken Boothe (Lady With The Starlight) are some examples. As rocksteady morphed into reggae from 1968 onwards, Sonia remained at the front of the island’s scene, releasing Delano Stewart’s That’s Life and Errol Dunkley’s first album. She was also smart enough to license externally produced material for release on High Note, including the Bunny Lee produced Slim Smith hit Everybody Needs Love. A good earner.
After the birth of her fourth child Sonia enjoyed her peak as a record producer. Bob Andy’s album Lots of Love and I is a class record, and Naturally by Griffith is up there with any reggae album. High Note issued Culture’s Two Sevens Clash, Cumbolo and Harder Than The Rest. They were highly influential, with The Slits and The Clash citing the band. Once again Sonia was smart enough to obtain licenses for other people’s recordings, including the back catalogue of Treasure Isle, previously owned by Duke Reid, who had died in 1975. Quite a coup, as the label released top tunes from the likes of The Melodians, The Paragons (The Tide Is High for example), Anton Ellis, Phyllis Dillon and The Jamaicans. Again, not to mention lucrative.
By the mid-eighties Sonia had quit music production but she remained a shrewd businesswoman, dealing in ceramics. She received an Order of Distinction for her services to the Jamaican Music Industry in 2004. Quite right too.
Sadly, Sonia was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in her latter years and eventually passed away in 2010. She was survived by three of her four children (her son died in 2009) and no less than eleven Grandchildren.
All in all, what a person. What an inspiration. This Doctor Bird collection showcases her quality as producer of music, her nous in spotting talent and musical trends, not to mention her foresight in identifying and releasing potential hit songs. Enjoy.
1977 was a good period for reggae music. The dynamic strut and stomp of 1969 had mellowed somewhat by the early seventies, with producers making records aimed at a larger record buying demographic. Bob and Marcia’s Young Gifted and Black, and other records of the early seventies were brilliant tunes but were also big productions. The addition of string arrangements became increasingly common. The simplicity of earlier years was sacrificed. However, by 1977, it was back. Uptown Ranking, anybody?
The punk world jumped on this revival, led by Don Letts. The likes of The Clash, The Slits, The Ruts and Johnny Rotten took note, tuned in, and got onside. Police and Thieves, recorded in 1976 by Junior Murvin is an example of reggae going back to basics, with a strong, melodic bassline, a soulful voice, hooks a plenty and a strong lyric. It was like 1969 again, only with a smoother, phatter production. No wonder The Clash did their ‘do-over’.
Sonia was at this renaissance’s Jamaican heart, leading the way with her production and High Note releases. So, when you consider the strength of 1977’s reggae releases, it is perfectly logical she should get together a group of crack musicians with promising Kingston vocalists. And do their own ‘do-over’ album.
The backing tracks on Hits of ‘77’ is by Sly Dunbar (drums), Ansell Collins (Keyboards) plus Dougie Byron (guitar) and Ranchie McLean (bass). It is slick and sharp. Expressive brass work is present throughout courtesy of Tommy McCook (Tenor Sax), Tramie Gordon (trombone), Herman Marquis (tenor sax) and Bobby Ellis (trumpet). Sonia’s production creates a nicely balanced, phat sound. It is chilled and crisp, subtle and mellow. All trademarks of Mrs P’s recordings
The John Holt classic Up Park Camp gets things going. A lively, keyboard driven intro leads the way as Turnel McCormack and the Cordells do a crisp, soulful and barnstorming version. They do it again on track three, Girl, I Love You. Both were originally released on Hit Bound Records. The band were together until the 1980s.
Sandwiched in between is Without Love by Hell and Fire, a cover of the track originally released by the legendary Leroy Smart. Leroy was, of course, immortalised in The Clash’s (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais. Vocalist Lunsford Simpson delivers a strong performance. Hell and Fire had a hit in Jamaica island with the song Where Is That Love.
Alton Ellis’s rocksteady pearl I’m Still In love is given resonant, beautiful vocal treatment by Maureen Pearson. It is important to get it right when taking on such a classic number, which was also a hit for Marsha Aitken. Maureen, a talented sensitive vocalist, manages this easily.
Run For Your Life shuffles along nicely, performed by Earth and Stone. The act also open side two of the original long player, with a stomping version of Culture’s classic See Dem A Come. It is a big ask – but they manage it convincingly. It shows Sonia’s confidence in her performers, and the fact the outcome is so good is testament to all concerned. Earth and Stone were a vocal duo comprising of Albert Bailey and Clinton Howell and released a series of 45s recorded at Channel One studios on Hitbound Records. These were later collated together and released on an album, Kool Roots, in 1978.
John Holt’s Anywhere You Want To Go is taken by Calman Scott. It is a simple love song, chosen no doubt to showcase Scott’s rich tones. Any cover of any John Holt tune will inevitably draw comparisons with the main man’s vocal accent, and like Turnel McCormack on Up Park Camp earlier, Scott pulls it off. Scott recorded several more singles during the late seventies.
A highlight is Ghetto Girl. Dennis Brown, another superstar singer with a resonant, rich voice did the original, produced by Joe Gibbs. Gibbs was another integral 1970s reggae producer responsible for Althea and Donna’s Uptown Ranking and the seminal album by Culture, Two Sevens Clash. So, it’s just as well The Fantells step up to the mark. It’s a thoughtful, slightly disturbing lyric that is handled appropriately.
Another individual mentioned in The Clash’s (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais, Delroy Wilson, recorded the original Ballistic Affair. The version on Hits ‘77’ is by Ronnie Davis, previously in The Tenors, who had hits with Ride Your Donkey and Pressure and Slide. Davis was one of the more experienced singers when Hits of ‘77’ was recorded.
Davis went on to have a prolific recording career as a solo artist and was also in The Itals, who recorded the album’s closing cut, the majestic Things and Time. An uplifting number, it was previously a smash for Wailing Souls. The production is again strong, with a full beat and a fantastic, unique and innovative percussion track.
The remaining tracks on the release are a collection of tracks produced by Sonia for High Note during 1976-77. They are a mixture of unreleased and rare tracks, some released (but only just!) and a few forgotten hits. Dusted down and now let loose, the world can now hear some of these for the first time.
The notoriety of the artists featured varies from the near legendary (U Roy, Delroy Wilson, Owen Gray) to those who never made it out of obscurity. Many should have been megastars, but never got a real look in due to the presence of big names such as Holt, Marley, Brown etc.
The gloriously named Well, Pleased and Satisfied kick off proceedings on disc one with a nice slice of ’69-esq rude boy reggae, entitled Pickney Have A Pickney. The production is harder than on the Hits of ‘77’ numbers, and the band have two more tracks included, one on each disc. Of these, Sweetie Come From America is a standout, and was a hit in Jamaica and in some cases, overseas. You don’t get it on many mainstream reggae compilations, however.
Traditional, ‘Big People’ reggae, gets its share of the action via The Prince Brothers with Jeremiah and Ram Jam (disc two) and The Mellow Lads with Mind You Business. ‘Big People’ are older, traditional record buyers and the sound of these recordings, with the use of woodwind instruments and a clear, bright, cheery vocals, is pure Jamaica. Indeed, Sonia’s first hit, by Joe White and Chuck (Every Day), is a ‘Big People’ record and it is a genre she knew like the back of her hand. Oh, and by the way, The Prince Brothers really were brothers – Neil and Rupert Prince – and they were one of only two of the acts featured in these bonus cuts who had an entire album released on High Note Records.
The second such act is King Vupp, Mrs P’s king of calypso. Just one album mind, and then the man (real name C.A. Kennedy) appears to have drifted back into obscurity!
The dub utopia of Natty Dub In A Dreamland by Mr Bojangles is a treat. Nice slices of toasting by Mr Bojangles himself (real name Marvin Pitterson) and sweet female vocal lines give its flavour. Mr Bojangles has a second number, Election Derby, on disc two. Political systems in a horserace – it’s gotta be worth a listen, right? The answer is yes.
Further DJ music appears courtesy of U Roy’s uplifting Merry Go Round. Sonia’s ability in producing an effective toasting sonic is clear. It is shown again with Ranking Joe’s Shine Eye Gal on disc two. Ranking Joe has enjoyed a lengthy career, releasing albums with Trojan, Joe Gibbs and Greensleeves amongst others.
Hell and Fire are one of two acts featuring on both the Hits of ‘77’ original and among the bonus tracks, with their hit Where Is That Love. The other act is Earth and Stone, who ease us into disc two with the wonderful No Time To Lose.
Delroy Wilson delivers a swashbuckling Conference Table. His distinctive vocal is instantly recognisable on this lively cut. He was, of course, a big name in Jamaican music for some thirty years prior to his untimely death in 1995.
Another huge name, Owen Gray, contributes The Children Cry. It is sparse, with, like all good reggae, a killer, melodic bass line, leaving plenty of room for Owen to sing from his heart. Eighty-year old Owen remains active as I write, having spent his life singing across the ska, blue-beat, rocksteady, reggae variations. He is credited as Jamaica’s first homegrown singing star, as evidenced on his 2020 release. Its title? Jamaica’s First Homegrown Star.
The Revolutionaries, the crack backing band from Hits of ‘77’, provide Sonia and High Note with three bright instrumentals, including two showcasing the trumpet of Bobby Ellis. Stormy Weather contains a horse ride of a groove reminiscent of The Upsetters’ Return of Django. They were, as The Revolutionaries or The Soul Syndicate (who provide the contemporary instrumental Lava on disc two) featured on well over half of the music recorded on the island in the mid to late seventies onwards.
Other notable contributions include Al Brown’s soulful and passionate plea In Limbo and the pleasant, dreamy pedal steel led If We Had Love by Eric Tello. He also closes the album with a do-over of When A Child Is Born. Jimmy Riley’s dulcet tones show up well on Give Me Some More (Of Your Loving), as do O.C. Roberts’ on Wake Up Everybody. All could easily have been huge, international stars had they not been over-shadowed by bigger stars in 1977.
There is not the space here to mention each track. There is such a wide diversity of sounds in these thirty-four rare cuts, from ‘Big People’ reggae to DJ sounds, from sharp synth-led instrumentals to gospel sounds, from 1969-sounding stompers to gentle do-overs. Performed by the most unknown of singers, household names and everything in-between.
Sonia Pottinger was a woman who lived her life whilst contributing so much to the lives of others. Her High Note output was extraordinary, and the rare tracks included in addition to the hits on Hits of ‘77’, underline this. Hits ‘77’ itself is a great collection, featuring a shit-hot backing band loaded with legendary Jamaican musicians, giving new talent a platform. Doctor Bird Records have packaged this all up deliciously, with a highly informative booklet and a cover with hilarious cartoon figures depicting song titles. What’s not to like?
1977 was a great year for music. Especially reggae music.
❉ ‘Hits Of ’77’ (Various Artists) released February 14, 2020, by Doctor Bird/Cherry Red Records. RRP £11.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ Paul Matts is a writer from Leicester, England. His first novella, ‘Donny Jackal’, a kitchen-sink coming of age drama set in English punk rock suburbia in 1978, is out now both in paperback and as an E-book. His fiction has been featured in Punk Noir Magazine, Brit Grit Alley and Unlawful Acts. Paul also writes articles on music, in particular on the punk and new wave movement, and is a regular contributor for We Are Cult, Punkglobe, Razur Cuts and Something Else magazines. See https://paulmatts101.wordpress.com/ for more details, and to subscribe for updates.