(The High Note Dancehall Collection)
12 February 2021
The infectious rhythms on this collection of Sonia Pottinger’s dancehall productions by the likes of Errol Scorcher, Bobby Ellis, Ranking Joe and Ansel Collins give Ian Canty a chance to demonstrate the full range of his grandad moves.
As well as being a hugely successful and trailblazing record producer, Sonia Pottinger was also as durable as they come. She seamlessly adapted to the evolving styles of Jamaican music in the 1960s and 1970s, going from rocksteady to boss reggae to dub to roots with enviable grace and rarely a truly duff side to report.
Towards the end of the 1970s a further change was on the horizon and Sonia, as ever with her ear to the ground, embraced it. Different Fashion, the latest collection of her production work taken from the High Note imprint, chronicles her work in this new style as it was in a state of evolution.
Dancehall was really a return to the core values of Jamaican music after the dub and roots interlude of the mid-70s took a step away from the dancefloors and instead edged more towards experimentation. Dances had always held the key to a record’s success in JA and in this new era they became even more important.
Although in 1979 the digitalisation that would come in en masse and revolutionise the whole recording process in Kingston was still some way off, dancehall as a separate genre began to assert itself. Ironically the first formative moves of this new style were mostly powered by selections from reggae’s back catalogue.
Yes, what was a hybrid sound early on took what it needed from the past and wove it into something fresh, which was the way things tended to work in Jamaican music over the years. A process of evolution really and to make that overt, the initial dancehall tunes that made an impact were cut right over the top of prime rocksteady rhythms dating from the late 1960s. By this time Sonia Pottinger had taken over Treasure Isle’s back catalogue from the late Duke Reid and had many of these rhythms at her disposal, something which put her (along with Coxsone Dodd) in pole position to prosper with the new sound.
She also could call on the musical might of The Revolutionaries for any added instrumentation required to enhance and update those doughty old rhythm tracks, later providing the backing material for her singers in full. The Roots Radics Band, another crack session outfit, fulfilled this role too.
Dub effects and DJ toasting/singing styles were the norm and a relaxed tempo mainly dominated, making for easy segues on the twin decks. The 12″ disco mix also came into its own during this period. The extended duration of the records helped to keep the dancefloors grooving longer and coupled with the mix and match musical policy of dancehall, something new was definitely percolating.
The brass-led Stormy Weather (12″ mix) by Bobby Ellis & The Revolutionaries opens Different Fashion and gives an idea of what is to be expected from the outset. Next, the easy and cool back and forth between obscure duo Archie & Lyn on Rat In The Centre is a joy to hear and it is cut over the Soul Vendors’ Real Rock rhythm, one that was much used during the dancehall era. As if it proves the point, it is immediately followed by Errol Scorcher’s Tan Tudy, which draws from the same source.
Papa Richie aka Richard McKenzie expertly rides the rhythm of Alton Ellis’ Breaking Up on the dub-tastic Phantom (In The Jungle). He also offers another tune in Annie Palmer, a languid DJ chant/drum and bass number that uses an old Jamaican ghost story as its lyrical basis. It is voiced over the top of Ken Palmer’s True True True, which is clearly audible fleetingly.
Showing that old standby the organ instrumental could still thrive in the new era is Ansel Collins’ Bim and Michael Palmer’s heartfelt Mr Landlord (12″ mix) shows that social conscious lyrics were still relevant even in a genre aimed squarely at the dancefloor. This single was released on Sonia P’s short-lived Dance Hall label, an imprint instituted for the new craze. I also must say how much I enjoyed Jah Thomas’ Road Code – after all, hearing a DJ toast dedicated to improving road safety doesn’t happen every day!
The kind of well-voiced reggae pop/soul songs that were a mark of rocksteady weren’t entirely out of fashion in the new age either, witness Give The People What They Want by Ernest Wilson and Sonya Spence’s silky smooth Talk Love (12″ Alt Mix). The latter has an obvious crossover to the lovers rock sound which also was emerging at around the same time.
Shank I Sheck/Shine I Gal (12″ mix) gets disc two of this set started in classic dancehall style, with Bobby Ellis blowing some evocative trumpet on an easy and carefree groove, before master of ceremonies Ranking Joe cuts in with a spot-on toast halfway through. It was a killer rhythm and is well utilised on the next three cool DJ cuts that follow, i.e. the self-deprecating lyric of the title track by Lee Van Cleef (real name Devon Perkins), Errol Scorcher’s Bob tribute Sounds Of Hon. Marley which includes a masterclass in drop out and Zara’s sleepy rap and tin can percussion combo Financial Problem.
The Enchanters’ lovely Whole Lot Of Loving taps more into the kind of vocal group style that dancehall’s natural forerunner rocksteady specialised in. Errol Scorcher is back with the excellent Rucumbine Girl (12″ mix), where his ecstatic, near-singing style of talkover really pays dividends, cut over The Techniques’ oldie It’s You I Love. He also contributes an alternate mix of Peace Truce to this disc, voiced on Culture’s classic roots tune Fussing And Fighting. Marcia Griffiths is one of the best singers of reggae and on the extended take of Don’t Ever Leave the production wisely lets her display her soulful and unique talents first, leaving the dub moves to form an extended coda.
Westmorland Flood by Jah Stone (nee Gladstone Fisher) & The Supersonics uses The Sensations’ Baby Love rhythm and addresses a catastrophic storm that hit that area of Jamaica in 1979. A cool sound that addresses a serious issue in an accessible way. It’s great to hear Lorna Bennett, best known for Breakfast In Bed, singing well on the Diana Ross cover It’s My House. A real talent, it is a shame she didn’t record more during this period.
The 12″ mix of Tell Me The Truth by Jah Thomas (his mournful A Little Bit Of Love is also an ace) is an excellent DJ/dub number with this time the rhythm provided by another Alton Ellis rocksteady favourite Ooh Wee Baby. It brings Different Fashion to a close on a real high. This second section of the compilation is full of highlights and provides a neat summary of all that was good about dancehall. Though we’re currently in the throes of a damp winter, this is a solid gold shot of sunshine grooves.
John Peel used to play a lot of this new breed of reggae from the late 1970s onwards and in my mind the sound will always be tied to the edgier items that accompanied it on his show. Which isn’t really a bad thing, it immediately evokes the era for me as well as any post-punk, plus eliciting pleasant memories from my youth. But enough tales of wireless days passed. If what is found on Different Fashion is any guide, the early sound of dancehall has held up remarkably well. There’s a sense of pure elation here, particularly on the DJ cuts, that is hard to find in other forms of music.
Those rocksteady rhythms from Treasure Isle were endlessly adaptable to the new era and Sonia Pottinger was just the producer to get the very best out of them. The roster of performers she could call on was highly talented and the musicianship and taste deployed was almost peerless. If you’ve steered clear of dancehall because of the later digital connotations, take a listen to Different Fashion – some of the best reggae music of the 70s/early 80s is right here.
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here