Jamaica to Toronto

Lost stars of the city's vibrant 60s R&B scene finally get their chance to shine


JAMAICA TO TORONTO featuring JAY DOUGLAS , the MIGHTY POPE , JO-JO BENNETT , BOB & WISDOM , LLOYD DELPRATT , NOEL ELLIS , VAL BENT and others at Harbourfront Centre (235 Queens Quay West), Saturday (July 15), 9:30 pm. Free. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNNN


In a cluttered basement rec room just off Vaughan Road, Everton “Pablo” Paul is socking his sparkling new Pearl drum kit into shape as the Mighty Pope growls out the Otis Redding-style gotta-gottas on I Can’t Turn You Loose. Through it all the boyish-looking drummer for Wayne McGhie’s Sounds Of Joy who famously pounded out the proto-hiphop beats on Dirty Funk can’t stop smiling. It’s not just because after 20 years renovating homes Paul is finally getting back to playing the music he loves with the old friends he cherishes.

Nor is it knowing that the release of the fabulous Jamaica To Toronto (Light in the Attic) compilation documenting the incredibly great soul, funk and reggae music recorded in this city between 1967 and 74 will be celebrated at this weekend’s concert at Harbourfront, or even that with the launch they’ll get some long-overdue recognition for their amazing but largely overlooked accomplishments.

No, there’s another reason entirely for Paul’s silly grin.

“I was just thinking back to my first encounter with the Mighty Pope some 40 years ago,” cackles Paul following the after-hours rehearsal. “We were doing that same Otis Redding tune with the Sheiks when he walked into the WIF Club.

“At the time, I had this cute little girlfriend who was there that night, but once the Mighty Pope grabbed the microphone and started into I Can’t Turn You Loose, she was through with me and all over him.

“Oh lord, that man could sing! What a powerful voice! Even though he hasn’t been performing lately, he’s still got it. I think he’s going to surprise some people at the show. It’s gonna be great. For the last three nights I’ve been lying awake just thinking about it.”

Speaking with Earle “the Mighty Pope” Heedram during a break, you can tell the former frontman of Frank Motley’s Hitch-Hikers, who ruled Wasaga Beach during the late 60s, is also excited about returning to the stage with his local scene contemporaries, like the hard-shouting Jay Douglas of the Cougars, who tore up the first Caribana concert in 1967, Bob Williams and Jimmy Wisdom, better known as the classy soul duo Bob & Wisdom, reggae crooner Noel Ellis, trumpeter Jo-Jo Bennett of Jo-Jo & the Fugitives, Sounds of Joy keyboardist Lloyd Delpratt and Hitch-Hikers guitarist Val Bent, who’s flying in from Jamaica for the gig.

The fact that the Mighty Pope is in such good vocal shape after not picking up a microphone for more than a decade is as remarkable as it is mystifying, considering his exceptional talent. You have to wonder where he’s been and what he’s been doing all this time.

“Sitting at home on the couch,” replies the Mighty Pope with a shrug. “Most people are surprised when I tell them that, but it’s true. I just got tired of the business. I had some problems with management you know, the usual hassles of trying to find out where the money went and eventually I decided I’d had enough of the bullshit and took some time off.”

One year quickly turned into two, and before the Mighty Pope knew it, 10 years had passed.

“Now not a day goes by that I don’t see one of my old recordings getting serious bids on eBay. It’s kind of frustrating, because, of course, I never see any of that money, but it’s good to know that even though I haven’t been out there performing, my music hasn’t been forgotten.”

Thanks to the impressive research and recovery efforts of Matt Sullivan, who runs Seattle-based label Light in the Attic, responsible for 2004’s excellent Wayne McGhie & The Sounds Of Joy reissue, and Toronto-born, Vancouver-based collector/journalist Kevin Howes (aka DJ Sipreano) who had to do some serious digging to assemble the informatively annotated Jamaica To Toronto package the songs and stories of important Toronto artists are reaching a much wider audience.

And the project will continue with a reissue of Noel Ellis’s 1983 self-titled debut for Summer, followed by Jackie Mittoo’s Wishbone (Summus) album from 1971 and a Summer Records label retrospective.

“All the work that Matt and Kevin have been doing is truly amazing,” says musical director Jay Douglas, one of the few artists on the bill who hasn’t stopped performing since he arrived in Toronto in 1963.

“Just the information and the pictures in the booklet that comes with the CD are worth the price of the whole package.”

“When Matt and Kevin first approached me with the idea of performing Eternal Love, which I recorded with the Sheiks,” recalls the Mighty Pope, “I wasn’t really interested. I’ve never even sung that song live before. But after I saw what a wonderful job they did bringing together all this fantastic music that I’d nearly forgotten, it seemed like singing a few songs was the least I could do.

“I honestly didn’t think I’d have as much fun getting ready for the show as I have.”

The musicians are incredible, and the sense of camaraderie is readily apparent during the practice session at Paul’s place. When the Mighty Pope is searching for the right words to personalize his version of Otis Redding’s Dock Of The Bay, former crosstown rival Douglas hands him a scrap of paper with a lyrical fix. Instead of “I left my home in Georgia, headed for the Frisco Bay,” the Mighty Pope can more appropriately sing, “I left my home in Jamaica, wound up at Dundas and Bay.”

The reference to the all-too-familiar location of the downtown Toronto bus terminal inspires knowing smiles all around. Although ancient transgressions seem to have been forgiven, they’re not entirely forgotten. Shortly after Bob and Wisdom arrive to work on their soul-stirring duet rendition of Mac Davis’s I Believe In Music, Douglas can’t resist bringing up their teen talent contest showdown from way back in Montego Bay the only time Bob & Wisdom ever finished out of first place.

“We beat them by doing the Flamingos’ I’m Yours,” chuckles Douglas, “which Bob & Wisdom showed us how to sing before the competition!”

“It’s true,” concedes Williams, shaking his head with a laugh. “We taught them a little too well.”

For all of Douglas’s good-natured ribbing, he’s really the key player in this whole Jamaica To Toronto concert production and has been an important liaison to the Toronto scene for Light in the Attic. It was Douglas who initially led them to the long-lost Wayne McGhie and also the similarly missing-in-action Eddie Spencer, whose fiery If This Is Love (I’d Rather Be Lonely) is a standout track on the Jamaica To Toronto set.

Sadly, neither McGhie nor Spencer will be joining the celebrations Saturday, but compiler Kevin Howes says there’s a silver lining to Spencer’s absence.

“While we were still looking for Spencer, I came across someone online who posted a note on a genealogy site saying they were looking for their father, Eddie Spencer, who was a soul singer in the 60s. I e-mailed him and it turned out we were looking for the same person, and after we located Spencer they were able to connect.

“It’s just a complete coincidence that they’re going to be reuniting in Vancouver on the same weekend that the Jamaica To Toronto show is happening at Harbourfront. Our goal in reissuing this music was simply to bring wider attention to the extraordinary work of these great artists. That a family can be brought together in the process is more than we could ever have hoped for.”

**

timp@nowtoronto.com

JAMAICA TO TORONTO: Soul, Funk & Reggae 1967-1974 (Light in the Attic) Rating: NNNNN

The influx of exceptional musical talent from Jamaica to Toronto in the mid-60s gave rise to a booming soul/R&B club scene that continued to thrive through the early 70s despite the general indifference of commercial radio, television and major record labels. Today, all that exists of once jumping venues like the Sapphire Club, Le Coq d’Or, Club Jamaica, the In Crowd and the W.I.F. Club are a few crinkled old handbills and concert flyers, while the spectacular music — documented at the time on a few independently pressed 45s and LPs — hasn’t been circulating outside the record collectors market, where tiny-label original 7-inch singles command three figures.

Matt Sullivan, boss of Seattle label Light in the Attic, and Vancouver-based DJ Sipreano, aka Kevin Howes, recognized the uniqueness of what was happening in Toronto back then and have gone far beyond simply gathering the popular tracks of the era on the highly entertaining Jamaica To Toronto compilation disc. They’ve dug deep to deliver the songs and stories behind them.

From hard-shouting R&B party joints like Chips-Chicken-Banana Split by Jo-Jo and the Fugitives, and the Cougars’ Right On (taken from an unreleased acetate) and brilliantly arranged burners like Eddie Spencer’s Motown-style If This Is Love (I’d Rather Be Lonely) to super-funky Island-spiced joints like Jackie Mittoo’s Grand Funk and Wayne McGhie’s Fire (She Need Water) all the way through stirring soul thrillers like the Sheiks’ Eternal Love and Bob & Wisdom’s I Believe In Music, this is a phenomenal collection of shoulda-been hits. It’ll leave you wondering why there aren’t bronze statues of Wayne McGhie, Eddie Spencer and Jackie Mittoo at Yonge and Dundas today.

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