I’ve dined out on this story among family and friends a few times over the years. However, I never told it in an official forum until interviewed for the wonderful documentary podcast How Jamaica Conquered the World. While Roifield Brown did a terrific job editing my rambling into a coherent story, I knew I could do better in print. However, first I want to put in a good word for Roifield’s great site. In its own words:
For a nation that gained independence from the British only 50 years ago, Jamaicans have left their mark on music, sport, style and language around the globe and have become an international marker of ‘cool’. Jamaican music has colonised the new and old world alike, its athletes break world records with impunity and youngsters the world over are incorporating Jamaican slang into their dialects. Despite this the country has reaped no economic reward in return, unlike empires of old, and Jamaica still remains an economic pygmy. Jamaican influence has unconsciously spawned creative innovation around the globe and to this day it remains a country to be studied, celebrated, and demystified. Through the help of linguists, artists, musicians, and historians we take a closer look as to how Jamaican culture conquered the world.
How Jamaica Conquered the World is a class act, and I’d be saying that even if I didn’t appear in a couple of segments. As both history and a jukebox of Caribbean music, How Jamaica Conquered the World is worth as much time as you can devote to it.
Okay, kiddies, pull up a chair and pour yourself a cup of coffee, because this one’s going to be long . . .
On the day I met Bob Marley I was already working for Island Records Canada as a Record Promo Guy. It was one of my first jobs out of college and I was the low man on the totem pole in an office of 3 people. We three were required to cover the entire country of Canada, the 2nd largest country in the world.
It’s worth mentioning how I came to work at Island Records because that also involves Bob Marley. A year earlier I had been the first full-time paid manager of Radio Sheridan. It was one of the few campus stations that received personal visits from the Record Promo Reps from all the major companies. Campus radio was much maligned in those days by the record companies, and deservedly so. A company would take the time and expense to package records and send them to a campus station, where they would rarely find their way into the library. They’d disappear into someone’s record collection.
By this time Radio Sheridan was 3 years old. It wasn’t an official part of the college; it was merely tolerated by Sheridan College. A small group of us, some attached to the student government and others in the Media Arts program, designed the concept of the radio station broadcasting on a closed-loop antenna system. We pitched it to the student government, which fell into line behind it. They presented it to Administration, which not only approved it, but gave us 2 very small rooms on the 2nd floor of the new wing. The station was entirely student-funded, student-built, and student-operated. I started off as Assistant Manager and later became the first (and as far as I know only) full-time paid Station Manager. I ‘hired’ Lorraine Segato to be one of my DJs and like to feel I set her off on her path to brilliance.
Unlike other campus stations, from Day One, we felt it important that every record Radio Sheridan ever received was cataloged and shelved in the library. No genre or era was off limits and the only time a record was shelved with the words NO PLAY on it had to do 4-letter words, not musical styles. It was still shelved and everyone of us played George Carlin’s 7 Words You Can’t Say at least once. The rules were as flexible as any DJ wanted to try and get away with. It was the great era of Free Form Radio. We were all trying to emulate David Pritchard and David Marsden of CHUM-FM, when those guys were crazy MoFos on the air and playlists hadn’t been tightened up by the Radio Consultants, who were the real villains that ruined the medium of music radio.
However, Radio Sheridan had 3 things going for it, as far as the Majors (as we called the record companies) were concerned: 1). They could find every record they ever gave us in our library; 2). We would play music the other stations wouldn’t; 3). We were just off the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) between Toronto, where they all had head offices, and Hamilton, the next largest radio market in Ontario (if you ignored Windsor and lots tried). More than one Record Rep remarked how it was a nice stopover during a Hamilton swing. And those of us who worked at Radio Sheridan were eager acolytes for their records, posters, and concert tickets.
|Kathy Hahn, a dear friend to this day, presents Bob Marley with a Canadian
Gold LP for Exodus in Jamaica, the 1st and only time a Canadian Gold
LP awarded outside the country; circa 1979
By the time I became full time Radio Sheridan Station Manager, we were getting so many records sent to us in the mail and hand-delivered by Record Reps that there was always a slush pile. Each record had to be listened to, categorized by genre and artist, duplicate file cards made, and then shelved in the record library. There was a pile of about 50 records on the day I first heard from the head of Island Records Canada. I was impressed that the head of the company was calling. I didn’t know the office consisted of just him and his assistant, Kathy Hahn, who I later discovered actually ran the office and made everything operate on schedule. The head of Island Records Canada was on the phone asking me whether I had received the latest records Kathy had sent in the mail. I assured him that I did, but had not had a chance to listen to them yet before shelving them. Then this guy started in on the hard sell (paraphrasing), “Oh you gotta listen. This is the next big thing. You need to jump on this. You’re going to hear a lot about Bob Marley.”
I hadn’t heard of Bob Marley before. More importantly, as far as I was concerned at that exact moment, I had never had a Record Promo Rep using such hard sell on me. The Promo Guys that serviced Radio Sheridan were all casual. They’d toss a record in our direction and say, “Give this a listen.” If we came back and said, “Hey, we like that artist,” the Rep might arrange to have the entire back catalog sent to us, or posters and concert tickets if those were available. The one thing they knew better than to do was to try and “sell” us on an artist. The music was either in the grooves, or it wasn’t.
However, this guy from Island Records was already irritating me and it was only our first phone call. I assured him I’d listen to his records just as soon as they floated to the top of the slush pile. However, that wasn’t the end of it. A few days later he called back, asking whether I’d listened to them yet. I explained the Hobson’s Choice system I developed: New records go on the bottom of the pile. I listen and shelve from the top of the pile. His records were mid-way in the pile, but they’d eventually make it to the top.
That’s when he started on the hard sell again. No other Promo Rep had ever tried to “promote” their records at me this vociferously and it was beginning to piss me off.
A few days later I go through the whole thing again with him. That’s when I flipped out at him. “Hear what I’m doing? I’m putting your records on the top of the pile. They will be the next records I listen to.”
I hung up absolutely prepared to hate the records almost as much as I had begun to hate the disembodied voice from the Bedford Road offices of “Island Records.” I put the first record on the turntable and dropped the needle. What happened next was four minutes and 15 seconds that changed my life. This is not hyperbole. Listen:
For the first time in my life music SPOKE to me in a way that none had previously. Reggae penetrated my very soul. I felt it deep, deep within me. Within 6 months I was working for Island Records as Record Promo Rep and Chief Cook and Bottle Washer of Island Records Canada. One of my first surprises was that the head office for Island Records Canada was two front rooms of a beautiful house at 93 Bedford Road. The house was semi-famous, having appeared in two movies: The Last Detail and The Paper Chase. The rest of the house was residences, with a family living on the 2nd floor and a bachelor on the third floor. I eventually moved into a basement apartment in the house where I only had to walk upstairs to get to work, until I got hired away to United Artists in Scarberia.
My second surprise is that in a 3-person office, I would be called upon do do anything and everything, as we all did. One day I would be stuffing envelopes with the press release I had written the day before and picked up at the printer’s that morning. The next day I might be the limo driver taking Robert Palmer and his 2 singers to a concert at the CNE grounds, while they practiced the difficult “doobey doobey doops” back-up vocals of Hey Julia and Sneaking Sally Through The Alley in the back seat.
The most exciting and busy time in the life of a Record Promo Rep is the period immediately preceding one of your artists coming to town for a concert. Bob Marley and the Wailers had announced a North ‘Merkin tour for April to June of 1976 to promote the new release, Rastaman Vibration.
When one of your acts is coming to town, there’s a lot of prep work to be done. While the promoter will take out advertising to promote the concert, the record company will also take out adverts to promote the music currently available in stores. Sometimes those ads are designed in-house, but most of the time head office supplies camera-ready artwork, which still needs to be placed where the local office feels the most eyeballs will see it. In the case of Bob Marley, an artist barely known outside his native Jamaica in 1976, we did a lot of non-traditional advertising, naturally targeting the small weeklies and record stores that served Toronto’s large Jamaican population, much of which was strung along Eglington West, around Oakwood.
One of the jobs of a Promo Rep is to put up displays at the record stores and cajole the staff to rack the LPs up front. You see, kiddies, in the olden days of mortar and brick music machines, music could still be an impulse buy, like gum still is at supermarkets. When one of your acts is coming to town, this is done on steroids. At least a month ahead of time you would start putting up displays at all the record stores, beginning with those downtown and working out to the suburbs. The displays would include concert posters and racks for the various LPs the artist had out.
While it’s not exactly Payola, three things a Record Rep has in abundance are free LPs, free posters, and free concert tickets. These are spread around where they will do the artist the most good, as is access to the artist by radio and tee vee people. Artists will let you know in advance what their press availability will be. It’s up to the Promo Rep to apportion that time where it will do the artist the most good. These interviews won’t help concert sales (unless sales are slow, for which last minute interviews can be helpful), but will help record sales, which was the primary goal. The interviews will also be used ‘down the line’ as promo material for the upcoming shows on the tour, which could help ticket sales in future cities, which will lead to record sales.
While all tour arrangements (travel, hotel, meals) are handled by someone else, once the band arrives in town it’s the job of the record company, and most often the Promo Reps, to ferry them around town, make sure they get to any interviews and/or signings on time, and, most importantly, make sure they arrive at the concert venue in time. This often requires precision timing. Itineraries broken down into 15 minute increments are prepared, photocopied, and passed out to everyone who will need them.
The month before an artist comes to town is the most frantic time in the life of a Promo Rep, which only gets more frantic every day as the calendar counts down to Concert Day, which is the most frantic of all. One only gets to breathe a sigh of relief when the artist becomes the responsibility of the next Promo Rep in the next town on the tour.
The day I met Bob Marley was the most frantic day I ever had in the Music Bidnezz. It began in the Bedford Road HQ of Island Canada as we sat around going over a checklist of things that still needed to be done when the boss said, “You won’t be able to go to the concert, Headly.”
I pretty much exploded.
“I’ve just spent a month working my ass off for this concert. I’ve papered dozens of record store walls in posters and empty LP covers. I’ve cajoled the alternative papers into doing articles in advance of the concert. I convinced some alternative radio stations to play some Marley, even though they’ve never heard of Reggae before. I’ve set up interviews with Bob Marley and made dozens of arrangements with people who will be at the show tonight. And, now you’re telling me I can’t go to the show?”
That’s when it was explained that I would be on a special, secret mission for Island Record International!!!
Here was the master plan: the two concerts at the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall were the sixth and seventh on the tour, with Montreal the night before. Prior to that were four dates in the States: Upper Darby, Pennsylvania; Washington, D.C.; Boston, and New York City. The tour was being recorded and the band had smuggled several 2-inch reel-to-reel, 24-track recordings of the previous concert dates into Canada. They knew better than to try and smuggle ganja into Canada, knowing there were enough Jamaicans who wanted to present them with the sacramental plant upon their arrival. However, audio tapes? Those they smuggled into Canada without declaring them or paying any duty on them.
My secret mission was to collect the tapes from the band when they arrived, smuggle them back into the United States, and put them directly into the hands of Chris Blackwell.
At that time in my life Chris Blackwell would have been the only person who I would have missed Marley for. Chris Blackwell was my musical hero. Chris Blackwell was the man who started up Island Records and still the head guy. A slight tangent is in order for A Short Biography of Chris Blackwell:
Although born in London (in 1937), Chris Blackwell spent his childhood in Jamaica. His mother came from a prominent family, said to be one of the 21 families that controlled Jamaica during the 20th century. After his parents divorced his mother took up with Ian Fleming and is said to be the inspiration for Pussy Galore. These days Chris Blackwell owns Goldeneye, where Fleming wrote all the James Bond novels. However, if that were it, there would be no reason to write this tangent.
At the age of 21 Blackwell had a boating accident off Jamaica’s southern coast when he crashed his sailboat on a coral reef. He swam to shore, collapsing on the beach in exhaustion. There he was rescued by some Rastafarian fisherman, who took care of him until he was healthy enough to leave. However, if that were it, there would still be no reason to write this tangent.
A year later, Chris Blackwell started Island Records, naming it after the Alec Waugh novel “Island in the Sun.” Blackwell started releasing Jamaican music in 1959 and had limited regional success. In 1962 Blackwell moved Island operations to London and started making inroads in the Jamaican community with some early Ska and Bluebeat tunes that he had either recorded or licensed. One of those early licenses was for “My Boy Lollypop” by Millie Small, the cover of a 1956 tune by Barbie Gaye, one of the first hit songs in the newly emerging style of Ska.
As the WikiWhackyWoo quotes Blackwell:
I didn’t put it [the Millie Small single] on Island because I knew it was going to be so big. Independent labels in those days couldn’t handle hits, because you couldn’t pay the pressing plant in time to supply the demand, so I licensed it to Fontana, which was part of Philips. It was a big hit all around the world, and I really wanted to look after Millie, so I went everywhere with her, which took me into the mainstream of the record industry. I was lucky enough to see Stevie Winwood with the Spencer Davis Group, at a TV show in Birmingham. So then I started to spend more time in that area. This whole new music was emerging.
By “new music” Blackwell wasn’t talking about Reggae; that came later, after Island had already signed a few acts.With the proceeds of the smash Millie Small hit, he started signing bands to Island Records. After Spencer Davis Group and Steve Winwood came other Island signings: Traffic; Emerson, Lake and Palmer; Cat Stevens; Jethro Tull; Free; Fairport Convention; Kevin Ayers; Georgie Fame; Sparks; John Martyn; Spooky Tooth; Nick Drake; Roxy Music, Brian Eno; John Cale; The Chieftains; Richard and Linda Thompson; U2; Pete Wingfield; and many more. While many of these artists were signed to Island Records, Blackwell licensed some of these acts to other record companies in North America. To confuse matters even more, there were times the recordings were licensed to a different record company in Canada than ‘Merka.
And, that’s where I came in. I had been listening to music from Chris Blackwell for years, much longer than I had been listening to Reggae. Sure I’d be willing to miss two Bob Marley concerts at Convocation Hall to meet Chris Blackwell. He was one of my heroes.