In the early 1960’s, when the Jamaican recording industry was still very much in its infancy, the local music scene was dominated by a mere handful of performers. Among these musical pioneers were Laurel Aitken, Owen Gray, Wilfred ‘Jackie’ Edwards and, of course, Derrick Morgan.
In a meeting with Trojan’s own Laurence Cane-Honeysett, back in August 1991, the singer regaled his life story up to that date, and it is his recollections from this sunny afternoon in a London suburb that provide the biographical detail of this essay.
Derrick was born on 27 March 1940 in the parish of Clarendon, initially raised by his aunt in a district known as Mocho before being sent to live with his mother Kingston, aged three, following the realisation that he had contracted a sight disorder. It was subsequently established that Derrick suffered from night blindness and after being referred to numerous specialists around the world, a Canadian ophthalmic consultant finally diagnosed him in 1976 as having retina pigmentosis.
During his youth, Derrick was encouraged to sing in the local church choir by his father, a deacon and throughout his childhood music played an important role in the young boy’s life. Educated in Kingston’s Allman Town elementary, Derrick subsequently graduated to Kingston Senior, completing his education at Model Private. By this time, he was determined to make his mark as a singer and began entering talent shows, his first public performance coming in 1957, when he entered and won Joseph Vere John’s ‘Opportunity Hour’. The measure of his performance that evening is evident by the quality of losing contestants, among whom were Eric ‘Monty’ Morris, Hortense Ellis, along with the aforementioned Owen Gray and Jackie Edwards. His winning performance consisted of storming renditions of Little Richard‘s frenetic rock and roll hits ‘Long Tall Sally’ and ‘Jenny Jenny’ and so impressed comic duo, Bim and Bam that the pair enrolled him to join them on their touring showcase.
During his two years with the Bim & Bam troupe, Derrick successfully auditioned for Duke Reid, who had the young singer record two songs, namely, ‘Lover Boy’ and ‘Oh My’. His initial recordings were featured on the Duke’s ‘Treasure Isle Time’ radio show, but remained on acetate as exclusives for the fledgling producer’s ‘Trojan’ sound system. Although pleased to hear his voice on the radio and sound system, Derrick was still keen to have his work on released on vinyl and in 1960, this wish was finally fulfilled. A session for Simeon ‘Little Wonder’ Smith spawned ‘Fat Man’, a song which became one of the first Jamaican records ever issued in the UK, after being picked up by Emil Shalit‘s Melodisc for his newly launched Blue Beat label. The record proved an instant hit both sides of the Atlantic, topping the local charts in his native Jamaica.
The success of the single led to a union with Jamaica’s most up-and-coming producers, Prince Buster, and through this partnership, the singer consolidated his reputation as the island’s favourite performer by scoring a series of major hits, at one time holding the top seven positions on the Jamaican chart. In 1962, a chance meeting with the teenage Jimmy Cliff led to a fruitful relationship with Leslie Kong, as Derrick recalled:
‘Jimmy Cliff met me and told me that Beverley’s [the Kong brothers] wanted to do some records. He had a song and he said that Beverley’s had sent him to me, although I didn’t work for Beverley’s at the time. Anyway, I listened to the song he had – it was soul song, ‘Dearest Beverley’. So then he took me to this place called Beverley’s [ice cream parlour] and when we went there they’d never done any recordings before. That was how Jimmy Cliff founded Beverley’s, because they liked what he was singing, but they confided that if he couldn’t find me they’d pass on the song. So said so done, and we went and recorded the song. I also did recordings for them, ‘Be Still’ and ‘Sunday Monday’, while Jimmy Cliff did ‘Hurricane Hattie’. From there Beverley’s started and I stuck with Beverley’s for a while, because Beverley’s paid better than the rest. Then in ’62, when Jamaica got independence, I made this song called ‘Forward March’. Prince Buster heard the song and said that part of it came off his song called ‘They Got To Come’ and he said I was taking his belonging to the Chinaman [Leslie Kong]. Then he and I stated a musical war – it was ‘Blackhead Chine’ and ‘Blazing Fire’ time. We were stepping right up the line and he and I kept on doing it right on and on and creating a lot of history in Jamaica. People were fighting over the both of us – some said Buster was better, some said Derrick was better. It caused such a big thing that the government had to come in and stop us. We had to go in the [Daily Gleaner] paper and hug up and say that we were the best of friends and so on and stop the dispute.’
These vinyl clashes proved popular amongst Jamaican music lovers and the tradition continues through to this day with notable clashes between I Roy and Prince Jazzbo as well as Beenie Man and Bounty Killer. Whether or not the dispute between Derrick and Buster was contrived, it proved short-lived, as through the efforts of Emil Shallit, both and men signed to the entrepreneur’s Melodisc Records company in 1963.
By this time, Derrick had also recorded a number of popular duets with Pasty Todd, with their hits including ‘Feel So Fine’, ‘Are You Going To Marry Me’, ‘Don’t You Worry’ and of course the legendary ‘Housewives Choice’. The latter is regarded as on one of the biggest selling West Indian records in the UK ever and would have charted had the BBC registered sales in specialist outlets. Originally titled, ‘You Don’t Know How Much I Love You’, the song was renamed by the Jamaican radio D.J., Marcie Garth, on account of the number of requests for her to play the song. Incidentally Marcie’s dulcet tones can be heard on the Trojan album, ‘Live At The Turntable Club’ (TRLS 110).
Sadly, Derrick’s promising partnership with Patsy came to a premature end as a direct result of his new deal with Melodisc. A brief spell in the UK at the behest of the British label opened the way for rival, Stranger Cole to step in and form what was to prove a hugely successful partnership with the young female singer. In fact, unlike his compatriot, Prince Buster, Derrick’s contract with Melodisc ultimately proved to have negative effect on his career. The deal limited the singer to working solely with producers who had agreements with Shallit’s company and while at first Derrick succeeded in remaining at the forefront of the now burgeoning Ska scene, his options became severely limited as new producers began to make their mark.
None the less, his work with Buster and Duke Reid kept him relatively busy throughout ’64 and ’65, with ‘Around The Corner’, ‘Don’t Call Me Daddy’ and ‘My Lover’ among his best-known works for the latter. Confirming Reid’s mow legendary status as something of a gunslinger, Derrick recalled:
‘He was all right. He always went around with his guns – he was an ex-policeman. He had two guns. It’s true that if you were singing in a session and he didn’t like it, he would shoot his gun and the musicians would get timid. That’s why his music was so good’.
Despite his popularity both at home and abroad, by the close of 1965, Derrick had become increasingly frustrated by his situation with Melodisc:
‘Beverley’s didn’t want to touch me because the contract [with Melodisc] was so binding. Then [Edward] Seaga, who is a former Prime Minister, he is the one who got it cleared. He was always in music in Jamaica. He used to have a studio before he became a politician and when he was Minister of Finance, he cleared the contract for me. So then I could record back with Beverley’s and I also did a few songs for Coxsone also.’
Among his recordings for Kong’s Beverley’s imprint were ‘Starvation’ and the celebratory ‘I Am A Blackhead Again’ that revived the theme of his 1963 hit. In 1966, Derrick briefly recorded with Coxson Dodd, cutting a handful of sides in the developing Rock Steady style, with his version of the Impressions’ ‘It’s Alright’, which featured backing from his short-lived vocal group, the Blues Blenders.
Early the following year, Derrick returned to Beverley’s at the height of the Rude Boy phenomenon and was soon riding high on the national charts once again with ‘Tougher Than Tough (Rudie In Court)’, In an interview for the BBC series, ‘The Story Of Reggae’, he recalled that he was asked to record a song for a leading rude boy named ‘Busby’. When Busby heard the tune, he loved it, but as Derrick recalled, ‘not for long ‘cos him get killed the next day’. The song featured backing vocals from Desmond Dekker and George Agard, who was later to find fame with the Pioneers. The duo joined him on further sessions for ‘Woman A Grumble’, ‘Court Dismiss’ and ‘(Mind You) Kill Me Dead’. In 1968, he recorded duets with the singers individually, cutting ‘(What A) Revenge’ and ‘Johnny Pram Pram’ with Desmond, and ‘Copy Cat’, ‘Ben Johnson Day’ and ‘Me Naw Give Up (What A La La Bamba)’ with George.
Derrick’s prolific run of solo hits at Beverley’s conmtinued to produce a catalogue of fine singles throughout ’67 and into 1968, with their number including ‘No Dice’, ‘I Mean It’, ‘Do The Beng Beng’, ‘Got You On My Mind’, ‘Real Ring Ding’, ‘Want More’, ‘Horse Dead, Cow Fat’, ‘I Am The Ruler’ and the hilarious ‘What’s Your Grouse’ (just ring 5446), that featured Desmond and George in cameo roles.
Though Derrick relished a high profile with Leslie Kong, he also sought independence through self-productions and in 1967 began issuing self-produced works on his own Hop label, most notably ‘Gimme Back’ and the triumphant ‘Conquering Ruler’. A year after the lauch of the label, Island Records released the ‘Derrick Morgan And Friends’ LP, which has since become a highly prized collector’s item.
By this time, Derrick had helped his brother-in-law, Edward ‘Bunny’ Lee break into the music business and towards the close of 1968, the pair began what proved to be a long lasting and hugely productive working relationship. Among their earliest collaborations was ‘Hold Your Jack’, a song that not only proved a major hit in it’s own right, but which also provided the rhythm for the UK hit, ‘Wet Dream’. Derrick had in fact been scheduled to record the latter, but had failed to do so because of a mix-up, resulting in record salesman, Max Romeo stepping in to voice the track.
Meanwhile, Derrick continued to enjoy local success without experiencing such global exposure and despite a number of laudable efforts ‘ including reworkings of ‘Fat Man’, for producer Lynford ‘Andy Capp’ Anderson anda revival of ‘Be Still’ for Beverley’s ‘ he failed to make much of an impact outside his native Jamaica. In 1969, with the new sound of Reggae enjoying a surge in popularity in the UK, Derrick returned to Britain, alongside Bunny Lee. During his stay, he teamed up to record with fellow ex-pats, Owen Gray and Stranger Cole, while also cutting a number of solo sides. Among these was a song that was to become a skinhead anthem: ‘Moon Hop’. Featuring Derrick, backed by leading London based Reggae outfit, the Rudies, the record became an immediate dancehall favourite around the country and in on January 17, 1970, crept into the top 50, spending a glorious week at number 49, before dropping out of the national Pop listings.
Derrick had spent much of 1969 in the UK, but returned to Jamaica the following year where he concentrated on his own productions, releasing tunes such as Max Romeo’s ‘Let The Power Fall On I’, the Righteous Flames’ ‘Love And Emotion’, and a number of solom sides, including the risqu?? ‘Horse Race’.
In the mid-seventies, Derrick had relocated in Canada where he recorded for Imperial Records before he moving south to Miami, where he embarked on further recording sessions. By the late Eighties he had settled in London and was regularly performing in revival shows, which resulted in a renewed interest in his back catalogue. Since then, he has returned to the US, but continues to remain active on the live circuit, reminding fans of the talent that first made him a star almost 6 decades ago years ago.