Born in Fair Prospect in the parish of Portland, Jamaica on 15 May 1923, Arthur ‘Duke’ Reid joined Kingston’s police constabulary upon reaching manhood and after serving some ten years in the force, he and his wife Dorothy opened the Treasure Isle liquor store in Pink Lane.
By all accounts, the Duke was a truly enigmatic character, known for his intimidating yet personable character; softly spoken, but
powerfully built, he wore rings on almost every finger and was never seen without the .45 and .22 pistols tucked into his waistband.
His involvement with the island’s music business began in the mid-fifties, when he launched his ‘Duke Reid, The Trojan’ sound system – so-named after the British-made Trojan vans used to transport the set from one venue to another.
Leading with his theme tune, ‘My Mother’s Eyes’ by American jazz saxophonist, Tab Smith, his Trojan system soon reigned supreme and in 1956, his dominance was recognised at the Success Club in central Kingston, where he was crowned ‘King of Sounds & Blues’ – a title he successfully retained for the next two years.
By the late fifties, the dearth of the records emanating from the US that featured the raw R&B style favoured by sound system audiences led Reid and a number of rival operators to produce their own records and by the close of the decade, a thriving recording industry had developed.
At first, Reid concentrated on mento-styled releases, most notably ‘Penny Reel’ by Lord Power – released on his newly launched Trojan label – but quickly switched his attention to R&B.
Throughout these formative years he produced and subsequently issued a series of hit singles by the likes of Derrick Morgan, Derrick Harriott’s Jiving Juniors, Laurel Aitken, Chuck & Dobby and Eric ‘Monty’ Morris, all of which he issued on his aptly titled Duke Reid’s label.
The key to Reid’s success was his determination, allied to an astute business sense and a keen understanding on the demands of his public. In the late fifties, he sponsored a weekly half-hour show entitled ‘Treasure Isle Time’, broadcast by RJR and through this and his sound system, he was able to advertise his latest releases.
By 1964, Reid was firmly established as one of the giants of the rapidly Jamaican recording industry, with his work, predominantly issued on his newly launched Treasure Isle label, regarded as among the finest produced during the ska era. Providing musical accompaniment on most of his productions throughout this time were the Skatalites, a nine-piece instrumental group that included the cream of Jamaica’s session players. For 18 glorious months, this supergroup dominated the Jamaican music scene, performing on countless sessions for producer of note, with Reid among their most regular employers. As well as backing artists such as Justin Hinds & The Dominoes, Stranger Cole, Eric ‘Monty’ Morris and Owen & Leon Silveras, the group also cut a plethora of superb instrumental sides under a variety of aliases.
Early in 1965, the group’s fortunes suffered a major blow when Drummond was arrested and convicted for the murder his girlfriend, Margarita Mahfood. Eight months after his internment, the group of which he had been a key member, disbanded, with its various members subsequently forming the nucleus of two new influential instrumental outfits: Roland Alphonso‘s Soul Brothers and Tommy McCook’s Supersonics.
While the former provided the backbone for Coxson Dodd‘s Studio One output, McCook and the Supersonics were swiftly installed as Reid‘s in-house studio band. Boasting the talents of the famed saxman andformer Skatalites’ colleagues Johnny Moore and Lloyd Knibb, the group also featured Danny Simpson on trombone, saxophonist Herman Marquis, Clifton ‘Jackie’ Jackson on bass, pianist Gladstone ‘Gladdy Adams’ Anderson and George Tucker on rhythm guitar. Others to regularly sit in on sessions at Treasure Isle included saxman Lennox Brown, Vincent Gordon aka Don Drummond Junior on trombone, Trinidadian-born guitarist Lynn Taitt and Winston Wright on Hammond organ.
Ska remained the favoured style in Jamaica into the early months of 1966, but due in part to the exceptionally hot weather and a need for change, its days were numbered and by the close of the year it had been superseded by the cooler style of rock steady. Its demise coincided with the opening of Reid‘s Treasure Isle studio, a compact facility constructed built above the producer’s liquor store, situated at 33 Bond Street, Kingston. To engineer sessions, the hugely talented Byron Smith was duly employed, while following the retirement of respected truimpter and bandleader, Oswald ‘Baba’ Brooks, Tommy McCook was officially installed as the new musical arranger. This conbination of talent and unique structure resulted in a clearly identifiable Treasure Isle sound that over the years that immediately followed dominated the local charts .
Throughout the brief, yet spectacular rock steady era, Reid came into his own, releasing numerous superbly crafted hits by some of Jamaica’s finest talents, including such notable vocal acts as Alton Ellis, the Paragons, Phyllis Dillon, the Techniques, the Melodians, the Jamaicans, Ken Parker and the Three Tops.
But by the close of ’68, rock steady had been supplanted by the new reggae sound and while Treasure Isle successfully adapted to the development of style, Reid‘s productions throughout this time had merely reflected the changes brought about by others. But around the close of 1969, he played a pivotal role in the next major development of the music: DJ recordings.
Enlisting the toasting talents of relative unknown, Ewart Beckford aka U Roy, Reid produced a series of ground-breaking singles that sparked a DJ explosion, the effects of which are still evident in global music today.
Further hits by the DJ swiftly ensued while soon after he was joined by fellow DJ Dennis Alcapone whose toasting talents brought further success to Treasure Isle, although the label was by no means completely reliant upon the popularity of the new sound, with hits by such vocals acts as John Holt, the Melodians, Alton Ellis, the Ethiopians, Phyllis Dillon, Justin Hinds & The Dominoes, Ken Parker and Cynthia Richards ensured Treasure Isle remained a leader player on the Jamaican music scene.
But as the 1970s unfolded, Reid became increasingly disaffected by the recording industry, with the producer reluctant to promote the developing styles of roots and dub. By the mid-1970s, his health had seriously declined and a trip to London to seek medical advice confirmed that he had cancer. Although he continued to bravely fought on against its effects, it was a battle he was unable to win and on 26 September 1976, he passed away at St. Joseph’s Hospital, Kingston, aged 61, with his body later laid to rest at Black Rock in Portland.
In October 2007, the Duke was posthumously awarded the Order of Distinction for his contribution to Jamaican music. Few have been more worthy of the honour.
The greatness of any individual can be measured by their impact on history, and musically, few have left a greater impression than Arthur ‘Duke’ Reid. During his lifetime, he produced some of the finest recordings of the day and over the years since his passing his work has continued to inspire and delight new generations of music fans the world over.