Eric Donaldson

Eric Donaldson‘s unrivalled success at the Jamaican Song Festival has resulted in him becoming known as ‘Mr. Festival’, the singer having won the contest a record breaking seven times. While many performers first found fame on talent shows such as ‘Vere John’s Opportunity Hour’, the song festival has nurtured many a successful career and Jamaica has a long track record of creative arts competitions.

Eric was born and raised in Bog Walk/Kent Village, St Catherine, on 11th June 1947. During his formative years he attended school in Spanish Town and on completing his education began working as an interior decorator.

He embarked on a musical career in 1964 when he recorded acetates for Clement ‘Coxson’ Dodd at Studio One and Duke Reid at Treasure Isle studios. Following his experience of recording exclusive dub plates for the island’s leading sound systems, Eric was inspired to form a vocal group, suitably named the West Indians. He recruited Leslie Burke and Hector Brooks to provide backing harmonies that melodiously punctuated his incredible falsetto.

The group initially worked with Karl ‘J.J.’ Johnson who in 1968 produced their notable hit ‘Right On Time’, along with ‘Falling In Love’, ‘Hokey Pokey’ and ‘I Mean It’, Later in the year, the trio recorded further material sides for Johnson, which saw them credited  as the Kilowatts, with singles from this time including ‘Wonderful World’ c/w ‘Bring It On Home To Me’ and ‘Slot Machine’ c/w ‘Real Cool Operator’. Early in 1969, the trio joined Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry‘s stable of artists. With Scratch the group released a series of minor hits such as ‘Strange Whispering’, ‘Never Get Away aka (I Caught You Red Handed)’, ‘The Dirty Dozen’ and ‘Oh Lord’.

Soon after, Eric decided pursue a solo career following the release of ‘Come A Little Closer’, a minor hit produced by Derrick Harriott that credited the Prunes. He began working with Byron Lee‘s Dynamic Sounds productions and the celebrated producer Alvin ‘G.G.’ Ranglin, with the latter producing ‘Lonely Nights’, a superb ballad released after Eric’s first success at the song festival.

By 1971, Eric felt he needed more exposure and entered the Jamaican Song Festival competition with the now legendary ‘Cherry Oh Baby’. The popularity of the song almost sparked a riot when the crowd surged forward to get a little closer to the singer at a performance in Montego Bay. The fervour ensured his success a forgone conclusion at the finals, at which he famously won the overall competition in Kingston.

The unprecedented demand for song led to recording sessions with Bunny Lee and the Inner Circle band. ‘Cherry Oh Baby’ soon topped the Jamaican charts and led to the release of his self-titled album debut, which sold a staggering fifty thousand copies. Eric’s newly enrolled manager, Tommy Cowan who also managed Inner Circle supervised the sessions. And while we’re on the subject, Tommy had previously entered and won the song festival with ‘Ba Ba Boom Time’ as part of the Jamaicans and worked alongside Bunny and Eric on a number of his hits.

Some years later Eric‘s song festival debut crossed over into the mainstream when it was covered by internationally acclaimed bands such as the Rolling Stones who recorded a version for their album ‘Black And Blue’, and UB40, who covered his hit for their million selling ‘Labour of Love’ album series. However, in reggae circles versions from artists such as the Classics who released ‘Cheerio Baby’ and Phyllis Dillon‘s answer, ‘Eddie Oh Baby’ assured the songs impact on the island.

Meanwhile, the singer followed his hit with a series of classic tunes such as his, ‘Just Can’t Happen This Way’, which peaked at number three in the local charts as well as ‘I’m Indebted To You’, alongside a chart-topping version of the Winston‘s ‘Love Of The Common People’.

In 1972, Eric and producer, Tommy Cowan linked up with Warwick Lynn who produced ‘Blue Boot’ in the hope of repeating the singer’s success at the song festival. In an interview in 1974 with Black Music’s Carl Gayle, the singer stated:

Well I really had a song called ‘Blue Boot’ for the festival. But it was like I just woke up one morning and found myself singing ‘Cherry Oh Baby’. So I just sang it instead of ‘Blue Boot.’ I think I would still have won if I’d sung ‘Blue Boot‘.’

Sadly, although the song had all the ingredients for a second victory, Toots & the Maytals entry, ‘Pomps And Pride’, also produced by Warwick Lynn, won the contest.

After failing to win with ‘Blue Boot’ Eric divulged:

The first time I won if you had asked me what I thought about the festival I would say it was cool. But man, I went to enter the next year with ‘Blue Boot’ and I don’t see no reason why they never picked it. So I don’t just dig festival you know and ‘Blue Boot’ came and sold more than all them festival songs that year.’

Eric continued to maintain a high profile in the reggae charts with further hits in the chart topper ‘Miserable Woman’, alongside ‘Little Did You Know’ and a stunning version of Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show’s‘Sylvia’s Mother’.

Leading DJ, I Roy joined Eric on his third song festival entry in 1973, ‘What A Festival’, which was pipped at the post by Morvin Brooks’ ‘Festival Time’. Eric claimed the song was an attack on the festival and declared:

The public was complaining the festival last year you know, that the winning song didn’t deserve it and things like that. People said man ‘Cherry Oh Baby’ you know if you use the rhythm and do another tune off it, it will mash up the place! So Lloyd Charmers he brought the idea to me and said `man make we put a thing together’ y’know. So we come together and just wrote it in the studio and recorded it. Just voiced it over.’

Although Eric failed to win the competition this time he continued to enjoy a run of success on the Jamaican charts, with a particularly popular hits including a fine a version of the Temptations’ classic, ‘The Way You Do The Things You Do’, ‘A Weh We A Go Do’, and the wonderful ‘You Must Believe Me’. There followed a period of perceived inactivity before he returned with the smash hit ‘Keep On Riding’, the popularity of which led to an album of the same name. The LP was followed soon after by the equally popular ‘Kent Village’, which featured another batch of hits including ‘The Price’, ‘More Love’ and his second song festival winner, ‘Sweet Jamaica’.

It was around this time that Eric was reunited with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, who produced a wonderful laid back re-working of the singer’s festival debut, ‘Say A Little Prayer’, ‘Freedom Street’ and the sublime ‘Stand Up’.

Having won over the roots supporters, he enjoyed his second the victory in the song festival competition with the assertive ‘Land Of My Birth’. Since that time he has won the competition a further four times: in the eighties he returned with ‘Bread Of Sorrow’, ‘Where Is The Love’,’St Catherine Preview’ and his 1984 song festival winner, ‘Proud to Be Jamaican’.

He also revisited his West Indian favourite, which provided the title for another fine LP collection, ‘Right On Time’, while around this time UB40‘s revival of ‘Cherry Oh Baby’ led him to re-record the song for Bobby Dixon. This led to a host of digital versions, notably Cobra‘s ‘Tek Him’, which inspired the Penthouse posse, including Buju Banton, to ride the rhythm in fine style.

However, back in 1993, Eric asserted his ‘Mr. Festival’ moniker further when he tasted success once again with ‘Big It Up’, while two years later he continued his winning streak when ‘Join De Line’ took the top prize. In 1997, he relished yet another victory with ‘Peace And Love’, which led to another batch of popular releases, including a sublime version of ‘Mystery Babylon’, as well as ‘All My Life’ and ‘Never Run Away’.

He continues to perform at revival shows while maintaining a high profile with albums such as ‘Beautiful Day’and ‘Mr. Pirate’. When he is not performing he runs the Cherry Oh Baby Go Go Bar and never fails to bring the house down with his magnum opus that just goes on and on. Proving ‘he can, he can‘ and always will mash up the dance inna revival or modern day style.

STEPHEN NYE