In the male-dominated world of reggae music, the number of consistently successful female singers could arguably be counted on the fingers of one hand by a three-toed sloth.
In the label-hopping world of the Kingston recording studios, the number of artists who remained true to one record company throughout their careers (unless, like Clancy Eccles or Prince Buster, they owned it) could probably be counted on the fingers of its other hand, assuming a level of mathematical adroitness seldom encountered in arboreal creatures.
The late Phyllis Dillon bucked the trend on both counts for not only did she consistently turn out popular singles from 1966 to 1972, she also cut every one of them for Duke Reid‘s Treasure Isle label.
Indeed, it was Reid‘s session guitarist Lyn Taitt who first brought her to the great man’s studio at 33 Bond Street, Kingston. Phyllis, born in Linstead on New Year’s Day 1948, grew up listening to American singers like Connie Francis, Patti Page and Dionne Warwick – song stylists who influenced her own singing when, still a teenager, she started entering (and winning) talent contests.
After hearing her sing with her hometown semi-pro group, the Vulcans in Tilly Blackman‘s famous Glass Bucket Club in Kingston, Taitt invited her to attend an audition at Treasure Isle, as she recalled in a 1998 interview:
‘I was singing there, and Lynn came over and complimented my singing, and asked if I was interested in recording. And I said yes, so he said, why don’t you come down to Duke Reid’s studio on Sunday morning. That is really how it started.’
Her first recording, ‘Don’t Stay Away’, cut at the tail end of 1966, as ska was easing down into the rock steady with which Duke Reid would dominate the Jamaican music scene for the next two years, is a triumph.
Not yet 19, she showed no sign of being overawed by top studio band, Tommy McCook & the Supersonics who provided the backing. Rather, she displayed a poise and sense of phrasing way beyond her years, as she coolly and sweetly emoted the melodic song, which she apparently composed herself. Unsurprisingly, the single was a smash hit in Jamaica when the Duke issued it around the beginning of 1967.
According to Phyllis, Reid personally selected almost all the songs that she recorded, and the big man evidently had broad musical knowledge and tastes. Many of her sides from the rock steady period are adaptations of American R&B and soul tunes, unsurprisingly since Jamaicans have always listened with a keen ear to musical developments in the States.
Of her subsequent hits, ‘A Thing Of The Past’ started out as a Shirelles single, ‘Leave It In The Hands Of Love’ was a Fontella Bass b-side, while ‘Make Me Yours’ was, at the time of Phyllis’ 1967 version, a hot platter for Bettye Swann. But some of Phyllis’ songs sprung from much less likely sources.
‘A Lovely Way To Spend An Evening’ was first sung by Frank Sinatra in the 1944 film, ‘Higher And Higher’, though it’s more likely that Duke knew it from the crop of R&B vocal group versions, while ‘Tulips And Heather’, on which she was accompanied by that most easy-listening of Jamaican singers Boris Gardiner, came from the songbook of US balladeer, Perry Como. ‘Love Letters’ first made the US charts Dick Haymes in 1945, although again, more recent versions by Kitty Lester and Elvis Presley were the most likely source of inspiration for her lilting cover, on which she was accompanied by Alton Ellis.
Drawing inspiration closer to home, ‘Don’t Touch Me Tomato’ was an adaptation of a risqu?? mento song, ‘Nice Time’ had previously been a major Jamaican hit for Bob Marley & the Wailers, while ‘Why Did You Leave Me’, a duet with Alton Ellis, had first hit the local dancehalls in 1967 via the Heptones’ original.
‘I Wear His Ring’ was a cover of an obscure US single by Julie & The Gems. But Phyllis’s very best rock steady waxing has to be ‘Perfidia’ which, stylish and sultry, she made her own. Best known via the Ventures‘ 1961 hit instrumental version, this Alfredo Dominguez song in fact dates back to 1941, when no fewer than five versions reached the US hit parade.
In fact, during the rock steady years, ‘It’s Rocking Time’ was one of the few original compositions Phyllis recorded, with the song apparently the original source for Alton Ellis’ huge hit ‘Rock Steady’.
In December 1967, Phyllis moved to New York, where she found employment in a bank. That could have been the end of her musical story but, luckily for us, it wasn’t. For the next five years she led a double life: bank clerk in the USA, singing star in Jamaica. She regularly flewback to Kingston to record at Treasure Isle, and we can only assume that Duke Reid paid her fare, although he apparently wasn’t very forthcoming with actual cash.
As the sound of reggae began to dominate at the end of the sixties, Phyllis continued her trips to Bond St. and laid down great sounds like ‘Love Is All I Had’, as well as a number of singles on which she was paired her with various male singers. Alongside ‘Mr. Take It Easy’, Hopeton Lewis, sherecorded ‘Right Track’, ‘Take My Heart’, from the songbook of fifties torch singer, Toni Arden, and a fine verion of George Jones’ ‘Walk Through This World’, while with the aforementioned Alton Ellis, she cut ‘Remember That Sunday’, a significant Jamaican hit in 1970.
Over the next year or so, Duke Reid continued to excel at finding suitable songs in unlikely places. ‘One Life To Live One Love To Give’, the title track of her only Treasure Isle LP, was originally called ‘Living In Love’, though those words never occur in the lyrics. A Teddy Randazzo song, it was waxed by the obscure American singer Sheila Anthony for the equally obscure but pleasantly-named Buttercup label, and lay dormant until Britain’s Northern Soul scene later discovered it..
‘We Belong Together’ is not to be confused with the 1958 song by Bronx R&B duo Robert & Johnny, but in fact has even more obscure origins, with this writer unable to identify the original version. By contrast, ‘Midnight Confession’ was US pop group Grass Roots’ biggest-ever hit, while ‘Love The One You’re With’ was bang up to date when Phyllis recorded it in 1971: both Stephen Stills and the Isley Brothers took the song into the US Top 20 in that year.
On ‘Eddie Oh Baby’ is the femme slant on Eric Donaldson’s monster ’71 hit, ‘Cherry Oh Baby’, ‘Woman In The Ghetto’ is the Marlena Shaw song, and gets a reading, which is a gem of controlled emotion tempered with soulful style; perhaps the most adult song Phyllis Dillon ever sang, it’s hard to believe that she was just 24 when she did.
Shortly afterwards, she simply stopped making records and settled down to family life in New York and to bringing up two children. In the seventies she did some live work with expat Ja. band, the Buccaneers, but there always seemed to be a reason why little or no money ensued.
At that point Phyllis Dillon abandoned the world of music with some bitterness. That might have been the end of the saga, had it not been for one Michael Bonnet, the entertainment director of the Oceanea Hotel in Kingston, who called her and asked if she would come over and sing. Initially she refused, wary of the slim rewards that had come her way in the past, but to his credit, Bonnet persisted.
‘He said, well, my boss gave me X-amount of dollars, and I have six months to try and convince you’, recalled Phyllis in 1998. ‘And I said, why not, let me go do it. It was ’91, and everything just came back, and I realised how much I was in love with that thing’.
Her second career took her back to Jamaica and to London, Germany and Japan for live shows, and back into the studio with Lynn Taitt in 1998 to record for the first time in 25 years. She continued touring, singing vintage ska, rock steady and reggae songs to audiences who were always appreciative and sometimes ‘really really wild’ until illness slowed her down.
Phyllis died on 15th April 2004. During her lifetime, she didn’t make enough recordings, not nearly enough, which make the legacy of one of Jamaica’s most accomplished and enjoyable song stylists, all the more valuable.