Eric “Monty” Morris Still Dazzles the Crowds

Eric "Monty" Morris performing in Chicago on October 25, 2014. Photo by Heather Augustyn

Eric “Monty” Morris performing in Chicago on October 25, 2014. Photo by Heather Augustyn

I had the honor of seeing Eric “Monty” Morris perform in Chicago last weekend on October 25 2014 as as he performed one of his many hits, “Sammy Dead,” I got chills realizing I was witnessing history come alive. Here was the same song that Morris sang 50 years ago, backed by Byron Lee & the Dragonaires, at the World’s Fair in New York! I couldn’t believe I was hearing it, seeing it, in the flesh, right in front of my eyes! Eric “Monty” Morris is the ultimate performer, giving the crowd all of his hits, dancing like a man half his age, and perhaps even imbibing in a bit of rum off stage, I espied! I thought I would devote today’s Foundation Ska blog post to the legendary Eric “Monty” Morris so we can further appreciate this pioneering vocalist.

Morris was vocal about the World’s Fair and Prince Buster, as I noted in my blog this past January: statement on ska impasse. Morris and Prince Buster must have mended fences, however, because Morris went on to record again for Prince Buster, as he had since 1961. Here is a photo of Eric “Monty” Morris from that article:

eric monty morris

And here are a few more photos I took of Morris really cutting a rug!

Eric "Monty" Morris, 10-25-2014 by Heather Augustyn

Eric “Monty” Morris, 10-25-2014 by Heather Augustyn

Eric "Monty" Morris, 10-25-2014 by Heather Augustyn

Eric “Monty” Morris, 10-25-2014 by Heather Augustyn

Eric "Monty" Morris, 10-25-2014 by Heather Augustyn

Eric “Monty” Morris, 10-25-2014 by Heather Augustyn

Eric "Monty" Morris, 10-25-2014 by Heather Augustyn

Eric “Monty” Morris, 10-25-2014 by Heather Augustyn


Below are two excellent articles on Eric “Monty” Morris.

From the Jamaica Gleaner, September 12, 1998:
There was one name which stood out when it came to Ska and that name was Eric ‘Monty’ Morris. Like so many of this compatriots however, Monty left Jamaica’s shores at the height of his career to seek greater fortune overseas. But Monty soon dropped out of sight and much to the consternation of his host of fans, the man who had dubbed ‘Mr. Ska,’ was nowhere to be found when the music he had helped to popularise internationally, started its great resurgence. With the revival of Heineken Startime in 1996, the demand for Monty Morris reached heightened proportions and promoters/producers MKB were besieged with requests to bring home the man who had monster hits like Humpty Dumpty, Sammy Dead, Say What You’re Saving, Money Can’t Buy Life, A Little More Oil In My Lamp, Penny Reel, Solomon Gundy, Muma No Fret and Pack Up Your Troubles. MKB exhausted their farflung list of contracts but carne up with few leads. In fact, at one time there were rumours that Monty had gone to the Great Beyond, but the search continued until just three weeks ago when a call from a Miami source came up trumps – Monty Morris had been located.

A frantic call to California confirmed that Monty was alive and well and was more than ready to end his 25-year absence from the local stage. . . . The uninitiated might ask who is this Monty Morris. Monty, like so many of Jamaica’s musical greats grew up ‘downtown’. He recalls the many hours be spent harmonising with his boyhood friend Derrick Morgan, so it was no surprise that Monty, following successful appearances on the famous Vere Johns talent shows, was backed by Derrick on his very first record, This Great Generation, done for Hilite Records.
He later recorded for Prince Buster, a link which resulted in some of his biggest ska hits. Monty’s talent also extended into the reggae idiom and his recordings included his own original Say What You’re Saying which was not only a personal hit, but was later recorded by Dennis Brown whose version also made it big both locally and internationally and Little John in the mid 80s.
Monty was also in great demand as a stage performer and no list of artistes for the many stage shows which were a feature of the day, would be complete without the dynamic ‘Mr. Ska’. His recordings have continued to thrill lovers of Jamaican music over the years.

From the Sunday Gleaner, May 19, 2013, historian and journalist Roy Black writes the following:
Eric “Monty” Morris seems to be the forgotten ska superstar. This perhaps has a lot to do with his disappearance from the Jamaican music scene somewhat early, as he migrated to the United States. In a relatively short period, between 1961-1969, Morris majestically crafted several outstanding hit recordings in the ska and rocksteady mould. Oil in My Lamp, Humpty Dumpty, Money Can’t Buy Life and Sammy Dead were early pieces that set the stage for what was to follow. Drawing on lyrics mainly taken from traditional nursery rhymes and employing a slowed-down ska beat, Morris’ advent was truly significant. He was the first real ska superstar, pre-ceding others like Delroy Wilson, Stranger (now Strangejah) Cole, Lord Creator and Jackie Opel.

Morris arrived on the scene at 15 years old in 1959, singing with Derrick Morgan on the Little Wonder Smith produced recordings Now We Know and Nights are Lonely. In an interview with Derrick Morgan, he told me “I used to live in a big yard named Orange Lane, off Orange Street. Monty lived there too. We became childhood playmates and began singing and knocking old cans and cars until one day when I went to record what would become my first release – Oh My Love is Gone – I took Monty with me. We recorded those two songs”.
Monty Morris was born in Kingston on July 20, 1944, and grew up at Orange Street and in Trench Town, attending Alvernia Primary School. His meeting and close association with Morgan, four years his senior, was extremely crucial to his future career. When their focus shifted to music seriously, entering a talent competition occurred to them. This led them to the very popular Vere Johns Opportunity Hour talent competition, at the Palace, Ambassador and Majestic theatres in Kingston during the late 1950s.

Morris didn’t win, but the exposure provided the springboard from which he launched his career and precipitated his first set of hit recordings. His next move, to producer Prince Buster, was another important step. Again taken there by Morgan, who was fulfilling a request by Buster for help in setting up his business, Morris seized the opportunity to record the 1961 nursery rhyme based song, Humpty Dumpty. Backed by the Drumbago All Stars, the slowed-down, ska-tempo song rode the higher echelons of the Jamaican charts for that year and set in motion a ska craze that took deep root in Jamaica’s music history. His follow-up, Money Can’t Buy Life, with emphasis on the off-beat, was equally impressive and somewhat changed the whole nature of Jamaican music up to this point.

Morris, an unsung hero of immense musical talent, wrote almost all the songs he recorded, adding his words to the nursery rhymes where required. Every song seemed to have a message, backed by a traditional nursery rhyme, but he somehow lacked the determination and dedication necessary to make it to the top in a competitive music arena. Morris became the first forgotten ska superstar. His songs show a man in various moods. There is Monty the storyteller, expressed in Sammy Dead, Humpty Dumpty and Solomon a Gundy. There is Monty the lover, with songs like the Clancy Eccles produced Say What You’re Saying and Tears in Your Eyes, in which he declares:
It was the tears in your eyes
That made me realise
That a man like me should never
be in love with you

There is Monty the preacher, who warned about “ungodly people” in the recording of that same name, and reinforced it with a Duke Reid produced track:
What a man doeth this day
Stands in his way
What you sew, that’s what you will reap
What you reap, that’s what you will eat

Morris also warned men against falling prey to the guiles of women. On the recording Temptation Monty claimed:
It’s a thing I don’t like
It’s a thing that always stirs strife
Nature provided everything
For man to live like a king
Don’t tempt me to do the things I
don’t want to do

Strongman Sampson was perhaps one of his best-known recordings during the ska era. In it, he depicted Sampson as being:
The strongest man in the days of olden
Until a woman take it from him.
Solomon was wise, (he claimed),
he had seven wives.
Be careful of her lies
She will also paint her eyes
Just to get you in misery

Morris had several other popular ska recordings during that era, which included Pack Up Your Troubles, In and out the Window, Eena Balena, For Your Love and Into This Beautiful Garden. In 1964 Morris was included in a contingent of singers, musicians and dancers sent to the New York World’s Fair to help promote and expose the new dance craze and music, ska, to the American public. The tour was built around Morris and his two big hits with Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, Sammy Dead and Oil in my Lamp. Morris’ contribution was enormous, as he spread ska’s popularity while establishing the foundation for the succeeding genres to build on.

As the 1960s wore on he recorded for a number of other producers, including Leslie Kong, Byron Lee, Duke Reid (who did the bulk of his works), and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry in 1969. A year earlier, Morris had adjusted his arrangements to suit the new rocksteady beat to record a popular and frequently covered song in Jamaica’s music history, Say What You’re Saying.

However, Morris didn’t survive the transition to rocksteady and reggae, as he migrated in the early 1970s to the USA, returning occasionally in later years to perform on oldies shows in Jamaica. One of these performances was at the Mas Camp Village, then on Oxford Road, New Kingston, on Saturday, June 11, 2005. He also performed at that venue on Saturday, April 24, 2004.

Eric Morris, the man who entertained thoughts of creating something different from the regular fast ska beat, the man who thought he could use simple nursery rhyme lyrics to disseminate his messages but was somewhat disinterested in reaching the highest level, is still alive and lives abroad. He may be the forgotten ska superstar, but with his string of enduring hits, hopefully someday this anomaly will be addressed and Monty Morris will receive the true recognition he deserves.



Paying Homage to John Holt

John Holt

John Holt

It is with sadness that Foundation Ska pays homage to John Holt today as he passed away on October 19th. Today’s post is by no means an exhaustive look at the life and career of this legendary vocalist, as that would prove almost impossible since he was a prolific performer, but instead it is a snapshot of a few articles from the archives.

Let us first start with Roy Black, contributor to the Jamaica Gleaner, who wrote the following this week:
Jamaica has lost another stalwart in the field of popular music with the passing of John Holt in England last Sunday, October 19. His passing has left an irreplaceable void in the Jamaican recording industry. Going the full gamut, from rocksteady to reggae and dancehall, Holt proved to be one of the most enduring singers in Jamaican music, packing a voice that has lasted for 51 years.

Taking a different route to success than most of his contemporaries, who began in groups before going solo, Holt did quite the opposite when he recorded for producer Leslie Kong, his debut solo recording, Forever I’ll Stay, on the Beverley’s record label in 1963. Like many others before him, Holt’s earliest exposure came by way of The Vere Johns Opportunity Hour Talent Show, where he won an award in 1962. The win led to an association with record producer Leslie Kong, resulting in his debut recording. Concurrently, Holt recorded for producer, Vincent ‘Randy’ Chin, a cut titled Rum Bumbers.

His next move was perhaps the most important one of his career: That of linking with the Paragons vocal group, which was already in existence. The group actually began with Bob Andy and Tyrone Evans at the back of the Kingston Parish Church, sometime in 1962, before they added a third member, Howard Barrett. In an interview I had with Holt, he explained: “I was on King Street one day with my friend Lloydie Custard, and he told me there were some guys up by the Parish Church doing some singing. So we took a walk there, and that’s where I really got in touch with The Paragons”.

With Holt assuming the role of lead vocalist, the quartet of Andy, Evans, Barrett and Holt, first recorded as The Paragons, for late Studio One owner Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd, debuting with I Was Lonely (Love at Last) and Play Girl in 1963-64. The group soon came to their differences and Andy left, reducing them to a trio. A temporary hiatus followed as the group searched to recapture their ‘quartet sound’.

However, the break seemed to have re-inspired and rejuvenated them, and they re-emerged at Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle Studios in 1966, with crisper notes and tighter harmonies, and Holt gradually emerging as the star, with his mellifluous tenor.
Although he had not yet gone solo, many musicologists consider this the brightest period of his career, as he crafted some never-to-be-forgotten gems, beginning with Happy-Go-Lucky Girl, a recording that chided carefree women with the words: “Everyone in town knows about you, happy-go-lucky girl, the life you live isn’t too good, happy-to-lucky girl”

On The Beach, which followed, triggered the ‘hops’ fad, and generated beer sales all over the island. Wear You to the Ball was used to good effect by deejay U-Roy to lay the foundation on which many present-day rappers built. The Tide Is High gained worldwide recognition after a 1980 number one cover by the group Blondie, while Only a Smile, was a big favourite among Jamaicans. All number-one hits, they owed a lot to Holt’s lead vocals. The group tasted further success while working with other producers, including a return to Dodd’s Studio One with several top-class reggae hits.

The departure of Evans and Barrett via the migration route left Holt in limbo, and it is believed that this played a part in his decision to go solo. He was headed in that direction by early 1967 with his solo efforts, Stick By Me, Strange Things and My Heart is Gone, before making his third entry at Studio One with the very successful album Love I can Feel, which contained the hits Fancy Makeup, Do You Love Me, Stranger in Love and the title cut.

Now a solo artiste in his own right, Holt, by the turn of the decade, was one of the biggest reggae stars, making appreciable inroads on overseas charts while continuing to make hits during the 1970s and 1980s. Up to this point, Holt’s voice seemed unscathed by the passage of time. Earlier in 1968, he returned to Treasure Isle Studios with some of his best reggae cuts, which included, Ali Baba, Tonight, I’m Your Man, and the romantically charged ‘I’ll Be Lonely, in duet with Joya Landis.

By the mid-1970s, Holt was in the United Kingdom working with overseas producers who introduced string arrangements to his recordings. Help me make it through the Night, from the cover collection 1000 Volts of Holt, gave him his first UK hit. Returning home, he continued his hit run with Up Park Camp and others while proving his versatility and contemporariness with the dancehall song Fat She Fat. In 1982, he had chart success with If I were a Carpenter and Police Inna Helicopter. Although showing signs of ill health in recent years, Holt continued to compose, record and perform up to the time of his death.

The next interesting bit of John Holt history comes from a Daily Gleaner article, November 21, 1974 with the headline, “John Holt Entrances Cabaret Audiences.” The article reviews his performance at the Top-O-The-Sheraton in Kingston, and the author provides a brief history as well as an interesting projection from Holt on the future of reggae worldwide. The article states:
John started his singing career in the traditional way that so many other Jamaican singers started with the Vere Johns’ Opportunity Show in 1962. Since that John has not looked back but has made hit after hit. Who can forget such memorable songs as On the Beach, Happy Go Lucky Girl, Wear You To The Ball, one that U Roy later did over and many more rockers that placed John Holt in the Hall of Fame of Jamaican Music. . . . John sees Reggae as constantly improving and feels that it will be breaking big internationally any day now. He says Reggae is firmly rooted in England and that the English people as well as Jamaicans are big purchasers of Reggae records. This he feels makes England more encouraging to artistes singing Reggae because there is more, to gain there financially than in Jamaica. To improve the local situation, John suggests that our Radio Stations play more Reggae so that money sent abroad to pay performing rights for foreign artistes could be paid instead to our own local artistes. This, he feels, would allow for a better standard of living for local performers and above all there would be more recognition by foreign stations for our music, especially in the U.S.A. John Holt feels that Bob Marley and the Wailers, Ken Boothe, and Nicky Thomas are making the biggest contribution to our music for they have brought Reggae to the attention of people throughout Europe and the United States and have been constantly bringing about improvement to our music by setting a very high standard, forcing other artistes to do likewise.

The Daily Gleaner on Wednesday, January 28, 1998 stated, “The history of Jamaican music is replete with some fascinating stories of how some artistes came, into the limelight. One such story is that of two of the major players of Jamaican music, U Roy and John Holt. The story is told that it was Holt who heard U Roy ‘kicking up a storm’ at the controls of King Tubby’s Hi Fi and told legendary producer, Duke Reid, about the young ‘toaster’ who was packing in the crowds. The rest is history.”

Add your memories and thoughts about John Holt in the comment section below. Let’s continue the dialogue about this iconic artist whose music will never die.

Here are a few of my favorite John Holt/Paragons tunes:

The Tide is High

Ali Baba

On the Beach

Stick By Me

Monty Alexander

Monty Alexander from the Daily Gleaner, August 19, 1961

Monty Alexander from the Daily Gleaner, August 19, 1961

Monty Alexander’s recent album, Concierto de Aranjuez, was recently named a finalist for a 2014 Soul Train Award for Best Traditional Jazz Performance along with Kenny Garrett, Audra McDonald, Wynton Marsalis and Gregory Porter. The Jamaica Gleaner ran an article in Wednesday’s paper on this honor and stated, “It is the first Soul Train nod for 70-year-old Alexander, who has worked with greats such as Frank Sinatra and Count Basie. In recent times, he has worked with contemporary reggae artistes such as Chronixx. . . . The Soul Train Music Awards have been held annually since 1987. It takes place November 7 at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada and airs November 30 on Centric and BET.”

Monty Alexander was born in Kingston in 1944 and he was privileged enough to begin taking piano lessons at age six. He and his family left for America at the end of 1961, but not before he had already set foot on stage in Jamaica. Two years later he would be performing with the greats in the U.S., including Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Count Basie as he was hired to perform as a pianist at Jilly’s in New York City.

I went back through the Gleaner archives and found the first mention of Alexander’s performance in the Sunday Gleaner, December 10, 1961 which was a review from a jazz “jam session” upstairs at the Regal Theater, presented by the Skyline Club on the previous Monday. “There were some more top drawer moments. These came when the personnel was augmented with Carlos Malcolm, trombone; Monty Alexander, piano; Jackie Willacy, trumpet; Sonny Bradshaw trumpet; Jasper Adams, alto; Ansel Johnson, bass; Lennie Hibbert, drums; and Karl McLeod, drums. They ran through four numbers which included “Moanin,” “Walking,” and two originals by Malcolm. It was an exhilarating set that offered spirited solos by Alexander, a young pianist with a lot of up and come, Carlos Malcolm and Jackie Willacy.”

To learn a bit more about Monty Alexander, why not hear it from the man himself as fellow skamrade and author Charles Benoit interview him for the blog Reggae Steady Ska a few months ago: and have a listen to some of Monty Alexander’s music as well and watch him play in this fine jazz clip: Monty Alexander. This is a favorite of mine: Monty Alexander Africa Unite and here he is with Ernest Ranglin performing the classic Abyssinians song, Satta Massagana: Monty and Ernest–Satta Massagana.

First Lady of Song–Hortense Ellis

The lovely and talented Hortense Ellis

The lovely and talented Hortense Ellis

If ever there was a talent worthy of recognition that hasn’t had an ounce of it, it’s Hortense Ellis. This is why I feature Hortense Ellis on the cover and devote a lengthy chapter to her in my book Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music which has just been released and is available at I hope you will check it out, as there are dozens of women featured prominently in this book, which was a labor of love for the past two years.

But on to Hortense Ellis. The following are excerpts from this chapter in my book–a chapter I call, “The First Lady of Song.”

“I’m the very first female singer in Jamaica. I’ve been through the R&B, rocksteady, and ska eras. When I began my singing career, there was no Marcia, no Rita, no Judith, there were only singers like Totlyn Jackson and Sheila Rickards, and they were jazz and cabaret singers. I was the first, whose voice was heard on the radio all over the island,” said Hortense Ellis to Jamaica Gleaner reporter Claude Mills in 1997 just three years before her death. She was born on April 18, 1941 in Trench Town. Owen “Blakka” Ellis, Jamaican comedian and Hortense’s nephew remembers, “I lived on first street with my mother’s family but I’d visit my dad who lived on third street.” His dad was Leslie Ellis, Hortense’s brother. There were also Alton Ellis, the successful vocalist; Irving; Mertlyn; Lilieth, who went by the nickname Cherry; Veronica; and Hortense, who went by the nickname Tiny. Their father, Percival, was a railroad worker, and mother, Beatrice, ran a fruit stall. “It was a musical family, but more of a musical community than household,” says Blakka. “Trench Town was designed with very small houses so everything spilled out into the yard and onto the streets. And Hortense was not so much a singer in those times but was more a comedian. She would be going wonderful spectacles imitating people, doing a belly dance, more a humorist than a singer in the early days. Yes.”

When Hortense turned 18, she decided to try her hand at showbiz, not as a comedian, although there would have been room for that in Jamaica’s pantomime and variety show venues, but as the singer we know and love. She got her start through the same means as so many other great musicians and artists, the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour. Blakka says, “She won Vere Johns. It was like a monthly competition and she won one month and Alton won another month, then she won the grand finals over him.” The song that Hortense Ellis wowed the crowds with in 1959, the same crowd that cheered her on the loudest to win her the championship, was “I’m Not Saying No At All,” by Frankie Lymon, and according to writer David Katz, it was Alton Ellis who chose the song for her to sing. She continued to compete at the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour and racked up six semi-finals and four finals. “I used to perform at the Majestic Palace, Ambassador, and Odeon Theatres in the 50s at the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour, but I began singing professionally in 1961,” she said.

Before she recorded a single tune, Hortense had her first child, Christel, in 1960, but she was already singing on the stages of Kingston. “She had me in 1960 and she told me she sang Saturday night and she had me the next morning at five o’clock. She was 19 when she had me,” Christel says. Then in 1961, Hortense Ellis recorded her first three songs for Coxsone Dodd on his Worldisc label—“Eddie My Love” and “Loving Girl” billed as Hortense Ellis and the Blues Blasters, and “All By Ourselves (All By Myself)” billed as Lascelles Perkins and Hortense Ellis. It was her ability that made her desirable. “She had a massive massive range, a very very high pitch and she could come down to a deep baritone,” Blakka says. Christel says, “She was a beautiful singer. Anybody I tell Hortense Ellis was my mother, they say, ‘That girl could sing!’ I remember one time she got an award, the First Lady of Song.” That award, given by the Jamaica Star, came in 1964, but she had been using the moniker on her advertisements a year earlier while performing at the State Theatre with the Mercuries.

You can read more about the life of Hortense Ellis in Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music, including her struggles of balancing a career and being a mother–she gave birth to nine children (eight girls and one boy)! Hortense Ellis died on October 1, 2000 of a lung ailment from years of smoking. Her funeral was held on November 9, 2000 at the Andrew’s Seventh Day Adventist Church on Hope Road in Kingston. Bunny and Scully, Ken Boothe, Stranger Cole and Alton Ellis gave musical tributes at the service and Desmond Young, president of the Jamaica Federation of Musicians, Marcia Griffiths, and Derrick Morgan were in attendance along with dozens of others. Her legacy lives on in her music and in the spirit of Jamaica.

Enjoy my favorite Hortense Ellis song, “Woman of the Ghetto,” a remake of the Marlena Shaw tune produced by the brilliant Clive Chin.

Jerry Dammers pays tribute to Spaceape

Ghost Town is by far my favorite 2Tone song. Here, at 4:20 in the Youtube video, Spaceape, who passed away yesterday, performs the song in a way that brings extra poignancy and significance to the poetics of the lyrics. Rico is on trombone. That is all.