You may know Charley Organaire best from his harmonica solo in Stranger Cole’s classic “Rough and Tough,” (listen to it here: Rough and Tough), or over 1,000 other Jamaican recordings over the years, but did you know that Charley is still going strong, singing and harmonizing all over the world? His song, “I Never Stop Loving You” was featured in the classic movie “Love Jones.” And Charley Organaire is performing tonight in his hometown since the mid-1970s, Chicago, to kick off his European tour with the Prize Fighters, a stellar band from Minneapolis. Charley Organaire, along with Roy Richards, was responsible for pretty much all of the harmonica in ska and rocksteady, even reggae, during the 1960s and 1970s in Jamaica (unless you count Lee Jaffe on Bob Marley’s “Talkin’ Blues,” because we all know, he sure likes to count himself!). The harmonica is an important but overlooked instrument in Jamaican music. But the harmonica not only provides lyrical musical harmonies—it also gives Jamaican music its spine, the essential rhythm that makes ska ska, rocksteady rocksteady, and reggae reggae.
Charley not only performed the harmonica back in Jamaica, but he also sang. In fact, in 1967, at a New Year’s Day show, a three-hour show at the Ward Theatre, Organaire was touted for his vocal performance. The Daily Gleaner article on January 3, 1967 stated, “One of the featured singers, Charlie Organaire, brought down the house with such popular hits as ‘Goodnight My Love,’ and ‘Stand’ By Me’ and was called back to give another performance.” As Rico Rodriguez would say, “Nice!”
According to the Jump Up! Records website, which is the label founded and operated by Chicago ska, rocksteady, and reggae authority Chuck Wren, Charley Organaire has a rich history as a musician and entertainer. The Jump Up! website states, “Charles Cameron was born in Kingston, Jamaica on March 20, 1942. He was inspired by the singing of his mother Louise, and his neighbor Mr. Randolph, a mean harmonica player. From the early age of 5, Charles started performing in neighborhood concerts, churches, and lodge halls – reciting poems, singing and playing his plastic harmonica. At the age of 9, a talent scout named Vere Johns had Charles performing on the “Opportunity Knocks” radio program and at various theatres in Kingston, such as the Palace, Ambassador, Gaity, and Majestic. He performed with all the big singers like Jimmy Tucker, Winston Samuels, and Laurel Aitken, plus was a side-kick to Bim and Bam, Jamaica’s leading comedians at the time. In his teens, Charley “Organaire” Cameron performed with big bands lead by Carlos Malcolm and Sonny Bradshaw. Then Charles teamed up with Bobby Aitken and formed a band called the Carribeats, recording the hit track “Never Never” with Bobby on vocals, Charley on harmonica. Charley “Organaire” was now unstoppable, becoming a well known studio musician performing on sessions with Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, The Tenors, Derrick Morgan, Millie Small, Toots and the Maytals, Phyllis Dillon, Stranger Cole, and Lord Creator. The “Organaire” worked for the biggest labels in Jamaica: Prince Buster, Studio 1, Beverly’s, Duke Reed, Treasure Island, Highlights and King Edwards. Charley also started producing hits for his Organaire label, most notibly “Little Village/Little Holiday”, “London Town”, Illusive Baby”, “Sweet Jamaica”, “Your Sweet Love”, and “Let me Go”. Being one of the most popular entertainers in Jamaica, he moved to the north coast and worked in the tourist industry. Playboy, Hilton, Holiday Inn, Intercontinental, Yellow Bird, you name it, he played there. Charles moved to Chicago in the late 70’s, eventually forming his own band called “The Charles Cameron & Sunshine Festival”. The “Organaire” band played in various night clubs, for major corporations, and political functions throughout Chicago including events for former Mayors Harold Washington and Jane Burn. Charles also played at Chicago Fest, Festival of Life, Taste of Chicago, and the African Fest. Charley “Organaire” Cameron continues to write and record to this day, the title track from his “Never Stop Loving You” CD appeared in the movie “Love Jones” starring Nia Long and Lorenzo Tate, and his newly released “Friends” CD features collaborations with Charlie Hunt and Steve Bradley. In 2012/2013 Charlie Organaire became a regular fixture at Chicago’s Jamaican Oldies productions at Mayne Stage, performing with Stranger Cole, Roy Panton & Yvonne Harrison, Eric Monty Morris, Derrick Morgan, Derrick Harriott and Dennis Alcapone.”
My friend Aaron Cohen wrote a fantastic article on Charley Organaire in Thursday’s Chicago Tribune. Here is the text from that article:
“Charley “Organaire” Cameron is a harmonica player and singer, but sitting in the Good To Go Jamaican restaurant in Rogers Park, he is regarded somewhere between a celebrity and favorite uncle. He deserves both roles.
More than 50 years ago, Organaire performed in the instrumental section on a plethora of pivotal early Jamaican ska and rocksteady recordings. Since 1976 he has lived in Chicago, where he’s worked in different musical idioms; until relatively recently only a few fans knew about his historical role. But his upcoming first European tour will focus on the music that he helped originate.
“Charley was the harmonica sound of ska music, as well as an important arranger,” said Chuck Wren of Chicago’s Jump Up Records, which released three new Organaire ska singles this month. “He was on so many sessions; that Wailers tune you hold closest to your heart could have been 90 percent arranged by him.”
All of which began simply enough. Organaire listened to his mother sing and a neighbor play harmonica while he was growing up in 1950s Kingston. He heard different music through Radio Jamaica and from signals farther away.
“That one radio station in Jamaica would play country, blues, jazz and classical music,” Organaire said over glasses of Caribbean ginger beer. “A Cuban station would play Latin music. But where all music came from is basically the R&B from New Orleans.”
When Organaire was a teenager, he picked up a chromatic harmonica, which could play all 12 notes on a scale, as opposed to the more typical diatonic model that covers eight. His colorful tone and dexterity throughout shifting tempos made him valuable on pioneering ska and rocksteady recordings by the Wailers, Prince Buster and Jimmy Cliff. He owned his own record label, also called Organaire, which released his locally popular “Elusive Baby.”
“Back then we’d start every day at 9 in the morning and do no less than eight songs for each session,” Organaire said. “I had a great time working with (saxophonists) Tommy McCook and Roland Alphonso. Since they were jazz guys, I learned so much from them.”
Those lessons proved helpful when Organaire got fed up with the Kingston record industry’s often desultory (at best) payment system, and he left to work in hotels and resorts on the country’s north coast. He’s still amazed that tourists preferred hearing him sing jazz standards instead of Jamaica’s own music.
After Organaire accepted an invitation to play in a Greek venue in Chicago in 1976, he stayed here. That gig turned into engagements at the Latin clubs that thrived here decades ago, including El Mirador and Las Vegas in Humboldt Park.
“I would play salsa and a little jazz,” Organaire said. “I’d also sing ‘My Way.’ It didn’t matter if you were from China; everybody knew ‘My Way.'”
A show at the reggae club the Wild Hare led to Organaire’s appearance singing his ballad “I Will Never Stop Loving You” in the 1997 film “Love Jones.” But for the past 27 years, his contributions have not just been musical. He has also worked on behalf of Chicago Concerned Jamaicans, a foundation that raises money to provide scholarships to needy students on the island.
“One student’s mother had six children and couldn’t afford a home,” Organaire said. “We helped her through a scholarship, and now she’s an engineer.”
Organaire’s generosity also emerged two years ago when he began participating in the Jamaican Oldies concerts that Wren has organized at Mayne Stage. Along with performing, Organaire helps the veteran artists feel more at ease working with much younger American backing ensembles. The musicians in one such group, the Minneapolis-based Prizefighters, have been fans of Organaire’s early ’60s sessions and perform on his new recordings. He does not expect this to be the last generation to rediscover his legacy.
“When the right time comes, all you have to do is be ready,” Organaire said. “If you stop, it’s over, and I will keep going on until I drop.”
Read even more about Charley Organaire here: World of Harmonica article
Read an interview with Charley here: Reggae Vibes interview
And visit Charley’s website: Charley’s website
And see Charley with the Prize Fighters on tour: Tour
Here’s a great blog post on the harmonica in Jamaican music: Harmonica