One of the first known galas was staged by the Institute of Jamaica in 1897 to ironically commemorate 60 years of Colonial rule. Competitions were held annually covering a diversity of subjects, including music, handicraft, poetry, architecture, essay writing and curiously natural history. This would have been particularly useful 1907 when an earthquake on the island postponed the event. However the contest returned in 1910 and resulted in the introduction of a young Jamaican named Marcus Garvey. So Eric aka 'Mr. Festival' was in good company and with such credentials silenced critics of the annual pageant.
In 1955 the contest included celebrations that were not only took place all over the island, but also lasted throughout the year. It was at this time that parish level competitions, (including Eric's home town), led up to a national challenge, with the finals being held in Kingston. The then named 'Jamaica Bandwagon' took popular entertainment to the people at street corners and in the villages that ultimately led to exuberant celebrations in 1962 as part of the Independence Festival. By 1966 these celebrations became an all important part of the Jamaican music calendar when the Maytals won the competition with 'Bam Bam', five years before Eric's first memorable contribution.
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 J.J. Johnson who in 1968 produced their notable hit 'Right On Time', alongside 'Falling In Love', 'Hokey Pokey' and 'I Mean It'.' The trio also worked with Lloyd Daley and recorded further hits such as 'Bring It On Home To Me' and 'Wonderful World' before joining Lee 'Scratch' Perry. 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.'
Shortly before recording with Scratch, the group had briefly changed their name to the Kilowatts. Regardless of their electrifying performances the band failed to make an impression on the reggae charts in spite of high-quality releases such as 'Slot Machine' and 'Real Cool Operator.'
In 1969, Eric decided pursue a solo career following the release of 'Come A Little Closer', a minor hit credited to the Prunes that was produced by Derrick Harriott. He began working with Dynamic Productions and the celebrated producer Alvin G.G. Ranglin. It was the latter who produced 'Lonely Nights', a superb ballad released after Eric's first success at the song festival.
Eric decided he needed more exposure and entered the Jamaican Song Festival competition in 1971 with the now legendary 'Cherry Oh Baby'. The popularity of the song almost sparked off 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 charts as well as 'I'm Indebted To You', alongside a superb version of the Winston's 'Love Of The Common People', which topped the Jamaican chart.
In 1972 Eric and Tommy 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 Eric 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."
As with 'Cherry Oh Baby, 'Blue Boot' was accompanied by a DJ version and we felt that when the big guns like Dennis AlCapone ('Ripe Cherry'), U Roy ('Festival Wise') and I Roy ('Version Festival') join Eric they should feature on this celebratory compilation. However, as a vocalist in his own right, Eric continued to maintain a high profile in the reggae charts with the hits, including another chart topper 'Miserable Woman', alongside 'Little Did You Know' and a stunning version of Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show's 'Sylvia's Mother.'
The previously mentioned I Roy joined Eric on his third song festival entry in 1973. The song, 'What A Festival' was pipped at the post by Morvin Brooks who entered with the more supportive '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. A particularly popular hit was his release of a version of the Temptations classic, 'The Way You Do The Things You Do.' That song also directly inspired UB40 to delve into Eric's back catalogue when they covered it for their Labour Of Love project. The original is also highly regarded for its respective dub version that has remained a firm favourite on the sound system circuit.
In the following year Eric hit with 'A Weh We A Go Do', and the wonderful 'You Must Believe Me', which led to a period of perceived inactivity before he returned with the smash hit 'Keep On Riding' that led to an album of the same name. As well as including the earlier hits the LP also featured a further homage to the Temptations with 'Ain't Too Proud To Beg.' 'Keep On Riding' was followed 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 credited to Eric & the Keystones. Under this guise he also recorded 'Say A Little Prayer' and two legendary tracks that feature on our celebration of the man. I'm sure you will agree that 'Freedom Street' and the sublime 'Stand Up' demonstrate Eric's roots credentials, as if he needed them, and justify their inclusion on this compilation.
Having won over the roots supporters he decided to return to and enter the song festival where he repeated his success in 1978 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 releases such as 'Bread Of Sorrow', 'Where Is The Love' and 'St Catherine Preview', alongside his 1984 song festival winner, 'Proud to Be Jamaican.' He also revisited his West Indian favourite, which lent its title to a fine collection suitably titled Right On Time. It was around this time that 'Cherry Oh Baby' enjoyed a revival which led Eric 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. Several one-rhythm albums surfaced such as Come Pick Cherry named after Johnny P's hit version and the wonderful Caress Me Cherry named after Clement Irie's take on the rhythm. This was followed by classic versions from Yellowman, Sister Nancy, Capleton and Beenie Man to name just a few. The tune was also revived in 2005 by the Free Willy posse with Sizzla, Vybz Cartel and Mega Banton riding the rhythm inna post millennia stylee.
However, back in 1993 Eric asserted his 'Mr. Festival' moniker further when he won again with 'Big It Up.' In 1995 he continued to enjoy a winning streak with 'Join De Line' and two years later relished a further victory with 'Peace And Love'. The success 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 always brings 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.