Indeed, it was Duke 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 Rocksteady with which Duke Reid would dominate the Jamaican music scene for the next two years, is a triumph. Not yet 19, she shows no sign of being overawed by top studio band, Tommy McCook & the Supersonics who provide the backing. Rather, she shows a poise and sense of phrasing way beyond her years as she coolly and sweetly emotes 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.
The 29 tracks crammed on to this CD include just about all her best musical moments from those musically, if not financially, golden years at Treasure Isle. According to Phyllis, Duke 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 Rocksteady 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. '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. Unusually, the rhythm on this one hits a Soul rather than a Rocksteady groove, and although singer and band both do just fine, they do sound as if they hadn't been formally introduced before the session began! 'It's Rocking Time' is another of her few original compositions, and was soon adapted to become Alton Ellis' huge hit 'Rocksteady'.
But some of her songs spring from 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 doo-wop versions by The Masters, The Capricians or Little Anthony & The Imperials which appeared in 1960/61. 'Don't Touch Me Tomato' is a Rocksteady adaptation of a traditional and risqué Jamaican song, set to a jaunty beat over which Phyllis' phrasing instills the aural equivalent of a knowing wink into her voice as she delivers a playful admonition to an over-playful boyfriend.
'Nice Time' transforms the Wailers song into a frothy jump-up, and 'I Wear His Ring' is a cover of an obscure US single by Julie & The Gems, which transforms the hit 'She Wears My Ring' (Jimmy Sweeney in the States, Solomon King over here) into a female perspective. But her very best Rocksteady waxing has to be 'Perfidia' which, stylish and sultry, she makes 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. I bet that none of them featured the line 'sock it to me baby' which Phyllis husks as the instru break begins.
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 flew back 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. Certainly she rewarded him with a flow of high-quality singles; around this time, the producer paired her with various male singers to record a series of duets. Some, like her version of Perry Como's 'Tulips And Heather', with that most easy-listening of Jamaican singers Boris Gardiner, are almost forgotten today. Others, such as her ballad treatment of the 1945 Dick Haymes smash, 'Love Letters', shared with Alton Ellis, are enduring classics. This one's a big production, with what sounds like the Treasure Isle Chorus & Strings in the background!
She's also accompanied by Alton on the lilting 'Remember That Sunday' and on 'Why Did You Leave Me', a 1962 hit for Vincent 'Ben Casey' Edwards. Ray Charles' 'Right Track' finds her in the company of Mr. Take It Easy, Hopeton Lewis, as do 'Take My Heart', from the songbook of Fifties torch singer, Toni Arden, and a Country song given a Caribbean flavour, George Jones' 'Walk Through This World'. It's strange, though, that she doesn't seem to have recorded with the best romantic singer on Treasure Isle's books, John Holt.
As Rocksteady gave way to reggae at the end of the Sixties, Phyllis continued her trips to Bond St. and laid down great sounds like our title track 'Love Is All I Had'. Duke Reid still excelled 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. Phyllis' version shows her artistry as she copes with some tricky chord changes to create a memorably assertive slice of Reggae.
'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' she alters the song's gender once again: this 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, Rocksteady and Reggae songs to audiences who were always appreciative and sometimes 'really really wild' until illness slowed her down. She died on April 15th 2004. Phyllis Dillon 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.