Born Wilfred Edwards in 1938, like most Kingston youths he developed a love of music in his teens, and like quite a few of them he wanted to sing. The mid-fifties saw numerous talent contests taking place around the town, some in theatres, others on the radio. The most prestigious was run by Vere Johns Jr., as singer Brent Dowe recalled in Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton's Rough Guide To Reggae: "Vere Johns was a man dedicated to music. He used to take the youth off the streets of the ghetto. Everyone was in the same category and could win through the crowd reaction."
The rewards were not always great, but competition was keen, with the contestants probably valuing the respect that they gained from their performances as much as any financial benefits. Future stars of Ska and Reggae vied with each other, youngsters like Derrick Morgan, Owen Gray, the Downbeats (including future top London man-about-Reggae, Count Prince Miller) and the lad who was still known as Wilfred Edwards. Whereas Derrick in his formative years tried to rock it like Little Richard, and the Downbeats essayed the harmonies of U.S. doowop groups, Edwards modeled his style on smooth balladeers such as Jesse Belvin, Johnny Ace and Nat 'King' Cole. It must have worked, for the Rough Guide reports that youths in the audience fought for the privilege of carrying his stage suit to the dressing room.
These youthful talents did not escape the notice of Chris Blackwell, a white Jamaican and Old Harrovian who in 1958, at the age of 21, became one of the first record label owners on the island when he set up R&B Records. His initial success came with the established Cuban-born singer/pianist Laurel Aitken, but by 1959 he was taking the cream of Kingston's youth talent into the studio, releasing singles by Owen Gray, the Downbeats, the explosive Lord Lebby, and Wilfred Edwards - which is where our first disc begins.
Our first selection, 'Your Eyes Are Dreaming', shows that Edwards, then in his early twenties, entered the studio as a fully-fledged artist and songwriter. His effortless control of falsetto and of his natural tenor on this lilting romantic ballad would be a template for many more of his waxings in the years to come. 'We're Gonna Love', issued back-to-back with 'Dreaming' has the shuffling R&B beat which was carrying the swing at sound system dances, and has a controlled vocal performance. It's not Jackie's strongest-ever song, and the two choruses of clean, shimmering guitar are its main attraction.
But the next track is vintage Edwards. 'Tell Me Darling' is a classic song, melodic, warm and romantic, and the backing, with its ringing guitar, fits it just perfectly. The backing group are the Caribs, led by Australian guitarist Denis Sindrey, but two guitars can be heard: one playing lead, the other supplying a catchy pizzicato riff, and it's probable that the basic band was augmented by the polished Jamaican guitarist, Ernest Ranglin on this session. Whoever they were, they created an enduring record that sold by the cartload at the time. Many couples must have danced ascloseasthis to it and then, as Jackie husked "Squeeze me, darling, ever so tight", well, they got a bit closer still.
In 1962, with the coming of independence to Jamaica, Chris Blackwell moved to London where he set up what would become the mighty Island Records During its first months of life, it was far from mighty: operating from his London home, Chris would hurtle round the capital in his Mini-Cooper flogging his latest releases, his newly-recruited assistant Dave Betteridge would trundle round other shops doing the same thing from the back of his van, and the sales force was completed by... Wilfred 'Jackie' Edwards delivering 45s to the outlying suburbs on the bus. As these discs must often have included some of his own, such as 'All My Days' which is included here, this scenario would be akin to a present-day record shop owner ordering the latest Robbie Williams CD, then stepping back in amazement as the cheeky chappie from Stoke trots through the shop doorway carrying a 50-count box of them.
For, amongst the ever-growing West Indian communities in cities like London, Nottingham and Birmingham, the man now known as Jackie Edwards was just as much a household name as Mr. Williams is in present-day Britain. He even made his major-label debut (on Decca) but, as has happened many times since, the big boys didn't understand the market, the record didn't get played where it needed to be heard, at the Q Club or behind the counter of Orbitone Records for instance, and it sank without trace. Jackie also had titles out on the new Island offshoot Black Swan in 1963, including 'Why Make Believe' and 'The Things You Do'. There is some confusion over these sides; while Chris Blackwell generally supervised all Jackie's recordings, some sources credit these as Leslie Kong productions. The answer may be that Kong, who had close business links with Island, issued these UK productions on his Beverley's label.
Amongst Blackwell's other artists was hit making, firecracker-voiced 'Blue Beat Girl', Millie Small. The astute Island boss realised that the smooth Edwards and the squeaky Millie could vocalise together in the style of US duos like Shirley & Lee or Gene & Eunice - artists whose American heyday was long gone, but whose romantic sides still had a keen following amongst West Indians. Indeed, tunes like 'The Vow' and 'This Is My Story' by Gene & Eunice, issued on Vogue Records in the late 1950's, were still being repressed when the label changed its name to Vocalion in the mid-Sixties. This was almost entirely due to demand from first-generation immigrants, and so these songs were logical choices for Jackie & Millie to cover.
In the mid-Sixties, Jackie was a busy man. As well, as penning three big hits for fellow Island artists the Spencer Davis Group, 'Keep On Running', 'Somebody Help Me' and 'When I Come Home' (which, like Millie's hits, were leased to the major Fontana label to ensure nationwide pop distribution), he became something of a Soul star himself, cutting another big-selling late-nighter, 'He'll Have To Go' for Island's new EMI-distributed Aladdin label, and waxing Soul dance tunes, both solo and with Jimmy Cliff, of which 'I Feel So Bad' became an enduring Northern spin. At what stage he ceased catching the bus to Harlesden with Island's latest releases in his shopping bag is not recorded. We hope to bring you the cream of his Soul sessions on a forthcoming Trojan release.
In 1969 he had another crack at major-label success, signing to CBS's Soul imprint, Direction. Unfortunately, neither his revival of 'Manny Oh', a song that he had written for Joe Higgs and Roy Wilson a decade earlier, nor his version of one of the hottest tunes with the new Reggae beat, the Bob Andy composition 'Too Experienced', made much impression. In the latter case, punters could already choose between two exemplary versions by Andy himself on Studio One and Winston Francis on Punch; CBS couldn't get their disc into the shops where it would have counted and their regular soul clientele weren't interested.
Nothing daunted, he hooked up with Trojan as the new decade dawned. Here he had the scope to work as an artist and a producer, with Trojan releasing many of his sides on their main label and also on Bread, where he produced singles on himself, Gene Rondo and his old talent contest adversary, Count Prince Miller from the Downbeats. From this era, we have selected top tracks like his own 'Who Told You So' and 'Johnny Gunman' and accomplished covers of Billy Stewart's 'I Do Love You' and Adam Wade's 'Julie On My Mind', as well as an update of his debut disc, 'Your Eyes Are Dreaming'.
In the mid-1970s the call of the Isle of Springs proved hard to resist, and he moved back to Jamaica. The astute and prolific producer Bunny Lee lost little time in tracking him down and signing him up and, as you can see from the contents of our second disc, their musical union was fruitful both in quantity and quality. Many of these tracks are credited as joint Edwards/Lee productions; in practice, this may mean that Bunny Lee couldn't always get to the sessions, but trusted his artist to do a professional job in the studio and left him to get on with it.
It goes without saying that Jackie is vocally immaculate throughout. What is both surprising and pleasing is the variety of material that he tackled, and to which he always did full justice, during those Bunny Lee years. He wrote new songs, like 'What You Gonna Do' and 'King Of The Ghetto', just about the rootsiest record he made, with its dubbed-up rhythm. Also in a roots style, he cut tracks such as 'So Jah Say' and 'Invasion' that have since established themselves as classics. He revived past glories like 'Tell Me Darling' and 'Heaven Just Knows', both from his formative years at R&B Records, and 'I'll Never Believe In You', which he originally waxed with Millie. He interpreted Soul songs like Billy Stewart's 'I Do Love You' and Pop hits like Gene Pitney's 'If I Didn't Have A Dime'. He even recorded Elvis' 'All Shook Up', maybe just to prove that he could.
But above all, he went back to his first influence, the classic R&B balladeers. The Moonglows' 'Sincerely', Nat 'King' Cole's 'When I Fall In Love', Johnny Ace's 'Pledging My Love', the Cliques' 'Girl In My Dreams' (the last one a perennial Jamaican favourite which remained in print until at least the 1980s) - Jackie enveloped these songs in his chocolate-cream tones. His audience, who had matured with him, remembered hearing the originals on hot, balmy nights at Forresters Hall or Chocomo Lawn, and bought the songs all over again.
As the 1980s progressed, he eased off from recording. Fortunately he had maintained good royalty deals with Island Records that enabled him to live comfortably. That label's former second in command Dave Betteridge remembers Jackie coming over from Jamaica to Island's London office a couple of times a year and collecting his cheque, doubtless combining business with the pleasure of meeting up old friends again. However, he died before his time, of a heart attack in 1992 while still in his mid-fifties.