From 1966 to 1969 approximately, the
Paragons were indeed a 'model of excellence and perfection' as far
as fans of harmony and melody are concerned. Their career lasted
more than those three years, of course. The original quartet came
together in the early 60s, and line-ups that centred on the
overdubbed harmonies of one or more of its members endured until
the mid 1980s. But it is the classic Paragons' personnel of John
Holt, Tyrone Evans and Howard Barrett that is both best remembered
and best loved by collectors of rock steady, and it is this line up
that those collectors immediately think of whenever the group's
name crops up.
As is the case with many of reggae's greatest names, the genesis of the Paragons can be traced back to the famous 'Opportunity Hour' talent contests that took place in Kingston, under the supervision of a man whose importance to the evolution of Jamaican music can never be underestimated, the late Vere John.
'Opportunity Hour' was a weekly live event, which began in the 1950s and ran for years. It provided the jumping off point for the professional careers of - to name just a few - Derrick Morgan, Alton Ellis, Rico Rodriguez, Eric Monty Morris, Laurel Aitken, Jimmy Cliff and two young men whose destinies would become intertwined a few years after they had both been 'Opportunity Hour' winners - John Holt and Howard Barrett.
Both Holt and Barrett were already on the hopeful road to solo stardom when the Paragons formed, and neither was a part of the original line up. Indeed, 'Johnny' Holt had already recorded material for Leslie Kong, which had been released on Kong's famous 'Beverley's' imprint, before the Paragons came together.
Early Jamaican music history being what it is, i.e. often sketchy at best, there are no records to confirm exactly when the Paragons did form. But, based on the recollections of founder member Keith Anderson (of whom more later) it would seem that the Binders, as they were originally known, formed c. 1963, with an original line up of Anderson, Garth 'Tyrone' Evans, Junior Menz and Leroy Stamp (or Stamps, as he's sometimes credited). It was the group's intention to come across as Jamaica's equivalent of the world-famous Drifters, themselves a quartet with a succession of strong lead singers backed by impeccable harmony vocalists. This they did, for a couple of years, before the departure of Menz, to the newly-formed Techniques, and Stamp, to obscurity, brought two new members into the fold…
The group was still performing as the Binders when first John Holt and then Howard Barrett were recruited, to replace the outgoing Stamp and Menz respectively. The members soon decided that a change of personnel was a good excuse for a change of name, and the Binders became the Paragons in 1964 - possibly in honour of the great New York doo-wop group of that name, who had disbanded by the early 1960s.
The Paragons were as much in the thrall of the Drifters as the Binders had been - indeed, at their very first recording session in 1965, they cut a splendid version of the American group's recent Atlantic recording, 'Follow Me'. Their vocal prowess brought them to the attention of Jamaica's top record men and, specifically, to the late Coxsone Dodd, for whom they successfully auditioned in '65. Realising that their style was totally unsuited to the fast pace of ska, Dodd cut them as a soul group and while their Supreme label singles, such as 'Love At Last' and 'Good Luck And Goodbye' didn't sell spectacularly, they gave the Paragons a solid foundation on which to build their career.
Unfortunately for the other members, Keith Anderson had decided that he wanted to start his own career, and so it was that the soon-to-be-rechristened 'Bob Andy' quit the Paragons to go solo and to make, what are in this writer's opinion, some of the greatest records that any Jamaican artist has ever made, or ever will make. Although rocked by Bob's departure, the three remaining Paragons decided to carry on as a quartet and set about finding a replacement for their outgoing colleague. While they were doing so, they adapted their harmonies to a trio format, and soon found that it was more appealing (not to say more economical) singing this way. Thus it was that the warm tenor vocals of Evans and Barrett became the 'sandwich' to the 'meat' that was, and still remains, the wonderful voice of John Holt.
The three piece Paragons decided to forego their Drifters obsession, and to give the group an identity that was uniquely theirs. Holt had begun to write strong original material, and of his early efforts the song that the group thought had the best potential was 'Happy Go Lucky Girl'. After rehearsing it meticulously, they set out to audition their original song for the island's leading producers. Having recorded for Studio One and finding it not to their financial advantage, the Paragons presented themselves at Duke Reid's yard.
Reid, who was personally overseeing his auditions that day, nearly missed out on the act that would be a major component of his forthcoming success as the greatest producer of the rock steady era. John, Tyrone and Howard performed 'Happy Go Lucky Girl' for him, but the Duke was not impressed, and sent the group away. As they were leaving the area, it's said that they bumped into one of Reid's most trusted employees who, noting their dejected looks, asked them why they were down. One explanation later, Reid's man marched them back to the Duke, who agreed to take another listen. By this time, he had learned that they were the same Paragons who had already been recorded by his (sometimes not so friendly) rival Coxsone, and that may well have influenced his decision to change his mind and record 'Happy Go Lucky Girl' as the first single from the classic Paragons line up. It was a decision that he would never regret.
The Paragons' arrival at Treasure Isle coincided with the evolution of ska into rock steady - and, of course, their warm harmonies were as perfectly suited to the new style as they would have been totally unsuited to the earlier one. Although it still bore a ska influence, 'Happy Go Lucky Girl' was undisputedly one of the first rock steady hits, and a very big one at that. Almost overnight, the Paragons became a major name in Jamaican music. The fact that they could write good original songs - or, in some cases, cleverly adapt bits of existing ones, to make them sound like originals - meant that they were never more than three minutes away from their next hit. And for the next couple of years, they turned out plenty…
Still with a slight ska feel, they followed up 'Happy Go Lucky Girl's massive success with the double dynamite of 'On The Beach' and 'Only A Smile'. (If I need to tell you about the breathtaking brilliance of these recordings, you have obviously come to the wrong sleevenote). This vinyl 'model of excellence and perfection' kicked off a run of unbeatable Paragons 45s, all released on Reid's Trojan and Treasure Isle labels and all worthy of the regard in which they're perennially held.
In short order, the world was introduced to the delights of 'The Tide Is High', 'Mercy Mercy Mercy', 'Wear You To The Ball', 'Silver Bird', 'My Best Girl', 'Riding On A Windy Day', 'The Same Song' and the group's memorable adaptation of the Beatles' 'Hard Days Night' gem, 'I'll Be Back', which they (possibly mistakenly) called 'I Want To Go Back'. Incredibly, all of these greats - including those mentioned earlier - were released in less than 18 months. In the times we now live in, when it takes most artists three years to make an album that ends up sounding exactly the same as their previous one, this is almost unthinkable.
It is, of course, a measure of how strong these recordings are, that so many were able to return to the top of the Jamaican charts at the start of the 1970s, when used as the sound beds for many of the greatest of U Roy's Treasure Isle treats, including 'Flashing My Whip' ('Only A Smile'), 'On The Beach', 'The Tide Is High', 'Happy go Lucky Girl' and 'Wear You To The Ball'. Daddy U Roy DJ'd over many wonderful Duke Reid riddims, but it's on those of the Paragons that you'll find him at his inarguable finest…
In the middle of this hit run, they also released what would be not only their debut album, but also one of the first albums to ever bear the Treasure Isle logo. 'On The Beach With The Paragons' presented an all round musical picture of where the trio was at, mixing hits with bluesy ballads and even throwing in a couple of rock steady versions of calypso warhorses, in an early attempt to appeal to what we would now call the 'Big People' market. Even though, with hindsight, collectors would probably have preferred a bit more of the former and a bit less of the latter, both 'Island In The Sun' and 'Yellow Bird' were extremely well done and, in retrospect, both show that John Holt already had one eye on a side of his career that would result in the enormously successful 'Volts Of Holt' series in the mid 1970s.
'OTBWTP' was a big selling album that, like almost all of their 45s, also received a UK release. Unfortunately the big sales were confined exclusively to Jamaica - copies of the original UK release, on Doctor Bird, are so rare as to be almost non-existent. However, through the miracle of CD we can - and are most happy to - bring you its 10 tracks in their original order of release, followed immediately by everything else that the Holt/Evans/Barrett trio cut for Duke Reid, during its all too brief existence.
The Paragons recorded exclusively for the Duke until 1968, when they were wooed back to Studio One to make a small number of seminal sides including 'My Satisfaction', 'Darling I Need Your Loving' and 'Danger In Your Eyes', featuring a rare lead from Garth Evans who, for the purposes of that recording, was billed not as Tyrone but as 'Don'. Sadly, contractual difficulties prevent our bringing you this material, but there's compensation galore in the form of both sides of a self-financed rock steady classic 'Memories By The Score' / 'Number One For Me', which the trio put out on their own label, shortly after exiting Treasure Isle and before going back to Brentford Road. Other great rock steady sides from this 'freelance' period that are also featured here include another immortal, self produced, double-sider which pairs their cover of the Four Tops' 'Left With A Broken Heart' with a brilliant adaptation of Garnet Mimms' 'A Quiet Place' that became 'Got To Get Away' (a.k.a. 'Man Next Door'). No less enjoyable is the big, brassy 'Talking Love' - a German song that the group almost certainly learned from a recording made in the UK, in 1967, by Engelbert Humperdinck - which found the Paragons in the Federal studios as a group for the first time. The two Paragons sides that were cut at Studio One by independent producer Lloyd 'Matador' Daley also stem from this time, although these ears detect only the presence of a double-tracked John Holt on 'Equality And Justice' and 'You Mean So Much To Me'. Both are fine recordings, in any event!
However, all this activity also coincided with sad news for Paragons fans. The group was about to break up. John Holt was ready to step into the massively successful solo career that he has sustained to this day. The two remaining Paragons brought in their former Treasure Isle label mate, Vic Taylor, but his stay was only temporary and he soon went back to a solo career, before eventually becoming one of the singers fronting Byron Lee's Dragonaires. Before any further action could be taken, Howard Barrett decided to join the migration of Jamaican singers and musicians to North America, which left Tyrone Evans to briefly reunite with Bob Andy before teaming up with Bruce Ruffin and an as yet unnamed third vocalist to record as the Shades. After a handful of excellent 45s for Winston Riley's Techniques imprint, the Shades disbanded, with Evans pursuing a brief solo career under the supervision of Leslie Kong before he too relocated to the USA around 1970.
Other than a clumsily spliced 'Paragons Medley' that Duke Reid released under John Holt's name in 1971, at the height of the short lived medley craze, the world heard no more from the Paragons until 1974 - by which time its former lead vocalist Mr. Holt had moved from local to international star. But it was in '73 that the name of the Paragons once again graced its spiritual home, with a couple of Duke Reid 45s that were among the last to be produced by the great man, who was to die in 1975 from cancer.
The circumstances behind the session that produced 'Black Birds Singing', 'Always', 'Mother Nature', 'The World Is A Ghetto' and 'Unforgettable You' are unclear. All of these tracks feature the excellent lead vocals of one Rosalyn Sweat (or Sweet, as it's sometimes been printed) backed by a line up of 'Paragons' that, in reality, seem to be the many voices of Tyrone Evans, harmonising with each other, and almost certainly are. Whoever was in the group, it was nice to see their name back in the limelight for a short while, and their titularly-amended version of the Beatles' 'Blackbird' was a hit of sizeable proportions among reggae buyers, both here and 'back a yard'.
Its success led to a second Paragons album for Treasure Isle, a mere 7 years after the first, which featured the Rosalyn Sweat tracks intermingled with 7 rock steady gems from the 'real' Paragons, a couple of which were not originally released at the time of their recording. (Unfortunately, they were the unwelcome recipient of some heavy handed 'updating', via drum overdubbing and some poor attempts to make 'fake stereo' out of otherwise pristine mono masters).
The follow up single 'Mother Nature' did not sell anywhere near as well as 'Black Bird Singing' and, given that Treasure Isle was essentially winding down at the time, there were no more sessions on Bond Street. Tyrone Evans double tracked himself again for another independently funded project, 'Dance With Me' and subsequently retreated back to New York, where he occasionally recorded and released material for the remainder of the decade, mostly for the late Brad Osbourne's Clocktower imprint.
Nothing more was heard from or about the Paragons - although plenty was heard about John Holt, of course - until late 1980, when smoothed-out proto-punks Blondie stumbled upon 'The Tide Is High' and turned their anaemic version of the song into one of the biggest international hits of the year. As well as providing a nice windfall for the three group members, all of whom were registered as its composers, it also provided the impetus for an Island Records-financed reunion of John, Tyrone and Howard that resulted in the 'Sly And Robbie Meet The Paragons' album in 1981.
For it, the trio did over 10 of their biggest rock steady hits in a pleasing enough manner, but the album did not sell as well as everyone probably hoped and expected it would, and there was no follow up. However, Garth Aldington Donahue Evans had got the bit between his teeth again - and with the Paragons brand being already 'reborn', he was anxious to carry its rebirth forward.
Hooking up with the ever-opportunistic Bunnie Lee, and with the benefit of more judicious multi-tracking, Evans and, occasionally, Barrett, went on to make further Paragons albums during the early 1980s. The first of these, 1982's 'The Paragons Return', is actually far better than the Sly & Robbie set of the previous year. Many of its best tracks are solo Evans sides that were recorded at Lloyd Barnes' claustrophobic Bullwackies Studio in New York (indeed, the album was issued on Wackies in the USA, while appearing on Lee's ever-present Jackpot imprint in Jamaica).
Of these, the best by far has to be the gorgeous 'Love Vibration', which was one of the big selling UK 12"s of the year when it appeared on the Carib Gems imprint, and which is now much coveted in its rare Jamaican Wackies 7-inch pressing. The album was rounded out with remixed versions of the original 'Left With A Broken Heart' and 'Man Next Door'/'Got To Get Away' - thus legitimising the illustration of John Holt on the sleeve. The set appears here in its entirety, and glad we are to have it on board.
Less than a year later, Lee issued 'Heaven And Earth' - or, as it was known in some territories, 'The Paragons Now' - which once again featured the many voices of Evans and Barrett. The musical backup was largely the work of Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare and the rest of Skin, Flesh and Bones, hiding behind Lee's regular billing of 'The Agrovators' while the material, largely of a move conscious nature, was primarily self composed (sometimes with a mysterious credit to 'Susie Wong' added to the names of Barrett and Evans). Engineered by King Jammy (then still a 'Prince'!) and Phillip Smart, It had a lot going for it and still does. But the Paragons had, by then perhaps tried one comeback too many and sales were tepid to say the least…
Tyrone Evans subsequently returned to New York, to make some excellent recordings for Studio One, mostly singing over Coxsone's inexhaustible supply of old rhythms. He also began work on a number of projects with Lloyd Barnes, but sadly never saw their release, the singer passing away in October 2000 after losing his battle with cancer. John Holt's ongoing career, meanwhile, needs little further discussion here, other than to comment on the fact that he sounds as good now as he did then, while Howard Barrett went back to making liquorice allsorts and was never heard of again. (At least part of the latter statement is true…)
Forty years after the earliest of our featured recordings were made, The Paragons remain the 'model of excellence and perfection' that will always find them ranked with the very best of the very best.