In the mid-sixties Jamaica enjoyed a particularly hot summer. This Caribbean heatwave is often cited as the reason that the driving rhythms of ska slowed down to the melodious style of rock steady although the prominent Melodian, Brent Dowe had a theory that seems more likely. In the BBC television series ‘The Story Of Reggae’, he explained how he believed rock steady evolved…
“The ska was very fast.
You had to spin, you had to dance, and you had to dance at a fast pace.
So what we did was, at the time most of them, had the same bass line.
Because the bass man didn’t have enough time to emphasise his bass line.
So what we did was cut it down a little, so the bass man could move his fingers and have a line.”
While Jamaican performers such as Ken Boothe and Alton Ellis benefited from the laid back rhythms it was chiefly the island’s vocal groups such as the Maytals, the Paragons and the Wailers who benefited most from the change of tempo. The laid-back style of rock steady introduced a new wave of groups and of these, none proved more popular than the aptly-named Melodians.
Tony Brevett, who was the nephew and namesake of the legendary Skatalite, Lloyd, formed the group while still at school. He initially enrolled George Alison, Bradfield Brown and Eddie Fraser before the line-up settled with the aforementioned Brent Dowe alongside Trevor McNaughton who replaced Eddie and George. It is widely rumoured that the group initially recorded with Prince Buster although the result of these sessions are believed to have remained on acetate for the producer’s Voice Of The People sound before Bertram left the group in 1966.
The Melodians continued to perform as a trio and embarked on recording sessions for Clement ‘Coxson’ Dodd at Studio One. Their debut, ‘Lay It On’ proved a local hit and led to further releases recorded at Brentford Road, such as ‘Meet Me’, ‘I Should Have Made It Up’ and ‘Let’s Join Hands’. Usually the group’s songs were self-compositions, written individually and collectively, although some of their more famous hits were either solely or co-written by their long time associate and silent partner, Renford Cogle.
In 1967, the trio began recording for Arthur ‘Duke’ Reid, Coxson’s main rival. The Duke allegedly paid the group a more generous fee, which attracted them to his Treasure Isle studios in Bond Street. This partnership resulted in a series of hits such as the legendary ‘You Have Caught Me’ that provided the foundation to U Roy‘s classic ‘Version Galore’ and the celebrated, ‘Last Train To Expo.’67’. Following further sessions that resulted in ‘Come On Little Girl’, ‘I Just Know How She Feels (aka Far Away Love)’ and a re-make of their earlier Studio One hit, ‘Let’s Join Hands’. Their run of hits with the Duke came to an abrupt end in 1968 when the group ironically fell out with the Duke over money.
After leaving Treasure Isle their next sessions were recorded with the Orange Street-based Tip Top Record Shop owner, Mrs. Sonia Pottinger. The partnership resulted in the hugely popular hits, ‘Little Nut Tree’ and ‘Swing And Dine’. It was at the same time as working with Mrs. Pottinger that the group teamed up with fellow label mates, the Gaylads, Ken Boothe and Delroy Wilson, to set up the short lived Links label. Whilst with the cooperative, the Melodians released the favoured ‘Sweet Rose’ before the company folded towards the close of ’68.
Immediately after the demise of Links, the trio were briefly linked with Winston Lowe‘s newly launched Tramp imprint, where they were given the freedom to produce their own material including ‘When There Is You’, ‘Ring Of Gold’, ‘You’ve Got It’ and ‘Personally Speaking’. They also returned to recording hits with Mrs. Pottinger as well as Coxson Dodd and, having resolved their financial wrangles with Duke Reid cut ever popular ‘Everybody Bawlin”, alongside the lesser known ‘Lonely Nights’, ‘Hey Girl’ and the succinct `What More Can I Say’ for the producer.
The Treasure Isle sessions that yielded these sides were immediately followed by a move to Leslie Kong’s Beverley’s label. Kong was enjoying unparalleled success in the UK with Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff and the Pioneers all crossing over into the British pop listings. The Melodians’ debut with Beverley’s was the celebrated ‘Sweet Sensation’, which despite limited national airplay climbed into the lower reaches of the UK pop chart, peaking at number 41 in January 1970.
While further British mainstream success proved elusive, the quality of the group’s output for the producer remained undiminished, with their releases from this period including ‘A Day Seems So Long’, ‘Say Darling Say’, ‘It Took A Miracle’ and the renowned ‘Rivers Of Babylon’. While the latter failed to make the British charts, it featured on the soundtrack to ‘The Harder They Come’, a film that played a major role in introducing reggae around the world.
A clich??d disco version of ‘Rivers Of Babylon’ also provided the manufactured pop group, Boney M with a huge international hit, with the record spedning 40 weeks on the UK chart and f??ted at the time as the second best-selling UK single in the history of record sales.
The Melodians themselves meanwhile recorded a plethora of additional material at Beverley’s and while working with Kong also moonlighted for Mrs. Pottinger, who produced a handful of sides by the group, including ‘Love Is A (Doggone) Good Thing’ and ‘No Nola’. But it was the partnership with Kong that continued to prove most rewarding, with their final sessions at Beverley’s resulting in ‘Come Ethiopians Come’, ‘My Love My Life’, ‘No Sins At All’ and ‘The Time Has Come’, all of which were recorded shortly before Leslie Kong’s untimely demise in August 1971. Despite of the devastating loss of their producer, the trio rose above the tragedy to record some of their finest material, which included Tony Brevett‘s productions of ‘This Beautiful Land’ and ‘Without You’.
In 1971, the trio released two hit medleys with Mrs. Pottinger: ‘The Sensational Melodians’ and ‘The Mighty Melodians’ and worked with Sid Bucknor who produced the inspiring, ‘In Our Time’, Warrick Lyn, for whom they cut ‘You Are My Only Love’ and the enigmatic Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, who issued ‘Round And Round’
As 1972 came to a close, the group returned to Treasure Isle for their final sessions with the Duke, cutting the laudable ‘Passion Love’ and ‘Love Makes The World Go Around’ before re-united with Mrs. Pottinger to record the deeply spiritual ‘Black Man Kingdom Come’. But sadly for lovers of the group’s close harmonies the Melodians began to concentrate on their solo careers.
Tony Brevett had already recorded material such as ‘You Took Me By Surprise’ for Jimmy Riley and ‘Don’t Give Up’ with Bunny Lee as well as the self-produced ‘Don’t Get Weary’, ‘So Ashamed’ and ‘Black Girl’. Following the official break-up of the Melodians soon after, he recorded a series of exceptional releases, such as ‘Words Of Prophesy’, ‘Star Light’, ‘I’ve Got To Get Back Home’ and an outstanding version of ‘Over Hills And Valleys’.
Brent Dowe had also recorded as a soloist notably with Byron `Smitty’ Smith and Leslie Kong and following the group’s demise he recorded a number of hits for Mrs. Pottinger, many of which featured on his debut album, ‘Build Me Up’. Although most of his work was with Mrs. Pottinger, he recorded on an occasional freelance basis having released ‘Down Here In Babylon’ for Lee Perry and a re-recording of ‘Your Turn To Cry’ for ‘Prince’ Tony Robinson. He also cut two fine versions of the Jamaican favourites, ‘Things You Say You Love’ and ‘Come On Pretty Woman’, while, as is often the case in the field of reggae, he went into self-production, issuing ‘A Deh Pon Di Wicked’ along with ‘No Sweeter Way’ and ‘Unfaithful Mankind’.
By 1974, while the group had officially disbanded, Brevett, Dowe and McNaughton re-formed to record ‘It’s All In The Family’ and a rare cover version of the Drifters’‘I’ll Take You Where The Music’s Playing’. The group also recorded with the Revolutionaries who provided the backing to ‘Why Little Girl’ along with a re-make of ‘Passion Love’ at Channel One studios.
Other releases credited to the group from the seventies include ‘Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying’, an updated version of ‘Swing And Dine’ with the Soul Syndicate band, as well as ‘Stop Your Gang War’, produced by Yabby You. Furthermore, the group returned to Brentford Road where they cut three singles, namely ‘Burning Fire’, ‘Loving Feeling’ and an updated version of the classic, ‘Little Nut Tree’.
In 1983, the Washington-based RAS label commissioned the group to record an album’s worth of material. The sessions resulted in the suitably titled ‘Irie Feelings’, with notable tracks including ‘Warning’, ‘Jah Reggae’, ‘Get Up And Dance’ and the melodious title track. Also included were two earlier recordings from the group, ‘Down Here In Babylon’ and `You Don’t Need Me’ from 1975 and 1967, respectively. The trio’s reunion was short-lived and it was some years before they again recorded as a group.
Soon after the release of the RAS album, Trinity‘s brother, Clint Eastwood teamed with General Saint to record a version of the trio’s ‘Last Train To Expo 67’ as ‘Last Plane (One Way Ticket)’, resulting in a return to the UK Pop charts for the song writing skills of Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton, with the disc peaking at number fifty-one in the British national listings.
The group’s next reunion was with celebrated DJ-turned-producer, Tapper Zukie who in 1992 released ‘Song Of Love’, which led to the veterans performing in a series of highly praised shows in Jamaica. The trio continued to tour sporadically throughout the remainder of the 1990s and into the new century, but on 28th January 2006, after a rehearsal for a performance at the Jamaican Prime Minister’s residence , Brent Dowe suffered a fatal heart attack.
Over the years that immediately followed, Tony Brevett and Trevor McNaughton maintained the group’s name with regular live appearances throughout Europe and the USA, but on 25th October 2013 Brevett passed away in Miami from the effects of cancer. His passing left McNaughton, the only surviving original member of the group to tour as a solo artist prior to forming a new versiuon of the Melodians, featuring former Mellotones‘ singer, Taurus Alphonso and Winston Dias, previously of the Movers.
With rumours of the imminent reelase of a new Willie Lindo-produced album let us hope that the Melodians will continue to enrich our lives with good music for many years to come.