Jamaica Gleaner / Blindness may appear to be an impediment that could hamper the progress of an entertainer in his or her pursuits of excellence. But history has proven that persons, especially those with talent, have easily brushed aside disabilities and impediments to achieve greatness in their respective disciplines. Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder stand out as prime examples of visually impaired entertainers in popular music who have elevated themselves to the highest echelons of musical stardom. Other notable figures include JosÈ Feliciano (singer-guitarist), George Shearing (pianist), Clarence Carter (vocalist), and Andrea Bocelli (classical tenor vocalist).
No less than half a dozen entertainers in early Jamaican popular music suffered this fate as well. Derrick Morgan, dubbed ‘The King of Ska’, is perhaps the best known of such entertainers. Born in Clarendon, Jamaica, in 1940, Morgan came to Kingston at the age of three to join his mother and to seek medical attention for an eye problem.
He gave me a brief synopsis during an interview I had with him back in the early 2000s: “Me never inna music. Is one thing me wanted to be – a stenographer. them call it bookkeeping sometimes. But I was born with retina pigmentosis, an undeveloped retina, and that prevented me. I came to Kingston at the age of three to join my mom, who was working in Kingston, and from there, she took me to the doctor, and they said nothing could be done. The older I get, the worse it would become. And then I attended Allman Town Primary, Kingston Senior, Grantham and Model Private schools before entering The Vere Johns Opportunity Hour talent contest, where my music career started.”
Morgan went on to become one of the most important persons in early Jamaican popular music, jump-starting the careers of Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley by auditioning and passing them to record their first songs – Hurricane Hattie and Judge Not, respectively, for producer Leslie Kong’s Beverley’s record label in 1962. He further helped producer-vocalist Prince Buster and his brother-in-law, producer Bunny Lee, to get into the music business. Morgan also had a plethora of hit recordings that won for him the title The King of Ska. And then, with his sight declining, he surprised many by becoming one of the first Jamaican rappers as he deejayed along with saxophonist Roland Alphonso and The Bunny Lee All Stars on the instrumental piece 100 Tons Of Megaton in 1969:
“Here comes Rolly Polly with 1,000 tons of megaton. Hook mommy and reggae now, dig it daddy,” he quipped.
Other outstanding blind singers in Jamaican popular music were Frankie Paul, Roy Richards, Noel Simms (Skully), and the female Adina Edwards. While working with Issa Stores, concert promoter, vocalist, and record producer Tommy Cowan discovered Edwards as she sang and played her accordion at the intersection of King and Barry Streets in Kingston, much to the delight of enthusiastic crowds, who showed their appreciation with offerings. Recognising the immense talent of the woman, Cowan took her to Dynamic Sounds, where he was working as the marketing manager, and had her record the album Don’t Forget To Remember Me . The title cut reached number one on the Jamaican charts. This, along with her gospel-tinged recordings, positioned Edwards as a pioneer for Jamaican gospel music.
Paul Blake, better known as Frankie Paul, became an iconic figure in the 1980s mainly through his recordings of Alesha , Sarah , I Know The Score, and Worries In The Dance . Born blind in 1965, Paul adopted the dancehall style and performed with a nasal and throaty voice that belied his youthfulness. After ailing for some time with kidney complications, he died in May 2017 at age 51.
Roy Richards made his name as a harmonica (mouth organ) player and recording artiste during the 1960s. Playing the instrument with his nostrils at times became an exciting feature of his performances. His instrumental cut, Contact , with the Baba Brooks band, was a standout piece, while he had several commendable duets at Studio 1 with Paulette Marsh as Roy and Paulette and with Enid Cumberland as Roy and Enid. The versatile singer has to his credit Green Collie , Western Standard Time , South Vietnam, and a host of others for Studio 1, Randy’s, Gay Feet, Island and Dynamic Sounds labels.
Noel ‘Skully’ Simms, vocalist and percussionist extraordinaire, told me that he began to lose his sight through glaucoma in 2002 and became totally blind by 2010. Simms created history in Jamaican music when he, along with ‘Bunny’ Robinson, as ‘Bunny and Skully’, recorded the first song in Jamaica’s post-mento period – Give Me Another Chance (1954). In later years, Skully became one of Jamaica’s most sought-after percussionists for bands going on overseas tours. His Rasta-influenced Rock A Man Soul, in duet with Lascelles Perkins, Small Garden , Take It Cool , See Them A Come, and Never In My Life are enduring pieces that will surely stand the test of time.