The Pioneers

The sixties was the golden age for Jamaican vocal trios. During this incredibly creative decade, a multitude of singing groups burst upon the island's music scene, but of these only a relative few possessed the talent and determination to endure. Heading the list of those who fell into the latter category were such luminaries as the Wailers, the Paragons, the Maytals, the Gaylads, the Techniques, the Heptones and of course the Pioneers.

The origins of the group can be traced back to the early sixties, when Sydney Roy 'Luddy' Crooks (born 24th February 1945) moved to Trench Town, Kingston, after moving from his hometown of Westmoreland. Not long after his arrival in Jamaica's capital, he began singing in a couple of street corner groups, prior to forming the first incarnation of the Pioneers with his brother, Derrick (aka Roy) and a friend, Winston Hewitt. The trio made their recording debut soon after, cutting a handful of sides - including 'Golden Opportunity', 'River Bed' and 'Finger Mash' - for leading producer, Clement 'Coxsone' Dodd before recording 'Sometime' for Leslie Kong's Beverley's imprint. Unfortunately, the aforementioned releases failed to bring much in the way of success and with little interest in the group displayed by the island's leading label owners, the trio financed the production of their own material, cutting a number of sides at Treasure Isle studios backed by local instrumental band, the Ramblers. the recordings were subsequently licensed to former Skatalites' road manager, Blondel Calnek (aka Ken Lack), who around the close of 1966 issued 'Doreen Girl' b/w 'Good Nannie' from the session on his Caltone Label. Soon after, Calnek released a second single by the trio, '(I'll) Never Come Running Back' b/w 'Give Up' and while neither 45 succeeded in bringing an upturn in the groups fortunes, the singles showed enough promise to convince the producer to retain their services. In fact, Sydney, so impressed Calnek he was given the responsibility of over-seeing production and auditioning new talent - the Heptones being his most successful find. following the release of further material issued on the Caltone imprint (including 'I Love No Other Girl' and 'Teardrops To A Smile'), the group recorded 'Whip Them' and 'Some Of Them A Brawl' that were offered to a new producer on the Kingston music scene; Joe Gibbs. Around this time, Hewitt migrated to Canada and Glen Adams, a friend of the Crooks brothers who worked as a tailor and had previously sung with the pair on streets of 'French Town', was recruited as a replacement. But the new line-up proved short lived and in the summer of 1967, following the release 'Shake It Up' b/w 'Goodies Are The Greatest', the Pioneers disbanded. Adams went on to record a number of solo sides before forming the Hippy Boys, the core of which went on to perform on an array of recordings up until their break-up in 1971, with Lee Perry and Bunny Lee among those to most frequently exploit their talents. Derrick Crooks, meanwhile, went on to form another group, the Slickers with Hylton Beckford and Winston Bailey, while his brother decided to go it alone.

Early in 1968, Sydney returned to the studio to record an original composition entitled 'Gimme Little Loving' at a session financed by Gibbs, but soon encountered a problem upon realising the song would be more effective with an additional vocalist. Lacking a suitable partner to fill the role, he decided to throw caution to the wind and take a chance on a young man who happened to be singing outside the WIRL studio at the time. The singer was an electrical welder called Jackie Robinson and Sydney's gamble paid off very handsomely; 'Gimme Little Loving' went on to reach number three on the island's charts and so began a partnership that was to endure for decades.

Over the ensuing weeks, the pair pooled their songwriting skills, their joint efforts quickly bearing fruit with the release of their follow-up, 'Long Shot (Bus Me Met)', a song that concerned the unlikely subject of a prize-winning racehorse. The disc promptly made the Jamaican charts and over the next few months, the Pioneers were rarely out of the top national listings. Popular singles from this time included 'Jackpot', 'No Dope Me Pony', 'Things Got To Change' and 'Tickle Me for days, all of which subsequently appeared on the album, 'Greetings From The Pioneers', issued by Gibbs around the summer of '68.

Towards the close of the year, George Agard, a tailor by trade who was eager to make his name in the music business, approached Sydney and Jackie. George had made his recording debut a couple of years before, cutting a couple of duets with another singer called Winston for Leslie Kong before recording for Derrick Morgan and Bunny Lee, under the alias of Johnny Melody, but he felt his talent would be better utilised within the framework of a group. After impressing the pair with his rendition of an original composition entitled 'Na Na', the trio recorded the song as Johnny Melody & The Slickers, issuing the single on their own Slickers imprint. The enormous popularity of the single ensured George's full-time membership of the Pioneers and with their sound now complete, the group began recording in earnest for Leslie Kong's Beverley's label. Before long, the trio would become one of the most successful vocal groups in the history of Jamaican music.

The groups initial release on Beverley's imprint was the chart-topping 'Easy Come Easy Go'; a song written in response to an acerbic swipe at the group entitles 'Never See Come See' that Joe Gibbs had written for Royals in reaction to the Pioneers' departure from his roster. The single was followed soon after by 'Long Shot Kick de bucket', a belated sequel to 'Long Shot' that related the death of the famed horse at a race held at Kingston's Caymanas Park racecourse. Unsurprisingly, the song quickly became a nationwide hit in Jamaica, but bearing in mind its parochial subject matter , its success on the other side of the Atlantic was less predictable. Released in the UK by Trojan, the record was initially ignored by the hugely influential BBC, but following its appearance on a number of independent radio stations, the corporation finally relented and finally added it to their play-list. On October 18th, 'Long Shot Kick De Bucket' crept into the national British Pop charts and over the next few weeks, steadily climbed up the listings where it eventually peaked at number twenty-one.

A month after its appearance on the UK charts, Sydney, Jackie and George flew in to London to promote the record on a six week tour of Britain, backed by a group called Sweet Blindness. By now the pioneers had recorded numerous sides for Kong, a dozen of which made their way onto their second album, 'Long Shot', that was issued by Trojan in the autumn of 1969.

In the early months of 1970, the trio returned to the studio to lay down vocals over backing tracks produced by Kong in Jamaica. The recordings were then mixed down and subsequently featured on the group's next album 'Battle Of The Giants', a collection that illustrated a subtle but definite change in their sound with the influence of American R&B now a clear influence upon their style. The title track of the album was later embellished with horns for the UK singles market and despite selling well, just failed to breach the British Pop charts.

Later in 1970, the trio recorded 'Starvation', a song highlighting the terrible famine among the Biafran people following the Nigerian civil war, that predated the worldwide appeal records made by the likes of Band Aid and USA For Africa by over a decade. The group's next big single, in contrast, was a lively interpretation of the Johnny Johnson & The Bandwagon hit, '(I Need Your) Sweet Inspiration', the overall production of which was handled by the Pioneers themselves.

Around the close of the year, the trio teamed up with famed singer/songwriter, Jimmy Cliff, who arranged for them to record a number of titles, including a song he had penned earlier that year entitled 'Let Your Yeah Be Yeah'. The recording was as far removed from the group's material from the sixties as one could imagine, in terms of lyric, melody and arrangements. Gone were the simplistic arrangements of that typified their earlier material - the Pioneers were now making sophisticated pieces of Pop-Reggae, aimed primarily at an international audience. In 1971, Jackie spoke of the group's new, Soul-influenced sound to journalist, Mark Plummer of the weekly music paper, Melody Maker:
"We're trying to get away from being tagged a Reggae group. If you happen to be a Soul fan, you'll like our (live) show because we have some numbers in it. If you like Tamla, you'll find that there too. I think it is important to see a live group and have some variety of music. Of course, we have to gauge what an audience wants to hear when we are on stage."

Much to the chagrin of many purists, 'Let Your Yeah Be Yeah' became one of the best selling Reggae 45s of 1971, peaking at number five in the British Pop charts in August. Tragically, that same month, producer Leslie Kong suffered a fatal heart attack and while by now his involvement in the Pioneers' music had by this time decreased significantly, his death was still a sad loss to the trio.

Meanwhile, in the wake of their massive hit, the Pioneers maintained their heavy workload, touring Britain, Egypt, Lebanon, Germany and Ireland, while also completing work on another album, 'Yeah!'. In January 1972, their follow-up single 'Give And Take' breached the British music listings and while it failed to match the impressive success of the group's previous 45, it still managed to climb to a respectable number 35 in the charts.

Subsequent recordings included 'Roll Muddy River' and a fine rendering of Sam & Dave's 'You Don't Know Like I Know', both of which were produced by London-based producer, Clive Crawley. Around this time, Jackie also took time out of the group to record a popular version of the Drifters' 1965 hit, 'Come On Over To My Place' - his first solo effort since 1968, although he was soon back with his regular singing partners, fronting the Pioneers on a number of sides produced by Sidney, who increasingly began handling the group's arrangements. Singles from this period included 'The World Needs Love', 'Time Hard' (aka 'Everyday') and 'I Believe In Love' - the latter providing the title for their next collection, issued later in 1972.

Over the next couple of years, the Pioneers' unique brand of Reggae ensure their popularity with mainstream audiences in Britain and across Europe, their choice of material reflecting the different musical styles influencing their sound. Among the best known releases from this time was a version of another Johnny Johnson & The Bandwagon hit 'Blame It On The Pony Express', an interpretation of Eddie Hodges' 1961 hit, 'I'm Gonna Knock On Your Door' and renderings of three R&B numbers; 'At The Club' (the Drifters). 'Papa Was A Rolling Stone' (the Temptations) and 'A Little Bit Of Soap' (the Jarmels). Trojan also released another two albums by the group, 'Freedom Feeling' (1973) and 'Gonna Knock On Your Door' (1974), while the trio cut another in 1975 whilst in Japan - their tour of the country being the first ever by a Reggae act. The Pioneers also broke new ground by performing in Thailand and Jordan and upon their return to Britain, left Trojan to sign for Phillips Records. But after cutting two albums for their new label, the trio spent the next few years working almost exclusively on their separate careers, rarely uniting as a group, resulting in the dearth of Pioneers releases.

By this time, Sydney was established as one of the leading Reggae producers in the UK and had begun a close association with singer and songwriter Eddie Grant, while the enormous popularity of Jackie's version of the Chi-lites' hit, 'Homely Girl' in 1974 had marked a series of popular solo singles that included 'Warm And Tender Love', 'Personality', 'My Love For You' and 'In My Life'. George had also enjoyed some success as a singer/songwriter, with 'Keep Your Mouth Shut', 'Pardon' and 'Nosey Parker' among his more poplar efforts. With little new material being produced by the group, Trojan began reissuing a number of their earlier recordings and in 1977 even went so far as to present a compilation of non album tracks and previously unissued sides as a brand new collection, entitled, 'Roll On Muddy River'.

Finally, in 1978, Sydney, Jackie and George re-signed to Trojan and began working on a new album together - their efforts resulting in 'Pusher Man', an LP that illustrated a new edge to their sound, with songs like 'Them A Wolf', 'Riot In Notting Hill' and the title track highlighting a degree of social consciousness not previously apparent in their work. To celebrate the return of the Pioneers to the Trojan roster, the company issued a 'Greatest Hits' package featuring a dozen hits by the group spanning almost a decade, but the company's euphoria over the return of their most prized act quickly turned to dismay following the trio's decision to break with the company.

By now, the music scene in the UK was experiencing something of a transformation. Sparked by the advent of Punk, new types of music were developing and none proved more enduring than Ska. rhythmically based on the Jamaican Ska sound of the early sixties, the new style sound also incorporated the energy and vigour of Punk, resulting in an irresistible fusion that took the British music scene by storm. By the close of 1979, bands such as the Specials, Madness, the Selecter and the Beat had all made their mark on the national Pop charts, sparking a Skinhead revival and generating renewed interest in the Jamaican sounds of yesteryear.

In January 1980, the Specials' live EP featuring a manic version of 'Long Shot Kick The Bucket' entered the UK charts and swiftly climbed to the number one spot. To capitalise on the popularity of the disc, Trojan hurriedly reissued the Pioneers' original version that climbed to a highly respectable number 42 on the listings in the Spring - not a bad achievement for a record some eleven years old! The Beat and Selecter also paid tribute to the Pioneers with updated versions of the group's old hits, reviving 'Jackpot' and 'Time Hard' (aka 'Everyday'), respectively. Meanwhile, Sydney, Jackie and George had pooled resources to launch their own Pioneer International production company and over the next few years financed the recordings of three 'Reggae For Lovers' collections, issued by Vista Sounds Records. In addition, George and Jackie also recorded a number of duets for producer Norris Shears, who issued the sides on the album 'Just For You'.

In 1985, the Pioneers were invited to participate in the making of two high profile collaborative recordings in aid of the Ethiopian famine appeal. The first of these was an updated version of 'Starvation', also featuring leading British acts, the Special AKA, UB40, Madness and General Public, that climbed to 33 in the charts, while the second one was a song entitled 'Let's Make Africa Green Again' on which the trio were joined by a number of other leading British-based Reggae acts, including Dennis Brown, Winston Reedy, Trevor Walters, Trevor Hartley, Gene Rondo, Ken Parker, junior English and the Blackstones. Also around this time, Jackie took time out of the group to try his hand at acting, appearing in a number of TV shows and commercials, while on the music front, he cut a number of sides with leading American producer, Billy Jackson., although of these only the seasonal disc 'Santa Ain't Coming Down To Brixton Town' saw issue in the UK.

The following year, the Pioneers finally returned to Trojan, some seven years since their previous sojourn with the company. unfortunately, the reunion proved short-lived and after the release of a solo effort by George and the single 'Reggae In London City' b/w 'My Woman', the group disbanded. Throughout the remainder of the eighties, Jackie and George concentrated solely on their solo careers, while Sydney focused his efforts into operating his recording studio in Luton, Bedfordshire. In 1989, Jackie relocated to Florida and in the late nineties, George returned to Jamaica, after having worked for some years in the building trade. Sydney also eventually moved back home, reuniting with Joe Gibbs to operate the producer's recording studio in Kingston. In recent years, the trio have reformed to perform at the Ska-fest concert in Potsdam, Germany and to record 'Bring Back The Yesteryear' for the 1999 Jamaican Festival Song competition. Jackie also sang with Eddie Grant and his Frontline Orchestra in Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago - their 1999 Christmas Eve show being broadcast live in Britain and throughout the Caribbean - while he also recently recorded a song for UB40's forthcoming 'Fathers' album.

Today, geography may prevent Sydney, Jackie and George from performing together on a regular basis, but the trio remain the best of friends, bound by their history and a determination to ensure one of the greatest vocal groups in the history of Jamaican music remains active and relevant to contemporary Reggae music. Plans are afoot for further reunions both on stage and in the studio and for the sake of their many fans around the world, let us hope they reach fruition, but in the meantime, we can at least enjoy the music from their long and glorious past. And as you are about to discover, it is a legacy worth treasuring.

With many thanks to Jackie & Indiana Robinson and Old Skool Inn.

Doreen Girl
Good Nannie
Never Come Running Back
Whip Them
(Some Of) Them A Brawl
Shake It Up
Give Me A Little Loving
Dip And Fall Back
No Dope Me Pony
Catch The Beat
Me Naw Go  Believe
Na Na (as Johnny Melody & The Slickers)
Miss Eva
Don't You Know
Ali Button
Who The Cap Fits
Easy Come Easy Go
Pee Wee Cluck Cluck
Long Shot Kick De Bucket
Black Bud
Poor Rameses
Samfie Man
Driven Back
Simmer Down Quashie
Battle Of The Giants
Get Ready (Yeah)
I Need Your Sweet Inspiration
Let Your Yeah Be Yeah
Give And Take
Message To Maria
Let It All Hang Out
You Don't Know Like I Know
Roll Muddy River
Come On Over To My Place
The World Needs Love
Time Hard
I Believe In Love
At The Discotheque
At The Club
Papa Was A Rolling Stone
Pony Express
Keep Your Mouth Shut
A Little Bit Of Soap
I'm Gonna Knock On Your Door
Jamaica Jerk Off
My Special Prayer
Feeling High
Bust Them Shout
Pusher Man
Them A Wolf
My Woman

All material © Trojan Records