Doctor Bird | Savage Jaw
Trojan
 
 

Long before the development of dancehall and reggae fusion, there was a time when vocal trios dominated Jamaica's music scene. From the early to mid-1960s, three-part harmony ensembles, such as the Wailers, the Maytals and the Gaylads, peppered the national listings with driving ska hits; their popularity encouraging others to follow suit and form groups of their own. By the time the lilting rhythms of rock steady emerged towards the close of 1966, the island boasted an array of trios and quartets vying to make their mark as recording stars, their number including the Heptones, the Melodians, the Techniques, the Ethiopians, and a vocal outfit who over a period spanning less than two years, recorded some of the most popular and enduring music ever to see issue in Jamaica. They were, of course, the Uniques!

The original incarnation of the group came into being around the beginning of '66, when Keith 'Slim' Smith and Franklyn White, both formerly of the Techniques, teamed up with Roy 'Brooky' Shirley, an enigmatic singer-songwriter who had previously enjoyed success as both a solo artist and singing partner to promising youngster, Ken Boothe.

Upon Shirley's suggestion, the trio swiftly settled upon the group name of 'The Uniques' and within weeks of their inception were recording material for producers, Ken Lack and Karl 'JJ' Johnson. But despite making a promising start, internal differences led to their break-up after a matter of months, as recalled by Shirley in an interview with Black Magazine in 1976:

"We did a song named 'Evil Love (Is No Good)' for a man named JJ and we did 'Journey' and 'Do Good' for a man named Ken Lack - he had a label named Caltone. We did a few shows, street concerts, TV shows for JBC. We hung around for a year or so, but the group was so strong that we split up."

Both Shirley and Smith wasted little time in cutting solo material with the former enjoying significant success with singles for Joe Gibbs and Edward 'Bunny' Lee. Smith, meanwhile recorded briefly for Prince Buster before recording a number of notable rock steady sides for Clement 'Coxsone' Dodd, although he had not given up on his desire to lead a vocal group and, in 1967, a second generation Uniques were formed, after Bunny Lee brought the singer together with Derrick Morgan and Ken Boothe to record an homage to Jamaica's new national sound, 'People Get Ready (Do Rock Steady)'.

But the line-up was never intended as permanent and soon after Smith joined Lloyd Tyrell (aka Charmers) and Harris 'BB' Seaton in the studio to record the hugely popular 'Let Me Go Girl' along with a version of the Johnny Ace's R&B classic 'Never Let Me Go'. Seaton's involvement proved fleeting, with the singer already committed to his own harmony trio, the Gaylads, but Charmers, who had begun his recording career in 1962 partnering Roy 'Teddy' Willis in the Charmers, had no such ties, having spent the last few years freelancing, helping others out on sessions and cutting a handful of solo sides, most notably for Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid.

After the success of 'Let Me Go Girl', Charmers and Smith combined on a series of superior rock steady sides for Lee, most notably 'Speak No Evil', 'Lesson Of Love', 'Build My World Around You' and the haunting 'My Conversation', which not only provided the Uniques with one of the biggest Jamaican hits of '68, but also became one of the most 'versioned' tracks of all time. The record was also notable for the involvement of Charmers' long-term friend, Martin 'Jimmy' Riley, who thereafter became a long-term member of the group.

As 1968 unfolded, the run of hits for Lee continued with 'The Beatitude (aka Blessed Are The Meek)' and 'Love And Devotion', but by the summer Charmers, who had supervised a number of recordings for the producer, was eager to launch a label of his own. With the financial aid of local businessman, Winston Lowe, and aided by fellow performers, Ken Boothe, Harris 'BB' Seaton and Winston 'Delano' Stewart, he raised enough capital for a recording session at which the group cit a slightly reworded version of Buffalo Springfield's 1967 pop hit, 'For What It's Worth', as he recollected in an interview for Black Music in 1974:

"I decided to do some producing, but I didn't have any bread. So I went to this guy, Winston Lowe and borrowed something like $100. We got together as a little band and played at The Baby Grand Club in Crossroads, Kingston. Then we went to the studio and made 'Watch This Sound'."

The Uniques' version of the song, which ultimately saw issue as 'Watch This Sound' on the group's own 'Tramp' label, coupled with a soulful version of the Manhattans' R&B oldie, 'I'm The One Love Forgot' (aka 'Out Of Love', proved such a strong seller that revenue from sales both in Jamaica and in the UK (where it was released by Trojan) enabled the trio to continue operating the label for the remainder of the year. Their subsequent works included the self-penned 'Hey You' (aka 'A Yuh') and 'Freedom Song', as well as a number of sides that demonstrated the influence of American soul groups upon their sound, with Smokey Robinson & The Miracles' '(The Love I Saw In You Was) Just A Mirage', the Tams' 'Standing In' and a couple of Temptations' hits, 'You'll Lose A Precious Love' and 'That's The Way Love Is', all being reworked by the trio.

As 1968 drew to a close, these recordings, along with the remainder of their best-known sides to-date were harvested for the group's debut album, 'Absolutely...The Uniques', which, unusually for the time, was released as a full-price collection by Trojan in the UK. By now, however, both Smith and Charmers were enjoying significant success with solo works, with the former's version of the Gladys Knight & the Pips Motown favourite, 'Everybody Needs Love' proving particularly popular among record buyers both in Jamaica and the UK.

Yet despite the temptation to abandon the group to concentrate on their individual careers, both singers initially persevered with the Uniques, with the early months of 1969 producing a handful of fine early reggae 45s. Most notable among these were an ambitious version of the Tommy James & the Shondells' 'Crimson And Clover', a fine reworking of the Impressions' 'My Woman's Love', and a loose, yet nonetheless worthy interpretation of the Motown smash, 'I'm Gonna Make You Love Me'.

By the spring of '69, tensions within the Uniques had become intolerable and with some reluctance, the trio finally decided to finally call it a day, as Charmers later recalled:

"We couldn't get along, because the guys in the group said I was trying to boss them around and Slim Smith felt he could sing on his own, so we all moved our separate ways."

Over the period that immediately followed, all three former Uniques continued to make significant contributions to Jamaican music: Smith spent the next few years re-affirming his status as one of the island's most popular solo performers, cutting a succession of significant hits, primarily for Bunny Lee; but with a long and prosperous career seemingly assured, he died suddenly under mysterious circumstances. On the night of 10th October 1972, his lifeless body was discovered, the singer apparently having bled to death after severing an artery on broken glass, although the precise circumstances that led to his sad and premature death remain a mystery to this day.

Meanwhile, Charmers continued to demonstrate his talents as both an artist and producer and in 1974, finally achieved success on a global scale with his productions of 'Everything I Own' and 'Crying Over You' by his old friend, Ken Boothe. These accomplishments led to a move to the UK, which he continued to call home up until his untimely passing on 27th December 2012, following a heart attack.

The final member of the Uniques' classic line-up, Jimmy Riley also experienced a degree of success as a producer, although it was his collaborations with Sly & Robbie in the late 1970s and early '80s that yielded his greatest triumphs; his collaboration with the duo including updated versions of 'Love And Devotion' and 'My Woman's Love', along with a hugely popular version of Marvin Gaye's 'Sexual Healing'.

Not long after working with Jamaica's famed 'Riddim Twins' he relocated to Miami, which resulted in a temporary halt to his musical activities, although a return to his home town of Kingston in the 1990s prompted the resumption of his singing career, which in the new millennium was significantly boosted following the international success of his son, Tarrus. But tragically, on 23rd March 2016, the last of the once famous Uniques line-up passed away; the singer having succumbed to the devastating effects of cancer.

This CD collection provides ample evidence as to why the Uniques continue to be held in such high regard for almost half a century after the release of their final recordings. Focusing on the popular and now highly sought-after 'Absolutely' LP, this compilation includes a wealth of bonus material, including the remainder of the group's Tramp recordings. While Smith, Charmers and Riley all achieved significant success following their break-up, it is impossible not too ponder what the trio may have attained had its three immensely talented members continued to record together. Based on the work gathered here, it would certainly have been something very special indeed.

Laurence Cane-Honeysett

RUN COME
WATCH THIS SOUND
JUST A MIRAGE
OUT OF LOVE
A YUH
SPEAK NO EVIL
STANDING IN
MY CONVERSATION
YOU’LL LOSE A PRECIOUS LOVE
THAT’S THE WAY (LOVE IS)
GYPSY WOMAN
FREEDOM SONG

FOLLOW THIS SOUND
MY WOMAN’S LOVE
MY LOVER’S PRAYER
COOYAH
WHAT A SITUATION
FOREVER
I’M GOING TO MAKE YOU LOVE ME
CRIMSON AND CLOVER
WE’VE ONLY GOT ONE LIFE
MY RHYA
LOVE AND DEVOTION
FREEDOM SOUND

Trojan
© Doctor Bird Records