The Pioneers who appear individually and collectively in this collection lined up as Sydney Roy Crooks, George Agard and Jackie Robinson. This was not the first configuration of the group, but it is the one that recorded just about all of the group's major hits over a 20+ year period. The core of this Doctor Bird compilation is built around the two albums that Sydney, George and Jackie recorded for Chines-Jamaican producer Leslie Kong's Beverley's label between 1969 and1970. Like most of his artists the group enjoyed a long, harmonious and productive relationship with Kong, and one that may well have lasted even longer had the producer not been fatally felled by a heart attack on August 9th 1971.

According to some sources, it was 1962 when Sydney, his brother Derrick and their chum Winston Hewitt formed the original Pioneers, although 1964 would seem a more likely date given that this line-up did not record for the first time until '65. Early singles for Wincox and Caltone, some of which were self-financed, made some minor noise locally and even internationally, when 'Good Nanny' and 'Never Come Running Back' were issued in the UK on the relatively short-lived Rio label. But success wasn't coming quickly enough for some members of the trio, and they disbanded in 1967 leaving Sydney to carry on alone for a while. The young man still believed he had something to offer the music world and continued to write songs until he was sure he had something that would sell.

In 1967 he came up with 'Gimme Little Loving', a song in which he felt had plenty of potential. The rock steady era was well underway by this time and a new producer, former TV repair man Joel Gibson aka Joe Gibbs was at the forefront of the new sound, with hits coming thick and fast on his Amalgamated and, later, Pressure Beat labels. Sydney took 'Gimme Little Loving' over to Gibson, who liked it and who scheduled a recording session at WIRL - one of Jamaica's main studios of the era. Soon after session got underway everyone realise that something more was needed to give the track some extra oomph.

Purely by chance, a young electrical engineer named Jackie Robinson was working on the WIRL building and singing to himself while engaged in his work. Sydney happened to hear Jackie while on a break and immediately asked him if he fancied coming into the studio floor to add some additional vocals to 'Gimme'. It turned out that that additional vocals were exactly what the track required. The Pioneers version 2.0 had been born, and the record became the duo's first sizeable local hit (and ultimately a Top Three single on the Jamaican charts). It was quickly followed by a string of other big hits that included 'Jackpot', 'No Dope Me Pony', their highly original song about legendary local racehorse 'Long Shot' and other goodies that included 'Catch The Beat', 'Pan Ya Machete' and 'Tickle Me For Days'.

Around the close of 1968, Sydney and Jackie added a third member to their line-up to further enhance their sound. George Agard aka George Dekker had been recording for a couple of years, mostly as Johnny Melody, so as not to trade directly in on the growing fame of his talented half-brother Desmond Dekker. Agard brought with him 'Na Na', a classic song of the late rock steady/early reggae era that the group recorded under the name of The Slickers (a name that Sydney would also later use again to record with his brother Derek and Winston Bailey). A huge local hit and a big seller in the UK, it paved the way for other Agard-fronted Pioneers tracks that would be released under his own name in time to come.

Agard's arrival more or less coincided with Sydney and Jackie's huge and rancorous falling out with Gibson over money, and their move to Kong's camp. It may well have been facilitated in some way by Agard, whose aforementioned half-brother was the biggest star on Kong's roster and who had himself already recorded for the producer as 50% of Winston & George. Whether that's so or not, the Pioneers were exactly the kind of act that flourished under Kong's stewardship. The first track the group cut for Beverley's was 'Easy Come, Easy Go', aurally an obvious dig at their former producer. Their initial attempt at the song was pure rock steady and its quality would doubtless have greatly pleased both the producer and the group. However, almost overnight the Jamaican beat had changed from rock steady to proto-reggae, so rather than issue that version, Kong brought the trio back into the studio to recut it with the new beat that was rocking the street. the original version lay dormant in the vaults until the 21st century, but the recut mashed up the Jamaican charts, and kick-started an extended run of hits with the three-piece Pioneers' new producer.

It was the next-but-one of those Jamaican hits that permanently put the Pioneers on the international map. Like 'Easy Come, Easy Go' it was a further riposte to their previous producer Gibson. The aforementioned 'Long Shot' had been fatally injured during a race at Jamaica's famous Caymanas Park course, and 'Long Shot Kick De Bucket' was both an elegy for the horse and the sad tale of a punter who lost all his money as a result of the tragedy. Apparently written at the instigation of Kong, it was another Jamaican biggie, and understandably so. But Jamaica wasn't the only country that was in the thrall of reggae in 1969. The country's indigenous music was beginning to catch on with a bigger audience in the UK, where it had been adopted as the 'official' music of the original Skinhead sub-culture. Youth clubs up and down the country rocked to the beat of 'Kick De Bucket', and the record soon started to sell like hot cakes outside of the indigenous Jamaican market. Demand kept on growing and after being added to the Radio 1 playlist the 45 eventually sold enough copies to hoist itself to #21 on our Top 30.

The delighted and probably somewhat bemused Pioneers flew to the UK to promote their hit, thus beginning a relationship with this country that would sustain throughout the rest of their active career, although for the foreseeable future they would still record most of their repertoire in Jamaica under the supervision of Kong.

The success of 'Kick De Bucket' was initially a one-off, although Trojan put a lot of effort into breaking a further song about another racehorse 'Poor Rameses'. It was actually the follow-up to the follow-up to 'Bucket' after 'Black Bud', which Trojan chose not to promote nationally. All three songs appeared on the Pioneers' second album (and their first for Beverley's), 'Long Shot', along with both sides of their next two 45's, 'Samfie Man' c/w 'Mother Ritty' and their 1969 Jamaican Festival song, 'Boss Festival' c/w 'Lucky Side', plus five tracks that were initially exclusive to the album before some of them later reappeared as flipsides to future Trojan 45s.

The album was one of the first to be issued here at Trojan's new 19/11 - (99p) price point, reserved for albums containing new and recent repertoire. Coming off the back of a hit, it sold very well, although being a 'budget' album it was not eligible for inclusion in the nation pop charts despite almost certainly selling better than many of those that did make the chart. even now it's a wonderful collection of music that encapsulates the best things about what is now called the '69 reggae/boss reggae era.

The classic 'Samfie Man' straight to the head of a confidence trickster, and one that could easily be perceived as yet another dig at Joe Gibbs - also made an appearance on the group's second Beverley's album, named after their 1970 Ja. hit 'Battle Of The Giants', along with two other singles, 'Simmer Down Quashie' and 'Driven Back'.

By this time both the Pioneers and their producer were spending extended periods of time in the UK and indeed Sydney, George and Jackie would actually make Blighty their permanent place of residence that year. Kong, meanwhile, was visiting with increased frequency to supervise the addition of strings, horns or sometimes both to the rhythms he would lay in Jamaica for his flagship artists. Several of the tracks on the 'Battle Of The Giants' album benefit from Kong's addition production, intended to give them increased international appeal. Ironically, these attempts at 'polishing up' did not find favour with a mainstream audience and did much to dilute their appeal to the black and white audiences that had purchased multiple copies of their earlier hits of Kong and Gibbs.

Listening to these 'commercialised' reggae tracks almost 50 years after they were recorded it's easy to understand why, but their embellishments never obscure the fact that there's some great vocals and songs lurking among the strings and horns. With Jackie Robinson on lead vocals the trio also cut their first covers of Carib soul favourites, Clarence Carter's much-versioned 'Slip Away' and Eddie Floyd's fantastix Stax ballad 'Consider Me'. The trio would frequently dip into the world of soul as the 70s progressed, cutting versions of Sam & Dave's 'You Don't Know Like I Know', Chubby Checker's 'At The Discotheque', The Drifters' 'Come On Over To My Place' and the Undisputed Truth/Temptations 'Papa Was A Rolling Stone' among others.

Once domiciled in the UK, Kong ceased to be the group's primary producer, although they remained on Beverley's back home until kong's passing and the eventual winding down of his label in early 1972. The material they cut subsequently is really beyond the remit of this collection, but it would be wrong to totally ignore what came next. Shortly after recording one of their finest sides of the period with Kong in 'Starvation', they formed an alliance with another former Kong alumni who had done well for himself internationally - Jimmy Cliff. The erstwhile James Chambers knew exactly how to write a chart friendly reggae song, and he gave the group a newly written opus called 'Let Your Yeah Be Yeah'. With a rhythm recorded back in Jamaica and strings and horns (arranged by Tony King) added at Vic Keary's studio in London, the group voiced Jimmy's song beautifully.

Trojan really got behind the track from day one, and it was a hit in no time at all, reaching a high of #5 just a couple of weeks after Leslie Kong's unexpected and sad passing. Sadly the same combination of artist and producer were not able to make it two top 20 hits out of two with the follow-up 'Give And Take', which Jimmy himself had recorded in the UK as a soul tune in 1967, but their version still reached a respectable #35 on the Top 40 in the opening weeks of 1972.

No further major chart action would be forthcoming for any new releases by the group in the 1970s or beyond, but they remained a regular fixture on the reggae charts intil the mid-70s, both as a group or via the solo 45s of Jackie and the officially-rebranded George Dekker. They made four more albums for Trojan between 1971 and 1974 and in excess of 20 more 45s - some of which were issued as by the Reggae Boys, the Slickers or Sydney, George & Jackie - to bring their total number of releases on various Trojan affiliated labels to around 50 in total. In the mid-70s they joined the Mercury label, where their discography was increased by another album produced by the Equals' driving force Eddy Grant, and a handful of 45s that included the 'modern soul' classic, 'My Good Friend James'.

A reunion with a revived Trojan company in the late 70s added another album and a couple more new 45s to their stack, but by this time the recording Pioneers were more frequently just the duo of George and Jackie, as they were on most of the tracks for a raft of self-financed 'big people music' albums under the general title of 'Reggae For Lovers' for the Vista Sounds label in the early 80s.

As the 70s had moved on, Sydney - or as he was becoming increasing referred to, 'Luddy' pioneer - had found he preferred being behind a console to in front of the mic. He began producing his group mates and quickly expanded his activity and production CD to embrace the likes of Dennis Brown, I-Roy, Dennis Alcapone, Carlene Davis, Gregory Isaacs and Eddy Grant's brother Rudy as 'The Mexicano'. The group still performed as a trio, though, and would continue to do regularly into the 80s., once again re-joining Trojan in 1986 for the one-off 45 'Reggae In london City', which brought the curtain down on the Pioneers 20+ year career as a recording act.

The individual members of the Pioneers have carried on working as and when they want to, even though the group has not been regularly active since the late 80s when Jackie Robinson upped sticks and moved to Miami. the one time 'Johnny Melody', George Agard/Dekker also went 'back a yard' some years ago and Sydney/Luddy has pursued a career as a producer in both the UK and Jamaica, where he resolved his differences with Joe Gibbs in the 1990s and ran the producers own recording studio unto 'Gibbo' got out of the business.

George and Jackie have now spent more time as solo artists than they ever did as permanent members of the Pioneers, but while a full-time reunion is increasingly unlikely, especially given that they are no longer young men, the pair are never averse to occasional team-ups that continue to take them and their music all around the world.

The two albums in this collection will transport you instantly to the beginning of the Golden Age of Reggae and a time where quantity and quality went hand in hand for most artists - the Pioneers included. The original track-listings are augmented (as opposed to Amalgamated!) with a selection of choice masters, including two tracks that did not see release until well into the 'Noughties' - the aforementioned rock steady cit of 'Easy Come, Easy Go' and the charming boss reggae churner 'Mettle' (aka 'Mickle'). Doctor Bird has also generously added the reggae cut of 'Easy Come' and its follow-up single 'Pee Pee Cluck Cluck' - not to be confused with the Maytals' Beverley's recording of the same title, from the same year, which first saw issue on Toots and Co's 'From The Roots' collection. Further treats are in store via two unissued sides, 'Cha La La' and the trio's version of the Godwin Brothers 1967 country classic that later became a big soul hit for Joe Simon '(Just Enough To Keep Me) Hanging On' - also successfully covered in reggae by David Isaacs. These bonus cuts - and they really are bonus cuts - further reinforce the Pioneers discography and along with the albums, demonstrate just how important a group they were in this period and how lucky we were that Sydney Crooks decided that he needed a little help to get 'Gimme Little Loving' over in 1967...

Tony Rounce - June 2018




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