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Few men had more impact on the musical scene in Jamaica than Arthur 'Duke' Reid. From the early 1950s until his death in 1975 he was active as a top sound system operator, recording studio and record label owner, a record producer and a radio DJ, and still found time to help his wife run their off-license at 33 Bond Street in Kingston - on whose roof the wooden Treasure Isle studio was built. The hundreds of ska, rock steady and reggae recordings which he supervised stand as the legacy of his energy, taste and vision. This Doctor Bird series (see also Justin Hinds & The Dominoes 'From Jamaica With Reggae' and 'Here Comes The Duke' & 'Soul Of Jamaica') is a testimony to the quality of the music issued on his Treasure Isle and Duke Reid labels in the 1960s and early 1970s.

The world of reggae music in its early years was decidedly male-dominated, and the number of consistently successful female artists could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. In the label-hopping world of Kingston's recording studios, the number of artists who remained faithful to one record label (unless, like Clancy Eccles or Prince Buster, they owned it) could be counted on the fingers of the other hand. The late Phyllis Dillon bucked the trend on both counts, as this, surely the finest retrospective collection of her work yet issued, shows. Not only did she turn out a succession of popular singles from 1966 to 1972, but she cut all of them for Duke Reid's Treasure Isle label.

Indeed, it was the talented guitarist Lyn Taitt, who played on sessions for that label, who first brought a young Phyllis to the great man's attention. The teenager (she was born on New Year's Day 1948) grew up listening to American singers such as Connie Francis, Patti Page and Dionne Warwick, and by the mid-60s she was entering and winning amateur talent competitions. Upon hearing her sing with semi-pro group, the Vulcans, at the renowned Glass Bucket Club in Kingston, Taitt invited her for an audition at Treasure Isle, as she recalled in a 1998 interview: "I was singing, and asked if I was interested in recording. I said yes, so he said, 'Why don't you come down to Duke Reid's studio on Sunday morning?' That's really how it started."

Young Phyllis obviously made a good impression at 33 Bond Street, as by the end of 1966 she made her first recording for Treasure Isle. At this time, ska was easing down into the rock steady beat with which Duke Reid would soon dominate the island's music scene, and her self-composed 'Don't Stay Away' is a triumph. Showing no sign of being overawed by the presence of top session band, Tommy McCook & The Supersonics, she delivers the melodic, yearning song cooly and sweetly, displaying a poise and a sense of timing beyond her years and experience. It became a smash hit, paving the way for classic after classic over the next half-decade.

The Jamaican music industry was primarily singles driven back then, and Phyllis had already notched up a dozen or so successful 45s before the Duke accorded her an LP release. Even when 'One Life To Live' came out in 1972, the label could not spell her name correctly on the sleeve, but at last 'Phillis' had an album out - an album that comprises the first 12 tracks of this CD. It includes a large proportion of interpretations (to call them 'covers' would be unfairly dismissive) of American songs; the title track is an example of Jamaican musicians' ability to find good songs in unlikely places: 'One Live To Live' was originally called 'Living In Love' (though those words never appear in the lyrics); a Teddy Randazzo song, it was recorded in 1970 for Teddy's New York-based Buttercup label and lay sleeping for many years until Britain's Northern Soul scene discovered it. Phyllis transforms it into a memorably assertive slice of reggae.

The next few numbers are rather better known. 'Love The One You're With' had been a recent hit both for the Isley Brothers and for its composer Stephen Stills; 'Nice Time' recorded earlier than the majority of the album tracks, transforms the Wailers' song into a zestful frothy jump-up, and 'Something' is the oft-recorded George Harrison number from the Beatles' 'Abbey Road' LP, which Phyllis shapes into a soulful ballad. 'I Can't Forget About You Baby' had started life as a soul number when Jerry Butler included it on his 1968 'Ice Man Cometh' album; here it becomes a steady chugger with the lady doing full justice to the wistful, nostalgic lyrics.

The nostalgic mood continues on 'Picture On The Wall', a recent Jamaican hit for its composer Freddie McKay on Duke Reid's arch-rival Coxsone Dodd's Money Disc label. Even heavier rhythmically than the Soul defenders' original track, this is perhaps the toughest tune on the album. 'Woman Of The Ghetto', from the songbook of jazz singer Marlena Shaw, gets a reading that is a gem of controlled emotion and soulful style, perhaps the most adult song which Phyllis ever recorded - and she was just 24 at the time. In complete contrast, 'Close To you' retains the pop fluffiness of the Carpenters' smash hit from 1970.

Phyllis alters the gender of Eric Donaldson's reggae smash hit 'Cherry Oh Baby' as 'Eddie Oh Baby', and continues in a romantic vein with the melodic reggae of the Honey Cone's 'We Belong Together' - not the Robert & Johnny / Peaches & Herb hit song, as it has sometimes been credited. She effectively reggaefies Patti Drew's powerful ballad 'The Love That A Woman Should Give A Man', and wraps up the original album with the sweetly sung love song 'You Are Like Heaven To Me'.

Our 15 bonus tracks are drawn principally from the earlier part of the lady's career, an exception being her revival of US pop group the Grass Roots' biggest hit, 'Midnight Confession'. Apart from 'Don't Stay Away' which we've already met, the pick of the bunch is her rock steady treatment of the melodic 'Perfidia', a venerable song which has been recorded by innumerable artists since its 1941 debut. I bet that none of the others include the 'Sock it to me' which she purrs just before the instrumental break in this stylish and sultry performance.

But there's plenty more to enjoy; duets with Alton Ellis on the lilting 'Remember That Sunday' and with Hopeton Lewis on the smoothly propulsive 'Get On The Right Track'; a touch of spice on the risqué 'Don't Touch Me Tomato', sung with the aural equivalent of a knowing wink as she gives a playful admonition to an over-playful boyfriend; the infectiously hip-shaking 'It's Rocking Time' which must have helped many sound system dancers to have the 'groovy time' which she mentions in her lyrics; 'A Thing Of The Past', a hurt but deliciously tuneful reading of one of the great pieces of Brill building pop craftsmanship, once upon a time a hit for the Shirelles; and many others.

Soon after the LP was released, Phyllis Dillon's recording career became a thing of he past for some years, as she had moved to New York where she brought up a family and had a 'proper job' working in a bank. She did some live gigs with expat Jamaican band, the Buccaneers, but remuneration was scant, and an embittered Phyllis walked away from the world of music - until 1991 when she was invited to perform at a Kingston hotel, the Oceana, by its entertainment director Michael Bonnet. As she recalled in 1998, "I said, why not? Let me go do it. And everything just came back, and I realised how much I was in love with this thing." She went on to perform internationally until her passing in 2004 and, though she did record again, it's these Treasure Isle tracks which are the enduring legacy of a musical life well lived.

Mike Atherton - Echoes / Record Collector - April 2018

ONE LIFE TO LIVE, ONE LOVE TO GIVE
LOVE THE ONE YOU’RE WITH
LONG TIME AKA NICE TIME
SOMETHING
I CAN’T FORGET ABOUT YOU BABY
PICTURE ON THE WALL
WOMAN OF THE GHETTO
CLOSE TO YOU
EDDIE OH BABY
WE BELONG TOGETHER
THE LOVE THAT A WOMAN SHOULD GIVE TO A MAN
YOU ARE LIKE HEAVEN TO ME

MIDNIGHT CONFESSIONS
BOYS AND GIRLS REGGAE
PERFIDIA
LOVE IS ALL I HAD
DON’T STAY AWAY
REMEMBER THAT SUNDAY
DON’T TOUCH ME TOMATO
GET ON THE RIGHT TRACK
I WEAR HIS RING
TULIPS (AND HEATHER)
TAKE MY HEART
A THING OF THE PAST
WALK THROUGH THIS WORLD WITH ME
IT’S ROCKING TIME AKA ROCK STEADY
WHY DID YOU LEAVE ME
BOYS AND GIRLS REGGAE (TAKE 3)

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© Doctor Bird Records