Top Deck Presents: Ska Vocals - 40 Crucial Vocal Classics

Jackie Opel - Valley Of Green
Ferdie Nelson & Ivan Yap - Ska Down Jamaica Way
Bibby & The Astronauts - Sweet Dreams
The Deacons - Men Alone
Andy & The Avalons - Never Too Young To Learn
Reuben Anderson - Ambition Of Men
Jackie Opel - Pictures Of Smoke
Ferdie Nelson - War And Strife
Larry Marshall - Snake In The Grass
The Angelic Brothers - Ten Virgins
The Jetts - Someone
Jackie Opel - Turn To The Almighty
Ferdie Nelson - Certainly
The Avalons - Everyday
Bibby & The Astronauts - No More Will I Wonder
Jimmy McCracklin - Dreaming
Al & The Vibrators - Money Or Love
Jackie Opel - Sometimes I Wonder
The School Boys - Come Back Pretty Baby
Joe G. Henry - Last Summer
Jackie Opel - Take Your Time
Ferdie Nelson - Lonely And Blue Boy
Larry Marshall - Too Young To Love
Unknown Artist - Love Will Find A Way
The Avalons - I Love You
Ferdie Nelson - Weeping And Wailing
Jackie Opel -(Wipe These) Tears From My Eyes
Bibby & The Astronauts - Please Beverley
Andy & The Avalons - Please Leave Me Alone
The Deacons - Hungry Man
The Jetts - Fresh Out Of Love
Ferdie Nelson - Birds And Bees
Jackie Opel - Every Word I Say Is True
Bibby & The Astronauts - Sweet Dreams
L. Marshall & F. Nelson - Promise Is A Comfort To A Fool
The Deacons - Men Alone
Al & The Vibrators - Dream For Tomorrow
Jackie Opel - Valley Of Green
Joe G. Henry - My Darling Josephine
The Angelic Brothers - My Sunshine

Producers have played a crucial part in Jamaica's recording industry ever since the dawn of commercial recording on the island in the 1950s, often considered to be as important as the musicians they employed. From the days of Ska onwards, many music lovers have followed a particular label just as avidly as they might follow their chosen football team. It is documented, for example, that customers would buy a new Duke Reid production without hearing it first, knowing that they could rely on consistent musical quality and that they would be getting a disc that both pleased the ears and moved the feet.

Usually in a British or American recording studio, the producer shapes the direction and sound of a performance that is being recorded. He may, like Sam Phillips at Sun, own the label for which he's producing the performance, but more often, as with George Martin at EMI, he doesn't. The picture in the studios of Kingston, Jamaica, has always been different. The producer is the man, or occasionally the woman, who provides the finance necessary to hire the studio, pay the musicians and get the records pressed and into the shops. Many producers were basically businessmen who had little or no musical input. Some, such as Lee Perry, Keith Hudson and Prince Buster were singers or musicians who contributed considerably to the creative process in the studio. A third group, such as Duke Reid, were not musicians themselves, but had clear and definite ideas about what they wanted to hear.

Philip Stanford 'Justin' Yap belonged to the third group. From the time of his first recording session with Baba Brooks and Trenton Spence's band in 1962, when he was only 18 years of age, the young Chinese-Jamaican always strove to achieve the best possible finished performance. A perfectionist, he would make several takes of a number until it sounded just the way he wanted it. Kingston's musicians were usually resistant to this practice, as they were often paid per completed song. But Justin Yap, as musicians who worked for him have confirmed, paid twice the going rate per tune, allowing his session men time to rehearse and to work out detailed arrangements. So, almost uniquely in the annuls of Ska music, we have three or even more takes of numerous tunes.

We are fortunate indeed to have them, for Justin Yap moved from Jamaica to New York in 1966. Luckily he was a bit of a hoarder, and took all his master tapes with him, where they sat in his home in Queens, largely untouched, but safe, for 30 years or so. During those years Justin had served with the US Army in Vietnam, worked in the emergent computer industry and driven a yellow taxi before dusting off his tapes and beginning a reissue programme towards the end of his life. That life was cut cruelly short when he died of liver cancer in 1999, aged only 55, but the marvellous music that he issued on his Top Deck label and its subsidiaries, Tuneico and Soundeck, serves as his lasting legacy.

JACKIE OPEL, born Dalton Bishop in 1938, was Top Deck's star vocalist. Though a Bajan by birth, he established himself as a leading Jamaican artist both on stage and on disc in the middle of the 1960s, after bandleader Byron Lee had brought him from his native island to Jamaica. He does not appear to have recorded for Lee, who was also a producer, but established himself with numerous sides for Coxsone Dodd's Studio One group of labels, as well as gaining a reputation for dynamic stagecraft on a par with American Soul singers, such as Jackie Wilson. After moving to Trinidad and then back to his native Barbados, the man who took his stage surname from his favourite make of motor car was, ironically, killed in a car crash in 1970.

Whether he's singing a rousing Ska tune like 'Valley Of Green' or a dramatic beat ballad such as 'Tears From My Eyes', his soulful tone, impressive vocal range and impeccable timing have the ability to make a song spring to life.

HARRIS 'B.B.' SEATON, who appears here as 'Bibby' leading his group, the Astronauts, has enjoyed a long and successful career in music. While still a teenager he recorded both as a solo singer and, alongside Maurice Roberts and Winston Stewart, as the Gaylads. He briefly left the group to form the Astronauts, who recorded for Justin Yap; their tracks were not released at the time and their personnel remains unknown. B.B. later rejoined the Gaylads for a run of late '60s hits before turning solo with similar success. He has lived in London for many years and still releases music on his Soul Beat label, as well as performing solo and with a re-formed Gaylads. A skilled musician, engineer, songwriter and producer, his contribution to Ska and Reggae music over five decades has been enormous.

He and his anonymous Astronauts make a strong contribution to this album, with three songs cut at that notable 1964 Studio One session. His wailing exuberant style and the gospel-tinged harmonies of the group are reminiscent of the Maytals, who were hot in Jamaica at the time. 'Sweat Dreams' and 'No More Will I Roam' are good sides with the Skatalites on cracking form, but it's 'Please Beverley', bright, tuneful and upbeat, which is the pick of the bunch.

THE DEACONS, on the other hand, were a short-lived vocal group who seem to have recorded two songs for Justin Yap and nothing else. Apparently brought to the studio by Jackie Opel, their waxings also show the influence of the Maytals; who knows how their music would have developed if they had stayed together. Both takes of their frantic Ska number 'Men Alone' sound as if the group and the band are having a race to see who can finish before the two minute mark; on take 2, issued on Tuneico and on UK Doctor Bird, they just succeed. to these ears, their more measured 'Hungry Man' is better than either, yet this would remain unissued for many years after its 1965 recording date.

FERDIE NELSON was, like Justin yap, from the Barbican area of Kingston. His singing career seems to have begun and ended with his work for the producer, for whom he recorded at sessions in 1963 and 1964; on the latter, he also sang backing vocals for Jackie Opel. His singing suggests a talent that could have been further developed but, for whatever reason, it was not to be. His 'Ska Down Jamaica Way', based on 'South Of The Border', is a bright, powerhouse Ska outing with the Skatalites at full bore, with Justin's brother, Ivan contributing 'peps' (lip-flapping vocal effects). Amazingly, it was not issued until 1998. Should Ferdie have made more records? In the words of another of his songs, 'Certainly'. This track suggests from its structure and from Ferdie's delivery that he had been listening to Prince Buster's recent output. Well, if you must imitate somebody, who better to model yourself on than Jamaica's Greatest?

THE ANGELIC BROTHERS recorded two songs at a Yap session in 1962 or early 1963 before apparently disappearing off the face of the Isle of Springs. A possible clue to their identity is that their 'Ten Virgins' was issued in the UK on Island as by the Hi-Tones, a group who made a couple of records for Coxsone Dodd - although the B-side also credits the Hi-Tones, when in fact it's actually Larry Marshall performing a solo number. Both their tracks on this album are probably better showcases for Trenton Spence's band than they are for the lads, though they groove along nicely, with 'Ten Virgins' one of the relatively few Yap productions to see a UK single release.

REUBEN ANDERSON seems at first glance to be even more of a mystery man. He popped up on a 1965 Top Deck single, the A-side of which was Roland Alphonso's 'Ska-Ra-Van', his sole recording under his own name. However, he teamed up with Joanne Dennis, the sister of Garth Dennis of the popular Wailing Souls group to form the duo Andy & Joey who cut a number of singles between 1962 and 1965. After its stirring boogie intro, 'Ambition Of Man' once again suggests a musical debt to Prince Buster, as it borrows the melody of his 'Black Head Chinaman'.

THE AVALONS were a female group who recorded two tracks at Justin Yap's May 1965 session at Studio One, joined by 'Andy', probably Reuben Anderson, on one number. They exude a youthful innocence after the fashion of US groups such as the Teddy Bears or the Bobbettes, which perhaps led to their brace of charming ballads, 'I Love You' and 'Everyday' (on which only one Avalon is audible) gaining UK issue on Island, while other Top Deck sides by better-known artists did not.

JIMMY McCRACKLIN is definitely not the R&B singer / pianist of 'The Walk' fame - Justin Yap should have been so lucky! However he obviously had an ear for a Blues ballad, as his 'Dreaming', probably recorded at an early Top Deck session, shows.

THE JETTS were one of the acts that recorded at the marathon session held at Studio One in November. Their agreeably cool harmonies sound as if they had been listening to US R&B group, the Drifters, but once again we have no idea of their personnel. Their 'Fresh Out Of Love' is a beat ballad with an eloquent sax solo, while 'Someone' has an outstanding drum intro by Lloyd Knibb before settling into an easy-paced Ska number showcasing the lead Jett's pleasant tenor voice. Both tracks date from the Studio One session in November 1964, at which Justin Yap produced a treasury of fine recordings.

AL & THE VIBRATORS are better documented. 'Al' was Linval Marvin, whose strong tenor tones front the group who also recorded at that crowded November 1964 Studio One session. They moved on to record for producer Sonia Pottinger throughout the '60s and are best remembered for their 'Move On Up,, cut for her in 1967. 'Money Or Love', Ska with a confident swagger, features a fluent trombone solo from Don Drummond, while 'Dreams Of Tomorrow', by way of contrast, is a mid-tempo ballad with a Country tinge and a swirling organ solo by, presumably, Jackie Mittoo of the Skatalites.

JOE G. HENRY, from the Barbican area of Kingston, recorded with Trenton Spence's band at Justin Yap's initial session. He is believed to be the same man who recorded as 'Henry III' and Henry Buckley later in the decade, and as 'E. Henry' he supplied some tunes to Chris Blackwell's fledgling Island label in the UK around 1963. He was also, at one stage, music director for the Jamaican Constabulary Force Band: evidently a man who kept on the move. His son Henry Jr. is involved in music and, following in father's footsteps, has recorded as Pancho Kryztal and Sadiki as well as being a member of the re-formed Tennors vocal group. 'My Darling Josephine' is a sentimental ballad sincerely sung, and 'Last Summer' is a well-arranged beat ballad in a similarly yearning mood.

THE SCHOOL BOYS, as you might expect, were a youthful male group who harmonised pleasingly. They enjoyed a flurry of activity in the 1963-1964 period, recording for Prince Buster, King Edwards and Coxsone Dodd as well as for Justin Yap, but we have no idea if any of them graduated into an adult musical career. Here they tackle the R&B shuffle 'Come Back Pretty Baby', backed by Trenton Spence's band and an enthusiastic performance from all concerned.

LARRY MARSHALL ranks second to Jackie Opel as the star vocalist of Top Deck's stable; though his rise to fame happened largely after his association with the label, he was Justin's one true discovery, as Opel was already well known when he came to Top Deck. Born Fitzroy Marshall in St Ann's, Jamaica, in 1941, he recorded steadily from the early '60s to the 1980s, scoring plenty of hits along the way including 'Throw Me Corn' and 'Nanny Goat' (a duet with Alvin Leslie), which is a serious contender for the title of the first Reggae recording, before moving to Florida. 'Too Young To Love', from 1963, is his first recording and owes much to Ben E. King's 'Stand By Me' in its arrangement. By 1965 Larry had gained in confidence on his cover of Paul Martin's then-current US Soul hit, 'Snake In The Grass'. Larry's version gained a UK issue on Doctor Bird.

UNKNOWN ARTIST: the Top Deck archives include a number called 'Love Will Find A Way'. with the Skatalites laying down a firm rhythm with a peppering of explosive drumming, and Lester Sterling taking the alto sax solo. But who is the singer? Indeed, who are the singers, for a second voice can be heard faintly behind the leader, and takes over towards the end of the track? This writer would hazard a guess that Ferdie Nelson is the featured artist and that the second vocal is by none other than Jackie Opel singing in his higher register. But wiser heads than this writer's have been scratched in vain as people tried to establish the duo's indentities.

The 40 tracks on these two CDs form a compendium of vocal recordings by a talented underrated yet historically important Jamaican record producer, with most of them, more to the point, offering excellent listening. Speaking of excellent listening, don't overlook the companion volume, which features lashings of Justin Yap's mighty instrumental waxings with the Skatalites and more!

Mike Atherton - (Echoes/Record Collector)
All material © Trojan Records