The Uniques - Watch This Sound

My Conversation
Watch This Sound
Out Of Love
One Fine Day
Gypsy Woman
One Conception
A Yuh
Speak No Evil
The Beatitude
One Life
Give Me Some More
Run Come
My Woman's Love
Never Let Me Go
Can't Do Without It

Rocksteady has exercised a thirty year hold on Jamaican music - its rhythms, basslines, melodies and songs are re-interpreted and returned to as a source of inspiration during every new musical phase. To describe the Uniques' rocksteady recordings as influential hardly scratches the surface or adequately describes the nature of their enduring appeal. Ask any Jamaican who grew up in the sixties and seventies to name their favourite singer and it's a certainty that Slim Smith's name will head the list.

The Uniques occupy a very special place in the hearts of Jamaican music lovers with the high, emotion packed, at times bordering on the hysterical voice of Slim Smith their best remembered attribute. So popular was Slim Smith that many of their recordings as the Uniques have been subsequently released and credited to Slim Smith alone while many non-Uniques tracks were credited to them because of the strength of their name - which is just part of the story. Here's some of "the half' that's never told".

The origins of the group were in Winston Riley's Techniques and when Slim and Franklyn White left The Techniques they formed the first version of the Uniques with Roy Shirley. Both Roy and Slim pursued solo careers for a brief while and the Uniques came together again in late 1967 with Jimmy Riley and Lloyd 'Charmers' Tyrell alongside Keith 'Slim' Smith. It was this group that took the Jamaican musical world by storm working with up and coming producer Bunny 'Striker' Lee whose breakthrough nto the top flight was closely linked with the Uniques incredible success - in fact they recorded almost exclusively for Striker with a few notable exceptions such as the beautiful 'Secretly' for Lloyd 'Matador' Daley.

Jimmy and Slim were friends from their school days together at Kingston Senior School, Lloyd hailed from Trenchtown, Jimmy was from Jonestown and Slim actually lived at the corner of Beeston Street and Orange Street opposite Coxsone's Muzik City Record Shop. Described by jimmy riley as one of the "second wave of vocal harmony trios" their influences should be obvious - The Impressions, The Four Tops & The Temptations and some of their biggest hits were covers of Curtis Mayfield songs.

The rocksteady backings of the time allowed the group full scope to develop their sound and this was much, much more than a lead singer and two harmony back ups. Slim had no formal musical training but he loved to play the guitar and sing. Jimmy recalls that he was "always singing and playing the guitar" while his vocal mentors were Jamaican superstars Ken Boothe, Delroy Wilson, Bob Andy and Alton Ellis. Lloyd had already enjoyed a taste of success as one of The Charmers specialising in ska and slow soul styled work outs and his subsequent career as a musician and producer demonstrate that his early promise was no flash in the pan. Lloyd went on to produce Ken Boothe's UK number one 'Everything I Own' and Delroy Wilson's unforgettable 'I'm Still Waiting'. Jimmy claims to be "the only person to have sung with three top vocal groups": The Sensations with Cornell Campbell and Harold Davis, The Uniques (of course) and The Techniques. His falsetto was beautiful and his songwriting talents were pivotal to the groups success. He wrote 'Blinded By Love' about Slim, as Slim was "falling in love everyday" and their bond was so close that he felt "closer to Slim than his own blood brothers". They were often mistaken for each other and would play up to this - especially with the ladies! All three were tall and always extremely well turned out and in live performances they were a match for anyone. At venues such as the Carib Theatre, State Theatre, Regal Theatre and the Music union they stole the show on a regular basis from any other group trying their luck against them - on one memorable occasion the group in question was The Wailers and Bob Marley allegedly threatened Slim with a knife!

Slim was never one to hold back on emotions; his willingness to wear his heart soulfully on his sleeve and to allow his public to gaze deeply into his tormented soul endeared him to an entire generation. His fragile mental state led him to a spell in Kingston's infamous Belle Vue Sanatorium in 1972 after he had left the group to pursue a solo career and Jimmy was anxious to set the record straight about Slim's untimely death in 1973.

He was in New York when he heard about the tragedy and he "did not believe it at first - only when I heard it from several sources did I believe it". Due to Slim's sensitive nature rumours immediately started that his death was suicide but this was not so - the people who were there at the time insist it was an accident. Slim had returned home to his parents house after smoking ganja with some friends and could not gain entrance to the house. He broke a window to get in and badly lacerated his arm in doing so. His injuries were so severe that he bled to death before he could get treatment.

The group's songs remain as a lasting legacy to their dedication to their craft - the emphasis was always on quality rather than quantity. they were early champions of 'reality' music and their first hit 'Watch This Sound' was an adaptation of a Buffalo Springfield 'protest' song where their reading of Steve Still's lyric adds another dimension to the original version while their interpretation of The Impressions' 'Gypsy Woman' again added new facets to an already established classic.. They really excelled at love songs and the plaintive plea of 'Nobody Loves Me' (from 'Out Of Love') touches a nerve far wider than its playground beginnings. Their two greatest recordings ever 'My Conversation' and 'The Beatitude' were originally released back to back on the Lee's label. 'The Beatitude', based on Christ's Sermon on the Mount interposed with their own pleas for mercy, combine on one of Jamaica's finest records ever - a spine tingling mix of the universal and the personal. 'My Conversation' was ultimately responsible for the version album - a monster that could not have happened in any other musical field. Winston Grennan's nagging piano hook line (on top of his original drumming!) together with some of The Uniques' best singing ever of a very beautiful song 'Love Your Brothers, Love Your Sisters' produced an unforgettable song. Striker sold the rhythm track to fellow producer Rupie Edwards in 1974 and Rupie promptly put together ten instrumental and deejay versions of the rhythm on one album as 'Yamaha Skank' The introduction - 'Welcome To Doctor Satan's Echo Chamber' not only set the tone for the rest of the album but as a prophecy fulfilled throughout the coming decades - although not all of the albums that came out of that particular echo chamber were based on such solid foundations.

The sound and the appeal of The Uniques can be analysed endlessly but it's impossible to explain in words. Great art is a way of allowing us to share in the experiences of others and there is a chord struck here that resonates deep within the psyche. The absence of artifice or 'sophistication' makes for a sincerity that has to be experienced - it's emotional and musical and best listened to - do so now without further ado.

Harry Hawke

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