Life Goes In Circles

Jerusalem - Devon Irons
Love Comes And Goes - The Abyssinians
Love Comes And Goes Version - The Abyssinians
Ghetto On Fire - Jacob Miller
Mother Country - Little Madness
Mother Country Dub Side - Little Madness
School Tonight - Desi Roots
The Way - Augustus Pablo
City Of The Weak Heart - Earl Zero
Dib The Weak Heart - The Circles
The Road Is Tough - Leroy Smart
Life Goes In Circles - Dennis Brown
False Rumour - Two Rasta Man
False Rumour Version - King Tubby
King Tubby's Version - Talent Crew
Please Officer - Earl Zero
Speak Softly Love - Ken Boothe
Hit Song - Roman Stewart
Natty Sings A Hit Song - Dillinger
Dub Songs - Dillinger

"You can take the music from the roots but you can't take the roots from the music..."
Little Madness: Mother Country

The story of Jamaican music is as complicated, complex and as convoluted as the music itself; peopled by larger than life characters with an innate talent for self-promotion whose fame (or often infamy) has at times outstripped their actual achievements.  However, at its heart there have always been a select few who chose to use their talents in promoting the work and the music of others. As a vocalist in The Jamaicans, one of the most distinctive rocksteady vocal groups of the late sixties, Tommy Cowan understood the artist's role and empathised with it. During the seventies his Talent Corporation managed to bridge the gap between 'uptown' and 'downtown' and was instrumental in helping to cross the music of Jamaica over to the rest of the world.

Thomas, known to everyone as Tommy, Cowan was born on 6th April 1946 in Newmarket in the rural parish of St. Elizabeth, Jamaica. The Cowan family were not actually musical but Tommy's father was a Lay Preacher in the Methodist Church in Newmarket and his sister, who had emigrated to the USA, sent the family a gramophone. The gramophone, coupled with singing in the church, proved to be the beginning of his lifelong love of music. At the age of eight Tommy went to Kingston to live with his aunt in the Maxfield Avenue district where, at first, they lived on the corner of Queens Avenue towards Half Way Tree. They later moved down to Delacree Road.

"On Delacree Road other kids spoke a lot about music. We lived next door to a gym and Wilfred 'Jackie' Edwards trained there. There was a playing field just across from us called Maxfield Park. There was one piano in the shed in the field (no-one knew who put it there) and John Holt, Bob Andy, Owen Grey and Jackie Edwards would all come along with people like Errol Thompson who was a disc jockey. Sir Lord Comic and all those guys would gather there. Laurel Aitken used to pass by. They would play a kind of boogie rhythm and out of that came 'Easy Snappin'' and 'Beard man Ska'. I was going to Half Way Tree School at that time and we would be allowed to sing in classes at the end of term. My song was 'Be Faithful My Darling' by Pat Boone."
Tommy Cowan

Tommy went to a concert held at St. Hugh's High School to sing 'Be Faithful Darling' and there he so impressed "those guys" that they approached him to join a group consisting of Martin Williams, "a guy called Derek", Norris Weir (the bass singer) and Ricky Storme (later known as I Kong) who were called The Merricoles. Tommy agreed to join and so "we came together" and started practising, taking turns at lead vocals and harmonising, and singing at talent contests.

"We were rehearsing at a place off Molynes Road and this guy heard us and sent for us. He was from the United States, drove his own Cadillac, and he told us: 'You guys have talent. You could go far. I can get you on the Johnny Carson Show!' But we'd never heard of Johnny Carson!"
Tommy Cowan

Aston McEchron was a businessman and not involved in music at all "although he could sing". He was in deep freeze and real estate but, even at that early stage, he was able to see the value of the music being made in Jamaica and he told The Merricoles that one day, their music would be famous all around the world:

"You can go far but you have to change your name... so call yourself The Jamaicans. We felt the name was corny."
Tommy Cowan

'Corny' or not The Merricoles became The Jamaicans and they began singing at the Kitimat Club at weekends where, after a while, "they started paying us. There were five of us and they paid us five shilling (twenty five pence) apiece... Twenty five shillings." This boosted their confidence sufficiently for the group to approach Clement 'Coxsone' Dodd at Studio One for an audition.

"At the audition we did a couple of songs for him and Jah Jerry Hines (guitarist for The Skatalites) 'Chain Gang' the Sam Cooke song, and 'Keep On Pacing The Floor'".
Tommy Cowan

"...sing a hit song. I want to sing a hit song."
Roman Stewart: Hit Song

Coxsone released a handful of recordings by The Jamaicans on his Supreme label including 'Chain Gang', 'Hear My Plea' and 'Jamaica' and in 1966 The Jamaicans entered the 'Pop & Mento Competition' where they were gold medallists with a song called 'Ma And Pa' which they recorded for W.I.R.L. (West Indies Records Limited). The 'Pop & Mento Competition' eventually evolved into the Festival Song Contest. The Jamaican Cultural Development Commission Annual Festival Of The Arts was established in 1963 after the island's independence in order to "develop and promote the creative talents and cultural expressions of the Jamaican people... also to ensure that the nation's heritage is preserved for the benefit of future generations" and since its inception in 1966, the Song Contest has been the most popular aspect of the Festival.

Duke Reid, an imposing figure who controlled the Treasure Isle studio, record label and liquor store, was an ex-policeman who always walked with "two guns on his waist and his shotgun". Despite his fearsome reputation the Duke became Tommy's hero after "he rescued me a couple of times from the bad boys on the street". The Jamaicans had gone to audition at Treasure Isle's Bond Street headquarters in 1966 where King Sporty (the deejay) and "a guy called 'Cuttings'" (the selector for Duke Reid's Sound System) were running the auditions. Tommy recalled that you had to "creep in under the door to the rehearsal and after Sporty and Cuttings had seen you then you had to face the Duke!"

"Me say me go a Treasure Isle
fe go pop little style
Me pop a little style and them
said fe rest a while
The natty sings a song..."
Dillinger: Natty Sings A Song

The Jamaicans passed the audition and their first recording for Duke Reid was 'Things You Say You Love' originally released on Treasure Isle's Trojan label. It has become one of the best known and best loved Jamaican songs ever. The marked contrast between the worldly wisdom and insight of the lyrics lamenting the inevitability of life's disappointments sung by such clear, youthful and optimistic voices set to Tommy McCook & The Supersonics buoyant rocksteady backing has ensured its legendary status for everyone.

"UB40 have done it on their new album" They're doing it in Jamaica at Sunsplash."

The following year The Jamaicans entered the Festival Song Contest with 'Baba Boom' a song whose use of a 'nonsense' title echoed The Maytals winning song 'Bam Bam' from the previous year. This superb rocksteady song with its beautiful harmonies was, once again, propelled by a lilting beat from Tommy McCook & The Supersonics and has been subsequently versioned over time and time again. Its lyrics, detailing all the fun to be had at the Festival, established the template for Festival Songs and would be endlessly emulated in the songs entered for the Contest.

"At that time it was really the best people in the business who would enter the Festival. People like Toots, Derrick Morgan, Desmond Dekker. Some of the greats were knocked out really early..."
Tommy Cowan

To illustrate just how tough the competition was the superb 'Unity' by Desmond Dekker & The Aces only managed to come a close second to 'Baba Boom' and Desmond & his Aces had to settle for the Desnoe & Geddes Sparkling Beverage Award of £100. The Jamaicans continued to work at Treasure Isle: young and enthusiastic their motivation was not financial but even more straightforward:

"I had a lot of fun with Duke Reid. When we recorded the song 'Baba Boom' he gave us a crate of soft drinks. This was a big thing and we thought the Duke must really like us. We never knew about royalties. We just wanted girls."
Tommy Cowan

"Everyday I get up I look into the world
I see big cars. I see pretty girls.
I'll be a better man if I had money in my hand
Help me oh Jah I want to come on strong."
Roman Stewart: Hit Song

After recording a few more tracks down on Bond Street ('Woman Go Home', 'Peace And Love') The Jamaicans moved back to WIRL and their 1968 release 'Sing Freedom' came second in the Festival Song Contest. They also recorded songs such as 'Don't Believe Her', 'No Baby Like You' and 'Feel It Festive Spirit' for Harry J.

"Me say me go a Harry J fe go get my pay
I get my pay and I walked away
The natty sings a hit song..."
Dillinger: Natty Sings A Hit Song

Then they toured the USA and Canada with Byron Lee & The Dragonaires and Byron Lee realised that Tommy Cowan had more talents than his obvious gifts as a singer.

"Byron Lee first asked me to go to WIRL as he owned the distribution rights for Atlantic Records and he asked me to look into what was happening with Atlantic. He felt that he needed someone with a passion for the music so he took the label to his house and I was working from his garage. Not long after that WIRL burned down (in 1969) and Byron Lee bought it and called it Dynamite Sounds. Then we got Columbia, Motown and Polygram and I became Sales & Marketing Manager."
Tommy Cowan

Dealing with major labels was only part of Tommy's job at Dynamic Sounds. He organised concerts and stage shows for visiting superstars such as The Drifters, Aretha Franklin. Ben E. King, Percy Sledge and The Temptations and he was also singing with The Jamaicans and producing records for Dynamite:

"We did a whole Jamaicans album, some of the Christmas albums that came out with Byron Lee, 'Folk Song' the first Black Uhuru record (featured on Pressure Sounds PSCD 50 'More Pressure Vol.1') and I helped to produce the Toots & The Maytals album 'Slatyam Stoot' (work it out!) The recordings that came out on the Top Cat label were usually my productions."
Tommy Cowan

"This is the studio and I man
have this sound
Come now music man make
me mash up the land..."
Roman Stewart; Hit Song

"My job with all the companies I worked with was to get records to hit. The last year before I left Dynamics (1973) we had the number one record every month of the year... most of which were soul sounds."
Tommy Cowan

Tommy began to branch out in 1974 and, with Byron Lee's full support, started releasing records on his own Starapple label and he set up the Talent Corporation the following year along with Gayman Alberga and his colleague from Dynamic Warwick Lyn.

"The Talent Corporation came out of a belief about Jamaican music... just like the guy Aston McEchron had said years ago! i was in a company that was dominated by foreign material where Jamaican music was seen as secondary. Byron Lee preferred doing a lot of covers and calypso to original Jamaican music."
Tommy Cowan

Tommy felt that the music of Jamaica should be given the same support and promotion as the music coming from overseas. It was his belief that it was every bit as important and so the Talent Corporation based at "Tommy's sprawling Kingston yard" at 1C Oxford Road was born. tommy once described it as "an inspiration centre."

I man go up a Talent Corporation
Just to make a penetration
Up a Talent Corporation
And to give them my vibration
To hit them with a rocking vibration
And to treat the generation
With this musical inspiration..."
Dillinger: Natty Sings A Hit Song

"We had Junior Tucker, Zap Pow and Beres Hammond, Jacob Miller and Inner Circle, Augustus Pablo, Ras Michael & The Sons Of Negus, Israel Vibration and we did work with Peter Tosh, Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer and Earl Zero."
Tommy Cowan

One of Talent Corporation's first seven inch hits for 1975 was, rather ironically, The Cimarons' (from the UK) version of Bob Marley's 'Talking Blues' on Talent. Others rapidly followed: Bob Marley & The Wailers' 'Natty Dread' and 'Road Block' on Tuff Gong. Peter Tosh's 'Burial' and 'Legalise It' in H.I.M. Intel Diplo, Ken Boothe's 'Speak Softly Love' on Starapple and, one of the biggest records of the year, Fred Locks' 'Black Star Liners' a Twelve Tribes record released on Jahmikmusik. Many of the records were subsequently released in the UK on Vulcan's Grounation subsidiary. Vulcan was one of the companies that had sprung up in London in the wake of Trojan's collapse.

Tommy modestly described himself as a catalyst and facilitator. "I didn't think I did that amount of (production) work at the time. Not like Coxsone who was recording morning, noon and night. I was just dabbling." Not all the records from Talent corporation were his productions such as the two releases on Arab from the legendary Earl Zero which he worked on with Jacob Miller and the Abyssinians' beautiful 'Love Comes And Goes' which was produced with 'Cat' Coore from Third World. Naturally enough Talent Corporation attracted some of Kingston's most talented artists and Tommy recalled Junior Delgado's presence at the recording of Jacob Miller's 'Ghetto On Fire' being instrumental in influencing Jacob's incendiary performance.

Tommy's memory of the finer details of the daily activities at Talent Corporation are "all a bit hazy" and it must have been like working in the eye of a creative hurricane.

"There were lots of people coming and going. There were three buildings with offices as well as an accountant working in his office. There was a restaurant where Cindy Breakspeare was the waitress, people in the workshops doing carpentry, one guy who worked with leather. Kiddus I and Mutabaruka used to recite poetry under the big tree in the garden. There was an artist called Boner who used to paint and do murals. There were instruments and a place to practise so there was a lot of rehearsing going on... it was generally a very creative place with a nice vibe. I understood where these artists were coming from and that it was all about creativity and whatever it was that was unique about an individual artist. It was not about the royalties... I was just interested in doing things like putting Herbie Mann and Tommy McCook together"
Tommy Cowan

Talent Corporation was never about the  money and, as the decade drew to a close, it eventually became a victim of its own success. The ever open doors of 1C Oxford Road became a focal point, not only for Kingston's artists and musicians, but also for journalists from overseas who wanted to gain access to the closed doors of the Jamaican music business. Talent Corporation could always make things happen but it took a number of highly artistically successful years before Tommy began to realise that you also need to be financially successful to keep a business running and that to do that you had to be selfish to a degree that he was not prepared to go to:

"The more we worked the less money we had. If you really want to be a successful producer then you have to take care of yourself before the artist and I didn't believe that. There's a great responsibility dealing with artists because you have to take care of them. I would walk with them, lift the equipment and do the same as them and they respected me for it. I was what we call in Jamaica 'chief cook and bottle washer' but I wasn't building a financial stable. I now know that we should have charged production costs to the artist as you run up all these costs when you're recording. You pay the artist a royalty while, at the same time, you're trying to promote the record and you end up going deeper and deeper into debt. I was surviving because of my performance monies. I was dealing with their families, mothers, girlfriends, baby mothers, aunties and medical bills. They never let go! They're still getting money from me now... thirty and forty years on and I'm still looking after family members weekly."
Tommy Cowan

When it was first established in 1975 Talent Corporation had distributed Bunny Wailer's and Peter Tosh's first solo albums: 'Black Heart Man' and 'Legalise It' and Bob Marley's 'Natty Dread' single:

"After that Bob wanted me to distribute the 'Natty Dread' album (Bob Marley's first solo album) but I was a bit timid of Bob's entourage! I didn't like that too much and eventually Neville Lee (of Sonic Sounds) got it. A few years later Bob asked me again 'you must come to Hope Road' and he invited me round to see him. We started building the Tuff Gong Recording Studio at 56 Hope Road in 1979 and I began recruiting artists for the 56 Hope Road label."
Tommy Cowan

Tommy became more and more involved with Bob Marley & The Wailers and toured Europe with them in 1979. Tommy then travelled with them to Africa where he was compere for the now legendary Zimbabwe Independence Day Concert in Salisbury which Tommy laughingly described as "a learning experience... now it's historical!"

"At the time it was very difficult. I was the first one to volunteer and Bob paid for the whole trip. One of the proposed routes was through South Africa but Bob refused to go that way so we went via Kenya. A lot of the concert was left to me to stage... the workers were very tricky. We paid them upfront and they all disappeared. We had thought it would be encouraging for them. On the night of the concert there was still a certain amount of segregation: all the world leaders and dignitaries on one side and all the black people on the other: (
A lot of local people were feeling very aggrieved because they had been excluded from the concert) Prince Charles was there and Bob said he wouldn't meet him! As the band started 'I Shot The Sheriff' the prisoners broke down the gates of the stadium. I was at the back doing the sound check and the cops burst the teargas and I ran to the back of the stage and grabbed up Ziggy (Bob's son) and put a wet towel over his eyes. I then got all the band members in the bus as two jets came down over the stadium. When it eventually quietened down Bob went back on stage and did 'Africa Unite' and 'Zimbabwe'."
Tommy Cowan

As the new decade began Tommy moved full time into working on stage shows. This had always been part of Talent Corporation's services and Tommy had been promoting live performance since the early seventies: "I also wanted to stage the music and that's where my heart really was. We did shows around the country where we'd do two songs. If the people went crazy you did three songs. So we started to feature the artists on an individual basis at the Epiphany Club in New Kingston on a Wednesday night and featured two acts such as Judy Mowatt, Ernest Ranglin and Inner Circle. This allowed them to perform for forty five minutes to an hour and the exposure that we gained doing this led us into doing the Reggae Sun And Ting outdoors concerts and out of that grew Reggae Sunsplash."
Tommy Cowan

Tommy was not originally involved in Reggae Sunsplash although he would eventually become the Master of Ceremonies and the representative for these now legendary outdoor reggae concerts. First held at Montego Bay they progressed to become the leading showcase for reggae music all around the world touring the USA, Europe, Africa and the Pacific Islands. Tommy recalled how and why he was reluctant to become involved:

"Tony Johnson, who was with the Urban Development Corporation at the time would hang out at 1C Oxford Road where we showed him that this could be really big and that people from all over the world would come to this thing in Jamaica. He had a car accident where he lost his eye and, after he recovered, he started Reggae Sunsplash. I was mad about that because he'd taken my idea so, for the first few years, I didn't get involved but I was asked to go in and I ended up being the voice of Reggae Sunsplash. I coined the phrase: 'Reggae is a musical vibe coming to the four corners of the world uniting people of all classes, creeds and colours which came down to 'Uniting The World Through Music'."
Tommy Cowan

Tommy Cowan has always kept to the path of making music and making music accessible to all and he has worked tirelessly throughout his life to promote the culture of Jamaica. He is at present touring the USA with the current Reggae Sunsplash line up. After many years as a devout Rastafarian Tommy returned to the Christian faith in 1996 and, in partnership with his wife, the singer Carlene Davis, he has established Jamaica's leading gospel music organisation, Glory Music, which produces CDs and promotes concerts of gospel music including the annual Fun In The Son festival held in Ocho Rios.

"I want to sing a hit song.
It's been a long time
I want to sing a hit song.
Don't keep me down"
Roman Stewart: Hit Song

It is sad but true that organisations such as Talent Corporation find it hard to exist in the harsh commercial cut and thrust of the real world and this is an indictment of the greed and mistrust prevalent in our society. We will not dwell here on why Talent Corporation is no longer operating but instead celebrate its achievements with this selection of superb records from its heyday; Tommy feels that with this Pressure Sounds release "it's all coming together now to make sense." A man who was content to stay backstage as the stars performed Tommy Cowan's modesty and self-effacement are, unfortunately, all too rare in the world of entertainment but these are the qualities that have always defined his approach. Although he considers that he has always "loved the music much more than the business" he has done more to promote the music as a viable business than many who considered themselves to be business men. We sincerely hope that this album, containing some of Talent Corporation's best and rarest releases, will help to shine the spotlight for once on Tommy Cowan and his tireless work for Jamaican music.

Harry Hawke - August 2006

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