Updated: Feb 6
"If you made it on the Vere John's Opportunity Hour, you'll make it anywhere." Jamaica's capital city Kingston in the 1950s, particularly in Western Kingston was a burgeoning ghetto. For most of the teeming poor within these ghettoes, it was necessary to find options for survival and the growing music industry seemed a reasonable alternative. It was not surprising that during the period, almost every youth in Kingston it would appear wanted to be a singer. As such, it was not uncommon to find bands of youngsters coming together to form singing groups influenced in part by the North American singing groups as well as by the recording success stories that came from among their peers. Entertainment facilities such as the Ambassador, the Palace, Ward and the Majestic Theaters were left to this burgeoning group as the more successful from these communities migrated northwards. As part of their attractions the owners of these entertainment structures held regular talent contests or "Amateur Hour" concerts sometimes conducted between flicks in order to identify local talent. The most renowned of these live show promoters was Vere Everette Johns. Johns was born in Mandeville in 1893 and after serving in World War One he found success as a newspaper columnist in the United States in the 1920s, a career he continued on his return to Jamaica in 1939. In the late 1940s he began a long-running "Vere Johns Says" column in the Jamaica Star newspaper, often on the topic of music. The Vere Johns Talent Contests were held mostly on Wednesday nights and became the high-point of the ghetto people’s week. With the price of admission being less than a shilling per head it was easy to pull in a large crowd. Winners were adjudged by the loudness of the cheers for each contestant and the winners would become immediate candidates for the Vere Johns Opportunity Knocks show on JBC radio. Producers such as Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd, and Arthur “Duke” Reid also used these shows as part of their own pool for scouting talent, often taking singers to record at Stanley Motta’s recording studio to cut records to be played on their sound systems. The contests were generally a progressive series of appearances over weeks and the winner and first runner-up were guaranteed a place in the next round through to a quarter and semi-final. It was perhaps through these shows that Jamaicans developed the reputation of being “hard to please” audience and more often than not, contestants had to bring along their own cheering sections or purchase this support prior to the start of the show. Contestants who survived to the end of the series had to possess both an indomitable will as well as spirit especially for surviving the taunts from the paid "jeerers" among the audience. That notwithstanding, the contests produced some of the finest names in Jamaican music and recording history including Laurel Aitken, Bob Andy, Bunny and Skitter, The Blues Blasters, Alton Ellis, Hortense Ellis, Lascelles Perkins, Wilfred (Jackie) Edwards, Desmond Dekker, Derrick Morgan, Boris Gardner, Derrick Harriot, John Holt, James (Jimmy Cliff) Chambers, Roy Richards, Higgs and Wilson, Charlie Organaire, Dobby Dobson, and the Wailers among a host of others. From this list of pioneers came the early recordings of Mento, Jamaican influenced Blues, R&B, the Shuffle which would later give way to the biggest global musical find of the period “The Ska.”
As we prepare to celebrate Reggae Month this February, be on the lookout for more of these tid-bits on our music.