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Phyllis Dillon- Jamaican Songbird

It goes without saying that Jamaica’s music industry has largely been dominated by male performers and in the circumstances, the number of consistently successful female singers could arguably be counted on the fingers of one hand. It is against this background that the career of the late Phyllis Dillon has to be looked at as she not only bucked the male-dominated trend, but also consistently turned-out popular singles from 1966 to 1972, when she made her records exclusively for Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle label. She was discovered by Duke Reid’s session guitarist Nearlynn (Lyn) Taitt who first brought her to the Treasure Isle Studio at 33 Bond Street, in downtown Kingston.  EARLY YEARS Phyllis was born in Linstead, St. Catherine on New Year’s Day 1948, where she grew up listening to American singers such as Dionne Warwick, Connie Francis, and Patti Page, whose influences produced her own singing style and with which (while) still a teenager, she started entering (and winning) talent contests. It was at one of these contests that Lyn Taitt heard her singing with her hometown semi-pro group, the Vulcans in Tilly Blackman’s famous Glass Bucket Club in Kingston. Lynn Taitt invited her to attend an audition at Treasure Isle, as she recalled in a 1998 interview:

"I was singing there, and Lynn came over and complimented my singing, and asked if I was interested in recording. And I said yes, so he said, why don’t you come down to Duke Reid’s studio on Sunday morning. That is really how it started." CAREER

Her first recording was “Don’t Stay Away” which was done towards the end of 1966, abut the same time that the faster Ska beat had started to wane, opening the door for what became known as the Rock Steady beat which Duke Reid would use to dominate the Jam consistently turn out popular singles from 1966 to 1972, she also cut every one of them for Duke Reid‘s Treasure Isle label. Dillon dominated the Jamaican music scene for the next two years, under the guidance of guitarist Lyn Taitt and the studio band Tommy McCook & the Supersonics. Dillon, although only 19 years of age, wasn’t overawed by this top backing studio band. Rather, she displayed a poise and sense of phrasing way beyond her years, as she coolly and sweetly emoted the melodic song, which she had apparently composed herself. It was not surprising that the single was a smash hit in Jamaica when it was released by Duke Reid around the beginning of 1967.

According to Dillon, Duke Reid would personally select almost all the songs that she recorded, drawing on his own taste and preference for North American and soul tunes, many of which were adapted by her as she shone in the rock steady period, catering to Jamaicans who had always been listening with a keen ear to musical developments in the States. DILLON'S CATALOGUE

When one examines her catalogue of hits, “A Thing of the Past” was actually a single originally done by the Shirelles, “Make Me Yours” was an earlier hit for Bettye Swan, “Leave it in the Hands of Love” was a Fontella Bass B-side, “A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening” was first sung by Frank Sinatra in the 1944 film, ‘Higher And Higher’, though it’s more likely that Duke knew it from the crop of R&B vocal group versions, while ‘Tulips And Heather’, on which she was accompanied by silky-smooth voice of Boris Gardener, and coming from the Perry Como songbook. more recent versions by Kitty Lester and Elvis Presley were the most likely source of inspiration for her lilting cover, on which she was accompanied by Alton Ellis.

Drawing inspiration closer to home, she put out an adaptation of the risqué Mento side “Don’t Touch Mi Tomato” as well as a cover of the Wailers’ “Nice Time”, “Why Did You Leave Me” was a duet with Alton Ellis which was a cover of an earlier hit by the Heptones, and “I Wear His Ring” a cover of the US single by Julie and the Gems.  “Perfidia,” Dillon’s best known Rock Steady single was first attributed to Alfredo Dominguez, which Dillon literally made her own. MOVE TO NEW YORK

In December 1967, Phyllis moved to New York, where she found work as a bank teller, while periodically flying back to Jamaica to record for Dure Reid’s Treasure Isle label In the course of this period, the Reggae beat had started to take center-stage and o dominate at the end of the sixties. Phyllis recorded “Love is All I Had”, as well as a number of singles on which she was paired her with various male singers. Alongside ‘Mr. Take It Easy’, Hopeton Lewis, she recorded “Right Track”, “Take My Heart” and “Walk Through This World”, while with Alton Ellis, she cut the 1970 hit “Remember That Sunday.” She also recorded “One Life to Live”, a remake of Marlena Shaw’s “Woman of The Ghetto” among a raft of other lesser-known tunes.

Shortly afterwards, Phyllis Dillon walked away from the music business and settled down to family life in New York, including bringing up two children. In the seventies she did some live work with expat Ja. band, the Buccaneers, but there always seemed to be a reason why little or no money ensued. DILLON WALKS AWAY

At that point Phyllis Dillon abandoned the world of music with some bitterness. That might have been the end of the saga, had it not been for Michael Barnett, the entertainment director of the then Oceana Hotel in downtown Kingston, who called her and asked if she would come over and sing. Initially she refused, wary of the slim rewards that had come her way in the past, but to his credit, Barnett persisted.

‘He said, well, my boss gave me X-amount of dollars, and I have six months to try and convince you’, recalled Phyllis in 1998. ‘And I said, why not, let me go do it. It was ’91, and everything just came back, and I realized how much I was in love with that thing’.

Her second career took her back to Jamaica and to London, Germany, and Japan for live shows, and back into the studio with Lynn Taitt in 1998 to record for the first time in 25 years. She continued touring, singing vintage ska, rock steady and reggae songs to audiences who were always appreciative and sometimes ‘really wild’ until illness slowed her down.

Phyllis Dillon died on 15th April 2004, in Long Island, New York, after a two-year battle with cancer, at the age of 59.[2] She was posthumously awarded the Order of Distinction in 2009 by the Jamaican government.


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