In the mid-1950s 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.
The Mogul's Beginnings
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. It was under these conditions that the first serious Jamaican recorded song was birthed. That song was the Higgs & Wilson "Manny O."
Vere Johns Talent Show
It was the Finals of a Vere Johns Talent Show at the Ward Theater which was at the last minute, attended by one Edward Seaga, then owner of West Indies Records Limited (WIRL), a company involved in licensing and distributing Americans all over the island. According to Seaga, the song was a basic R&B type boogie with a Jamaican styled New Orleans beat. Seaga was intrigued by the audience response to the song and felt that with a slight shift in the chords and the application of a Mento element in changing the emphasis of the piano 's shuffle by gently marking out the off-beat with a guitar chord just as the banjo does in a Mento number. Such customizing transformed the song in such a way that Jamaicans could now recognize it as their own creation. Record pressing plants in the island exploded, producing some 25,000 copies and exposed the fact that Jamaicans wanted music that they could identify as their own.
Despite the aggressive nature of the concert audiences, these talent contests would produce 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.”