Toronto’s Lost Soul & Reggae Stars Revisited
Photos courtesy of Light in the Attic Records
The landscape of soul music, more than any other genre, has been littered with talented artists with unfulfilled careers spent in obscurity, grinding out appearances in dingy bars in the search for the elusive radio hit. Such was the fate of Jay Douglas, The Mighty Pope and many other pioneers of Toronto’s soul and reggae scene in the 1960s and 1970s. These artists—who are reuniting for a concert at the Mod Club Theatre (722 College Street) this Thursday—have been frequently and unjustifiably excluded from the established, but unimaginative, canon of important Canadian artists and albums. For these expatriate and immigrant artists, Jamaica lived on as a presence in their music. They fused Caribbean influences with soul and rhythm & blues. But the result did not fit the narrow confines of Canadian commercial radio, and the artists collected on Jamaica To Toronto: Soul, Funk & Reggae 1967-1974 and Summer Records Anthology 1974-1988 struggled to find an audience beyond the West Indian community. Luckily, the top forty charts are not the only indicators of lasting cultural importance.
Thirty years after the initial emergence of these artists, a Vancouver-based DJ, Kevin “Sipreano” Howes, stumbled across a couple albums from this potent underground scene. Not to be satisfied simply with discovering obscure breaks and beats for out-of-context sampling, his interest was piqued by artifacts of a vanished Canada, and he set out to uncover the back story. His insatiable curiosity drove him to spend two years playing detective to track down the original artists, most of whom had long ago shelved musical ambitions for real jobs, returned to Jamaica, or otherwise disappeared from the public spotlight. His efforts helped introduce them to a new generation through a handful of standing-room-only reunion concerts over the last year and a half, as well as a growing number of reissues of classic Canadian soul and reggae albums released by Seattle-based Light in the Attic Records. Such are the ironies of Canadian culture that it takes an American label to preserve this wealth of local musical heritage.
Jay Douglas’ experience was typical of these pioneering artists and demonstrative of the ways that North American music has been inextricably linked to postwar migration. After Canadian immigration laws were revised in the early 1960s, Douglas joined his mother in Toronto, where she was working as a domestic worker. “The transition was challenging,” Douglas recalls, but music helped with the adjustment to life in Canada. He’d brought a stack of Jamaican 45s with him, and was soon exposed to the rock-tinged rhythm and blues of Rick James and David Clayton-Thomas in the Toronto club scene. Later, West Indian immigration to Toronto reached critical mass, numbering 70,000 by 1971, and clubs opened on the Yonge Street strip to cater to this market.
Douglas moved from the audience to the stage when he was recruited by an old Montego Bay acquaintance to join The Cougars in 1966. Although ignored by commercial radio and precluded from large volumes of record sales due to lack of distribution, bands like the Cougars were in high demand on the bar circuit from Toronto and Wasaga Beach to Montreal. The Cougars even played the first Caribana Festival in 1967. In addition to being a cautionary tale of what a society chooses to remember or forget in culture and a time capsule of Canadian immigrant experience, the music itself stands the test of time.
The Cougars added the rhythm of a heartbeat to the Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain,” creating a subtle and sublime soul ballad punctuated by bursts of organ and horns. “When this music was made,” Jay Douglas says, “we just did it out of love for the music. We didn’t have any idea that we were creating music for the future.” Eerie and irresistible, the song epitomizes the way these Toronto musicians melded reggae and rocksteady rhythms with soul and funk to create a distinctive new sound, years before Johnny Nash topped the U.S. charts with his ska-influenced hits. They even drew upon rock influences, as the drumbeat on “I Wish It Would Rain” was ripped directly from The Band. Like Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Memphis or Muscle Shoals, Toronto developed its own distinctive, geographically-centered sound. Unfortunately, while mainstream audiences may have accepted the inoffensive calypso of world music pioneer Harry Belafonte, this music was considered too Caribbean by Canadian record buyers. Yet by the same token, song’s like Eddie Spencer’s scorching attack on Geno Washington’s Northern Soul classic, “If This Is Love (I’d Rather Be Lonely),” were too Canadian for many Jamaicans to adopt as the island’s own. Even labelling some Canadian releases “Made in Jamaica” did little to overcome the fickle audience’s demands for “authenticity.”
By the mid-seventies, the hard work of the pioneers began to pay off, and the sound shifted towards hardcore reggae. As documented on this year’s Summer Records Anthology, Jerry Brown, a Jamaican expatriate and mechanic, built a makeshift studio in the basement of his Malton home by fastening fiberglass insulation to the walls with cheap burlap. Though primitive by necessity, the studio became the creative hub for Toronto reggae music. The innovative production of Prince Jammy helped Toronto in the international consciousness of reggae, and artists traveled from the Caribbean to record there. The work of the studio’s dynamic house band, Earth, Roots & Water, is slated for reissue by Light in the Attic Records this winter.
Reissues and compilations in the Jamaica to Toronto series, as well as Thursday’s concert, provide an important bridge for celebrating out city’s rich musical past in the present day. In addition to Jay Douglas, the show will include appearances by The Mighty Pope and many others. The show will be opened by internationally renowned jazz group The Elizabeth Shepherd Trio, and will feature music by DJ Chocolate and Patrick Roots. Doors at 7 p.m.; show at 8 p.m.