Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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A One-Man Music Machine Pursues the American Dream in Jamaica

Kingston, Jamaica--Kingston is Jamaica's only real city--a quarter of the island's 2,000,000 citizens reside here, while more than 90 per cent of the rest live in the country--but it's not hard to understand why at least one tourist guide recommends avoiding it. Its style of excitement must remind most Americans of exactly what they're trying to get away from. The banks and government offices of the city's geographical downtown are "below Torrington Bridge," in the middle of the slums more impoverished than any in the U.S. and directly east of even worse slums. Its fashionable stores are situated in suburban centers, and so is its chic discotheque, Epiphany, where browns and blacks and whites dance the reggae to American soul music. But even the suburbs offer no escape from Jamaica's have-nots. Buying candy for some young friends I was going to see below Torrington Bridge, I passed by a mute beggar, bellowing wordlessly for alms.

But if American tourists avoid Kingston, American businessmen do not, and so from the center of the concrete jungle towers an oasis of air-conditioning and credit cards--the Sheraton Kingston Hotel, the city's uptown, with both Epiphany and the prime minister's mansion close by. All Americans in Kingston eventually find themselves at the Sheraton. We went in search of an old Wailers album hidden at the drugstore, and ended up buying a Dennis Brown album as well--record stores in Kingston are as ubiquitous as fast-food franchises in the U.S., but their supplies are so unpredictable that passing up a coveted item is always risky. We also stayed for scrambled eggs, and over our eggs we met Humphrey Davis.

Humphrey Davis is the proprietor of a record label called Up-Tight, distributed from 29 James St., which is below Torrington Bridge but east of the government district. So far, Up-Tight has released two 45-RPM reggae records. The A sides of these records, "Need Your Love" and "So Long," were written by Davis and performed by him, once as Humphrey Davis and the Up-thights (whoever printed the handsome three-color label, which Davis designed himself, was responsible for the spelling), and once as Life Electric. The B sides are "Sun of a Gun," by Prince Dexter, and "Return of the Carlton Blue," by the Dexter All Stars. Dexter is Dexter Davis, Humphrey's younger brother. Humphrey financed both releases out of his earnings as a waiter at the Sheraton.

Humphrey Davis grew up in Kingston, above Torrington Bridge. He was the third of eight children and his father, who worked for the railroad and played cricket, died when Humphrey was seven. Like most Jamaicans, Humphrey, who is now 24, quit school in his midteens. He has worked loading food at the airport and spent last summer waiting at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. His salary for six days at the Sheraton is $24.50 plus tips, which average between $35 and $60 per week. He lives with his two children and their mother, Olga Martin, in a tiny two-room flat at 29 James St. that rents for $20 per month. His front room is filled with red leatherette furniture. There is a television set, a big old stereo and a large, worn-out record collection. There is plastic fruit on the table.

Davis first got the idea of becoming a singer about 10 years ago. His mother, a staunch Baptist, never approved, but there was no way she could insulate her son from the Jamaican ska and American r&b which blanketed Kingston from its juke joints and teeming outdoor systems. This is not, however, to idealize Humphrey Davis into one of those reassuring art heroes whose passion for music overcomes poverty and old-time religion. He has a feeling for music, very definitely, but his passion is to get out of the slums. "Lots of people want to be a singer, to make a hit," he says. "And the reason is, to get more popular, to get to know lots of countries, and you make lots of . . ." And here he offers his characteristic gesture, rubbing his thumb with his forefinger and smiling a smile sly and self-possessed enough to unnerve all those expense-account tippers at the Sheraton. Humphrey Davis does not intend to wait on them forever. Maybe someday they will even be beholden to him.

About four years ago, Humphrey went with his brother, Mendosa, and his sister, Vulvina, to the Sunday tryout of a record producer named Derek Morgan. They performed two of Humphrey's tunes, one reggae and one soul song, and were invited back, but they didn't go. Mendosa had to work at the American naval station, and Vulvina wasn't that interested, which in a way is not surprising. The customary payment for such a session is a flat $20, no royalties.

Yet music does hold out the promise of the big pay-off, and like so many young men in Kingston, Humphrey Davis held on to that promise. He tried out with other producers, he formed a group called Prince Davis and the Diggers, he won a contest with a song called "Hurry Little Lady," he composed with an American musician he met at the Grand Hotel. Last December he felt ready. Hiring an hour of studio time at the 16-track setup owned by Kingston's top record retailer, Randy Chin, he recorded "Need Your Love" and Prince Dexter's B-side dee-jay--which in reggae means semi-improvised spoken words over a rhythm track--in 45 minutes. Time: $20. Tape: $7.50. Mix-down: $14. Labels cost $20, plus $20 for the colors. At Federal Records, one of Jamaica's three pressing facilities, he cut a master for $26 and pressed 500 records at $18 per hundred. Total cost: $207.50.

"Need Your Love" was a barely competent reggae ballad. Its melody was banal enough to be infectious and it had the usual sinuous guitar-bass-and-drums beat. (Davis didn't mention paying musicians but I now figure he must have. Add $30 to his costs.) Davis' singing, however, was flat and flaccid, and the lyrics were hardly there at all. Nevertheless, like most of the 75 or so singles that appear in Kingston every week, it got a little air play, more than most, and Humphrey decided he wanted distribution in the States. So he went back to Federal Records and signed a contract relinquishing all rights to his records for the following six months in return for a 10 per cent royalty. His first accounting was due April 1. It hasn't come in yet.

Federal may have bought a good thing, if buying is what you call it. "So Long," Up-Tight's second release, is a surprising improvement--Davis' singing has gained confidence and imagination, and the studio organist has added a selling hook riff. Davis' claim of 1,500 sales via door-to-door distribution seems a bit expansive--a big hit in Jamaica sells 10,000 copies--but by Jamaican standards the record does have potential.

Humphrey Davis would like to have a big hit in Jamaica, although he admits Federal may be authorized contractually to distribute his records in Jamaica as well as abroad, thus diminishing his profits considerably. But what he really wants is a hit in America. The night before we left we took Humphrey and Olga and Keith Martin, who is Humphrey's guitarist and Olga's brother, to dinner at a converted estate near the prime minister's mansion. Davis took the waiter to task for not snapping to with the extra ice and constructed some hilarious fantasies about his last day at the Sheraton, although Keith assured me in an aside that these were only fantasies--Humphrey would never destroy his own reputation. Then Davis began to tell us about America. Why did they always make trouble? He would succeed in America because as a Jamaican he had no color prejudice. He hoped that in America he would learn to play the organ.

As of now, Federal's American distributor--a tiny label called Steady Records that still caters primarily to West Indians there--has never heard of Humphrey Davis or Life Electric. But Davis is confident--his contract runs only six months, he says, and if he isn't satisfied he'll move on. And he is so smart and determined that he may just succeed. Musically, Davis' ideals are simple--he wants to perform whatever people want him to perform. In Jamaica, reggae. In America, soul, perhaps with a reggae flavor. Anything to separate his thumb from his forefinger.

Jamaica is reputed to be the world's most exciting untapped source of popular music, and it is. Reggae is definitely coming on. But reggae is the music of Kingston, and Kingston is the home of thousands of young men who share much of Davis' ambition without being blessed with his energy and optimism. And there's no way to understand reggae without understanding them.

N'day, Apr. 22, 1973