by Steve Milne
Ernie Smith's speaking voice is as deep and mellifluous as the mellow
baritone we've heard on songs such as "Pitta Patta," "Duppy
"Rebel Music." The man could read a phone book and make it sound
Ironically, Smith was turned down by the JBC when he auditioned for a
radio announcer's position back in 1967. Smith remembers that failed
tryout not with bitterness but with the amusement of a man who still
marvels at the way destiny worked its magic on that fateful day.
"I got into recording by accident," says Smith. "I took a
day off from
work from Reynolds (Reynolds Aluminum bauxite mines) and I went to
Kingston. I wanted to be a radio announcer. I did an audition and it was
over in 20 minutes. They said 'don't call us, we'll call you.' I'm glad
I didn't hold my breath for that. But I had the whole day off from work
so I took this song that I'd written and I went down to a studio and I
told them maybe they can get somebody to sing it 'cause at that time I
wasn't singing that much - I was just playing the guitar in a band. They
told me I should just stay and record it myself. And that's how I did my
first recording, 'I Can't Take It.'"
Smith went on to become one of the top recording and performing artists
in Jamaica during the first part of the '70s. His clear vocal tones,
crisp intonation and easy-going, country/pop flavored reggae songs found
particular favor with the Jamaican middle class. Smith was, in fact, one
of the best-selling artists recording for Richard Khouri's Federal label
and a top nightclub draw as the lead singer with the Now Generation
band. Although he would occasionally record a conscious tune such as
"Rebel Music," Smith's forte was the easy-going, mid-tempo ballad.
Khouri discouraged Smith from making heavy roots music and straying too
far from his commercially successful urbane material. While his peers
were attracting international attention with militant songs about the
struggle of the sufferers, Smith was recording superbly well-crafted,
genial pop-reggae songs such as "Ride On Sammy" and "One
ultimately, Smith would follow his heart and release a powerful protest
record during the height of the bloody 1976 election campaign. That
song, "The Power and the Glory," would cause Smith to leave his
and live in exile for over a dozen years.
"At one time I was actually selling more records than Bob (Marley)
Jamaica," says Smith. "But it was like what was happening to Bob
bigger. It was more on a bigger scale and he was aiming at a bigger
market, y'know. I really felt a whole revolution in the '70s in the way
people started to see the function of music, y'know. Bob was my chief
inspiration because he really showed a meaning and purpose and a way to
use music as a vehicle for a higher purpose and higher consciousness.
(The government) declared a State of Emergency in '76 and ("The Power
and The Glory") was banned. I was warned by people in politics, people
who were supposed to know what was happening, that the powers that be
did not like that song. I was actually in Miami when I read in the paper
that my life was threatened because of this song. That's how come I
really ended up in Miami first and then I was there for a year and then
I went to Toronto for three years. And then for 9 more years I lived in
Fort Lauderdale before I came back home. Right now, they're playing
("The Power and The Glory") again. So for a lot of people it's
That new version of "The Power and the Glory" getting airplay
Jamaican radio is from Smith's self-released album Life is Just For
Living, a heavyweight two-disc career retrospective featuring new
versions of Smith's best songs recorded with a reunited Now Generation
band and co-produced by Mikey Bennett and Mikey "Mao" Chung. The
is a milestone in contemporary Jamaican music and cements Smith's
reputation as a consummate singer/songwriter, hit-maker and all-around
Born in Kingston and raised in a pastoral part of Jamaica known as
Bamboo on the north coast, Glenroy Anthony Smith grew up in a happy home
filled with love and music and surrounded by the natural beauty of rural
life. His parents, George and Linnette, encouraged all their children to
participate in family sing-alongs. Smith's first guitar was a present
from his father, a gift that helped shape the boy's future.
"My mother sang and my father played the guitar. Wherever we were going
we were always singing in the car. Outdoors was a lot of fun. They had
to sit us down and really watch us and make sure we had our dinner
because there was so much stuff growing right outside your door on the
trees. We had a great time. I got my first guitar when I was 12 years
old and it took me a long way. I always say it was the best thing my
daddy ever did for me. My father he was a crane operator. He worked at
Reynolds Jamaica Mines, a bauxite company here in Jamaica. I worked
there for a while. Of course I took my guitar to work. I had to make a
decision what I was going to do with my life because no matter what I
was doing I had my guitar. My guitar wasn't far. So lunch time it was
music down in the basement where we had lunch and at night time we
always had a band somewhere. So finally I had to say 'well, look, the
only thing I've stuck to since I left school is music, so it must be
what I'm supposed to do.'"
Smith's musical tastes were influenced by the confluence of sounds
coming through the family radio - jazz, country, pop, R&B, rock 'n'
roll, mento, ska, etc.,.
"In Jamaica, we grow up with radio. And it was very eclectic. They
played everything on the radio so we heard a lot of different things. We
lived in the country, we couldn't get to see stage shows and things like
that so the radio was my main connection with what was happening
outside. My father had a big old radio. We picked up Moscow sometimes.
We picked up stations from all over the world. There was a time when we
could get the Miami stations. We lived on the north coast and the radio
stations were in Kingston so we could get Miami a lot clearer at night.
So, a lot of different input."
In 1965 Smith formed a band called the Vandals. Group members included
some of his brothers and sisters and friends. But it wasn't until two
years later, on the day of his unsuccessful job interview with the JBC,
that Smith would make a substantial inroad to a serious career in music.
His initial recording, the self-penned "I Can't Take It," was
covered by Johnny Nash as "Tears On My Pillow." However, stardom
instant and after that first studio session Smith took a job selling
life insurance while still playing music at night. Smith's first big hit
came in 1971 with "Bend Down" which the singer/songwriter describes
country song with a reggae beat. More hits followed including "Ride
Sammy," "One Dream" and "Pitta Patta." Khouri released
an album of those
songs and some cover tunes titled Greatest Hits.
On top of his own success as a singer and recording artist, Smith was
becoming known as a proven songwriter. Nash's version of "I Can't Take
It" was a hit record in Europe, Tinga Stewart won a song festival with
Smith composition and label mate Ken Lazurus recorded several of his
tunes. Smith says inspiration for his songs are just as varied as the
"Sometimes I'll say something or somebody will say something and I
a lyric in it. Somebody say something a different way and I hear
something. Or sometimes I might hear a melody playing and it triggers
something else in my imagination. Inspiration comes from all sources.
Sometimes I'll just sit with a guitar and be fooling around a little bit
and I hear something happen. Or I might start with three chords and then
I hear some words start to come. It's many different ways. The first
song that I wrote, "I Can't Take It," people used to ask me 'who
you?' I found out that if I'd written anything and it wasn't true, it
came to be true. So I think inspiration is almost prophetic sometimes."
Smith's inspiration for his controversial 1976 song "Power and the
Glory," was the political unrest that pervaded Jamaica during that
election year, resulting in scores of partisan killings. The song
includes the lines "...we de people want fe know just where we're going,
right now we hands are tied, tied behind we back while certain people if
and buttin'....can't build no foundation pon a if and a but, are we
building a nation or are we building a hut....and as we fight one
another fi de power and de glory, Jah kingdom goes to waste and every
drop of blood we taste a fi we own disgrace..."
The song caught the ire of government officials and Smith decided to
cool out in North America settling first in Miami, then Toronto and
finally Fourt Lauderdale. He recorded two well received albums while in
Canada (To Behold Jah and Skareggae), continued to do live performances
to rave reviews and wrote songs for a musical about Marcus Garvey that
folded before going into production. But personal problems (drugs,
alcohol, divorce) clouded much of the 1980s for Smith who sought and
received consolation from Bob Marley's mother Cedella Booker.
Smith felt compelled to return to Jamaica in 1989 just after Hurricane
Gilbert swept through the island. After seeing news reports of the
devastation and the undaunted spirit of the people Smith knew it was
time to come home. His first release after reestablishing himself in
Jamaica was Ernie Cleans It Up, which included dancehall versions of
some of his biggest hits. The album title referred to Smith's desire to
clean up the slack and violent lyrics in dancehall music and the cover
illustration depicted Smith sweeping away lyrics such as punaany and
batty rider. "I love the dancehall rhythms but it was like what are
saying with the lyrics. Don't they realize they're teaching younger
To celebrate his third decade in show business Smith put together a
spectacular, sold-out concert at Kingston's Pegasus Hotel featuring
Johnny Nash, Ken Lazarus, Pluto Shervington and Now Generation. He also
recorded the magnificent two-disc album Life Is Just For Living - 30
songs for 30 years. When Smith was originally mapping out the album, he
invited producer Mikey Bennett to listen to some of his material.
Bennett enthusiastically signed on to the project and Smith's longtime
crony guitarist Mikey Chung regrouped the Now Generation band (Chung on
guitar, Robbie Lyn and Earl Lindo on keyboards, Val Douglas on bass and
Mikey Richards on drums) to help record the album at Bennett's Grafton
Studios. The album embodies some of the best music to ever come out of
Jamaica; hook-filled melodies, optimal musicianship, state of the art
production and one of reggae's purest singers. With songs ranging from
the infectiously lighthearted ("Pitta Patta," "Girl,"
"Ride On Sammy,"
and "Duppy Gunman") to the earnestly righteous ("Rebel Music,"
Worry Mama," "Power and the Glory," "To Behold Jah"
and "Ghetto Monday).
Smith is grateful for the support of everybody involved in the project.
"It really happened very fast because the guys were into it and they
were the group that played most of the hits back in the '70s so they
were already familiar with the work. It took us six days to lay the
tracks. Mikey Bennett was the one who really made it possible because he
gave us the studio time up front. He heard the music and he loved what
he heard. He was really one of the forces from the beginning."
Smith has come a long way since his professional debut in the late '60s.
Life Is Just For Living may be the culmination of his career to date,
but it also marks a new beginning. Smith is back in Jamaica and busy as
ever, writing, performing and recording. It's an exciting time for this
humble music man who is living his life to the fullest.
Copyright 1998 Steve Milne/Full Watts, reprinted by permission of author
Full Watts is available by sending $3.00 (per issue) to Steve Milne, 8779
Brittany Park Drive, Sacramento, CA 95828.