by Eric Dourmerc
Freddie McKay was a versatile singer whose career spanned the early reggae and roots eras. He adapted to the many changes Jamaican music went through in the 1970's and could sing love ballads or "conscious" material with equal conviction. He was also a gifted singer rather than a composer, as is shown by the cover versions of reggae, pop or soul tunes he did over the course of his career. It could be said that his art was also characterised by a relentless optimism which never failed him in spite of the lack of recognition he had to put up with.
McKay was born in 1947 in the parish of St Catherine, Jamaica and had his first hit in 1967 for Prince Buster ("Love is a Treasure"). He made his name at Studio One, recording several very popular songs with the Soul Defenders, which was the main backing band at Studio One then. These hits included "Sweet You Sour You," "High School Dance," "Father Will Cut You Off" and "Picture on the Wall," which provided the title for his 1971 album for Coxsone. This tune remains one of the most popular Freddie McKay songs.
In 1974, McKay, released an album entitled Lonely Man. The title-song was a big hit in Jamaica. In 1976, McKay won the Festival Song competition with a lively tune recorded for Channel One and entitled "Dance Dis Yah Festival" with a great "extended" version and a great toast by I-Roy. McKay adapted to the dominant rockers sound and remained popular throughout the 1970's, releasing Fire is Burning in 1976 and the dubby Creation album on the Plant label in 1979. He also recorded a lot for the producer Alvin "GG" Ranglin, notably the tune entitled "Blow, Wind, Blow." He recorded until the 1980's, releasing Harsh Words in 1982 and Tribal Ina Yard in 1983. McKay died in November 1986.
McKay's best-known tune to this day is probably "Picture on the Wall," a love song about a man who keeps on thinking about his ex-lover and who reminisces fondly about her by looking at her picture, which is still "hanging on the wall." The lyrics are extremely trite and conventional and the sentiments expressed quite common, but the song has remained popular on account of McKay's plaintive voice which ideally conveys the loneliness and longing the persona is experiencing. The popularity of the song is also due to the tight arrangements worked out by the Sould Defenders band. McKay's voice could also express a mood full of nostalgia, as in "High School Dance" and had a certain bluesy quality, as can be heard on "Old and Grey," a tune recorded with the Soul Defenders at Studio One and availaible on the Heartbeat anthology entitled The Soul Defenders at Studio One (Heartbeat, 1991). This song deals with the perennial theme of the passing of time and what it means for a couple: will they still be in love when they are "old and grey"? The bluesy arrangements which underpin the song fit McKay's lament perfectly. The song "Sweet You Sour You," available on the Studio One compilation Jamaica: The Seventies, follows the same approach, with plaintive vocals over a rock steady or early reggae riddim.
In the 1970's, McKay adapted to the then fashionable roots sound and recorded some hard-hitting material for the producer Alvin "GG" Ranglin, which is gathered on the album entitled The Best of Freddie McKay (1977). Tunes like "Rome," "Praising the Father" and "Blow, Wind, Blow" show that he was capable of handling roots vocals.His 1979 tune "Jah Man" is a case in point. In 1973, he recorded "I'm a Free Man" for the Santic label, which has remained one of his most popular songs.
On this recording, McKay's anguished voice conveys the persona's determination admirably. In the song "In Times of Trouble," an early 1980's tune which was characterised by a solid one-drop rhythm and majestic horns, McKay's vocal style blends perfectly with the musical accompaniment. "Lonely Man," from 1974, follows the same approach, with a hard-hitting riddim and bitter-sweet lyrics.
Fire is Burning, from 1976, and Harsh Words, from 1982, both contain fine examples of McKay's adept handling of roots material. "Peace in the Garden" and "Take My Hand Oh Jah" are two tracks that come to mind.
McKay also released a number of interesting cover versions which show that he was probably more of a singer than a composer. For instance, his version of Otis Redding's "Dock of the Bay" (Attack, 1974) works surprisingly well in a reggae format,and his rendering of Al Wilson's "Show and Tell" (also covered by Ken Boothe for the Taxi label) is proof of his abiding love for soul music. He also covered the Beatles' "And I Love Her"(on the 1976 Fire is Burning album).
The album entitled Creation, released in 1979 on the Plant label, contains cover versions of several reggae classics like Burning Spear's "Creation Rebel" and Dennis Brown's "Here I Come." The former mamages to surpass the original thanks to some brooding organ and rockers riddim and also thanks to McKay's smoky voice. On that album, McKay also offered his versions of "The Girl I Left Behind" (entitled "Yesterday" on the album), an early rock steady tune by Ken Boothe, and of Wentworth Vernal's Studio One hit "The Rainbow."
Nevertheless, there was another side to McKay's art, a side which complemented his brooding and dark personality. Indeed, McKay also released some optimistic and bright songs which uplifted the spirit. In 1976, he won the Festival Song Contest with an ebullient number entitled "Dance Dis Yah Festival," with lyrics that went:I need some big boots and bare-foot pantsAdmittedly, Festival Songs tend to follow the same formula, with lyrics about national unity and having a good time to celebrate one's Jamaican citizenship, but McKay's performance and soaring tenor made sure that the tune would be a hit.
Fe go dance dis yah festival.
I need some boots and a calico shirt
Fe go dance dis yah festival.
Jump in the land,
Shake your body-line.
Drink up everything!
"A Positive Mind," another song by McKay, exemplifies his relentless optimism and dogged determination. It appeared in 1979 on the Creation album. Maybe it is fitting to conclude this article with an excerpt from this song:You've got to think positive in this time!
Every day is not the same,
You've got to make it while you can.
Try to live upright like a man,
Don't you know time don't wait on no-one?
You've got to make it while you can,
Running up and down won't help in this time.
You've got to have a positive mind.
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