Dancehall singer grows up
by Eric Doumerc
Little John is a dancehall singer from the 1980's who can be credited with blurring the boundaries between singing and singjaying, and thus with creating a new style which became known as "singjaying."
He was born John McMorris in 1970 in Kingston,Jamaica and went into the music business at a very early age (he was barely nine when he started), hence his nom de plume, Little John. He first worked under the tutelage of Sugar Minott, whose Youth Promotion sound system and label sought to nurture talent from Jamaica's ghettoes. He recorded a few tracks with the deejay Captain Sinbad, like "51 Storm", and the contrast between Little John's youthful voice and Sinbad's gruffer tones worked very well.
Little John then recorded the track "Bushmaster Connection" with Billy Boyo, another young deejay, and then joined the producer Errol "Don" Mais for whom he recorded many 45s as well the album Early Days which featured the excellent track "Robe."
Little John also worked with many sound systems like Romantic Hi Fi, Killermanajaro, Gemini and Volcano Hi Fi. and gradually made a name for himself as a powerful singer whose ability to graft new lyrics onto old tracks was amazing, and put him in the same league as Sugar Minott, his mentor. Little John can thus be considered as one of the first dancehall singers.
In the early 1980's Henry "Junjo" Lawes was making a name for himself by revitalising Jamaican music with the Roots Radics band, a new outfit which had grown out of the 1970s group The Morwells, and included the bass-and-drum partnersip Lincoln "Style" Scott and Errol "Flabba" Holt. Little John recorded the album entitled Ghetto Youth for Lawes. The album featured an excellent version of the "Three Blind Mice" riddim first made popular by Max Romeo for Lee Perry. as well as a track entitled "Time Longer Than Rope," based on Jamaican proverb which implies that time will have the last word in the end: "You cannot run now, you cannot hide, because time is longer than rope."
In 1983, he released a tune entitled "Pray To Jah" on the Hitbound label and proved that the new dancehall style he had pioneered could be well suited to serious themes and that the boundary between roots reggae and dancehall music was not as watertight as some people claimed. Recorded at Channel One, that song is a good illustration of Little John's style and versatile approach.
Little John recorded one of his biggest hits for the producer George Phang. Indeed, "True Confession" was a dancehall version of a tune recorded by the vocal trio The Silvertones for Duke Reid's Treasure Isle label. The Silvertones' version was itself a cover of a song released by Brook Benton in 1963, which was a sentimental ballad. The Silvertones turned it into a fast-paced ska, but it was now given a lew lease on life thanks to Phang's upbeat production and Sly and Robbie's hard work. Little John's version recycled the "Heavenless" riddim, originally recorded by the trombonist Vin Gordon in 1968 at Studio One.
Little John had a series of hits with George Phang, including "River To The Bank," a reworking of a traditional song which showed once again that dancehall was a continuation of the reggae tradition rather than a complete break.
1986 saw the release of a clash album entitled Dancehall Clash With Ugly Man, produced by Harry J which paired Little John with the DJ Ugly Man. Tracks like "Wah Come Rule I" and "Too Labba Labba" give us a good idea of what the dancehall style sounded like back in 1986.
Little John adapted well to the new "digital" style which took Jamaica by storm in 1985, with the release of Wayne Smith's "Under Me Sleng Teng" for King Jammy and recorded several successful tracks for that producer like "Clarks Booty," "Block Traffic," and "Gimme No Bun." In 1988, the producers Steelie and Clevie rejuvenated the old Studio One track "Real Rock" and recorded several artists on that riddim. The album Real Rock Style contained Little John's "Now Me Come" which recycled and reworked Grover Washington's "Just The Two of Us" and gave it the dancehall treatment.
Little John's popularity as a dancehall singer led to the recording of an album entitled Boombastic in 1990 for the Heartbeat label. The album was produced by the veteran Niney The Observer, and featured Lincoln "Style" Scott on drums and Earl "Flabba" Holt on bass. It is in fact a traditional reggae album, far removed from the digital dancehall style. Tracks like "Ain't No Woman," "I've Got to Do" and "Treasure of Gold" work well and show that Little John is a capable singer.
Little John is mainly associated with the 1980's and 1990's, and he performs or records little today, although he did release an album in 2006 (Build Back Yard). That said, his contribution to Jamaican music cannot be overestimated as, together with Tenor Saw and Nitty Gritty, he can be credited with pioneering the "singjay" style which became so influential in the 1980s.
Barrow, Steve and Peter Dalton. The Rough Guide to Reggae. London: Rough Guides, 1997.
Larkin, Colin. The Guinness Who's Who of Reggae. Enfield: Guinness, 1994
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