by Eric DoumercBorn in 1966 in Kingston, Jamaica, Clive Bright, aka Tenor Saw, came into the music business in the mid-1980s and his first recording was "Roll Call" for the producer George Phang in 1984. The young recording artiste then came under the tutelage of the singer Sugar Minott who ran a sound system and a recording label called Youth Promotion. In 1985, Saw recorded "Lots of Sign," a tune which recycled a line from Bob Marley's "Wake Up and Live Now" ("Life is one big road with lots of signs"), but he really burst upon the dancehall scene with a hit song entitled "Ring the Alarm" which was based on a "riddim," or drum-and bass workout, called "Stalag 17" (originally recorded for the producer Winston Riley in 1973). The song was a runaway success and a "soundbwoy" tune, that is a song composed to vaunt the qualities of a particular sound system (in that case, Sugar Minott's Youthman Promotion set) and to defeat the opposition:
"Ring the alarm,
Another sound is dying.
Come listen to this sound, a champion,
Ram the dance in any session.
Rock up the man, rock up the woman
Another sound go down like a tin pan.
Tee-ta-toe, see them all in a row,
Four big sounds in one big lawn,
One sound play, and the others go down"
That tune established Tenor Saw as an enthralling singer/deejay and he went on to record other hits for various producers. Important hits were "Pumpkin Belly," "Golden Hen"(in 1986), "Fever" and "No Work on a Sunday." In 1986, Saw travelled to Japan as a part of the Reggae Sunsplash tour and his performance there went down quite well (he sang "Fever " and "No Work on a Sunday"). In 1987 he moved to New York where he recorded the track "Victory Train," but unfortunately his career was cut short by an accident in Houston, Texas in 1988 as he was run over by a car.
So this promising singjay left few recordings but he managed to establish a "style," a vocal style which can be best described as a "wail," a high-pitched cry that was always entertaining. That style is strongly reminiscent of the late Nitty Gritty's vocalising (see the hits "Hog in a Minty," "Good Morning Teacher," "Draw Me Mark" and "False Alarm"). Just like Nitty Gritty, what makes Tenor Saw's songs memorable is his constant resort to the Jamaican oral tradition and its catchphrases, proverbs and old stories.
His songs often contained a reference to that tradition. For instance the song "Pumpkin Belly," originally recorded for Sugar Minott and later versioned for King Jammy, has lyrics that go:
"This is the song of the old-time proverbs.
How water walk in a pumpkin belly?
Who ask me that, it's my old-time granny,
From down in the country
who used to be the king of the saxophone.
Yes, whatsoever you want, you must work very hard to gain"
The song is based on a dialogue between the young Saw and his grandmother who uses a proverb to educate or castigate the young man who then asks her to "have some sympathy." In the Caribbean, proverbs are used as teaching tools, to teach the youths a lesson, so to speak. According to a Jamaican friend of mine, this riddle refers to a pregnant woman, and to the inevitable question: who made her pregnant? The singer does not know the answer to that question and asks his grandmother to be lenient with him. The reference to Sugar Belly is quite interesting as this legendary bamboo saxophone player who appeared on a number of reggae recordings in the 1970's and symbolises the survival of ancient musical traditions in a modern context. The moral of the story seems to be that hard work is necessary to succeed in life ("whatsoever you want, you must work very hard to gain") and that one must be patient. "Pumpkin Belly" is still today a hypnotic track and the singing is nothing short of marvellous, particularly towards the end of the track when Saw goes into a high-pitched register and begins to improvise half-scatted lyrics.
"Golden Hen" (1986) has lyrics which are reminiscent of a nursery rhyme ("tick-a-tick-a-tock, my golden hen...") as the artist sings about a golden hen which "lays eggs for the gentlemen, sometimes nine and sometimes ten." Then we are told that the singer knows a young girl who keeps running around and who fainted after leaving without having her breakfast. He then asks her not to "live like a rolling calf." The rolling calf in Jamaican folklore is a frightening creature which roams the countryside at night and which has red, fiery eyes.
1985 saw the release of the LP entitled Fever, produced by Sugar Minott, and which contained the title track, and the tunes "Pumpkin Belly," "Lots of Signs," "Roll Call," "Run Come Call Me" and "Jah Guide and Protect Me." These songs, backed by such luminaries as Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare and Robbie Lynn, all feature powerful "riddims" and their pull is irresistible ("Run Come Call Me" is a good example of a dancehall boastsong with the lyrics "If you run come call me, you'd better make sure you can pay me"). The track "Jah Guide and Protect Me," based on an old Studio One riddim once used for the Gladiators' "Tribulation," is proof that Tenor Saw could have been much more than a dancehall sensation and had the potential to be a conscious artist too:
"Jah is my weapon,
The Lord is my weapon.
When the heathen is coming,
Jah is the only one I can depend on
Jah is the only one I can call on"
Most of the tracks on the Fever album are simply unforgettable and show that Tenor Saw was much more than the dancehall deejay who voiced "Ring the Alarm." It is fitting to end this article with some lines from the outstanding track "Lots of Sign" and its positive outlook:
"Never try to take life for a toy,
Some may do good,
Some are doing bad,
And this kind of bad-doing is driving me bad.
Send me tomorrow,
I say Lord let me have joy,
Never let me have sorrow.
Lord, let me have joy,
Never let me have sorrow"
- Barrow, Steve and Peter Dalton. The Rough Guide to Reggae. London: Rough Guides Ltd, 2004.
- Colin, Larkin, ed. The Guinness Who's Who of Reggae. Enfield: Guinness Publishing, 1994.
- Tanna, Laura. Jamaican Folk Tales and Oral Histories. Kingston, Jamaica: Institute of Jamaica Publications Limited, 1984.
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