Sonia Pottinger: Jamaica’s First Female Record Producer

Trailblazing, by definition, can be a lonely enterprise – but someone has to move civilization forward.  Therefore, hats off to Jamaica’s first woman music producer, Sonia Pottinger, who managed to navigate a path through a field that is still overwhelmingly dominated by men and left future generations a legacy of classic recordings.

“Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl” – one of the few photos of Sonia Pottinger

Sonia Eloise PottingerUpon her passing, Howard Campbell in the November 7, 2010 edition of The Gleaner would pronounce her “Jamaica’s most successful women producer” although, curiously, neglect to point out she was the first.  Campbell would also write:

“Born in St Thomas, Pottinger was introduced to the music business by her husband L.O. Pottinger, an engineer who had relative success as a producer in the mid-1960s.  She went on her own during that period, scoring a massive hit with ‘Every Night‘, a ballad by singer Joe White.  Pottinger had considerable success in the late 1960s with her Tip Top, High Note and Gay Feet labels. She produced Errol Dunkley’s debut album, Presenting Errol Dunkley, and hit songs by vocal groups like The Melodians (‘Swing and Dine’), The Gaylads (‘Hard to Confess’) and ‘Guns Fever’ by The Silvertones.”

I was also intrigued to learn that, as Campbell notes, Pottinger bought the catalogue and operations of the esteemed Treasure Isle label after the passing of its founder/owner, Duke Reid (but only after first doing battle in Jamaica’s Supreme Court with Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd, as well as Duke Reid’s son and Edward ‘Bunny’ Lee’; sadly, she would die the very next year after winning her case).   Incredibly, this same publication – just 16 months later – would publish a piece entitled, “Women Who Shaped Jamaican Music” … and fail to even mention her!  Is my indignation righteous enough?  Today’s piece, consequently, is my attempt to bring about some measure of pop music social justice.

Sonia Pottinger, who would go on to receive Jamaica’s Order of Distinction

Sonia PottingerAs pointed out in yesterday’s piece, Sonia Pottinger issued two singles by pioneering reggae vibraphonist, Lennie Hibbert.  Additionally, Pottinger would be among the first of the producers in Prince Buster’s wake to incorporate the traditional and deep Nyabinghi hand drum rhythms into rocksteady and reggae music, as evidenced on Patsy Todd’s uniquely Jamaican interpretation of Miriam Makeba‘s big hit, “Pata Pata” (with backing by Count Ossie’s mighty band) – both versions released in 1967:

Every Culture album that bears the Pottinger production mark is top-notch and a must-own.  Other crucial Pottinger productions worthy of your time include this short list:

“Midnight Confessions”: Breezy Pop Recast as Menacing Dub

I’d have to agree with the lone reviewer on Amazon UK who says that Treasure Isle Dub is his favorite dub CD “by quite a margin” and points out this interesting fact:  “available as mp3 on The Complete Treasure Isle Dub Collection with another 12 tracks beside.”

Treasure Isle Dub

        King Tubby vs. Errol Brown:  Who Mixed Treasure Isle Dub?

All this time I’ve been laboring under the delusion that King Tubby did the Treasure Isle Dub mixes, but now I’m beginning to get the idea that maybe Errol Brown really did put these treatments together like it says on the disc – that there wasn’t any conspiracy to write Tubby out of the picture, after all.  What’s funny is that Lloyd Bradley’s definitive history of reggae, Bass Culture:  When Reggae Was King, devotes quite a bit of ink to King Tubby and his legendary prowess with electronics and audio engineering —

“As an electrical engineer and disc cutter, King Tubby was a perfectionist.  His skills as an engineer led to him doing repair jobs or uprating for several studios and sound systems, while his rig, Tubby’s Home Town HiFi – put together in 1968 – was perpetually evolving as a result as much of his natural curiosity and audaciousness as of his vocational training.  He was probably the first to use high-frequency horn tweeters, and later made full use of the embryonic transistor technology and custom-built filters to split his frequencies between two different amplifiers:  a valve amp for the bass, transistor for the treble (‘weight and treble’ as it still is known).  He introduced echo, reverb and sound effects to the dance by bringing a range of specially built or modified outboard gear to his control tower.  But he never forgot that the primary purpose of a sound system was to entertain the crowd with recordings of songs, and so his tone and resonance were always second to none.

The book continues — “As a disc cutter, Tubby’s attention to detail meant he’d make several test cuttings of the different aspects of a track, just to make sure everything was set up right – that is, he’d cut with the voices only or with the instruments by themselves and listen to how each sounded on the disc.  Even accounting for [Treasure Isle owner] Duke Reid’s finicky ways as a producer, Tubby’s flawlessness in this area has a great deal to do with Treasure Isle’s later rocksteady sound:  he would always make sure nothing went on the stamper until it sounded exactly as it should, making full use of the entire bandwidth to give that full, almost self-satisfied feel to the records.  One of the reasons Duke Reid’s rocksteady stands the test of time so well is because the recordings were physically so well made and therefore, prior to all the remastering that’s gone on of late, were less likely to sound primitive when listened to years later.  And it was in these test cuttings that King Tubby’s dub adventures began to take root.”

[The author then burnishes the Tubby legacy for another eight more pages.]

And yet in the book’s only reference to Errol Brown, I now see [as I re-read it 13 years later] that it says right here plain as day, “Treasure Isle dubs came courtesy of engineer Errol Brown, the late Duke Reid’s nephew, and owe their standing more to the bass lines of the rocksteady classics they were built on than to any particularly innovative mixing.”

Well.   Pregnant pause.   I guess that clears that mystery up.   Although, I hotly dispute the author’s brash assertion that the quality of Errol Brown’s mixing is garden-variety.

Anyway, it is fun to see one particularly shiny piece of AM pop ~ “Midnight Confessions” by the Grass Roots ~ get the early reggae treatment by Phyllis Dillon (with Treasure Isle house band, Tommy & the Supersonics) and then unexpectedly launch into a moody dub remix from Treasure Isle Dub that features vintage Echoplex effects — an exclusive version available only on Zero to 180:

Midnight Dub – Phyllis Dillon with Tommy & the Supersonics

[Pssst:  Click the triangle to play “Midnight Confessions” (in dub) by Phyllis Dillon with Tommy & the Supersonics.]

Phyllis Dillon

Melodica as High Art: “Talkin’ Blues” Dub Style

I confess I am not an Augustus Pablo scholar, but I would bet big money that Pablo’s dub take on Bob Marley’s “Talkin’ Blues” is among the most inspired recordings in his canon.    I only wish I could determine the source of the original Marley vocal and backing track – it’s a stellar version.  Pablo blows great lines with deep feeling from start to finish.  This song strikes me as a dub reggae version of the “high lonesome” sound for which country music is famous:

“Talking Dub”      Pablo & The Wailers

I never tire of listening to this recording – and neither should you.   This track can be found on a French import single-CD double release:  Fe Me Dub + Dubwise Shower Roots Rockers, on the Lagoon label:

.Dubwise Shower