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:

“Musical Fight”: Most Literal Song Title Ever

“Musical Fight” by The Crashers is, literally, a fight set to music:

Produced by Sonia Pottinger and released in early 1970, this A-side was initially titled “Target,” with the artist name listed as The Gaytones.  For the first few seconds of the song, you can hear the engineer hold down the tape reel, slowing down the song’s intro – a manual technique known as flanging (and related to the studio trick known as phasing).

Musical Fight 45Reggae & Strings – You’ve Gone Too Far

Syrupy strings would seem to undermine the menacing broken-bottle sound effects in this special mix of “Musical Fight” with spoken intro — a naked bid, perhaps, to use strings as a way to lighten the sound and help pave the way commercially?

A YouTube commenter helpfully points out that The Crashers (a.k.a., Gaytones) were the house band for Sonia Pottinger’s recording studio.

“Little Nut Tree”: Rocksteady Revamped as Reggae

In 1968 The Melodians recorded two versions of the same song – “Little Nut Tree.”

What a difference a year can make.

The first version – recorded with underappreciated and pioneering producer, Sonia Pottinger, after the group had enjoyed a succession of hits on Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle label – is definitely on the rocksteady side of the reggae divide:

Little Nut Tree I – The Melodians

[Pssst:  Click on the triangle above to play “Little Nut Tree” by The Melodians.]

Later that year The Melodians headed to Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One label for a “one-off” session that resulted in a new arrangement of “Little Nut Tree” in the ‘herky jerky’ style of reggae that was being popularized then by such groups as The Ethiopians:

Little Nut Tree II – The Melodians

Little Nut Tree - The Melodians