At one point in its week-long tribute to master percussionists, Noel ‘Scully‘ Simms and Uziah ‘Sticky‘ Thompson, Zero to 180 quoted Discogs.com’s bold claim that Simms is “arguably the first Jamaican artist to release a record single” — but then played the indignant card by loudly noting Discogs’ failure to identify the title of this historic recording.
Music writer David Katz, fortunately, is able to shed light on this important historical moment in Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae beginning on page 14:
The duo of Noel ‘Zoot‘ Simms and Arthur ‘Bunny‘ Robinson–known first as Simms and Robinson and later as Bunny and Skully–were the first Jamaican artists to record blues ballads and home-grown R&B, initially for exclusive sound system acetates. ‘We started off the first recording in Jamaica on soft wax, for Dada Tewari,’ the now partially sighted Skully wistfully recalls, perched on the kerb outside Kington’s Sonic Sounds. ‘We did the first recordings in 1953 in a little demo studio at the corner of Hanover Street and Lawes Street — he had a little matches box with quarter-inch tape, but he used to do calypso recording in there with Count Lasher [Terence Perkins], Lord Flea [Norman Thomas], Count Owen [Owen Emanuel] and Lord Tanamo’ [Joseph Gordon].
Skully remembers cutting only two songs at this initial session: ‘End of Time‘ and ‘Give Me Another Chance.’ That was the first tunes made apart from Calaypsonians,’ he recalls proudly. ‘That was the first R&B.’ According to Skully, Tewari was not present during the session, which was arranged by the resident pianist. ‘He really wasn’t so much of a producer,’ says Skully of Tewari. ‘It was an Indian who owned the theatre that they call Tivoli. Williams played keyboard, and you had Lloyd Brevett’s father playing bass, a drummer by the name of Percy, and Val Bennett played the saxophone. I don’t know if him release them, but we got £37 — ‘nough money for me and Bunny.
My favorite ‘Scully’ Simms song is one of his last as vocalist-bandleader — “Small Garden” from 1972:
Noel ‘Zoot‘ Simms (1972)
Fascinating moment when I it suddenly occurred to me why the “walking razor” lyric you hear in the first verse, with a chorus that threatens, “Don’t you watch them size, them little but they’re dangerous” sounds so familiar: Peter Tosh sang something very similar for 1967‘s (& 1977‘s) “Stepping Razor” (written by Joe Higgs). Also, with respect to the song’s spoken-word intro, David Katz also points out in Solid Foundation that Simms is “one of the first Jamaican musicians to use Amharic phrases in songs after learning them from Rasta leader, Mortimer Planno.”
Honest Jon’s Records writes a wonderfully abstruse take on “Small Garden” and its allure:
“Sublime, rootical, elliptical warning about a variety of blistering, dangerous pest all of us have to cross vines with. The small garden that gathers the bitter weed. Enid on backing vocals. Lovely and profound.”
This “Bunny & Skully” message thread on the Blood & Fire chatboard includes a very helpful discography of Noel ‘Scully” Simms that comes directly from Roger Dalke’s A Scorcha from Studio One discography.
‘Sticky‘ & ‘Scully‘:
Analog Percussionists in a Digital Age
It is sad to read a 2003 Jamaica Observer interview with Uziah ‘Sticky‘ Thompson in which he bemoans the decreasing opportunities for hand percussionists in the new century. Jamaica Observer‘s ‘Chordially Speaking’ writes in the introduction about “the death of the reggae percussionist” and that “demand for the [hand percussion] sound has fallen out of favour with contemporary acts.” By way of contrast, this same writer notes the plum work assignments ‘Sticky’ enjoyed going back to the 1960s:
It was at Reid’s studio that he started playing percussion, rocking on ‘Little Did You Know’ before heading off to Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s rising Upsetters label.
Thompson stayed with Perry for five years, playing on outstanding sides such as The Wailers’ Soul Rebels and Duppy Conqueror and Junior Byles’ Beat Down Babylon. In the mid 1970s, he was a regular session player at Channel One where his sound can be heard on The Mighty Diamonds’ Roof Over My Head and John Holt’s Up Park Camp.
He was also in demand at the rival Joe Gibbs’ studio and for Sonia Pottinger, playing on several hit songs by Dennis Brown (“How Can/Could I Leave“) and Culture (“Natty Never Get Weary“), respectively.
Over the years, Thompson has recorded and toured with Jimmy Cliff, Black Uhuru and Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers. He played on the latter’s Grammy-winning Conscious Party album.