Roy Black, Writer, Jamaica Gleaner Writer
In the early 1960s, Beverley’s Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlour at 135A Orange Street in downtown Kingston, a few doors above Dennis Brown’s birthplace (Big Yard), was a happy hunting ground for many aspiring Jamaican singers. As a young boy, I was privileged to witness some of the drama, having lived across the road from Beverley’s for some time with my aunt at 130 3/4 Orange Street.
Music/record stores dominated the area. Prince Buster’s Record Shack was a little below Big Yard. Coxson’s store was a little below Buster’s and Caribbean Distributing Company was a few doors below my Aunt’s home. Along with Mrs Pottinger’s Tip-Top Records and, of course, Beverley’s, these were just a few of those music establishments along the Orange Street corridor.
At Beverley’s, aspiring singers would constantly mill around, seeking sponsorship from a man named Leslie Kong, whom they claimed had their interest at heart and paid better than other record producers at the time. Initially, Kong, a Jamaican-Chinese who operated the restaurant along with his two brothers, Fats and Cecil, knew nothing about record production. Nevertheless, he was interested in getting into the business.
Kong’s interest in that strange activity was aroused one day in late 1961, when he received a visit from a teenaged boy named James Chambers (later known as Jimmy Cliff). The boy had travelled from Somerton, St James, to Kingston in search of greener pastures. Seeing the restaurant, he thought that writing a song about it would encourage the owners to sponsor him.
Dearest Beverley was the song he presented to the optimistically cautious Kong, who realised the risks involved, especially if the song flopped. Kong, therefore, sent Cliff to find the more seasoned campaigner, Derrick Morgan, to conduct an audition.
In an interview with me on KLAS radio some years ago, Morgan said: “Jimmy Cliff came to my home looking for me, saying that Leslie Kong said I should listen to a song he had and, if it sounded good, he should take me back to Leslie. Jimmy had a song called Dearest Beverley, a slow ballad, and I told him that that wasn’t going on those days. So he said he had another one, called Hurricane Hattie, and then we help out Jimmy and set up that one.”
On Kong’s instructions, Morgan found the Drumbago All Stars band and arranged rehearsals. Morgan also seized the opportunity to write two songs, Be Still and Sunday Monday. The next day, they went to Federal Records to record the three songs. There they met Owen Grey, who had Darling Patricia and, according to Morgan, “I rope him in.”
The quartet of songs, comprising Kong’s first outing as a producer, all hit the Jamaican charts, forming the launching pad on which the Beverley’s label and Kong built an illustrious reputation. At one point in 1962, Kong had seven of his productions in the top 10.
As the incessant flow of singing aspirants continued, Derrick Morgan became something of an A&R man for Kong, auditioning and ‘passing’ future stars such as Desmond Dekker. Dekker, in his dutiful good-boy character, made his recording debut in 1963 with Honour Your Mother and Father in 1963.
About a year before that, Kong had had the enviable distinction of producing Bob Marley’s first three recordings Terror, Judge Not and One Cup of Coffee. They didn’t create much of an impression initially, but have since become collectors’ items, with Terror, in particular, becoming one of the scarcest and most sought after vinyl records.
Another future star who debuted with Kong was the mellow-voiced 16-year-old John Holt, who recorded and released Forever I’ll Stay and I Cried a Tear in early 1963.
As the 1960s progressed and the rocksteady era dawned, Kong built up a strong roster of singers and became one of the first Jamaican record producers to make inroads into the international pop market. Four of his productions were on the British charts between 1967 and 1970.
Desmond Dekker and the Aces’ 007 (Shanty Town), which opened many eyes to Kingston’s sufferers and challenged misconceptions of Jamaica as a tropical paradise, reached the top 20. The group’s A It Mek got into the top 10. So did Dekker’s solo version of Jimmy Cliff’s You Can Get It If You Really Want. Kong reached the zenith when Desmond Dekker and the Aces’ Israelites (1969) climbed to the top of the British charts. It unequivocally highlighted the sufferers’ plight:
Get up in the morning slaving for bread sir
So that every mouth can be fed
Poor me Israelite
Shut them a tear up, trousers them a go
I don’t want to end up like Bunny and Clyde
Poor me Israelite
Several other Kong-produced recordings by groups like Toots and the Maytals, The Pioneers and The Melodians reached the British charts, achievements which made Kong virtually unmatched as a producer, in terms of international success. In the midst of celebrating Reggae Month 2014, Kong’s contribution cannot be slighted or overlooked, as his work has, in no small way, contributed to the internationalisation of reggae.
The Maytals, who were turned down by Derrick Morgan in a 1961 audition at Beverley’s, made a triumphant return on the Beverley’s label in 1968 with the perennial hit 54-46 Was My Number. In one poll, that recording was voted as the most popular reggae hit between 1967 and 1980. Kong reaped further success at the end of the 1970s with Ken Boothe’s Freedom Street, The Melodians’ Sweet Sensation and The Maytals’ Monkey Man.
Kong was on the verge of international stardom, through his involvement with the then-upcoming movie The Harder They Come, when he was unceremoniously cut down by a heart attack in August 1971.