Tuesday, April 23, 2024

THE AL GILKES COLUMN: A genius in any genre

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“Jackie Opel was a genius and this could never be disputed.”
Those words are taken from the liner notes on his last recording, The Memorable Jackie Opel album, which he did in Trinidad with the Troubadours, the band with which he performed at the time as resident vocalist.
And for those of us who had the good fortune of having lived in the same space and time as Jackie did, tonight’s fund-raising tribute at The Plantation will bring both happy and sad memories of a prodigy who, like the prophet, was greatly honoured everywhere except in his own country.
In Jamaica, which he called home from 1960, Jackie was revered as the “king”. He not only holds a prominent position in its entertainers’ Hall Of Fame but is still remembered for the pivotal role he played in the creation and development of Jamaica’s first world-dominating indigenous music, ska, which he did so as lead singer, composer and part-time bass player with one of the most celebrated bands in Jamaican history – the Skatalites.
Jackie also dominated the airways and dance halls of Jamaica with his endless solo releases in every possible genre, from gospel to calypso.
Any doubt that he was the hottest of the hottest is dispelled by the fact that on more than one release, like his wicked Mill Man, his backing vocalists are none other than the Wailers – Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh and the man destined to become one of the biggest superstars of all time, Bob Marley.
Jackie once boasted that he had written more than 700 songs, and by the time he returned to Barbados, he had released more than 50 records on various labels, including Cry No More for MGM.
For reasons still undetermined, Jackie left at the peak of his career there and returned to Barbados where, to his great dismay, he found himself in an endless struggle for recognition, a struggle that continues 42 years after his death.
He never got to perform at the show that, in his mind, would have determined if the tide was changing because it was on that day he was buried.
My own navel string is buried a stone’s throw from Jackie’s in the Emmerton of Gabby’s immortal composition and our paths constantly crossed each other’s – he as the greatest Caribbean entertainer of the day and me as entertainment writer, drummer/singer/pan player and promoter, and friend.
It, therefore, was the saddest thing for me when I was asked to write the liner notes, from which the starting words above were taken, for his final recording.
I knew that he could never bask in the enjoyment of the completed work; nor admire the attractive jacket cover with three typical Jackie Opel onstage action picture, including his trademark split.
Shortly after returning from that recording session in Trinidad, Jackie died in a car crash in the vicinity of what is now the London Bourne Towers on Bay Street on the night of March 9, 1970. He was only 32 years old.

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