[20 December 2007]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
If you were to put on the Summer Records Anthology 1974-1988 without knowing anything about it—the title, history or context—the striking first song would be hard to place, chronologically or geographically. Johnny Osbourne With Bunny Brown’s “Love Makes the World Go Round” has a bit of a tropical breeze to it, perhaps, and some doo-wop tendencies in the supporting vocals. But mostly it has Osbourne’s high voice rising crisply above everything else, singing sweetly about his shattered heart. His voice is what the adjective “otherworldly” exists for. He sings about real life, depicting patterns of love and heartbreak as the engine that moves the world, but he seems to be coming from another place and time.
In actuality, the song comes from very specific circumstances, as the B-side on the first release, in 1974, from the record label Summer Records. The label was founded by Jerry Brown in his Summer Sound Studios, in Malton, Ontario, a home for Ontario’s healthy ‘70s-‘80s reggae scene. The fact of that scene alone is bound to make you say “What?” the first time you hear about it, if only because of expectations and assumptions about cultures and musical history. It is a fascinating story, though, of Jamaican musicians in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s immigrating to Toronto, a city that already had a vibrant R&B scene, and combining their style of pure reggae with the soul music of the day, coming up with their own style.
It’s a story well-told last year through Light in the Attic’s excellent compilation Jamaica to Toronto: Soul, Funk & Reggae: 1967-1974, and through a handful of single-artist releases by the same label, spotlighting Noel Ellis, Jackie Mittoo, and Wayne McGhie & the Sounds of Joy. Summer Records Anthology features the first of those three artists, plus eight others, as it follows one thread through that 14 years of that Jamaica-Toronto scene. Starting with that first single from 1974 and ending with Unique Madoo (Ska Doo)‘s much different 1988 single “Call Me Nobody Else”, it includes singles, unreleased songs and alternate takes. Liner notes which tell in detail the Summer Records story are augmented by a DVD of home video footage from the time, painting a full picture of this unlikely musical community.
In Kevin “Sipreano” Howes’ liner notes, he discusses the financial struggles of the label. He quotes Jerry Brown saying they would try to trick the diehard reggae fans into buying their records by putting “Made in Jamaica” stickers on them, and quotes bassist Anthony Hibbert as saying of the label’s earliest singles, “If we had recorded those songs in Jamaica, they would have been hits.”
The musicians collected on Summer Records Anthology were clearly trying to recreate their own version of Jamaica in Canada. Tracks like Ellis’ “Reach My Destiny” and Adrian “Homer” Miller’s “One and Only One” are classic reggae tales, splendidly-sung, of escaping Babylon for the eternal Zion; the references to journeying gain some resonance from the facts of the Jamaica-to-Toronto story. On five tracks in this collection, with vocalists or not, the band Earth, Roots & Water play tight versions of classic reggae, rock steady and dub music. Their “Awakening”, featuring John Forbes and Teach, and “Mankind”, with Miller on vocals, are especially potent dub tracks, recalling the liner notes’ tale of Jerry Brown’s competitive collaboration with Prince Jammy, who had worked with King Tubby himself back in Kingston. Brown and Jammy, and the others, obviously gave ample time and attention to perfecting their means of constructing tracks. In the 1980s Jammy’s style of computer-based drum programming would further evolve the Summer sound, as captured in the last two songs of this compilation.
Ultimately the music ended up sounding like Jamaica, and not. It’s music rooted deeply in Jamaica, but also gaining its own distinct style, perhaps due to the musicians’ isolation from their source of inspiration. More than just an interesting anecdote to music history, though, Summer Records Anthology provides a collection of vibrant music that stands strong within the reggae tradition.