Jackie Mitoo is one the most pivotal, respected figures of the reggae era, both as a musician and as a producer and arranger. He was an original member of the seminal Jamaican ska group, the Skatalites, in the 1960s. In the latter part of the decade, he became the musical director and arranger at Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One, leading the legendary house bands the Soul Vendors and the Sound Dimension. He is generally credited with putting the musical muscle behind Dodd’s business and PR skills. To top it off, Mittoo is the preeminent keyboardist in reggae history. Amazingly, all of this was accomplished by the time Mittoo was 20 years old.
Wishbone is at the very least interesting because it highlights a much lesser known part of Mittoo’s career, and a sound that it is at least a couple degrees removed from the earthy ska and rocksteady over which he presided. In the late ’60s, Mittoo left Studio One and decamped to Canada, where he pursued a solo career and became a prime mover in the nascent Canadian reggae scene. If you didn’t know such a scene even existed, you’re not the only one. 1971’s Wishbone holds the distinction of being the first true Canadian-produced reggae release, and yet this reissue marks its first appearance on CD.
If you’re expecting the crudely-yet-immaculately produced Studio One sound, you’re in for a shock. In Canada Mittoo hooked up with the short-lived Summus label and producer Carl DeHaney, also a native Jamaican. Crucially, Summus house producer / arranger Howard Cable added orchestrations from members of the Toronto Symphony. The influence of American R&B on reggae has been well-documented, and Mittoo was no exception. In fact, the slick, soulful sound of Wishbone is informed more by the likes of Booker T & the MG’s, the Bar-Kays, and Lou Rawls than anyone from Jamaica. The dozen songs, mostly uptempo instrumentals, feature a clean, crisp production full of bouncy basslines, occasional Jazzy guitar, island percussion, and Mittoo’s velvety Hammond organ intertwining with Cable’s lush strings and horns. The sound falls somewhere between rare groove and 1970s elevator music; think blaxploitation soundtrack without the wah-wahs and you’re more than halfway there. The term “reggae” does apply to a handful of tracks, but it’s a far more commercialized version than the one Mittoo is famous for.
If you can get over the initial jolt, Wishbone does offer some good grooves. “Groovy Spirit”, which bears more than a little resemblance to “Spooky”, lives up to its title. For the title track, issued as a single, Mittoo plays the vocal melody to the Beatles’ “Carry That Weight” on his Hammond and lays it atop a traditional ska rhythm — a sort of Booker T meets the Skatalites. “Dry Wine” is a funky rave-up supported by a strong melody. But the remainder of the instrumentals fail to pack the same punch, pleasant and effortless enough but hamstrung by Mittoo’s attempt to mix laid-back Jamaican music with kinetic soul.
Most interesting are the several tracks on which Mittoo sings. His deep croon is unpolished but undeniably earnest and pleasant — not unlike a rough-around-the-edges Rawls. In another sign of Mittoo’s wish to go mainstream, he sings without a trace of a Jamaican accent. The buoyant “Love Live” illustrates the synergy with which Mittoo clearly wanted to infuse the entire album. Featuring lines like “Life should make you happy / I’m sure you will agree” underscored by female backing singers and the album’s deepest reggae rhythm, it is the one true “lost gem” here. “Soul Bird” is a valiant attempt at straight-up, Stax style soul, but most of the vocal tracks fade into their surroundings in the same way the instrumentals do.
Wishbone was well worth exhuming from the vaults, and this nicely-packaged issue does a good job of it. Mittoo fanatics will no doubt be thrilled to have it; otherwise, it’s a curiosity that falls just short of “rare groove cult classic” status. That wasn’t what Mittoo was going for, anyway; he finally realized his commercial aspirations by working with British reggae-pop band UB40 on their 1983 mega-seller Labour of Love.