THE PIONEERS by Laurence Cane-Honeyset
Early in 1967, Sidney Crooks went to the studio to record an original composition entitled Gimme Little Loving at a session financed by Gibbs, but soon encountered a problem upon realizing the song would be more effective with an additional vocalist. Lacking a suitable partner to fill the role, he decided to throw caution to the wind and take a chance on a young man who happened to be singing outside the WIRL studio at the time. The singer was an electrical welder called Jackie Robinson and Sidney's gamble paid off handsomely; "Gimme Little Loving" went on to reach number three on the island's charts and so began a partnership that was to endure decades.Over the ensuing weeks, the pair pooled their songwriting skills, their joint efforts quickly bearing fruit with the release of their follow-up, Long Shot (Bus Me Bet), a song that concerned the unlikely subject of a prize-winning racehorse. The disc promptly made the Jamaican charts and over the next few months, the Pioneers were rarely out of the top national listings. Popular singles from this time included Jackpot, No Dope Me Pony, Things Got To Change and Tickle Me For Days, all of which subsequently appeared on the album, Greetings From The Pioneers, issued by Gibbs around the summer of 68.
Towards the close of the year, George Agard, a tailor by trade who was eager to make his name in the music business, approached Sidney and Jackie. George had made his recording debut a couple of years before, cutting a couple of duets with another singer called Winston for Leslie Kong (Beverley’s Records) before recording for Derrick Morgan and Bunny Lee, under the alias of Johnny Melody, but he felt his talent would better utilized within the framework of a group. After impressing the pair with his rendition of an original composition entitled Na Na, the trio recorded the song as Johnny Melody & the Slickers, issuing the single on their own Slickers imprint. The enormous popularity of the single ensured George’s full-time member of the Pioneers and with their sound now complete, the group began recording in earnest for Leslie Kong’s Beverleys label. Before long, the trio would become one of the most successful vocal groups in the history of Jamaican music.
The trios initial release on Beverleys imprint was the chart-topping Easy Come Easy Go; a song written in response to an acerbic swipe at the group entitled Never See Come See that Joe Gibbs had written for Royals in reaction to the Pioneers departure from his roster. The single was followed soon after by Long Shot Kick De Bucket, a belated sequel to Long Shot that related the death of the famed horse at a race held at Kingston’s Caymanas Park race-course. Unsurprisingly, the song quickly became a nationwide hit in Jamaica, but bearing in mind its parochial subject matter, its success its success on the other side of the Atlantic was less predictable. Released in the UK by Trojan, the record was initially ignored by the hugely influential BBC, but following its appearance on a number of independent radio stations, the corporation finally relented and finally added it to their play-list. On October 18th, "Long Shot Kick de Bucket" crept into the national British Pop charts and over the next few weeks, steadily climbed up the listings where it eventually peaked at number twenty-one.
A month after its appearance on the UK chart, Sidney, Jackie and George flew in to London to promote the record on a six week tour of Britain, backed by a group called Sweet Blindness. By now, the Pioneers had recorded numerous sides for Kong, a dozen of which made their way onto their second album, "Long Shot", that was issued by Trojan in the Autumn of 1969.
In the early months of 1970, the trio returned to the studio to lay down vocals over backing tracks produced by Kong in Jamaica. The recordings were then mixed down and subsequently featured on the group's next album, "Battle Of The Giants", a collection that illustrated a subtle but definite change in the their sound with the influence of American R&B now a clear influencing upon their style. The title track of the album was later embellished with horns for the UK singles market and despite selling well, just failed to breach the British Pop charts.
Later in the year, the trio recorded "Starvation", a song highlighting the terrible famine among the Biafran people following the Nigerian civil war that predated the worldwide appeal records made by the likes of Band Aid and USA For Africa by over a decade. The group's next big single, in contrast, was a lively interpretation of the Johnny Johnson & The Bandwagon hit, "(I Need Your) Sweet Inspiration", the overall production of which was handled by the Pioneers themselves.
Around the close of 1970, the trio teamed up with famed singer/songwriter, Jimmy Cliff, who arranged for them to record a number of titles, including a song he had penned earlier that year, entitled "Let Your Yeah Be Yeah". The recording was as far removed from the group's material from sixties as one could imagine, in terms of lyric, melody and arrangements. Gone were the simplistic arrangements of that typified their earlier material the Pioneers were now making sophisticated pieces of Pop-Reggae, aimed primarily for an international audience. In 1971, Jackie spoke of the group's new, Soul-influenced sound to journalist, Mark Plummer of the weekly music paper, Melody Maker:
"We're trying to get away from being tagged a Reggae group. If you happen to be a Soul fan, you'll like our [live] show because we have some numbers in it. If you like Tamla, you'll find that there too. I think it is important to see a live group and have some variety of music. Of course, we have to gauge what an audience wants to hear when we are on stage."
Much to the chagrin of many purists, "Let Your Yeah Be Yeah" became one of the best selling Reggae 45s of 1971, peaking at number five in the British Pop charts in August. Tragically, that same month, producer Leslie Kong suffered a fatal heart attack and while by now his involvement in the Pioneers music had by this time decreased significantly, his death was still a sad loss to the trio.
Meanwhile, in the wake of their massive hit, The Pioneers maintained their heavy workload, touring Britain, Egypt, Lebanon, Germany and Ireland, while also and completing work on another album, "Yeah!". In January 1972, their follow-up single, "Give And Take" breached the British music listings and while it failed to match the impressive success of the group's previous 45, it still managed to climb to a respectable number 35 in the charts.
Subsequent recordings included "Roll Muddy River" and a fine rendering of Sam & Dave's "You Don't Know Like I Know", both of which were produced by London-based producer, Clive Crawley. Around this time, Jackie also took time out of the group to record a popular version of the Drifters' 1965 hit, "Come On Over To My Place" - his first solo material since 1968, although he was soon back with his regular singing partners, fronting the Pioneers on a number of sides produced by Sidney, who increasingly began handling the groups' arrangements. Singles from this period included "The World Needs Love", "Time Hard" (aka "Everyday") and "I Believe In Love" the latter providing the title for their next collection, issued later in 1972.
Over the next couple of years, the Pioneers' unique brand of Reggae ensured their popularity with mainstream audiences in Britain and across Europe, their choice of material reflecting the different musical styles influencing their sound. Among their best-known releases from this time was a version of another Johnny Johnson & The Bandwagon hit, "Blame It On The Pony Express", an interpretation of Eddie Hodges' 1961 hit, "I'm Gonna Knock On Your Door" and renderings of three R&B numbers; "At The Club" (the Drifters), "Papa Was A Rolling Stone" (the Temptations) and "A Little Bit Of Soap" (the Jarmels). Trojan also released another two albums by the group, "Freedom Feeling" (1973) and "Gonna Knock On Your Door" (1974), while the trio cut another in 1975 whilst in Japan their tour of the country being the first ever by a Reggae act. The Pioneers also broke new ground by performing in Thailand and Jordan and upon their return to Britain, left Trojan to sign for Philips Records. But after cutting two albums for their new label, the trio spent the next few years working almost exclusively on their separate careers, rarely uniting as a group, resulting in a dearth of Pioneers releases.
By this time, Sidney was established as one of the leading Reggae producers in the UK and had begun a close association with singer/songwriter Eddy Grant, while the enormous popularity of Jackie's version of the Chi-Lites hit, "Homely Girl" in 1974 had marked a series of popular solo singles that included "Warm And Tender Love", "Personality", "My Love For You" and "In My Life". George had also enjoyed some success as a singer/songwriter, with "Keep Your Mouth Shut", "Pardon" and "Nosey Parker" among his more popular
efforts. With little new material being produced by the group, Trojan began reissuing a number of their earlier recordings and in 1977 even went so far as to present a compilation of non-album tracks and previously un-issued sides as a brand new collection, entitled "Roll On Muddy River".
Finally, in 1978, Sidney, Jackie and George re-signed to Trojan and began working on a new album together - their efforts resulting in "Pusher Man", an LP that illustrated a new edge to their sound, with songs like "Them A Wolf", "Riot In Notting Hill" and the title track highlighting a degree of social consciousness not previously apparent in their work. To celebrate the return of the Pioneers to the Trojan roster, the company issued a "Greatest Hits" package featuring a dozen hits by the group spanning almost a decade, but the company's euphoria over the return of their most prized act quickly turned to dismay following the trio's decision to break with the company.
By now, the music scene in the UK was experiencing something of a transformation. Sparked by the advent of Punk, new types of music were developing and none proved more enduring than Ska. Rhythmically based on the Jamaican Ska sound of the early sixties, the new style sound also incorporated the energy and vigour of Punk, resulting in an irresistible fusion that took the British music scene by storm. By the close of 1979, bands such as the Specials, Madness, the Selecter and the Beat all made their mark on the national Pop charts, sparking a Skinhead revival and generating renewed interest in the Jamaican sounds of yesteryear.
In January 1980, the Specials' live E.P., featuring a manic version of "Long Shot Kick De Bucket" entered the UK charts and swiftly climbed to the number one spot. To capitalize on the popularity of the disc, Trojan hurriedly reissued the Pioneers' original version that climbed to a highly respectable number 42 on the listings in the Spring - not a bad achievement for a record some eleven years old! The Beat and the Selecter also paid tribute to the Pioneers with updated versions of the group's old hits, reviving "Jackpot" and "Time Hard" (aka "Every Day"), respectively. Meanwhile, Sidney, Jackie and George had pooled resources to launch their own Pioneer International production company and over the next few years financed the recording of three "Reggae For Lovers" collections, issued by Vista Sounds Records. In addition, George & Jackie also recorded a number of duets for producer, Norris Shears, who issued the sides on the album, "Just For You".
In 1985, the Pioneers were invited to participate in the making of two high profile collaborative recordings in aid of the Ethiopian famine appeal. The first of these was an updated version of "Starvation" also featuring leading British acts, the Special AKA, UB 40, Madness and General Public that climbed to 33 in the charts, while the second was a song entitled "Let's Make Africa Green Again" on which the trio were joined by a number of other leading British-based Reggae acts, including Dennis Brown, Winston Reedy, Trevor Walters, Trevor Hartley, Gene Rondo, Ken Parker, Junior English and the Blackstones.
The following year, the Pioneers finally returned to Trojan, some seven years since their previous recordings for the company. Unfortunately, the reunion proved short-lived and after the release of a solo effort by George and the single, "Reggae In London City" b/w "My Woman", the group disbanded. Throughout the remainder of the eighties, Jackie and George concentrated solely on their solo singing careers, while Sidney focused his efforts into operating his recording studio in Luton, Bedfordshire. In 1989, Jackie relocated to Florida and in the late nineties, George returned to Jamaica, after having worked for some years in the building trade. Sidney also eventually moved back home, reuniting with Joe Gibbs to operate the producer's recording studio in Kingston. In recent years, the trio have reformed to perform at the Ska-fest concert in Potsdam, Germany and to record a song for the 1999 Jamaica Festival Song competition. Jackie also sang with Eddie Grant and his Frontline Orchestra in Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago - their 1999 Christmas Eve show being broadcast live in Britain and throughout the Caribbean - while he also recently recorded a song for UB 40's forthcoming "Fathers" album.
Today, geography does not prevent Sydney, Jackie and George from performing together on a regular basis as the trio remains the best of friends, bound by their history and a determination to ensure one of the greatest vocal groups in the history of Jamaican music remains active and relevant to contemporary Reggae music. Reggae fans the world over continue to enjoy the music from the Pioneers long and glorious past and look forward to a proliferation of hits and tours from one of Jamaica’s finest reggae Pioneers.
Ronda St. Antoni 25
Principal-1 / A