OWEN GRAY


Artist


SKA

Owen Gray (sometimes spelled 'Grey') was born on the 5th of July 1939 in Trench Town, Jamaica, in the days when it was just a poor but friendly suburb of Kingston, one of six children in a Catholic household. His father was a soldier and it was from his mother that he learned his love of music, beginning his singing career in the boys choir at church. Gospel and American R&B were his first musical influences: singers like Lloyd Price, Smiley Lewis and Fats Domino. It was an R&B tune ("Kansas City") that he sang to win his first talent show ("Opportunity Hour") at the age of 16.

It was 1957 and he was 18 when he made his first recording for S.L Smith, the proprietor of Hi Lite Records, an early 45rpm single of "Who Saw The Lightning Flash Across The Way" and "I Love You Baby (And I Want Nobody Else)".

Then he recorded one of his own compositions, "On The Beach" for Coxsone Dodd of Studio One which was released as a 7 inch 45rpm but which was also revoiced and pressed as a sound system 78rpm ‘special’ by Dodd for use on his sound. This was the first ‘special’ for a sound system anywhere in the world!

The tune was originally written for King Edwards to record down at Federal Recordings but Edwards kept giving young Owen the runaround so he took it to Coxsone Dodd, who sent Gray into the studio to rehearse the tune with Roland Alphonso. Two recordings were made: a live instrumental and a live one-take vocal. The tune was a hit and so Owen followed it with "Hully Gully", "Sinners Gonna Weep And Mourn" and "Pretty Girl", and then the teenage hitmaker went on to record also for Duke Reid.

He then met up with a young Chris Blackwell and recorded "Mash It" then "Please Let Me Go" and "Far Love", which became both sides of the first ever record released by Blackwell. It came out in the UK on the Starlite label of the Esquire jazz record company. Later, the very first single on Blackwell’s Island Records was to be an Owen Gray recording: "Patricia".

It was 1959 and he was writing songs at this time too. "Boogie In My Bones" and "Little Sheila" were songs written by Owen and recorded for Blackwell by Laurel Aitken in the UK. He also helped Jackie Edwards write the songs for his first recordings: "Your Eyes Are Dreaming" and "We Are Going To Love".

Then he recorded "Tree In The Meadow" with Prince Buster but, all the while, he had no sense of making a living out of music; he regarded it solely as a prestige thing or a way of getting performance work as a singer. His job was still that of bookbinder and printer.

This was all still the late 50s and the Jamaican music business was not the cluttered place it is now. Apart from Owen, there was only Derrick Morgan, Laurel Aitken and Jackie Edwards of any status in the business. Owen and Jackie Edwards were close friends and, while working for Chris Blackwell, the future Island Records boss paid for both to go to University College of Jamaica to study musical drama. But Owen did not know his songs were being released in the UK on Starlite until one of his brothers went to the UK to live and sent for young Owen to follow him to Brixton.

It was 1962 when Owen formally emigrated to the UK, though he constantly returned to Jamaica to record. He toured Europe in 1964, and was singing both in a soul style and a ska style. Around 1966/7, he was back in Jamaica recording for producer Sir Clancy Collins, but he was still keeping up his previous recording connections with Coxsone Dodd, Prince Buster and Duke Reid and releasing new tunes for Leslie Kong and Clancy Eccles. Like Westbury stablemate Roy Panton, he also recorded duets with Millie Small who Chris Blackwell had already launched onto a world stage with her 1964 cover "My Boy Lollipop".

In 1968, Owen had a big Jamaican hit with his cover of Sam Cooke’s "Cupid" and then, in 1969, his skinhead ska classic "Apollo 12" was released. By 1972, he was back with Chris Blackwell, recording reggae versions of the Rolling Stones’ "Tumblin’ Dice" and John Lennon’s "Jealous Guy".

Because of his UK connections, he regularly had releases on Pama Records in the UK and its sister label, Camel Records, and one single on Hot Lead Records. In 1972, too, he had a considerable success in Jamaica with his tribute to Haile Selassie, "Hail The Man", acknowledging the growing influence of Rastafarianism in Jamaican cultural life. A few years later, he linked up very successfully with Bunny Lee and his recorded output became mostly roots reggae.

In the 1980s, he relocated for a time to Miami and his recorded output was mostly gospel and ballad albums. He now lives quietly in the West Midlands in the UK and still performs regularly round the world.