I often get questions about advice on starting out in music but I usually try to abstain; the path in each case is different, and when one considers the thousands of factors involved, it’s not surprising that the process would itself vary wildly and advice is, therefore, a tangle. But the questions continue – just recently from two readers of my SO IT GO column – and I attempt today to respond.
My beginnings in playing music go back to when I was living in Vreed-en-Hoop (I’ve mentioned this before) in a time when the village was a very quiet place after dark. Like most villages in the 1950s, when the sun set, Vreed-en-Hoop virtually shut down. In that setting, two young men playing acoustic guitars, strolling the road, was striking. In the night-time stillness, one could hear the guitars coming a long way off, gradually getting louder as they passed, and then fading away gradually as the strollers moved on.
The players were two brothers, Jack and Joe Henry, both now deceased, and the sound of the guitars was a light coming on for me. I was often in bed when they passed, and I would lay there transfixed. It led to me learning guitar myself and then playing in a group with Jack and Joe; Gerry Martins from Pouderoyen (no family) also played guitar along with a drummer Billy Stephenson, and Dooly Chung playing maracas. I had written one song, a love ballad, but professional musician was nowhere in my mind at any time.
My migration to Toronto in the late 50s, and then my decision to go into music professionally was not some long-held dream; it’s something that just presented itself before me, after my initial musical efforts in Toronto, prior to Tradewinds, were successful and showed me that it was an avenue I could safely explore, and that’s what I did. In other words, I wasn’t gambling. Later, with Tradewinds, when I decided to buy the club where we played, I knew from what the staff told me that the place did well when we were there, and not when we didn’t. The guys I bought it from were glad to unload it (they were accountants) because it was losing money, but I knew it was profitable with Tradewinds there, and I had that product. It wasn’t much of a gamble. Similarly, when I took the then recently formed Tradewinds to Trinidad Carnival in 1967, with my four songs recorded, we had guaranteed work every week back in Toronto, and I had enough money to pay the airfares and the other expenses for the trip, so while it was a gamble, it was one I could financially afford with no problem; if nothing had come of it, I would not have been in a hole. As it turned out, “Honeymooning Couple” became a hit (frankly, I saw “Meet Me in Port of Spain” as the hit) and I was able to keep that string going in subsequent LPs, but the Trinidad try was a gamble I could afford. Similarly, on the move to Cayman: Tradewinds had played there for Pirates Week; I had seen the popularity of the band from our LPs being played on Radio Cayman, and while it took us about a year to find the right venue for our followers, the evidence was there that it would work out. In every one of those gambles, the odds were in my favour.
On the formation of Tradewinds, as well, I had seen too many bands in the Caribbean and in Toronto breaking up due to a variety of indiscipline in the personnel, and I eliminated that by choosing guys who were solid people first and musicians second. That meant Kelvin Ceballo on drums, Glen Sorzano on guitar, and Joe Brown on bass. I knew them as honest, dependable folk and they were the first choices as band members that came to mind; there wasn’t any back and forth; it was those three. And similarly when Kelvin couldn’t take the travelling any more, there wasn’t any list of replacements – it was Clive Rosteing and he was interested and that was it, and when it came to replacing Glen, Terry Dyal was the only one I considered. When Joe left to do his own music his own way, and Terry went to bass, I had the opportunity to bring in keyboards (always at the back of my mind for texture) and that was Brian the Vincentian, who could also sing; and after a bomb scare on a flight when Brian said “adios” while we had auditions, I knew right away it was Jeff Japal from Grenada. In all those shifts, while musicianship was important, the key for me was the person, traits, attitude, etc., as I put those qualities way in front. In retrospect, and I say this often, that approach is the reason for band members who just fit right in, and stayed together for so long; some of them 30, 40 years. It’s an unusual thing in the music business and something we should be proud of; I hold that like an award.
Over the years, apart from very minor bumps, I have always had this solidarity with the guys because I had chosen them carefully as people in the first place, as I did when we added a percussion guy, Harry Cupid, in 1978. He used to sit in with us at We Place on weekends, we knew each other well, and it was a seamless addition. It’s revealing that this thing you see in so many groups, of factions, or this one not talking to that one, never happened in Tradewinds. Ultimately, we were together. I remember the time in Bermuda where I broke the finger on my left hand in a traffic accident and we went on stage that same night and got through the gig with all the guys pulling for me and we made it – nobody outside the band knew. That meant a lot to me.
No interviewer ever brought this up, but that unity we had, one for all, was one of the keys to Tradewinds’ musical success, and yes, while I was the one writing the songs, part of that rise as well was the contribution from the band in the studio, as we worked out arrangements, seamlessly, with no discord about anything – all amicable and professional, so much a family. I may not have spoken about it, but I recognised that; it was a comfort….even the late Charles Gregory, our recording engineer in Cayman, I remember him remarking to me one time – he and I alone mixing – about that closeness in the group. Even when we had Reggie Paul filling in for our bassman, who had to go back to Toronto, that was seamless, no hitches, because the team was in place as one.
And following all that, in the end, I’m grateful and humbled for it all. With all the laughing and the joking and teasing about this and that, we felt like brothers; we still do.
Tradewinds have had over 50 years… few bands reach that… and we have Caribbean people who still call our name, after all that time, and folks stop me on the street here constantly to say howdy. When I was in Cayman recently, where I lived for 25 years, people there told me “Welcome home.” It gave me goosebumps. A Jamaican fan in town there one day put down his bicycle and ran across the road to hug me. I can’t put into words what that means.
Apart from telling them to be original, I don’t offer advice to musicians starting – each one will be different and do things differently – but if they do ask I advise them to select their band members, first on the basis of being quality people and on musicianship second. I’ve seen too many first-rate musicians wreck a band by being second-rate people. Looking back on it, I recently sat down and wrote a letter to the musicians I’ve worked with over the years thanking them for being a part of the ride and for making their contribution along the way. I ended by saying, “It has filled up my life to overflowing.” It truly has.