The Melodians’ Tony Brevett RIP

The death of singer Tony Brevett, who succumbed to cancer on October 26th, has brought a permanent end to The Melodians, one of the most important harmony groups of the rock steady era.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Melodians achieved an unbeatable run of hits, earning higher rankings than rivals such as The Wailers, and greater longevity than peers like The Paragons. They achieved this success through a supreme command of three-part harmony, bolstered by the uncommon lyrics and vocal arrangements of silent partner Renford Cogle. Although Brent Dowe was chief vocalist, the alternation of lead duties between Dowe and Brevett gave the group an additional dynamism, and since Brevett was the founder of the group, his role was all the more important.

Tony Brevett was born in downtown Kingston in 1949 and, from the beginning, music was all around him. “Where I was born is a place where the seed was planted, because it is the heart of the city and everything is there. From Louis Jordan and all them guys ah play, and you have all guys with him little sound system…right in the heart of the city, it’s there I was born.”

Brevett attended Ebenezer School on Darling Street and began singing informally at the school’s sports club, aged twelve. Together with fellow students George Allison and a still unknown Bob Marley, Brevett would practise harmony, trying to perfect the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love.” In the local church, they learned the rudiments of music on the pipe organ, and Brevett learned basic guitar chords when a neighbourhood roughneck procured a ukulele for him. After Marley settled in Trench Town, baritone singer Bradfield Brown began singing with Brevett, which led to the official formation of the Melodians in 1963, with Brevett, Brown, Trevor McNaughton and Brent Dowe, who was based in nearby Greenwich Farm; Brown dropped out after a while, and Renford Cogle joined as the unseen participant.

The Melodians made a name for themselves through weekly performances at Kingston’s Kittymat club, supplemented by gigs at other establishments. They passed an audition before Ken Boothe and BB Seaton at Studio One in 1966, recording “I Should Have Made It Up,” “Lay It On,” “Meet Me” and “Join Hands Together” (AKA “Throw Down Your Weapons”), but soon left when they learned that Duke Reid was offering significantly higher pay. It proved to be the right move, since the remarkable string of hits they recorded at Treasure Isle made them one of the premier acts of the rock steady era: “You Have Caught Me,” “I’ll Get Along Without You,” “You Don’t Need Me,” “Come On Little Girl” and “Last Train to Ecstasy” (plus its alternate voicing, “Expo 67”), are all indelible classics that have never waned in popularity.

Always searching for higher pay, they moved on in 1968 to the growing stable of Sonia Pottinger, cutting another couple of landmarks in “Little Nut Tree” and “Swing and Dine,” both of which also remain perpetual favourites. They then moved to another highly successful residency, this time at Leslie Kong’s Beverley’s Records. The resultant “Sweet Sensation” and “Rivers of Babylon” were both massive successes in Jamaica, with “Rivers” later making a significant impact overseas, following its inclusion in the soundtrack of The Harder They Come. (The song ultimately inspired Boney M’s disco cover version.)

When Leslie Kong suffered a fatal heart attack in 1971, the Melodians endured a phase of instability. The contemplative “Round and Round” was a fine effort, recorded for Lee Perry at Dynamics, as was a fist stab at self-sufficiency in the form of “This Beautiful Land,” which Brevett produced, but dwindling finances and internal friction resulted in the group’s split. The solo work produced by Brevett and Dowe in this period was thoroughly excellent, and deserved greater exposure: Brevett’s “Don't Get Weary” was an excellent single that enjoyed some popularity in Jamaica, while the chilling “Starlight” was a devotional record which referenced Brevett’s belief in Rastafari, aided by a sterling backing from the reformed Skatalites (spearheaded by Brevett’s uncle Lloyd on bass).

After Brevett recorded a version of Jose Feliciano’s “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” for Harry J, the astute producer suggested that the group reform for Sweet Sensation, on which they revisited past hits for modern updates. It achieved mixed reviews, leading the group to drift over to Channel One, where they cut sparse work for Joseph Hoo-Kim. Confusingly, a half-finished album the group had initiated for Sonia Pottinger at Lee Perry’s Black Ark in 1975 surfaced in England a few years later as Deep Meditation, padded out by unrelated earlier hits for Pottinger and Duke Reid. The group then disbanded once more, this time for a longer period, though material produced by Dowe bearing the Melodians name surfaced in the early 1980s.

With all the dramatic changed that has occurred in Jamaican music since then, it’s no surprise that the Melodians would prove less active. Further reunions, however, consistently took place. During the 1990s, they performed to appreciative audiences in Jamaica, and also for the Rock Steady Revue staged by Alton Ellis at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1997. Even after Brent Dowe died of a heart attack in 2006, Brevett and McNaughton were keeping the group’s name alive. Indeed, the pair were preparing for a Melodians’ 50th anniversary concert, to be held in Miami, where Brevett had settled some years ago, before Brevett was hospitalised last month, suffering from stomach pains and kidney problems.

By David Katz on November 4, 2013