Leslie Kong's reggae pioneer


Friday, July 20, 2012

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In commemoration of Jamaica’s 50th anniversary of Independence from Britain, the Jamaica Observer’s Entertainment section recognises 50 persons who made significant, yet unheralded, contributions to the country’s culture. This week we feature singer Leslie Kong.

IT is only fitting that as Jamaica prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary of Independence, the legacy of music producer Leslie Kong is remembered.

Kong, who died in August 1971 from a heart attack, produced the first song by a teenaged singer named Bob Marley (or Bobby Martell at the time) in 1962. The song, Judge Not, was done for Kong's Beverley's Records.

Kong was only 38 years old when he died, but he amassed one of the great catalogues in Jamaican music history with Beverley's which had stars like Derrick Morgan, Jimmy Cliff, Toots and the Maytals, and Desmond Dekker on its roster.

Like many of the Chinese-Jamaicans who entered the music business during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Kong brought a sense of commerce. His family owned an ice-cream parlour and record shop in downtown Kingston.

By the time Jamaica gained Independence from Britain, Kong was fully into the music scene, recording ska hits by Morgan. These included the patriotic Forward March which celebrated the country's birth as a sovereign nation.

Morgan had other hit songs for Kong, such as Housewives' Choice and Blazing Fire. He produced Miss Jamaica, Cliff's first hit.

While his contemporaries like Clement Dodd and Duke Reid dominated locally, Kong scored a handful of sizeable hits in Britain, the biggest being Dekker's 007 (Shanty Town) and Israelites. The Maytals also struck a chord in Britain through 54-46, Monkey Man and Pressure Drop.

Kong was on top of his game at the dawn of the 1970s when reggae emerged as the dominant sound in Jamaica. He produced the classic By The Rivers of Babylon by the Melodians and looked set to compete with younger rivals like Lee 'Scratch' Perry and Winston 'Niney' Holness, when he died suddenly.

One year after his death, the movie The Harder They Come was released. Most of the songs on its amazing soundtrack were by Kong's protégé Jimmy Cliff, which were complemented by Pressure Drop and By The Rivers of Babylon.

It remains a fitting tribute to a bona fide reggae pioneer.

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