Honouring a genius

BY HOWARD CAMPBELL Observer senior writer

Monday, October 19, 2015

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POPULAR music has its share of tragic geniuses: Charlie Parker, Hendrix, Hathaway, Cobain. In Jamaica, there is Harold Butler.

Now in his late 50s, Butler, a gifted pianist, makes few public appearances. Today, he will step out at King's House for the National Awards and Honours ceremony to receive the Order of Distinction for his contribution to the development of Jamaican music.

It is just recognition for a talented musician, composer and arranger whose career has been curtailed by psychological challenges.

Much of Butler's finest work was done in the 1970s when he recorded or toured with artistes including Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, Beres Hammond, Cynthia Schloss, and Jimmy Cliff.

The younger brother of pianist Leslie Butler, another prodigious talent, Harold Butler is the writer of hit songs such as Hammond's One Step Ahead and Got to Get Away; Love Forever by Schloss; and Ernest Wilson's Let Love be Your Righthand Man.

He also played on Cliff's Grammy-winning album, Cliff Hanger. His five solo albums include Africa on my Mind, a 1978 set that includes Crying in Soweto, the South African township that was a bedrock of black unity duing the Apartheid years.

Willie Lindo produced One Step Ahead and Got to Get Away which are from Hammond's Soul Reggae album. He spoke to the Jamaica Observer about Butler's musical skills.

"Harold is jus' a great arranger an' musician...great songwriter. He came up with songs that were different and refreshing," said Lindo from his Fort Lauderdale home. "In the 1970s, me, him an' Beres used to hang out everyday, going to studio an' writing music."

Like his brother, Butler attended Kingston College. After graduating in the early 1970s, he became a regular at recording studios, working with producers like Winston 'Merritone' Blake, Schloss' husband.

While his songs were mainly ballads like Love Forever and One Step Ahead, Butler worked on two of roots-reggae's greatest albums: Bunny Wailer's Blackheart Man and Equal Rights by Peter Tosh.

He continued to record and perform, albeit sporadically, up to 10 years ago before mental problems stalled his career.

Fellow musician Marjorie Whylie, Ronnie Burke, a co-founder of Reggae Sunsplash, producers Winston 'Niney' Holness and Donovan Germain and impresario Olivia 'Babsy' Grange are the other music figures being awarded the OD.

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