Hopeton Lewis grooved on life

BY HOWARD CAMPBELL Obsever senior writer

Sunday, September 07, 2014

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NINETEEN-YEAR-OLD Hopeton Lewis was just hoping for a break when he stepped into the recording booth at Federal Records in late 1966 and cut a song called Take it Easy. It became his first hit and more.

Take it Easy, according to many students of Jamaican pop music, is the first rocksteady song. It heralded the transition from ska and ensured Lewis a place in the history books.

Lewis died Thursday at his home in Brooklyn , New York of kidney failure, at age 66. His distinct baritone made hits out of songs like Sounds and Pressure and Grooving Out On Life. He was a Festival Song winner through 1970s Boom Shacka Lacka and had a sizable hit alongside deejay U Roy with Tom Drunk.

Lewis was backed by Lynn Taitt and the Jets on Take it Easy and Sounds and Pressure. The former was produced by a young Winston Blake for the Merritone label. Blake was one of several producers working with Federal during the 1960s.

"Hopeton was an excellent singer, very versatile. That made him popular in the Caribbean," Blake told the Sunday Observer.

Blake also produced Grooving Out On Life, a cover of a song by American group the Newbeats which became Lewis' biggest hit. He was one of the first to record the singer who was born in Kingston and raised in Westmoreland.

According to Blake, he had no idea Take it Easy would be a massive hit.

"It never blew me away but it was catchy. Usually when a song is catchy that's a recipe for a hit," he said.

Take it Easy helped introduce the slower, more melodic rocksteady which resulted in a flood of harmony groups including the Melodians, the Techniques, the Heptones and the Paragons. It gave birth to singers such as Ken Boothe, Pat Kelly, Brent Dowe and Leroy Sibbles.

Lewis was lead singer of Byron Lee and the Dragonaires for several years, but like many of his rocksteady colleagues never thrived in the era of roots-reggae. His music was still popular throughout Europe and he was discovered by a new generation of fans during the 1990s rocksteady revival.

A born-again Christian, Lewis had been recording gospel music since the mid-1990s. Though he still performed his secular hits, Lewis focused on projects like the Caribbean Gospel Jubilee Internet radio station which he started in 2005.

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