Bertie at the controls

BY HOWARD CAMPBELL
Observer senior writer

Thursday, October 18, 2018

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This is the 70th year since the Empire Windrush docked in the United Kingdom, carrying hundreds of West Indians seeking work to bolster that country's war-torn economy. Most of them were Jamaicans who settled in communities in London, the Midlands, Nottingham, and Bristol. The Jamaica Observer presents the second in a 10-part series featuring Jamaican entertainment personalities who were either born in the UK or grew up there, and how living in that country impacted their lives.

The year 1966 may be the most momentous year in Herbert Grant's life. In April, just weeks before he migrated to the United Kingdom, the 10-year-old witnessed a motorcade with Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I in Kingston; three months later, he experienced euphoric celebrations in the UK after England won the World Cup.

Known as Bertie, Grant spent over 45 years in the UK working as an engineer and producer with artistes including Sugar Minott, UB40, Carroll Thompson, and Winston Reedy. He is one of the individuals who fashioned the easy-listening reggae beat known as lovers' rock.

Now 62 and living in Kingston, the affable Grant has a blend of Jamaican patois and London twang. He spent his formative years in the Cockburn Gardens and Waltham Park communities before moving to the UK to join his mother and stepfather.

His new home was anything but warm and hospitable.

“It was a different culture; things for black people at the time was bad. I remember seeing signs on apartments that said, 'No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs',” he recalled. “But the biggest difference was the weather. It wasn't just the cold, you couldn't see the sky 'cause of the smoke from the chimneys. I used to cry 'cause I wanted to go home.”

Grant grew up in Peckham Manor, south London, which had a massive Jamaican/West Indian population. Most people in his neighbourhood loved reggae, and although they had no black players at the time, he and many of his friends supported Chelsea Football Club.

Football was Grant's first passion. In the early 1970s, players of colour were rare in the English leagues, so his presence was limited to domestic formats like the South London District which produced future stars like Arsenal's Ian Wright. Discouraged by his mother, he gave up hopes for a career in professional football and began hanging around local sound systems like Sir Scorcher and Sir Cosmic.

By the mid-1970s, Grant had seen most of the Jamaican artistes who came to the UK to perform. Many of them were backed by a band he eventually befriended.

“The Cimarons were a very talented band. Whenever they were playing I would take them in, and after a while (lead singer) Winston (Reedy) and I became good friends,” he said.

Around that time black British youth began establishing their own reggae identity. There was a rush of bands and groups out of London and the Midlands including: Capital Letters, Black Slate, Aswad, Steel Pulse, and Misty In Roots.

But it was a Jamaican musician, drummer Max Edwards of Zap Pow, who influenced Grant to move into music production.

“He was a turning point in my life. Max brought into the midst of everything musical,” he said.

Through Edwards, in 1979 he met Sugar Minott who was living in Harlesden, a London area with a massive West Indian population. Grant said Minott was keen to make a mark in the UK, but expressed frustration at being ripped off by producers.

He agreed to work with Edwards on a project, which was recorded at Easy Street Studio in London, that announced Bertie Grant's formal entry into the music business as a self-taught engineer. Those sessions yielded songs like Lovers Rock, Penny For your Song, African Girl, Love Jah Forever, and Natty Dread Time. They were huge hits in the UK reggae market and within two years, Minott was in the British national chart with his cover of The Jackson 5's Good Thing Going.

Grant soon moved into the producer's chair and was responsible for two massive British hits: singer Carroll Thompson's I'm so Sorry and Lead Me On and Reedy's Dim The Lights. He also worked on projects by Keith Hudson, Dennis Brown, Junior Delgado, Horace Andy, and Gregory Isaacs.

One of Grant's career highlights came as engineer on UB40's Labour of Love II album released in 1989. It contained covers of Al Green's Here I Am (Come and Take Me), Lord Creator's Kingston Town and The Way You d o The Things You Do — originally done by The Temptations.

Here I Am (Come and Take Me) and The Way You d o The Things You Do made the Billboard pop chart, while Kingston Town entered the Top 10 of the British national chart.

“That album catapulted my career into a different category. It was a great thing for me,” said Grant.

Since relocating to Jamaica, he has worked as an engineer with producer Winston “Niney” Holness and toured Europe in a similar capacity with Eek-A-Mouse.

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