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Owen Gray cherishes award from God

By Howard Campbell
Observer senior writer

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

At 82, when many people are beset by waning faculties, singer Owen Gray retains an unwavering retention of dates.

Like May 28, 1962 when he first landed in the United Kingdom. His memories are of the time are vivid.

“I arrived on (airline) BOAC and it was raining like crazy. I went there one night after Jackie Edwards,” Gray recalled in a recent interview with the Jamaica Observer.

Gray still lives in the United Kingdom where he enjoys his status of elder reggae statesman along with other pioneers like Jimmy James, Winston Francis and The Cimmarons.

Many of Gray's contemporaries have died, including Edwards, Desmond Dekker, Count Prince Miller and Millie Small, the former teen star who was his protege.

Small, best known for the 1964 hit song My Boy Lollipop, died in London in May at age 73. She was a recluse for many years.

The St Ann-born Gray met Small in the early 1960s. He says they recorded duets like Sugar Plum and You Don't Want me no More for producer Clement Dodd after a period of rigid mentorship.

“I taught her to sing, how to speak properly. If anybody wants to know about Millie Small, they have to talk to me,” Gray insists.

Interestingly, Island Records, the company that made My Boy Lollipop a monster hit, also helped put Gray in the UK spotlight. His Patricia, released in 1959, is said to be the first song released by the company started by Chris Blackwell that year in Kingston.

Recording for producers including Dodd, Leslie Kong and Prince Buster, Gray had a number of well-received songs such as Millie Girl and Tree in The Meadow. After hearing from his older brother Ralph that his songs were doing well in the UK, he moved there two months before Jamaica gained Independence from that country.

The evergreen Gray still performs. Pre-COVID-19, he did shows in the UK, Brazil and Australia. He had more overseas dates lined-up but the pandemic caused those to be cancelled.

Gray has never received a national honour in Jamaica but scoffs at talk that he has been overlooked by his countrymen.

His contribution to Jamaican music was acknowledged with a Living Legend Award at Heineken Startime in Kingston in 2002. Gray performed on a show dubbed “British Invasion” featuring 'foundation' acts living in the UK.

Michael Barnett was a senior member of the Startime team. He hails Gray's achievements.

“Owen Gray is very important to Jamaica's early music history, as he was one of the first group of artistes hired by Clement 'Coxsone' Dodd at Studio One, as a singer, arranger and pianist. He had a tremendous legacy of hit songs for Studio One, Leslie Kong's Beverley's, Prince Buster's Voice Of The People, Blue Bells and other labels in Jamaica, before migrating to England as a part of the first wave of Jamaican artistes to establish and promote ska there and throughout Europe,” Barnett noted.

He added that, “The success of Owen Gray and the others significantly helped to make ska and Jamaica household names in England and around the world, paving the way for the likes of Alton Ellis, Roy Shirley, Jimmy Cliff and others. Owen Gray and other artistes like himself definitely deserve to be honoured by Jamaica for their tremendous legacy and pioneering work.”

But the feisty Gray is not holding his breath for national recognition. He claims he got something much more valuable from a higher being.

“From di day I can sing I got my award. Di Father give mi my award...dat is my award,” he said.