'Cherry' still ripe after 50 yearsThursday, July 22, 2021
BY HOWARD CAMPBELL
AS a musician with countless recording sessions to his name, Ibo Cooper is qualified to speak about the key ingredients needed for a hit song. Great lyrics and arrangement are two of them; another is magic.
They all came together for Cherry Oh Baby, the 1971 Festival Song Contest winner by Eric Donaldson. It turns 50 years old this month.
Cooper was a member of the Inner Circle Band that backed Donaldson, a little-known singer from Bog Walk, St Catherine. Cherry Oh Baby was produced by Tommy Cowan and released on the Tiger label, owned by Dynamic Sounds.
“You have certain songs and artistes who are magical. Take a song like Eastern Standard Time by Don Drummond…there's no lyrics but there's a certain magic about it and people readily identify with it,” Cooper explained. “Then you have artistes like Bob Marley, Dennis Brown, today you have Koffee…they have that magic. Eric Donaldson has that.”
Inner Circle were the backing band for 'Festival' in 1971. Back then, the band would rehearse the songs with contestants; then the artistes would record their entry with different producers.
Cooper remembers the rehearsals taking place at Sombrero Club on Molynes Road and the diminutive Donaldson being 'the least of the apostles'.
“I didn't know anything about Eric Donaldson. I heard he had done some recordings at Coxson (producer Clement Dodd) but that was about it,” he recalled. “But we weren't focusing on him, we were looking on the big men.”
The 'big men' included John Holt and Ken Boothe, but Cooper says most of the songs that year were not up to scratch. When Donaldson came up with the chords to Cherry Oh Baby, there was initial apprehension.
“He borrowed Roger's guitar but he couldn't play the reggae 'checke' (sound), but wi sey, 'yuh know sey di likkle riddim ya bad' and it was my idea to keep di riddim as it is,” Cooper recalled.
Donaldson made such an impact at the State Theatre pre-festival show in Kingston that top producers were competing to record his folksy ditty about a reluctant love.
Cowan, then marketing manager at Dynamic Sounds, managed Inner Circle at the time and directed them on the song. The side that accompanied Donaldson was Ibo Cooper on organ, rhythm guitarist Roger Lewis, who co-founded the band with his younger brother, Ian, who played bass; 16-year-old Stephen “Cat” Coore on guitar, Carl Barovier on drums, 15-year-old Tyrone Downie, who made his recording debut on piano, and veteran Denzil Laing on percussion.
Cherry Oh Baby was a popular winner and the first of seven wins in the Festival Song Contest for Donaldson. Covered by The Rolling Stones and UB40, it is the best-selling 'Festival' song.
The 'riddim' that captivated Cooper and his bandmates at Sombrero Club 50 years ago has been revived several times. In the 1990s, it drove Tony Rebel's patriotic hit, Sweet Jamaica.
Cherry Oh Baby's endurance does not surprise Cowan who won the second Festival Song Contest in 1967 with Ba Ba Boom with The Jamaicans.
“It continues to have a freshness about it, as it wasn't what you would have expected to hear in a Festival song per se. It is really a love/folk song with such sincerity, it is a story being told from the heart, which makes it timeless,” he said.
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