Jimmy Tucker sang for cultural continuity
Jimmy Tucker

Say the name Jimmy Tucker and Jamaicans of a particular era will declare they absolutely remember him as Little Jimmy Tucker, Jamaica’s first child singing sensation.

He was the young prodigy whose exceptional voice spurred them to recognise and emulate excellence. As Paul Buchanan writes, “many will remember him from Lannaman’s Children’s Hour on Radio Jamaica or Vere Johns Opportunity Hour at Ambassador, Majestic, or Palace Theatre, captivating the crowd and rousing them to deafening shouts for unending encores and taking bow after bow”. He won the All Island Competition and a prize trip to Trinidad. Then he was a boy soprano.

Tucker was born and raised in Trench Town, attended All Saints School, and on a government scholarship, Calabar High School. At Calabar, he excelled as a Manning Cup centre forward, Sunlight Cup batsman, and a model student. He later attended Mico Practising School [The Mico University College]. As he matured, his brilliance endured, his voice ripened, and he became the young man with the enviable tenor voice.

Tucker performed in concerts, clubs, schools, and churches singing popular songs, light classical numbers, and patriotic and inspirational pieces. So many of these performances have been collected in his Great Gifts of Heritage books, records, and CDs.

In the 1960s, after some work experience in Kingston and encouragement from Norman Manley, Esq, Tucker departed for college and seminary in Pennsylvania, where he earned degrees in philosophy and divinity. He also pursued formal music study with Lilian Knowles Jones and met Janet, a singer soon to be his wife and part of the duo known as Jim and Jan. They recorded an album of folk and spiritual songs, and before graduation from seminary, he produced an album called Songs I Used to Sing, recapturing the music he sang in his teenage years in Jamaica.

Jimmy Tucker achieved success and recognition in multiple disciplines between then and now. He attended university in the United States and travelled through the Caribbean, Central and South America, and the USA. With such exposure, Tucker resolved to contribute to his country. A devoted Garveyite, he understood and practised Garvey’s directive to use the arts to uplift and elevate the people. In his own words, “Garvey’s cultural legacy provides us with a source of immeasurable value for the global issue of human relations.”

In addition to his many recordings, including the Universal Negro Improvement Association’s (UNIA’s) anthem, the national anthem of Jamaica, and other patriotic songs, he has also written books, including Remembering Norman Manley and Marcus Garvey’s Cultural Legacy. Guided by Garvey’s edict, Tucker remarked, “the creative artiste in any society has an honoured role. In this regard, the thoughtful singer is obliged to abstract the best ideas of a people’s heritage and perform songs and airs that mirror the past, illuminate the present in a manner which helps the individual to become more informed, confident and purposeful about the future. The singer who succeeds at this role helps the society to experience cultural continuity.”

As stated in his biography, during the 1970s, “Jimmy worked and sang in the USA until 1974 when Jim and Jan moved to Jamaica to join The Caribbean Council of Churches as manager of the north-west region (Belize, Central America, Cuba, Turks and Caicos Islands). They started a family which produced a girl and two boys. Jimmy recorded an album of patriotic music entitled Jimmy Tucker Sings of Jamaica and began writing a weekly column for The Sunday Gleaner. These articles have been compiled in his book, No Room for Neutrality. The Jamaican Government also commissioned journalist, songwriter, and historian Clyde Hoyte to write a biography of Jimmy and produce a 50th Anniversary Album, known as Jimmy Tucker – Silvery Soprano and Golden Tenor.

As a child listening to Lannaman’s Children Hour on the radio, we heard for the first time another child’s voice reverberating through the radio’s speaker. That was quite an experience, but seeing Tucker on stage shows was another affair. Inspired by Mario Lanza’s rendition more than 60 years ago, the youthful Tucker’s magisterial interpretation of The Lord’s Prayer was the highlight of his performances, and along with the poetic Trees, it still resounds in my memory today. He was exhilarating and compelling. He provided inspiration and courage to many wishing they could do likewise. That voice. Nothing was like it, except what was heard in music appreciation class recordings.

What also stays in my mind in all of this memorialising is that in adulthood, like that of a chorister, his voice has led and inspired an ensemble of singers, including family members Junior and Sheron Tucker, Delroy Wilson, and others, to become vocalists with outstanding achievements to their credit. He also influenced his nephew, Marlon Tucker, Jamaica, and West Indies batsman as a sportsman. But unfortunately, the neglect of a rounded appreciation for the arts, including art music, has cultivated a generation with a narrow affinity for the range and profundity of music beyond reggae, dancehall, and modern pop forms. And don’t take that to think I am an inveterate romantic stuck in the past who’s not in tune with the contemporary sounds. On the contrary, I’m attuned to and appreciate the songs of many current artists though some elude my definition of music. But it’s just a pity that Jamaican radio, show promoters, print, and social media influencers have no room for the reverberating outreach of the likes of Jimmy Tucker to show the flip side of our musical and creative diversity. As noted by his biographer, Clyde Hoyte, Jimmy Tucker was “the world’s first recorded boy soprano-tenor, spanning a period of more than fifty years of celebrated vocal excellence, with an intellectual career that is characterised by literary works which continue to influence the cultural and spiritual life of his own and other generations.”

Over six decades of being an integral part of our culture, Tucker’s career spans the entire history of modern Jamaica through his music, writings, teaching, preaching, and lifestyle. In addition, he exemplified the resilience, strength of humanity, and hope that allowed him and many others from Trench Town to illuminate the world with Jamaican dexterity and aesthetics. So, today for all his accomplishments and contributions, for many of us who experienced his talents, Jimmy Tucker is positively recognised as a national treasure because of his decades of vocal, intellectual, sociocultural, and spiritual excellence. He is unlike anyone we know and like none we are likely to encounter.

Tucker ranks among those patriotic Jamaicans whose passion, discipline, and intelligence enabled definition and direction in the country of his birth. He was Jamaican in every way. That’s why he was awarded the Nation’s Order of Distinction, Commander Class, and The Institute of Jamaica’s silver Musgrave medal.

James Alexander George Tucker, simply known to us from the distant past as Little Jimmy Tucker, passed away on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. Yet, without most contemporary singers ever hearing of Jimmy Tucker, much less hearing his voice, many characterise the present as if there was no past and address the future as theirs to shape. But, as TS Elliott said, there is no future and present if there is no past. And rephrasing his own words on past, present, and future, Tucker reiterates: the creative artist, in the interest of a people’s heritage [must] perform songs that mirror the past, illuminate the present, and secures the future. Jimmy Tucker was a man and artist of the past and the present who has progressed into the future of the unknown. The choir of angels in heaven must be rejoicing to be welcoming him into their fold.

Herbie Miller is a cultural historian. He is currently the director of the Jamaica Music Museum, an arm of the Institute of Jamaica.

Herbie Miller

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