The birth of Reggae Sunsplash
Bob Marley performing on Reggae Sunsplash stage. (Photo: Reggae Tourist)

The Jamaica Observer’s Entertainment Desk continues with the 20th of its biweekly feature looking at seminal moments that have helped shape Jamaica over the past 60 years.

WHEN Tony Johnson returned to Jamaica in 1977 after living in Los Angeles for 17 years, he was determined to duplicate that city’s live music scene.

With three partners, a shoestring budget, and plenty of hope, Johnson started a new company, Synergy, and headed the drive for what became the first Reggae Sunsplash in June 1978. It was held at Jarrett Park in Montego Bay.

Ronnie Burke, John Wakeling, and Don Green were the other partners in Synergy.

“We had a variety of skills, and we leaned on each other,” Burke recalled in a July 1998 interview. “Tony thought we were wasting a major resource in our music; Bob [Marley] was hot at the time and he believed reggae could bring a lot of tourists here in the slow months.”

Johnson worked with the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) and was influential in the initiation of the Jamaica Tourist Board’s (JTB’s) Singles Week for young American tourists. But he wanted the JTB to take the Singles Week a step further by adding something visitors would appreciate other than sun and sea.

That was music in the form of a festival.

With backing from the JTB, Synergy got the word out to the overseas press. They also acquired the services of a public relations firm, Peter Martin and Associates.

Educating foreigners was a task, but Burke says local response was a far bigger obstacle.

“We were up against a lot of things, like the bogie man— ganja and Rasta. The press was unkind. I remember one headline reading, ‘Reggae Sunscam’, he remembered. “There was a lot of scepticism; MoBay didn’t understand and the hotels didn’t support us.”

The entertainment community offered strong support for the June 15-23 show, which was largely funded by personal assets of the Synergy partners. Jimmy Cliff was headline act, with other big names being Bob Andy, The Heptones, Third World, Inner Circle featuring Jacob Miller, and Dennis Brown.

There were two beach parties and a Family Day (attended by the United States ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young) which featured Byron Lee and the Dragonaires and Fab Five. There was also a Jazz Splash Night with pianist Monty Alexander.

Burke remembers Cliff delivering an “unforgettable” performance, as did Inner Circle and Miller, though the latter’s set is more remembered for Miller smoking a spliff onstage. The crowd also had their say, though in a less memorable way. “Most of them came over the walls,” recalled Burke with a laugh.

Not surprisingly, Reggae Sunsplash ‘78 did not see a profit. Burke reckons the promoters lost as much as $100,000. But it made a big enough mark to attract the attention of several noted figures, none moreso than the globetrotting Marley, who headlined the festival the following year.

Reggae Sunsplash went through three venue changes before folding in 1998 when it was held at the White River Reggae Park on the outskirts of Ocho Rios.

Tony Johnson promoted his Reggae Sunsplash International tour across the United States, Europe, and Asia until his death from a heart attack in Los Angeles in May 1997. Wakeling died the following year of lung cancer.

Though it would be five years before Reggae Sunsplash became viable, Burke believes its birth in 1978 was a landmark for Jamaican culture.

“It set the stage for other festivals, not only here, but abroad,” he points out. “It brought back live entertainment in Jamaica and established MoBay as a place for music.”

Ronnie Burke
Howard Campbell

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