Delroy Wilson was Jamaica’s first child star and boy wonder, having started recording at 13 years of age when he had to be hoisted on beer boxes for concerts. That notwithstanding, he was an immediate sensation. He was our first superstar in the ska era and was a lethal weapon used by Clement Dodd’s Downbeat sound system in his effort to demolish his former employee, Prince Buster.
Buster had built himself a sound system which he dubbed “The Voice of the People.” The rift was maintained at the outset by Buster who time after time jabbed at Dodd in song. In Delroy Wilson though, Dodd had found a comfortable candidate to deliver his responses and he signed him as a 13-year-old child star in 1961.
Delroy Wilson was born in the Trench Town area of Kingston, Jamaica on October 5, 1948, and attended the Boys Town Primary school. He would have been influenced by the talent that surrounded him in Trench Town as well as the pretenders that congregated at Coxsone at the time. In fact, Coxsone set Lee “Scratch” Perry the task of writing material for the young Delroy Wilson and the first single released by the Coxsone/Wilson partnership was “Emy Lou”] in 1962.
Perry wrote “Spit in the Sky”, and the biggest of the Ska hits “Joe Liges.” Both songs were attacks aimed at rival producer Prince Buster. Further singles followed, including “One Two Three”, “I Shall Not Remove”, “Look Who Is Back Again” (a duet with Slim Smith) and the anti- Prince Buster song, “Prince Pharaoh”, featuring the voice of Dodd himself.
By the mid-1960s the Ska beat had begun to transition to Rock-Steady ushering in a period for the young singer which produced many hits including one of the first Rock-Steady records, “Dancing Mood”, “Jerk in Time” (with the Wailers), “Feel Good All Over”, “I’m Not a King” , “True Believer in Love”, “Rain From the Skies”(An Adam Wade classic), “Conquer Me” and “Riding For A Fall”, “Won’t You Come Home”, a duet with Ken Boothe on a rhythm originally cut by The Conquerors for Sonia Pottinger.
By his late teens, the singer was delivering the kind of emotionally nuanced and soulful performances that would define his adult work. It was at this point, in 1967, that Delroy left Studio One and teamed up with producer Bunny Lee. Although the connection was a brief one, it resulted in a clutch of notable recordings, including “This Old Heart of Mine,” before the singer returned briefly to Studio One only to depart within a few months to launch the W&C label with fellow singer Wilburn Cole. The label was inaugurated with Wilson’s solo “Once Upon a Time” and the duo’s “I Want to Love You ” two fabulous singles. The venture would prove unsuccessful and like most Jamaican artist-owned labels, failed. The Links label which was formed around the same period with Ken Boothe, The Gaylads, and The Melodians, released only a small number of singles, including Wilson’s “Give Love a Try,” before folding.
He toured the UK in 1970 and recorded for Trojan Records. Some of the tracks he produced during this period included “This Old Heart of Mine”, “Footsteps of Another Man”, and his monster hit “Better Must Come” This song became a veritable “anthem” for the poor and trying Jamaican in the 1971/72 period. The song was used by the PNP as their campaign song for Michael Manley’s 1972 election triumph.
In the then politically charged era, Delroy Wilson’s career suffered as a result as he was branded a “Socialist” Worse, he was never compensated for the Party’s use of the lyrics. The same year saw the release of one of his most popular songs, “Cool Operator”, which became his nickname. His double A-side “It Hurts”/”Put Yourself in My Place” became a favorite with the British skinheads and narrowly missed UK chart success. In 1976, he recorded a cover of The Wailers’ “I’m Still Waiting” for Lloyd Charmers which was hugely popular and enjoyed some cross-over success. This was followed by perhaps his strongest album entitled “Sarge.”
His “Bob Andy” produced, “The Last Thing On My Mind” rose to number one in Jamaica and his success continued until the end of the decade. The rise of the DJ phenomenon and the embrace of gun-lyrics by many studios saw his career flounder during the early 1980s with releases less common. In addition, Delroy’s health had started to deteriorate, exacerbated by a developed drinking problem which resulted in cirrhosis of the liver.
Delroy Wilson died on 6 March 1995 at UWI hospital in Kingston, Jamaica, of complications from his illness. He was 46 years old.
In 2013, some 19 years after his death, the Government of Jamaica posthumously accorded him the Order of Distinction for his 33 year contribution to Jamaican music.
About the Author
Richard Hugh Blackford is the host of a 2-hour music-driven internet show Sunday Scoops on yaawdmedia.com each Sunday from 2:00 pm – 4:00 pm. The show focuses on Foundation Jamaican Music and takes its audience on a nostalgic but historical musical journey, peeling back the years of Jamaican musical development as the hosts explore the careers of Jamaican artistes. Sunday Scoops provides interviews with personalities, and discussions on Jamaican music and other topical issues. The show is co-hosted by noted DJ Garth Hendricks.