An article in the New Yorker magazine explores the story behind one of the most-loved rocksteady songs ever recorded and its singer, a Chinese-born American named Stephen Cheng. Cheng released his single “Always Together (A Chinese Love Song)” in 1967, a track featuring the rocksteady style on the Jamaican “Sunshine” label. The song began in a typical fashion but became unique when Cheng started to sing, using cadences very different from the usual Jamaican singers who followed those of American soul music. Cheng boldly sang the lyrics in Mandarin, and the lyrics themselves were adapted from a folksong that had its origin in Taiwan. The song was obscure even at the time of its release, but ultimately it became a well-loved novelty recording among hard-core Jamaican music aficionados, and over time, it became a reflection of the significant impact Chinese Jamaicans had on the rocksteady and reggae scenes in Jamaica. Although there were numerous Chinese-Jamaican producers and performers on the island, Cheng was an unknown player.
As the New Yorker article unfolds, the author tracks down the history of Cheng, who was a New Yorker who was survived after his death by five children, who shared that music had been a major part of their childhood. According to the family, Cheng came from a wealthy family in Shanghai and was born in 1921. He worked as a journalist after college and in 1948 moved to Hawaii and then to New York. He attended Columbia University there as well as the Julliard School of Music. He performed in Broadway shows such as “the World of Suzie Wong” and “Flower Drum Song” and recorded an album of Chinese folksongs on the Monitor Records label.
In the course of researching the article, Cheng’s discovered by chance that the song “Always Together’ had been uploaded to YouTube in 2010 along with some of his other singing performances. “Always Together” was uploaded at about the same time as it was reissued by a Japanese record firm that specialized in Jamaican “obscurities.”
Cheng started a band in New York in the 1970’s called the “Dragon Seeds.” He mixed Chinese traditional songs with softer versions of American rock to create a new Chinese folk-rock sound. The band featured 12 musicians playing traditional Chinese instruments around a core group of four jazz musicians. They received an invitation to play at Jazz in the Carden at the Museum of Modern Art in a program that included Elvin Jones, Odetta, Big Mama Thornton, and Mongo Santamaría. After the Dragon Seeds disbanded, Cheng focused his energies on teaching, giving voice lessons at the New School, NYU, and Sarah Lawrence College, among others. He published “The Tao of Voice” in 1991, which discussed a ‘New East-West Approach to Transforming the Singing and Speaking Voice.” Cheng wanted to help all types of people to feel comfortable using their voices, and the book attempted to combine ancient Chinese philosophy and teaching methods with Western voice techniques.
Cheng died in 2012.
Information and Photo Source: New Yorker Magazine, SoundCloud, Youtube