The late 1950s to early 1960s was a defining period in the history of Jamaica music as the successes of the pioneering Higgs and Wilson, Laurel Aitken, The Folkes Brothers, Alton Ellis, and Derrick Harriott, provided the impetus for bringing other developing vocal talents into the spotlight. One of those finds was Slim Smith, a man who became the standard by which Jamaican vocalists would forever be measured.
He was born in 1948 and christened Keith Smith, growing up in the West Street area of Kingston, Jamaica and first sang as a member of The Victors Youth Band who came to prominence as champions of the ‘Ska & Mento Contest’ at the Western Kingston and Jamaica Festival in 1964. One of Smith’s earliest recorded work was the R & B number (often touted as Ska) “Three Times Seven.” He would record “Only Soul Can Tell” under the moniker Dakota Jim which was delivered on the Blue Beat label. At the outset, Smith served as a member of the Techniques and then as a member of the Uniques before moving on to pursue a solo career where he would sing numerous passionate, soulful songs that have become acknowledged over the years as truly Jamaican classics.
The Techniques had actually started out in 1962, formed by a group of youngsters from Kingston Senior School with members Winston Riley who led the group, Slim Smith, Frederick Waite, and Franklyn Whyte. Before they actually had any recordings, the group sang mainly at school concerts or on street corners. Ronnie Nasralla would record one of their first singles “I Am So In Love With You” on his Gala label before they eventually started recording for Duke Reid in 1963 but not before Smith auditioned for Coxsone who turned him down. The sessions with Duke Reid would produce a number of hits for the Techniques on the Treasure Isle label, including “You Don’t Know”, “I’m In Love,” “A Place Called Love” and ‘Little Did You Know.” At the time the Techniques with the golden voice of Smith was the most popular singing group in Jamaica.
In 1966, the pace of Jamaican music had again begun to shift and with the pace of Ska slowing down, the Rock-Steady beat crept in. Around the same time differences that had been developing between Smith and Riley had become irreconcilable leading to a parting of ways between Smith and the Techniques. Smith would eventually team up with Coxsone’s Studio One as a solo artiste with Coxsone immediately renaming Smith as “Slim Smith” because of his physique. One of Smith’s early releases with Clement Dodd on the Coxsone label was a tune called “Hip Hug.” This was followed by “Never Let Go’’, “Rougher Yet,” “The New Boss” and the excellent “Look Who’s Back Again” which included the voice of Delroy Wilson.
Smith soon moved on from Coxsone, recording a duet with Prince Buster, the stirring Ska number “The Prophet” before forming The Uniques under the guidance of Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee who was just starting out on his career as a record producer. Coxsone was very unhappy with Smith’s decision to leave Studio One and held it against the artiste. Striker Lee though would have the most profound effect on Slim Smith’s development, making him a household name in Jamaica’s music history that has enveloped generations. According to Bunny Lee, “Slim Smith” apart from singing with the Techniques in those early years also used to sing with the fluidly operated group The Sensations for whom he provided the lead vocals on the hit “Born to Love You.” That was how Bunny Lee invited him into a group he was forming called The Uniques which was initially comprised of Derrick Morgan, Ken Boothe, and eventually Slim Smith. Boothe and Morgan sang the harmonies on “People Get Ready to do Rock-Steady” which was the first tune put out by the Uniques and was also the first tune Bunny Lee recorded with Slim Smith.
The Uniques would quickly become Jamaica’s No. 1 group with hits like… “Do Rock Steady”… “Let Me Go Girl”… and the monster hit “My Conversation.” These tunes planted the Uniques at the top of the Jamaican charts.” Other hits with the Uniques included “Gypsy Woman,” “Watch This Sound”, “My Woman’s Love”, “Love and Devotion”, “The Beatitudes” and” Never Let Me Go.”They dominated the Stage Show circuit at the then The Carib, State, and The Regal Theatres, stealing the show from any other group performing and, on one memorable occasion, from The Wailing Wailers.
Bunny Lee recalled turning up at Studio One on Brentford Road to voice what would become one of Slim Smith’s biggest ever hits, a version to the Motown classic “Everybody Needs Love’”, recorded by, among others, The Temptations and Gladys Knight & The Pips, only to be told by Coxsone that “a singer’s done when I done with him”. But Striker and Slim proved him wrong.
Striker reportedly told Slim to ignore Coxone and just sing around mixing the board, which Slim did and simply blew Coxsone away. The result was the single “Everybody Needs Love” which became Slim Smith’s biggest hit.
Slim Smith would leave The Uniques after a few years, going solo and the hits continued, ‘Everybody Needs Love’, ‘Blinded By Love’, and he was off on a tour of Canada. He appeared in places like Denmark, France, Germany, Sweden, Wales, and all over London. In London, he was regarded as the best Jamaican singer and was hailed wherever he appeared. “Rain From The Skies”, “Build My World Around You,” “I’m Lost”, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.” Maybe it was the fragility of his mental state that forced its expression in the melodious yet haunting melodies present in his voice. He sang with his heart, his emotions (oftentimes raw) forging ahead in his lyrical output. Yet, he was not treated well by the producers for whom he worked and from reports, he was not particularly successful in the relationship department. He took to drink and smoking weed as a salve for his emotional issues. Slim wore his heart on his sleeve, in his music and his sometimes fragile mental state led him to a period in Kingston’s Bellevue Sanatorium and tragedy struck in 1973 when Slim met with a fatal accident.
He was still living with his parents and had come home one night to find the front door locked. In a rage, he apparently punched through a pane of the glass-paneled window only to injure himself. Perhaps he was somewhat inebriated at the time and unable to call out for help but he was found the following morning lying in front of the door, having bled to death by virtue of a severed artery. Slim Smith was gone…too soon. His was a short and tragically curtailed career during which Slim Smith, first as a Technique, a Unique and a solo artiste. He sang numerous passionate, soulful songs that have become acknowledged Jamaican classics. Slim Smith was one of those Jamaican artistes who came through, despite numerous challenges and any telling of the story of Jamaica’s music has to feature Slim Smith, as a man who will forever remain the genuine Jamaican music aficionado’s favourite singer. In fact, two of his original compositions, ‘I’ll Never Let Go’ (aka ‘The Answer’) and ‘My Conversation’, are among the most versioned ever in the history of Reggae 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.