Most of us are acutely aware of the male dominance in Jamaican music, not only at its early years but throughout and with the exception of a few women involved from behind the microphone as solo or back up vocalists, only one emerged during the period brave enough to challenge from the business end. That woman was none other than the late Sonia Pottinger, OD.
She was born Sonia Eloise Durrant in the eastern parish of Saint Thomas on June 21, 1931, and grew up in Kingston where she attended Saint George’s Girls’ Primary school, and Denham Town High school. After rounding out her studies at a commercial school in Kingston, Sonia Durrant worked as an accountant before marrying Lyndon Pottinger at the tender age of 21 years. Lyndon Pottinger himself was a reasonably well-established record producer who already had a number of hits under his belt. He began recording at his house in Kingston on the Gaydisc label in 1961 (before Dodd opened Studio One). In effect, Pottinger became the first Black owner of a recording studio.
In 1964 Linden Pottinger sold his production equipment to Duke Reid and left the music business. The Pottingers separated in 1965 but Sonia, inspired by the earlier association with the business, followed her instinct and drew on the experience she had gained with her husband to establish her own shingle.
In 1965 at age 34, Sonia made the full transition into music production on her own when she opened her record shop “Tip Top Records” at 37 Orange Street in Kingston. In 1966 Sonia Pottinger had her first taste of recording success with the slow romantic ballad from Joe White and Chuck entitled “Every Night” which was recorded at Federal Recording Studio. The song became a massive hit which rode high on the Jamaican charts for months and in the process attracted her first major award. This success immediately placed her squarely in the “cross hairs” of the all-male competition which was comprised of stalwarts such as Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd of Studio One, Duke Reid of Treasure Isle Records, Leslie Kong of Beverley’s Records, Randy Chin of Randy’s Records and Vincent Edwards on his “King Edward the Giant” label.
Sonia Pottinger built her business around her recording artistes and in many cases acted as manager for a number of them. Her gracious and supportive response to artistes requests for sponsorship, coupled with a keen ear for music, helped her to develop the ability to spot a winner easily. It was not surprising that she attracted the cream of the crop singers of the Rock-Steady and early Reggae eras to her studios. As the Rock Steady era developed, so too did Sonia Pottinger as a producer with a solid reputation on Jamaica’s youthful music scene. Some of the hits from her catalog include such sweet-sounding rock steady gems as Delano Stewart’s “That’s Life” and “Stay A Little Bit Longer,” Ken Boothe’s “Lady With The Starlight” and “Say You.” Others included “ Build Me Up” and “Close To You” by Brent Dowe, “I Have Little Nut Tree,” “Swing And Dine,” and “ Nola” by the Melodians and “Hard To Confess” and “ABC Rocksteady” by The Gaylads. All of these tracks were released on her Gayfeet and High Note labels. Significantly, all of these songs reached the top ten on the Jamaican charts, and all were distinguished by clean, vibrant rhythms supervised by Pottinger herself and performed by the best Rock Steady band on the island at the time – Lynn Taitt and the Jets.
Despite her significant Rock Steady catalogue, Sonia Pottinger extended her reach into the area of gospel music production, and developed a catalogue in this area which was without rival anywhere in Jamaica. She developed the “Glory” label specifically for this purpose and unleashed a range of “foot-stomping” revivalist-led “handclapping” backed music that ordinary Jamaicans could identify with from their churches. Some of these hits included: “The Man From Galilee,” “Home Once More,” and “ Someday” by Otis Wright; “Turn Your Radio On” by Claudel Clarke, and “The Comforter Has Come” by Alton and Otis. These were just the tip of the iceberg in terms of quantity and were huge sellers and favourites among churchgoers at the time.
In 1974 Sonia Pottinger bought the Treasure Isle label from long-time friend Duke Reid shortly before his death. Unfortunately, she was challenged for the rights to the label’s recordings by the Jamaica Recording and Publishing Studio Limited (the company created by Reid’s rival Clement “Coxsone” Dodd), Reid’s son Anthony and his company Treasure Isle Records International Limited, and Edward “Bunny” Lee. After a bitter court battle, the Jamaican Supreme Court in 2009 decided the case in her favour.
Pottinger continued to blaze a trail by putting out some remarkable recordings during the 1970s as Reggae took center-stage stabling such acts as Culture who became one of her latest clients with the roots recording, “Natty Never Get Weary,” along with Marcia Griffiths who in 1977/78 did one of her best-selling albums for Pottinger entitled “Naturally.” The Marcia Griffith Sonia Pottinger alliance followed up with the equally impressive “Stepping Out Of Babylon.” Other artistes including Bob Andy, U-Roy, and Big Youth also produced albums with her along with Winston Samuels, Delroy Wilson, Alton Ellis, The Ethiopians, The Conquerors, and others who recorded for her up to the mid-1980s when she retired from music production.
In October 2004, the Government of Jamaica accorded Her the Order of Distinction for her contribution to the development of Jamaican music.
She succumbed to illness and left us her legacy on November 3, 2010, at the age of 79.
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.
Photo Source: Trojan Records