Thursday, July 20, 2017

Wayne McGhie (1946-2017)

This afternoon, I was notified that Jamaican-Canadian singer-songwriter and musician Wayne McGhie had passed away after a series of compounding health complications at his home in Toronto. I have been asked by his sister and care giver Merline to let the music world know of his physical death, an honour which I do not take lightly. Wayne is heavily responsible for my career in writing and music and I have been made to feel a part of his family since our initial meeting in 2003. At the time of its release in 1970, The Sounds Of Joy was ignored by the Canadian music industry and mass media and despite selling limited quantities, he pushed forward throughout the 1970s writing, producing, performing, and arranging. Confronted with serious mental health issues, Wayne went missing and retreated from playing music professionally in the early-to-mid-1980s. I first heard Wayne's music in the 1990s as a DJ in Vancouver, British Columbia. His Wayne McGhie & The Sounds Of Joy record had become sought after in the underground sample-based hip-hop world and celebrated by obscure funk and soul music collectors worldwide. Captivated by its quality, I longed to find an elusive copy. It took me years to find one. Along with Light in the Attic co-owner Matt Sullivan and fellow Montego Bay-born singer Jay Douglas, I connected with Wayne and his family in late 2003 during preparation for the first official reissue of his Wayne McGhie & The Sounds of Joy LP. Armed with a portable turntable and a stack of vinyl records, it was an emotional gathering for everyone in the room. Tears were shed (as they are today). A true pioneer of Jamaican and Canadian music has moved on. May your mind, body, and soul be free...

I love you Wayne, 

*Below is a post-script essay included in the ten year anniversary Light in the Attic re-release from 2014, and below that, a heavily condensed version of my Sounds Of Joy liner notes for further context.

May 21, 2014

Much has happened over the last 10 years, but the music and stature of Jamaican-Canadian singer-songwriter Wayne McGhie has only grown since Light in the Attic’s 2004 reissue of Wayne McGhie & The Sounds of Joy. Despite critical acclaim from the likes of the The New York Times, CBC, and plenty of street level props, it’s a shame that Wayne can’t fully join in on the celebration and much deserved notoriety. In early 2013, The Sounds of Joy, McGhie’s debut album and a landmark record of Black Canadian expression, was awarded with an eighth place honour in NOW Magazine’s, “The 50 Best Toronto Albums Ever” list. Appearing alongside Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, Rush, and fellow Jamaican and musical collaborator, Jackie Mittoo, McGhie was definitely in good company. It was a long overdue acknowledgement of the Caribbean musician’s immense contributions to our collective cultural fabric (whether the masses are aware of it or not), but also an ironic clash with his daily struggles to survive. McGhie lives with acute schizophrenia and no longer plays or writes music. His loving sister Merline helps take care of him, a true guardian angel if there ever was, while Wayne maintains a low profile. Though he was excited to hear of a renewed interest in his vintage material, which also helped McGhie to reconnect with his estranged daughter, Wayne lives a relatively solitary life, far removed from the recording studio or steady supply of gigs that once filled his calendar. Though unable to relish in the spotlight or reestablish his music career, McGhie’s legacy has reached far beyond its initial regional audiences in Montego Bay and Toronto. Since the rediscovery of The Sounds of Joy through DJ and sound system culture, Wayne’s music has been sampled by hip-hop producers looking to craft the perfect beat and keenly championed by selectors from New York to London to Paris and Tokyo. It was also a major catalyst in LITA’s six album Jamaica-Toronto series and subsequent live showcase revue tour featuring The Mighty Pope (Earle Heedram), Everton “Pablo” Paul, and Jay Douglas. Over the years, I’ve been blessed to break bread and spend some quality moments with Wayne and his family, but apart from meeting him for the first time in preparation for the Sounds of Joy and Jamaica to Toronto reissues, one instance still burns bright in my mind, a family anniversary party in an Etobicoke apartment basement. Merline, along with some relatives and friends, had made a lovely spread and there was a local sound system pumping out reggae tunes. I sat on a chair next to Wayne as the guests trickled in and looked to the ground to watch his feet tap away to the rhythm in perfect time. Clearly, the music is still running strong within McGhie whether we get to hear it or not. Thanks for the memories Wayne, you’ve changed my life for the better. Your music will never die. I will champion your sound forever!

Kevin Howes (aka Sipreano)
Voluntary in Nature
Unceded Coast Salish Territory/Vancouver

Wayne McGhie (with microphone, bottom right)

Wilfred (Wayne) McGhie was born in Montego Bay on October 15, 1946. He picked up music at a young age after learning a basic guitar scale from his sister Merline. Music came naturally to Wayne. He bought a guitar instruction book on a trip to Kingston and proceeded to master chords. He also began formal music training at Montego Bay Boys’ School. Throughout the 1960s, local talent shows at the Palladium Theatre in downtown Montego Bay were the place for up-and-coming musicians and singers to hone their craft in front of a live audience. Wayne, as he was now known, would bring the house down with American R&B tunes such as Billy Stewart’s 1962 “Reap What You Sow.” During these talent shows, Wayne's skill was noted by Kingston-born musician Jo-Jo Bennett, a prominent trumpet player and bandleader. Wayne was soon performing with Billy Vernon and the Celestials alongside piano/organ player Dizzy Barker and singers Jimmy Wisdom and Bob Williams. He played with this band, along with popular vocalist Keith Stewart, until his departure for Canada in 1967. 

In the 1960s, Toronto became a new home for many Caribbean immigrants thanks to immigration reforms. Toronto's West Indian Federation Club (WIF) and Club Jamaica were places where folks could converse, eat, listen to music, and sustain their heritage. Scouted by the club’s management back home in Jamaica, Bennett had moved to Toronto in 1967 to perform at the WIF and soon called for McGhie. Winter in Toronto was a shocking change from Montego Bay, but a steady diet of music made the shift smoother for Wayne, whose girlfriend soon joined him in Canada. They wasted no time starting a family; in 1968, their sole daughter, was born. Unfortunately, Wayne’s constant gigging and busy practice schedule put stress on the young family. By the tail end of the 1960s, Wayne had developed into a promising musician, singer, and songwriter. Wayne penned “Chips-Chicken–Banana Split”, the A-side of Jo-Jo and the Fugitives’ sole 45 on the minor Cobra label. Eventually, other avenues began to open up for the growing pool of young Caribbean musicians in Toronto, which now included Jamaican music legends Jackie Mittoo and Alton Ellis. 

While the Yorkville area nurtured the burgeoning folk-rock coffeehouse scene with performances from the likes of Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, and Joni Mitchell, Yonge Street was the place for the midnight movers and groovers. Frank Motley & the Bridge Crossings, King Herbert & The Knights, the Hitchikers (with Jackie Shane), Jack Harden & the Silhouettes, the Sheiks featuring the Mighty Pope, the Majestics, the Cougars, Jon and Lee & the Checkmates, Mandala, Eddie Spencer, and Grant Smith & the Power were just some of the groups and artists that played to mixed-race crowds at clubs like the notorious Le Coq d’Or, then the number-one R&B club in Toronto. 

Music was a breakfast, lunch, and dinner affair for these talented musicians. Band work, pickup gigs, and recording consumed most waking moments. Still, high-end studios were a luxury; the Canadian recording industry of the time was in its infancy and neither structured nor willing to support Black artists. Sessions for the Sounds of Joy album were self-funded and recorded during off-hours at Sound Canada studios in the winter of 1969. Wayne was 23 at the time. 

Possessed with an intensifed vision, Wayne assembled a stellar cast of musical friends. Many of the Jamaican-born instrumentalists involved had already developed solid recording pedigrees back on the island. Twelve musicians are listed on the LP sleeve; others, including Jackie Mittoo, are rumoured to have sat in. Of the 10 songs recorded, six were McGhie originals, and as the material moved from funk, to soul, to reggae/R&B crossover, it is Wayne’s pure and soulful voice that sets the tone. Look no further than his emotional take of the Friends of Distinction’s 1969 hit “Going in Circles” for proof. McGhie squeezes every possible ounce of soul out of his vocal while a haunting flute floats “round and round” in the background and the chain-gang rhythm reaches and pulls in equal measure.  Instrumentally, the contributions were economical, dynamic, and heartfelt. The musicians didn’t overplay. Everton Paul’s opening drum break on “Dirty Funk” is as badass as they come, and once the song kicks in you’d be forgiven for thinking the band came from New Orleans, not the Caribbean.

As Wayne finished the album, he decided to start a band of his own to capitalize on its coming release and make some money on the road. The band was dubbed the Sounds of Joy and lent its handle to the Wayne McGhie & The Sounds Of Joy LP released in the spring of 1970. Although the band had started to gig to support the album, Birchmount did nothing to promote it. Compound that with zero radio play, and the album sank without a trace. Apart from friends and family, people didn’t seem to care. Even some of the album’s players didn’t even receive a copy of the finished disc.

Months later, an accidental fire at the Quality warehouse destroyed all of the remaining copies of the record. Because of its poor sales up to that point, the album was lost in the label’s scheduling shuffle, never to be re-pressed. This extinguished any hopes of the Sounds of Joy as a recording and touring unit, and despite Wayne’s righteous aspirations for the group, the absence of label support meant it was only a matter of time until things fell apart.

Distraught, but with bills to pay, Wayne continued gigging as a singer and accompanist in Toronto and on the Ontario and Quebec club circuit (he even ventured south to the United States on occasion as well as returning to Jamaica to record “How Does it Feel” for Studio One). His next notable recording projects were with the Hitchikers featuring the Mighty Pope (“Mr. Fortune”) and Ram, a post-Hitchikers splinter group. Ram’s lone release was an infectious McGhie-penned and sung jam entitled “Love Is the Answer.” Released in 1972 on the Tuesday label, it also featured Studio One veteran Joe Isaacs on drums. Despite minor regional attention, the single never caught on and Ram, like the Sounds of Joy before them, disintegrated.

Although Wayne continued to be musically active with session work for Jackie Mittoo on the Canadian Talent Library label and an unreleased solo album from the mid-to-late 1970s, the musical climate and club scene were changing. The hard-funk feel of the late 1960s and early 1970s was morphing into the slicker and more polished sound of disco. Wayne worked predominantly in the reggae and gospel scenes during this period through recorded an unreleased album of original material.

Constant gigging throughout the 1970s took its toll on Wayne. Unable to balance career and family, his fast pace and financial uncertainty began to be a problem. Despite playing with American-born/Toronto-based jazz and pop musician Bill King, at the start of the 1980s, Wayne had all but abandoned hope of a stable music career and was experiencing mental health problems. Heavily medicated, he lost touch with friends and became a wandering vagabond—a shadow of the strong, confident, and talented man who tore up the scene only a handful of years before.

Lost and presumed dead by some, Wayne eked out an existence under the radar of even his closest friends. Merline was never too far away and was able to care for him, but Wayne was underground. Stone cold gone and missed by many, he turned his back on the music that had brought him so much happiness.

Wayne’s music had an underground resurgence in the mid-1990s through sample based hip-hop and DJ culture. The Sounds of Joy was was re-released by Seattle-based Light in the Attic Records in 2004 with assistance from Kevin Howes (aka Sipreano) and Montego Bay-born/Toronto-based vocalist Jay Douglas who helped to find Wayne.

He was prominently featured on the 2006 archival compilation Jamaica to Toronto: Soul, Funk, and Reggae 1967-1974, a project that was taken to the stage by Douglas, Everton “Pablo” Paul, Bob and Wisdom, Val Bent, Lloyd Delpratt, The Mighty Pope (Earle Heedram), Glen Ricketts, Noel Ellis, as well as other veteran players from the Jamaica-Toronto scene.

Wayne McGhie & The Sounds Of Joy was given a 10th anniversary re-release by Light in the Attic Records in 2014 and was his story was featured in the Jamaica Observer newspaper in 2015. 

With the full blessing and support of Wayne and his family, Voluntary In Nature is currently in production on its first release, a special tribute to the man from Montego Bay who has affected the world (and beyond) with his unique musical voice. Watch this space...


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