Derrick Morgan celebrates 60th anniversary as the conqueror of ska
Young women in dresses and ponytails screamed his name as he walked to the center of the stage and took the microphone in hand. Muscled men held their fists in the air in a sign of respect and appreciation, welcoming the performer as the spotlight found its focal point. There on the platform, held high above the crowd assembled in Fredericksburg, Virginia, at the 2017 Supernova International Ska Festival during Memorial Day weekend, the blind performer, nearly an octogenarian, cane in hand, clad in a dapper white suit and coordinating hat, celebrated his sixtieth anniversary in show business, and attendees came from all over the world just to hear him sing the songs that influenced generations of musicians and helped to shape an entire genre.
Without argument, Derrick Morgan is one of the pioneers of Jamaican music. Derrick Morgan is a legend. He is respected by all ages, all cultures, all races, and his songs cross many genres—boogie woogie, ska, rocksteady, reggae, even some dub. “I’m the conqueror, anywhere you go. The conqueror, I want you all to know. The conqueror, and I rule also,” he sang as the crowd synchronized his every word. Morgan has had to work hard over these past six decades.
In March of 2017, I spoke with Derrick Morgan about how he first started his career, on stages in Kingston, Jamaica, at the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour, a talent show akin to American Idol. “We had half an hour between two movies, so it was always at a theater, the Ambassador Theatre or the Palace Theatre in Kingston. After the first show, performers would come out for like a little talent show. They sing and then the audience would judge. When they ask who is the best, they call out. When the audience feel more for one, they win, and I win,” Morgan said of his achievement back in 1957. Many Jamaican artists gained exposure through this talent show, catching the attention of local record producers who were just starting their studios. Morgan was one of these artists. Back in 1997 when I interviewed Morgan, he explained how his recording career began. “This man named Duke Reid, which is Trojan [Records], used to ask some artists to do recording and I heard of it and went to him with two songs. I wrote one called ‘Oh My’ and one called ‘Loverboy’ and I asked him if he was interested and he said ‘yeah.’ He recorded those two songs for me and that’s how I started recording, in 1959.”
Morgan recorded for a number of producers during these days, but he soon settled with Leslie Kong who owned a studio called Beverley’s. Morgan not only recorded for Kong, but he also acted as a sort of scouting agent, discovering such Jamaican stars as Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff, and Bob Marley. He explained, “With Bob Marley, I met him on Charles Street. He asked me if I would help him out. I told him to come up by Beverley’s and I would listen to him. I did the same thing with Jimmy Cliff. After long while, I never see him come. But then Bob come to Beverley’s and he listen to his song, Leslie Kong, which was ‘One Cup of Coffee’ and ‘Judge Not’ and he decided to record him. That’s how it started out with Bob. We have about three shows lined up for appearance shows for me and Beverley’s [Kong] put them on and the one, we didn’t put him [Bob] on that show, but there was one in Clarendon and one in Montego Bay and we had him perform. He was dancing more than he was singing and he was out of breath. I told him he must sing first and when the solo comes he can dance there and go back to singing. We cannot dance right through the song. He listen to me and in Montego Bay he do what I ask him to do and he do ‘One Cup of Coffee’ first and the crowd start booing him, and when he come with the second song, ‘Judge Not’ before you judge yourself, the audience thought he put some lyrics on them. And he went on to something great. But when I went to England, Bob went to Coxsone [Studio One] with a group called the Wailers and I have nothing to do with him since that time, but I started him.”
Recording during these primitive days was virtually unrecognizable by today’s standards. Morgan says the process took place in one day, in one take. “When the musicians rehearse it good, they say ready, take a red light. When it’s the red light, they’re ready to record. We have to record at the same time with the band. You record straight down. If we miss, we have to start all over again. When I’m doing those songs, I never miss, because when I do the song I do it straight away and that’s why they call me one drop Derrick Morgan. We didn’t have tracks, just one track, so you have to do everything at the same time and the engineer have to be very skilled.”
Today, Morgan’s songs are anthems with the ska community, skinhead community, in Jamaica, and all over the world. Among those on his set list during his sixtieth anniversary show was the seminal hit “Moon Hop,” along with “Forward March,” “Reggae Train,” “Rudies Don’t Fear,” and “Blazing Fire,” among others He was backed by Eastern Standard Time of Washington, D.C. and during the duet, “Housewives Choice,” was accompanied by Cathy DeToro, vocalist of the band Party Like It’s, also of Washington D.C.
Morgan was accompanied onstage to the microphone by his wife, Nellie, who danced offstage throughout his set. Nellie Morgan is the sister of Bunny Lee, the famous Jamaican record producer. Derrick Morgan has fourteen children, a number of which are involved in the music industry including Queen Ifrica, and he continues to perform all over the world and record from his home base in Clarendon, Jamaica.
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