It’s been a while since the last post but we’re back again and we’re here to stay.
Today we’re going to share an article written by the great Carl Gayle back in 1974. It was part of a Reggae Special which also talked about artists like Dandy Livingstone, Nicky Thomas and The Maytals. Some interesting facts and stories, if you are a Pioneers’ fan like us, you will love it!
The Pioneers: Why we had to go pop
Back in 1968 two horses, Combat and Long Shot, died in a race at Caymanas Park race course in Jamaica. Long Shot had become a household name through the success of a song about him by The Pioneers. And although Long Shot’s dead was particularly saddening for the group, it was also a significant point to their fortunes.
In 1969 ‘Long Shot Kick The Bucket’ went into the top ten in the British charts. We in the West Indian circles were already very familiar with the group, and we had known this particular record months before it had hit the charts. Local DJs and other enthusiasts used to exchange £5 and over for a pre-release copy of LSKTB because it was so different from anything else on the reggae scene at the time. Its rigorous, aggressive dance rhythm and simple chorus made it an instant disco tune.
‘Bucket’ was obviously a distinctly new, harder type of reggae sound, a new direction and it was a moving song too. The lyrics reflected it: “What a weeping and a wailing down at Caymanas Park.” And the vocals seemed to imply that the singers were also very emotionally involved: “Combat dead, Long Shot dead / All me money gone a hell!”. Later ‘Long Shot Kick The Bucket’ became another skinhead ‘anthem’ just as Desmond Dekker’s ‘Israelites’ had been, and so the press, radio and TV caught on to what was happening. The Pioneers – Sydney Crooks, George Dekker and Jackie Robinson – had arrived.
The original 1962 band – The Pioneers – was made up of Sydney Crooks, Glen Adams and Derrick Crooks (the former’s brother) who was the first to leave the group. Then Glen Adams quit to join The Upsetters on piano. In 1966 Sydney who had been recording on his own, met Jackie Robinson. Sydney: “I was doing a session with producer Joel Gibson and I saw Jackie and another guy outside trying to get a recording deal. I asked them to help me with some harmony singing. Then I asked Jackie if he would like to be my partner and he took the chance, maybe because I had a little popularity then.”
The song that Jackie helped Sydney on was called ‘Gimme Little Loving’ and it went to number three in the JA charts. The record, issued on Joel Gibson’s Amalgamated label in 1968 was a great favourite among West Indian immigrants. So was the next JA hit ‘Long Shot’ (the first one about the race horse) which was recorded at Dynamic studios (at the time West Indian studios) with Lynn Taitt and The Jets who appeared on many of The Pioneers’ early records, and who themselves became very popular with their record ‘El Casino Royale’ in discos and house parties in England.
Jackie: “Guys used to come around complaining about losing on race horses so we thought we would make a record about ‘Long Shot.” The song made the horse out to be a no hoper, the gambler put all his money on Long Shot “But he couldn’t bust the tape.” So flat broke he ends up wondering “How me a go home tonight?”
Sydney: “We got the melody first and we put down the backing track straight away, then added vocals later. We recorded ‘Long Shot’ and another song ‘Jackpot’ at the same session using more or less the same backing track and both of them were in the charts at the same time.”
Not all of their records were hits but songs like “Shake it up” and “Good Nanny”were very down to earth and this endeared The Pioneers to everyone, especially the younger fans. Sydney and Jackie truly were pioneers even though they were obviously influenced by the more dynamic vocal groups like The Maytals or The Heptones. But maybe their popularity was due to the fact that they were a very young group and were closest to current musical tastes. Certainly, their next two hits ‘Tickle Me’ and ‘Catch The Beat’ were very much for younger fans especially the latter which introduced a new dance by way of its very unusual repetitive rhythm.
When Sydney and Jackie met George Dekker he was going around with a tune called “Nana” and they really liked it. George had previously had a hit ‘Keep The Pressure On’ with a guy called Winston (Winston and George) and he was invited to become the third member of the group. The Pioneers recorded ‘Nana’ with their own money and put it out under the name of The Slickers. Sydney: “We already had ‘Catch The Beat’ out and we didn’t want it to clash with ‘Nana’. ‘Nana’ was a big hit but we didn’t make any money from it.”
The Pioneers’ producer Joel Gibson apparently decided that George was getting too big for his boots when he found out. So he sacked George. Jackie: “I didn’t get the sack but I wanted to stay with Sydney. At the same time George fell out with the people at Beverly’s (Leslie Kong) but he had another tune in his head called ‘Easy Come Easy Go’. Everybody wanted that song but in the end we recorded it with Leslie Kong and we went to number one. George: “Leslie Kong had wanted to sign just Sydney and Jackie as The Pioneers, he wanted me to sign a solo contract. But we all decided that it would have to be the three of us or none at all.”
The next two records ‘Pee Pee Cluck Cluck’ and ‘Blackbird’ were misses then came ‘Long Shot Kick The Bucket’ which surprisingly did not reach number one in Jamaica although it had a great impact on the scene. Jackie: “One day my father was reading the newspaper and he said: ‘Hey look, your horse ‘Long Shot’ and another horse was killed in a race.’ So I went straight away to a shop where we had a piano in the back and the others were there. I told them the bad news and we sat down and worked out the tune. The record says produced by Leslie Kong but at that time he was in England with Desmond Dekker. The musicians thought what we were asking them to play was impossible so the song nearly didn’t get recorded. They’re the same set of musicians that Jimmy Cliff and a lot of other people use now.”
From 1968 to 1969 The Pioneers were along with The Maytals the two most popular groups in Jamaica. ‘Mamma Look Deh’ was another big record for The Pioneers in 1968. It didn’t get the coverage that ‘Bucket later received but The Maytals borrowed that record’s rhythm for their 1969 hit ‘Monkey Man’. Whenever anyone wanted to put on a show The Pioneers were called up whether it was at a club, school ball or cinema. They did nine shows with Joe Simon when he went to Jamaica and of course they stole all the shows. They did a series of shows with Byron Lee and The Dragonaires – ‘Reggae Blast Off’ – all around the Island and sang with many other top instrumentalist bands including The Vikings, Tomorrow’s Children and Tommy McCook and The Supersonics.
In 1969 ‘Samfie Man’ was a number one for The Pioneers on JBC Radio and number two on RJR. And they were voted the fourth most popular Jamaican band by Swing magazine. They appeared on TV and radio and were press favourites yet with their song ‘Boss Festival’ they only managed to finish the fourth to The Maytals who won the 1969 Jamaican Song Festival with ‘Sweet and Dandy’. 1969 was also the year The Pioneers came to England.
Jackie: “Tony Cousins from Commercial Entertainments, came to JA and saw us when we were doing those shows with Joe Simon. He told us that there were no black groups like us in England and he offered us a tour because ‘Long Shot Kick The Bucket’ was selling so well in England. The tour was supposed to last six weeks but we’re still here.”
Sydney: “We went to Egypt and The Lebanon in 1970 and when we came back in May ’71 we did ‘Let Your Yeah Be Yeah’ which was written by Jimmy Cliff and co-produced with us. It sold over twenty thousand in one week but it only moved from No. 6 to No. 5. Even the people on ‘Top Of The Pops’ said it would be the next number one when we did the show.” Jackie: “It was one of the most popular songs of ’71, I got tired of hearing it everywhere I went. It was No. 1 on Radio Luxembourg.”
The change in style from an authentic JA sound to a pop-reggae format which Jimmy Cliff had earlier brought about with ‘You Can Get It If You Really Want’ for Desmond Dekker happened to The Pioneers too. And just as Dekker had lost a little respect and much popularity among ethnic W. Indian music fans, so did The Pioneers.
George: “We understand the reason for criticism but if we hadn’t changed our musical style when we did, The Pioneers would be a has been, we would have been finished. When we did ‘Let Your Yeah Be Yeah’ it was the kind of reggae that the kids wanted to hear, the more sophisticated type.” Sydney: “And if you want them to stay with you, you have to stay with them. You have to change.” Jackie: “Most West Indians might ask ‘What has happened to The Pioneers?’ And when they hear our new single ‘A Little Bit Of Soap’ they’ll say ‘Oh! Just another Pioneers commercial reggae’. But when we go to number five in the charts they’ll be proud to see us on Top Of The Pops.”