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The Maytones were a vocal duo composed of Gladstone Grant, harmony singer, and Vernon Buckley, lead singer and sole composer of many of their best songs.  The group's name was an amalgam taken from their town of origin, May Pen, and their admiration for the ruling harmony group of the day, The Heptones.  Says Vernon: "I know I liked the Heptones.  Before I start recording I used to go up by Heptones' rehearsal y'know.  I used to hang in Kingston for a while there in Trench Town.  Just a little fellow hanging around (while) they would rehearse out in the yard.

"Yeah, we started performing from when we were kids.   Local shows, nothing too big.  We were at it for a long time and then somebody introduce us to Alvin Ranglin, (producer of the GG's label) he have a record shop in May Pen at the time. We audition for him and then we go down to Kingston to start recording." Vernon remembers his first sessions taking place at Studio One in late 1968.  "The first set of songs I did was rock steady, but unfortunately was never release." Soon thereafter their first release "Billy Goat", got some airplay and it was quickly followed by a genuine hit, a remake of a Jackie Edwards ballad retitled "Loving Reggay".  This song was among the first in Jamaica that featured the new reggae beat. "That song sell a lot, right away you could hear it at the dances, on the jukeboxes, on the radio.   This tune was different, it was a reggae. This was done at Dynamic, Sid Buckner was the engineer.  I don't remember the musicians but Gladstone Anderson was there on piano and Ronnie Bop on guitar.  I don't remember how we come by the name, I think reggae was just getting into action. 'Cause I remember we were debating how to spell "reggae".  They used to spell it with a "y" at first."

There soon followed a number of fast simple tunes ("Copper Girl", "Botheration", "Cold Up") that marked the first phase of the Maytones' recording career.  Ranglin's productions along with those of other maverick producers like Lee Perry and Bunny Lee became very popular, if often pirated, sellers in England.  The collective term for these stomp tunes was "skinhead reggae" although this is a term unknown to Buckley, who says he never learned of his British popularity until many years later.

The best of these was a two-sider released in England on the Camel label entitled "Sentimental Reasons" b/w "Lover Girl".  Although both were rudimentary two-chord songs, the banging guitar and snare drum made for jump-up action, and the appealing qualities of Vernon's singing were already discernible.   Absent the melisma and ornamentation of contemporaries like Slim Smith, Vernon's easy singing style was simple and effective.  "A lot of singers are not natural, but I never put myself in that position where if I don't get a drink or a smoke I can't go into the studio or on stage.  I never think of it that way."

By 1971 the Maytones were the flagship group in GG's stable, and over the next five years they were to release at least four dozen singles, most of which were commercially and artistically successful.  A lot of this was due to the good rapport between the singers and the studio players: "Most of those recordings we do everything on time.  Sing with band and then we go back and we voice the vocal after.   The first time through we never sing with a microphone, we just sing along with the band when they play and then after that we do the voice without the band playing.

"I get along with the musicians fine.  I love the sound, when the live band playing, man, you can just feel something and put it in right away.   Gladdy and Ronnie were my favorite musicians, they was humble, nice, we used to talk as friends.  And I guess they enjoy doing songs with the Maytones, you hear that they put extra feeling on the Maytones tracks."

More than most groups, the Maytones' repertoire reflected the wide variety of music typically heard day-to-day in rural Jamaica.  For example, country & western has always been popular throughout the Caribbean, and Vernon's singing and writing owe something to the laconic style of Buck Owens and Jim Reeves: "Yeah my father was a big fan, he used to always have a big song session on Sundays.  Guys like Marty Robbins and a few others."  Thus the beautiful cover of the Everly Brothers "Let It Be Me".  While the original was awash in pathos, Buckley's dignified singing builds tension until the catharsis of the last verse ("never, never-never leave me lonely").

The Maytones put their signature on a number of other cover songs from country (Roy Orbison's "Born To Be Loved") to pop (Three Dog Nights' "Black and White", Dylan's "I Shall Be Released"), to soul (King Floyd's "Groove Me").  Vernon's best soul tune was his cover of Millie Jackson's adulterous "If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don't Want To Be Right).  Millie defiantly brazened out lines like "If loving you is wrong, I don't want to be right," but Vernon's sad interpretation of lines like "if I can't be with you when I want I'll be with you when I can" is probably much closer to songwriter Homer Banks' original intentions.  With the exception of the Dylan tune and a remake of Paul Simon's "Cecilia", all the Maytones covers enhanced and often surpassed the originals. 

The Maytones also covered local music.  For example the graceful "Hands and Feet" was borrowed from the church where Vernon spent many long Saturday hours, taking the lyric "watch your ears, your eyes, your hands, your feet - keep them moving" and applying it to the dancehall.  Best of all were the children's songs.  "Brown Girl In The Ring" is an accompaniment to a children's game which folklorists have traced back as far as the early 19th century.   My favorite of all is the rarely heard "Chirpie Chirpie Cheep Cheep", a tune akin to our "Ladybug fly away", in which Vernon somberly delivers the tragic lines "Last night my mother sang me this song, woke up this morning and my mommy was gone."

Not only were the Maytones talented interpreters, from the very beginning Vernon saw himself as a songwriter, and many of the Maytones' early hits were songs written from early days: "'Cause I usually keep writing songs y'know cause growing up I used to pretend we were a little band.  We used to fool around on our street playing like a little band, there were five of us, so from then I've been writing songs.  I used to fool around on the guitar, but nothing professional, just to help me write my songs... I always have a song ready when I go to the studio.  Sometimes I used to go to the woods, most time to write songs.  Take my guitar and I just come up with a song, and I always pick on it until I'm finished.  I know when it's a session time and I always have songs prepare anyway." Like all the best Jamaican music of the day, Buckley's songs demonstrated the virtue of simplicity, and sprightly love songs like "Serious Love" and "How Sweet It Is" still make for enjoyable listening.

As the '70s progressed Jamaican music went through many changes.  A number of new studio musicians, led by Sly and Robbie, were creating a harder, more aggressive sound.  The biggest change was in lyrical content, which discussed with increasing frankness Jamaica's intense social tensions.  Lyrics about African repatriation, Rastafarian living and social injustice, which from today's vantage point now seem formulaic and familiar, were able in those days to upset an entire nation.   Though a mild individual, Buckley was able to hit his full stride as a singer-songwriter in these tough times, and the final Maytones hits of the mid-'70s were by far their greatest musical achievements. 

One the their best-known works from this time was a version of Ernest Wilson's "Money Worries", which later appeared on the sound track of the movie Rockers.   Buckley's first really great song was "Africa We Want To Go", an anthem that has recently appeared on a compilation called "Maytones - Their Greatest Hits" (Heartbeat), while the rest of Vernon's best compositions were collected in album form in a 1976 release called Madness.  I place that lp among the handful of great reggae albums, with its incredibly energetic drum work by a youthful Sly Dunbar, and fine ensemble work throughout.  ("We were a happy group" says Vernon.) Some of these tracks have been in regular rotation on my turntable for well over a decade without any discernible decay in their freshness, particularly "Music Is A Part Of Life", with a lovely organ line by the late Winston Wright, the down-to-earth love song "Ital Queen" ("You're not a pretty as the other girls, but I don't mind for you suit me fine.  You are a Ital queen, sent from Zion for I."), and especially the lovely "Zion Land" which as much as any song by any artist (Marley or Burning Spear included) epitomizes the idealism and spiritual longing that at one time inspired the greatest Jamaican music:

I am pressing the upward way.
New signs I see every day.
Still hailing, onward bound,
Yes, Father show us the way to higher ground.

Father lift I up
And let I stand.
Show I righteousness in Zion Land.
A higher sight that I have found.
Yes Father plant my heart in Zion Land.

I have no desire to stay behind
Through some people may try to tell I so
But I won't be a fool and stay behind
No, my aim is to reach Zion Land.

I want to live and show the world
That righteousness will carry you through
A clean hands and a pure heart
Yes, and you will reach Zion Land.

After 10 years of recording, Buckley had not much more than local fame to show for his success.  Life virtually every artist of the time the music business brought him "praise but no raise" as evidenced by this exchange concerning Vernon's compensation for his first hit record:

Mike Turner: What did you get paid for that?
Vernon Buckley: Uh oh.  That is a good question.  At that time we used to get paid weekly, I used to run GG's shop in May Pen.  'Cause like, all of my early songs payment, everything go back in one weekly thing.
Q: It was just part of the job, eh?
A: Yeah.
Q: May Pen is a fair distance from Kingston.
A: We used to take a bus into Kingston to record.
Q: And then it was back to the shop?
A: [Laughing] Yeah.  At this time I was still working in the shop, and I also used to work with my father.  He was a contractor and I used to do time-keeping for him and do the books.  And it was only because of my father that I was able to buy a bike to take me to the studio. 
Q: Did you ever consider working for other producers?
A: Yeah, Duke Reid. Oh boy, he was a hard ball.  There was a time when I was thinking of doing things for him but I never liked the idea of running from producer to producer.  It was the same amount of money everywhere, so why?

Q: For most artists at that time all they got was radio play, did you ever make any real money from music?
A: I get a few bucks.  Could be better.  Could be a lot better.  It was always small money, small money, small money.  I never really get any money until Madness was released in 1976.

Vernon Buckley's departure from Jamaica in the late '70s effectively finished the Maytones as a viable entity. Ironically their demise came at a time when many of their peers, like the Wailing Souls and Culture, were on the verge of international popularity.   Vernon spent a short time in Los Angeles, and eventually settled in Montreal.   Since then there have been sporadic revivals of the group: a nice early-'80s album recorded in Canada for Sidney Crooks called Tune In And Rock, along with occasional stage performances in Japan and Canada.  After a period of dormancy Vernon has resumed interest in advancing his musical career, with the 1997 release of a tasteful cd called Rocky Road (available through Ernie B's Reggae).

With more projects in the offing, including release of a collection of his own self-productions recorded in the late '70s, Vernon remains hopeful of success.   Furthermore most of his best material is now available on various compilations: Trojan released a tastefully selected but poorly mastered collection of early material called Brown Girl In The Ring in 1996. In the same year Jamaican Gold put together the two albums that the Maytones did for GG's, Madness and Best Of The Maytones, and released it as Funny Man.  And Rhino U.K. (not to be confused with the U.S. retro label of the same name) has also put out a collection called Lover Man.  For Vernon again it's the story of praise without raise, but at least his soulful material and beautiful voice are out there for our listening pleasure and hopefully for him it will prove true that, as he once sang: "Music is the key, to open all doors."

Mike Turner
Originally appeared in The Beat (1988)

Maytones Links:

Music of The Maytones - Track List

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