“A prophet is not without honour except in his hometown and in his household,” is a biblical expression which many artistes could argue applies to them, and by all accounts, it seems to be the case of Jackie Opel and Barbados.
The life of this Barbadian icon paints a picture of a performer who left his homeland to eventually set base in Jamaica where he found fame, minus the fortune, but returned to his homeland and died in the uncertainty of whether his people would accept him.
Born Dalton St Clair in 1937, this man whose name now attracts much reverence in Barbados and abroad, began his entertainment life as a somewhat Broad Street character, as a person who sang in clubs in Nelson Street and who swam out to perform on visiting ships. He moved to Trinidad where he adopted the name Jackie Opel, then settled in Jamaica where he became an integral part of the Ska development. He toured internationally to much acclaim and commanded such heights that the likes of Bob Marley’s Wailers were once turned down at a Jamaican recording studio, Kong, in preference for him.
But by the account of one of his contemporaries, Al Gilkes, on his last night with us before that fatal Bay Street accident of 1970, and prior to a show he had scheduled for the next evening, this entertainer who had become world-renowned was so under-appreciated in Barbados that he wondered aloud to his producer Mark Williams, “Mark you think this thing is going to come off?”
Jackie Opel was the master of Ska and developer and exponent of an indigenous musical genre, of which he told the then entertainment writer Gilkes, “I’ve created a beat for Barbados, and I’m calling it Spouge.”
But Gilkes, a current popular promoter, told a recent lecture and discussion forum on Jackie Opel “There is a lot of fact” in researcher Dr Elizabeth Watson’s conclusion that Jackie Opel was not appreciated by Barbadians.
Gilkes said Jackie Opel’s question to Mark Williams reflected “The doubt he had about whether or not he was supported, or he would get the support.” Jackie Opel’s show was scheduled for the Barbarees Plaza Theatre.
Recalling Jackie Opel’s experiences upon returning to Barbados, Gilkes said, “He struggled for that support. Bajans came out to see Jackie only when he was up against an international artiste. When he was singing against Percy Sledge or Joe Tex or any international artiste, they came to see a Bajan. Whether it was Jackie or not, they came to see a Bajan taking down an international star.”
Historian Trevor Marshall said, “We, as a nation, failed Jackie Opel, from the bottom to the top.”
The lecture at the discussion forum was presented by Watson in the Errol Barrow Centre for Creative Imagination on the musical aspects of the life of Opel and was extracted from her Ph.D. thesis.
This researcher has written ‘bio-discographic’ books on Barbadian musicians, current Government Minister of Culture John King, Red Plastic Bag and ‘Informer’.
Watson said that based on what Jackie Opel saw that Ska did for Jamaica, “Jackie felt that Barbados also needed a sound of its own, hence he created Spouge.”
But the researcher contended that Jackie Opel was unable “to serve as the ambassador for Spouge” because it was launched just before his death.
She spoke of Jamaicans automatically getting into a Ska dance “once you hear that Ska drop” but “I don’t see a similar movement to match Spouge”.
“I think there are class and race issues with the creator and exponent of Spouge. Those were disadvantages.”
She said “To my mind, Jackie Opel was a treasure and a star. He was the leading exponent of two genres in two Caribbean islands and in different decades.”
Watson described Jackie Opel as the first Barbadian “to create a post-independence song signifier. He gathered significant awards in Jamaica and Barbados and is the first Barbadian to be covered by a syndicated music column in the US.”
She added, “Jackie Opel actually had an influence on the Wailers because, in their early days, when they were also known as the Soul Boys, they were associated with Dodd (another recording studio).”
“One of the things the Wailers couldn’t understand is how Jackie was able to write almost on demand. He would go to the studio without a song and by the time it was his turn to record… he had something to sing.”
Watson said that a member of the Wailers, Bunny Wailer [Livingstone], wrote about Jackie Opel on the back of the ‘Wailers and Friends’ album, stating: “The greatest singer that I’ve ever known. He sings anything. Jackie Opel sings ballads. He sings calypso, he sings jazz, he sings blues, and he sings ska. He is a little short guy with bow legs that fit. Sings the highest pitch, the highest note where you would think sometimes it is as if he is whistling.”
With such tributes and recognition abroad, the question remains – why did this son of the soil have to die wondering if he was appreciated at home?