An appreciation by Clayton Goodwin – Published previously in the New African, IC Publications, 2009
Eric Clarke has become part of the social landscape of the New Cross district of southeast London in which he has lived for the greater part of the 42 years in which he has been in England. He is no different to any other 80-year-old Jamaican going about their business on the streets of the city, and could be overlooked easily as just “one of the crowd”. If you did overlook him, however, you would be wrong, because Eric is a living legend in the world of music. He led one of the most polished, and best, big bands; he was compared favourably as a trumpeter to the legendary Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, and is still respected by those musicians whom we, ourselves, respect.
Clarke belongs to that “lost generation” of (primarily) Jamaicans who created a vibrant mixture of jazz, R&B, soul, mento and a score of other rhythms and music-forms in the l960s, setting the scene for their more recognised successors, but who are now generally unknown to wider society. They are generally forgotten now–whereas other, inferior musicians are remembered–because, in spite of their fame and the thousands of fans whom they entertained at live performances in a host of venues from Masonic black-tie dinner-dances in august venues to the pubs of inner-city London, they made no records, or the few which they did make were in sub-standard back-street studios.
By playing mainly within their own community instead of chic, trendy West End night-clubs, they did not come to the attention of the scribes who have kept the history of popular music, and those few Caribbean heritage newspapers whose pages they adorned for so long, have no effective system of archives and back-numbers.
Eric Clarke’s story is their story. He, himself, is a walking encyclopaedia of Jamaican (and African-American) music. Follow Eric on a walk through the markets, pubs and streets of south London and he will point out the old man supping his Guinness, the road-sweeper, the slightly deranged elder begging for a drink or a small loan, the old lady to whom the passing years have not been kind, and be will tell of their musical triumphs in days gone by when their faces were known to everybody in their neighbourhood and beyond.
Alas, too often now, when Clarke phones, it is to tell of another once celebrated musician or singer who has passed away. When Eric came to England from Kingston, Jamaica, in 1964, the Caribbean-heritage community in the UK was just coming to terms with the fact that they would not be returning home as they had imagined initially. And if they were going to stay, they wanted to enjoy themselves, or at least to deaden the disappointment of their seemingly dead-end lives.
Small-time clubs, town-hall dances, and, above all, “bluesy” house-parties began to flourish. Malpass Road in Brockley–coincidentally, the street next to that in which Clarke lives now–was infamous for hosting a dozen or so house-parties every Saturday night and beyond.
By then 36-year-old Clarke (“Sleepy”) was already a noted musician who had played with most leading bands in his native country. That interested Laurel Aitken, the flamboyant vocalist, clad inevitably in gold lame for his stage performances, who is credited generally with “kicking” off Jamaican music in the UK. He persuaded Eric to form and lead a big band just like those in which he had played “back home”.
Aitken, who was then based in Brixton, moved later to Leicester in the East Midlands, and maintained a substantial following of fans overseas, particularly, and surprisingly, in Japan until his death just a couple of years ago.
“Eric Clarke and the Debonairs” dominated their sector of the music industry for a decade. Their rivalry with near-neighbours, the Jamaica Jubilee Stompers, inspired each to greater achievement: the “scene” was big enough for both of them and their styles were so different that each excelled in their own way.
The Debonairs, resplendent in their uniforms, hosted some of the best-known artistes of the time–including singers Joe Bundy (who did impersonate “Satchmo”), King Bee (a singer in the style of Nat “King” Cole) and the irascible Sketto–and accompanied famous comedians Bim & Bam, and entertainer Charles Hyatt, on their national tour in 1969/70.
The Debonairs seemed to have a residency at the Porchester Hall, so often were they booked there, when that West London venue was “home” to the most prestigious shows in the late 1960s. If they had been American, each of the instrumentalists would have become a household name. Yet the star, whom a good number of promoters wanted to book even without the band, was the leader.
“You are a friend of Eric Clarke,” Hugh Scotland (“Scotty”), the leading London-based Caribbean impresario, insisted many times at his office just off Marble Arch. “Tell him to leave the band and go solo. That man is as good as Satchmo. As a solo-trumpeter, I could make him an international star by booking him to entertain the American troops in West Germany. But with the band …”
He shrugged his shoulders in resignation. Yet Clarke was impervious to enticement, fame or fortune–he was never, in fact, a full-time professional musician but earned his living as a French polisher.
The perceived wisdom is that Eric had set his heart on being a band-leader, and a band-leader he would remain to the end of his playing days. Furthermore, he has not been happy out of his own social environment. In spite of living in England for the greater part of his life, Eric gives every impression of never having really left Jamaica.
He lives a Jamaican lifestyle and is more au fait with current events in that island than those in the society around him. If he found England to be an unaccustomed home, Germany would have been a step too far. Eric belongs to the world of Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, Derrick Morgan, Owen Grey, Sugar ‘n’ Dandy, and Freddie Notes and the Rudies.
With the advent of “disco” and the economic depression in the 1970s, promoters were no longer able, or willing, to pay for the big bands. The Debonairs were cut down in size and re-named as the E.G. Embarkers–E.G, I understand, represents the forenames of the leader, Eric George.
Nevertheless, they continued to attract as many engagements as before and well-known instrumentalists, such as organist/pianist Dougal “Doc” Watson and Herbie Grey who had played at the elegant nightclubs of Mayfair. It seemed that nothing had changed–but it had changed, in a major way.
While the E.G. Embarkers and comparable groups remained just as active as before in the Caribbean/African com- munity, “black music” had become an integral trend of the international music industry and here the promoters and producers turned to other types of musician. Youngsters born in Britain, or Caribbean artistes who had remained at home and developed to stardom there, moved to the top of the queue. The generation who had put down the roots of their culture in London was simply bypassed, except by their own people. A few, a very few, made the transition–most noticeably trombonist Rico Rodriguez, who achieved a new degree of recognition for his TV performances with the Jools Holland Rhythm ‘n’ Blues Orchestra and a year ago received an MBE medal at Buckingham Palace.
Economic circumstances continued to be unkind: in the 1990s the E.G. Embarkers were pruned even further to the Cool Savanna trio. Even then their “public” did not desert them. The world may have associated Jamaican music primarily with Bob Marley, with the Maytals and with a hundred-and-one “name” groups, but when it came to choosing entertainers who best represented the music of their country the Jamaican High Commission regularly booked the Cool Savanna for their annual Independence Day parties.
A few years ago, Eric’s own career with the trumpet came to an unusual end when he perforated his ear-drum while applying medication to an ailment. Even so he continued to lead the ensemble from the “sidelines”, and has been consulted regularly by promoters as to which artistes they should engage.
Also in 2007, Johnny Hope, the well-travelled and versatile Barbadian saxophonist who led the Cool Savanna under Clarke’s direction, or when he was indisposed, passed away. It is a wonder how Clarke keeps going–he has experienced indifferent health for some years and has a known propensity for accidents–but keep going he does. He attends church regularly, is a firm supporter of fraternal associations, and, of course, is devoted to his music. If Eric is not there, it isn’t really a Jamaican occasion. The extremely well-attended annual Jamaican “Thanksgiving for Independence” service was held as usual at St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, London, just a few weeks ago, after which “everybody who is anybody” in the Jamaican community gathered on the steps of the church to renew acquaintance and to exchange news.
I was pleased to congratulate veteran singer/entertainer Count Prince Miller on his recent award, and to recall how 1 had been in the front row of the audience when he–with Jimmy James and the Vagabonds–made his British debut at the Flamingo Club in Soho, and before the television cameras of the then new BBC2 channel, over 40 years ago. Yet it was to Eric Clarke to whom the “names” of the music industry deferred.
Clarke may not be a star in the generally accepted sense of the term, but in his life and his career, this quiet Jamaican, who expresses himself most perfectly through his music, personifies a generation that was in itself “a scat” and does not deserve to be forgotten. Nor is it forgotten … the memory (and the melody) lingers on.