Sonia Pottinger: Record label owner and producer who thrived in the combative Jamaican music business

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The Independent Online

The notoriously cutthroat Jamaican music business of the Sixties and early Seventies was dominated by male producers like Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, Leslie Kong and Arthur “Duke” Reid, whose fierce rivalry mirrored theirbackground as sharp sound-system operators. They undercut each other, paid artists one-off fees and no royalties. The only woman producer operating in this competitive environment, Sonia Pottinger, not only survived but thrived through a combination of business practices as shrewd as the men’s, and old-fashioned charm that earned her the nickname “the first lady of reggae”.

From the many rocksteady sides she produced in the Sixties by Baba Brooks, Ken Boothe, The Ethiopans and The Melodians, via the golden age of Seventies reggae with Culture, Errol Dunkley and Marcia Griffiths, until the dancehall of the mid-Eighties with Archie & Lynn, she was associated with some of the best records to come out of the Jamaican capital, Kingston.

In 1974, she showed her business acumen when she acquired the Treasure Isle label from Reid, a friend of her late husband, Lyndon Pottinger. Reid was keen to sell and died a few months later, and she embarked on an ambitious reissue programme. However, her ownership of the lucrative Treasure Isle catalogue was subsequently challenged by Dodd and Reid’s son Anthony, as well as Bunny “Striker” Lee, another producer and associate of Reid’s. The case dragged on for years and went all the way to the Supreme Court of Jamaica. It eventually resulted in a landmark ruling in Pottinger’s favour last year.

Pottinger was evasive about her age, sometimes giving 1943 as her year of birth, but she was most likely born in 1931. She became involved in music after her marriage to Lyndon, the entrepreneur who produced mento and ska hits for the likes of Lord Tanamo, Winston Samuels and Jimmy James. In 1964, he stopped producing and sold his studio equipment to Reid, but retained Disc Pressers Limited, his pressing plant, as well as the Tip Top record store. The following year, Sonia Pottinger decided to have a go at production, and scored a huge hit with her first attempt, the sentimental, soulful ballad “Every Night” by Joe White & Chuck Josephs, backed by the Baba Brooks Band.

“It was just one cut, and I said: ‘Please don’t do it over’. I just felt it was right,” she recalled. “I went from strength to strength from there. In those times, we explored. We’d maybe use one roll of tape, and just do jam sessions. Out of that, sometimes you’d find something meaningful. That’s why I came up with so many instrumentals,” she said. “I was one for drums.”

Throughout the second half of the Sixties, Pottinger oversaw the recording of such rocksteady hits as “It’s Hard to Confess” by The Gaylads, “Swing and Dine” by The Melodians, “That’s Life” by Winston Delano Stewart, “Won’t You Come Home” by The Conquerors, “The Whip” by The Ethiopians and “Guns Fever (Blam Blam Fever)” by The Valentines, often backed by the guitarist Lynn Taitt, and released on her labels Gay Feet, Tip Top, Rainbow and High Note.

She later worked with Bob Andy, The Heptones, Errol Dunkley, Delroy Wilson and The Hippy Boys, an instrumental group whose line-up included the bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett, and his brother, the drummer Carlton Barrett, who subsequently joined Bob Marley & The Wailers. Pottinger felt a natural kinship with female performers and helped the careers of Millicent “Queen Patsy” Todd, Carlene Davis, Judy Mowatt and in particular Marcia Griffiths, whose Naturally and Steppin’ albums she produced in 1978. She occasionally sang backing vocals in the studio.

“Any artist who is in there and I think I fit in, I just jump into it. Gospel, whatever. As long as it enhances the production,” stressed Pottinger, who made a memorable contribution to “Wipe Your Weeping Eyes” by Justin Hinds. However, some argued that her expertise lay more in the financing and the directing of talented musicians and engineers, rather than the nuts and bolts of record production. Ken Boothe had his differences with Pottinger, and accused her of putting her name to “Say You”, one of the two hits she produced for him, but also admitted “she had a great sense of music and what was going on.”

Pottinger certainly played an important part in the emergence and popularity of dub and roots reggae in the mid-Seventies. In particular, she let ErrolBrown, a nephew of Reid’s, loose on the Treasure Isle and High Note archives. Her more recent productions include Bob Andy and former Melodian Brent Dowe.

A canny operator, she often provided a home for artists disillusioned by their dealings with her rivals. This tactic paid dividends with the roots reggae trio Culture, who came to her after falling out with the producer Joe Gibbs. She arranged for them to obtain passports and the documents necessary to perform in the US and produced their Harder Than the Rest, Cumbolo and International Herb albums for her High Note label at the tail end of the Seventies.

With international distribution by Virgin’s Front Line imprint, these albums lived up to the promise of Two Sevens Clash, Culture’s 1977 debut. “I put my treatment into them,” she explained. “I sent Culture off to London. One of the reviewers said: ‘Bob Marley, make way for Culture’. They were performing so well.”

Mrs P, as most called her, was not one to follow fads, whether in music or her mode of dress, and retired in the mid-Eighties just as the dancehall genre was taking over. In October 2004, she was awarded the Order of Distinction for her contribution to the music, arts and culture of Jamaica.

“All of my works, in doing them I would think to myself, ‘well, this will be a footprint on the sands of time’,” she said. In recent years, she had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

Sonia E. Pottinger, record producer and label owner: born St. Thomas, Jamaica June 1931; married (two daughters, one son); died Kingston, Jamaica 3 November 2010