Born in St. Catherine, Jamaica on June 11, 1947,
pioneering reggae singer/songwriter Eric Donaldson “has always been a
peoples’ person. He believes in the songs he sings and the people he
sings for” It is a philosophy that is reflected in his success in the
Jamaican Festival Song Contest which he won a remarkable seven times .
Eric Donaldson, will forever be associated with the Jamaican Festival
Song Competition; in particular, for his winning 1971 entry “Cherry Oh
Baby,” sung in his trademark falsetto voice, and which launched his
career in reggae music. The song itself is perennially popular and both
UB40 and The Rolling Stones have covered it. The rhythm has remained
popular and by 1991 over 30 new versions were issued in Jamaica,
including Donaldson’s own update.
Prior to his initial success at songwriting, Donaldson attended school
in Spanish Town and took a job as a house painter, singing only in his
spare time. In 1964 he cut some unreleased sides for Studio One in
Kingston and in the mid-60s he formed the vocal group the West Indians
alongside Leslie Burke and Hector Brooks. A collection of sides for
producer J.J. Johnson produced a hit, “Right On Time,” in 1968. They
also recorded for Lee “Scratch” Perry (“Oh Lord”) the following year. A
name change to the Killowatts and a succession of songs for J. J.
Johnson and Daley, Lloyd’s Matador label (“Slot Machine,” “Real Cool
Operator”) failed to ignite the fire of fame and the group split. In
1970 Donaldson cut some sides for Alvin Ranglin’s GG’s label, the best
of which was “Lonely Night,” and a trip to Dynamic Sounds studio for
“Never Going to Give You Up” again led nowhere, although it did bode
well for the future.
In 1971, apparently as a last stand, he entered the
Festival Song Competition with “Cherry Oh Baby.” “From the first
rehearsals for the Festival Song entrants, those present knew we were
hearing the winner.” Said Tommy Cowan, leader of the Jamaicans
(themselves festival winners in 1967), “From the moment I heard Eric at
the rehearsals, I recognized a talent which had the capacity to excite
people; it excited me.”
“When Eric came out onstage at the State Theater for
the final competition, shouts of “Go way, Country Man,” could be heard.
Then he began to sing and before the first line was completed it was
bedlam as people in the front rows rushed on stage, lifted him to their
shoulders and proclaimed him even then, as one of the biggest superstars
to hit Jamaica in a long time. And this was the case at all the regional
pop shows. His success was phenomenal. In Montego Bay a riot was barely
diverted, while the Inner Circle band trembled for the safety of their
instruments…. Fans jumped onstage, brushed every imaginary speck of dust
from his clothes, shined his shoes; and all the time, unperturbed, he
just belted out ‘Cherry Oh.’”
By day’s end the astute Tommy Cowan had been enrolled as manager. In the
wake of this resounding victory, he decided the time was ripe for an
Eric Donaldson album. The self- titled album was recorded at Dynamic
Studios and released in late 1971 on Byron Lee’s subsidiary label,
Jaguar. The album eventually sold an extraordinary 50,000 copies. Seven
of the tracks were Donaldson’s original compositions, including “Cherry
Oh,” “Miserable Woman,” “Build My World,” and “ Go Away,” with covers of
“Love of the Common People,” “Never on Sunday,” and The Lion Sleeps
Tonight (based on a traditional south African Zulu song called Wimoweh).
Eric Donaldson became a household name in Jamaica.
Today Eric lives in Kent Village, Jamaica where he runs the “Cherry Oh
Baby Go-Go Bar.” He still loves the festival and often appears there.
His music enjoys continued worldwide popularity, especially in Africa
where he is particularly revered, as well as the UK, France and Brazil.
His songs continue to appeal to fans, and send a perennial message of
peace and hope.