The Reggae Sunsplash Story: Jamaica Observer

The Reggae Sunsplash story

BY HOWARD CAMPBELL Observer writer
Sunday, June 08, 2003

REGGAE BROTHERS: The original Synergy team (from left) of Tony Johnson, Ronnie Burke, Don Green and John Wakeling, at the time of Reggae Sunsplash 1978.

When Tony Johnson returned to Jamaica in 1997 after living in Los Angeles for 17 years, he was determined to duplicate the live music scene he had left behind in the City of Angeles. But he had bigger ideas than disco lights and glamour clubs.

With three partners, a shoestring budget and plenty of hope, Johnson started a new company, Synergy, and headed the drive to what would become the first staging of Reggae Sunsplash in June, 1978 in Montego Bay at the Jarrett Park football field.
Ronnie Burke, then a record producer, was one of the four dreamers who started Synergy along with Johnson, late radio announcer John Wakeling, and Don Green - another Jamaican who had been living abroad.

"We had a variety of skills, and we leaned on each other," Burke recalled in a July, 1998 interview. "Tony thought we were wasting a major resource in our music, Bob (Marley) was hot at the time and he believed reggae could bring a lot of tourists here in the slow months."
At the time, Johnson was working with the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) and had been influential in the initiation of the Jamaica Tourist Board's (JTB's) Singles Week for young North American tourists. But Johnson wanted the JTB to take the Singles Week a step further by adding something the visitors would appreciate other than sun and sea. That, of course, would be music. Music that would come in the form of a festival and not from banjo players in hotel lobbies.
With backing from the JTB, Synergy sought to get the word out to the overseas press. For assistance in that area they acquired the services of a public relations firm, Peter Martin and Associates. One of the people who worked on getting the word out on the new show was Berl Francis who actually coined the name Sunsplash.

"First of all we had to sell the concept to the JTB because tourism was basically a winter product," Francis explained five years ago. "The next step was getting the thing off the ground and attracting the foreign press. We started late, in February or March, but the idea was to pull as much foreign press as possible."
But while educating foreigners on the still-breaking reggae sound was a task in itself, Burke says local response was a far bigger obstacle. "We were up against a lot of things, like the bogie man - ganja and Rasta," he said.
To make matters worse the press painted a sceptical picture.

"The press was unkind. I remember one headline reading "Reggae Sunscam," Burke remembered. "There was a lot of scepticism, MoBay didn't understand and the hotels didn't support us."
The local entertainment community did offer support for the June 15-23 show which was largely funded by the personal assets of the Synergy partners. Jimmy Cliff was the headline act, with other big names being Bob Andy, The Heptones, Third World, Inner Circle featuring Jacob Miller and the red-hot, Dennis Brown. Against several hindrances which included inadequate production, Sunsplash honoured its eight days. There were two beach parties and a Family Day (attended by then United Nations ambassador, Andrew Young) which featured Byron Lee and the Dragonaires and the Fab Five band. There was also a Jazz Splash Night with pianist Monty Alexander as guest artiste.

As for the show, Burke remembers Cliff delivering an "unforgettable" performance as did Inner Circle and Miller, though the latter's set is more remembered for Miller smoking a spliff onstage than for its musical content. The crowd also had their say, though in a less memorable way. "Most of them came over the walls," recalled Burke with a laugh.
Not surprisingly, Reggae Sunsplash '78 did not see a profit. Burke reckons the promoters lost as much as $100,000 in that first year. But it made a big enough mark to attract the attention of several noted figures, none moreso than the globetrotting Marley who headlined the festival the following year.
Reggae Sunsplash went through many changes including three venue changes before folding in 1998 when it was last held, at the White River Reggae Park on the outskirts of Ocho Rios. In 1995, Burke sold the rights to the festival's name to businessman, Rae Barrett.

Tony Johnson would promote his Reggae Sunsplash International tour across the United States, Europe and Asia until his death from a heart attack in Los Angeles in May, 1997. Wakeling died the following year of lung cancer.
Though it would take at least five years before Reggae Sunsplash would become viable, Burke believes its birth in 1978 was a landmark for Jamaican culture and the burgeoning music business.
"It set the stage for other festivals not only here but abroad," he points out. "It brought back live entertainment in Jamaica and established MoBay as a place for music."

Posted: Thu - June 12, 2003 at 12:51 AM