EASY MAGAZINE: Al’s trip down memory lane
In last week’s SUNDAY SUN, promoter and public relations executive Al Gilkes recounted some of his experiences over 50 years in the entertainment business. Today he continues his journey, taking readers back in time to the days of the Super Four – the Opels, Tony Grazette, The Draytons and Wendy Alleyne.
?IF THE THOUSANDS OF Digicel Barbados Reggae Festival fans could somehow dance back into time, they would truly see Al Gilkes for who he is: an entertainment guru.
It is the arena in which he has spent over 50 years of his versatile, fun-filled life – believe it or not! – building a local music industry and treating Barbadians to the best of local and international acts as a promoter.
Having been involved in music while at Harrison College, playing steel pan when the annual Bridgetown Jaycees’ Carnival was all the rage, he was ideally equipped to lead the writing of the Advocate’s new weekend tabloid, Calypso, featuring music, fashion and popular trends.
“Because I was known to be involved in music, playing pan, I was asked to do most of the writing because I was also the man about town [along with Glyne Murray and later Orlando “Gabby” Scott], while Harold [Hoyte] did the editing,” he said.
The Calypso coincidentally started when Gilkes was organizing parties, having moved from pan to jazzing on drums at the Belair, and it was in 1964 that he met Mark Williams when the latter went to the Advocate for an interview and the two decided to promote a show at the Bridgetown Plaza: Showtime 64.
?Warning that our interview would be “a long story”, he added that while promoting shows with regional artistes like Byron Lee, Johnnie Braff, Short Shirt and Arrow, he wanted mainly to feature local artistes.
He was able to do so in 1973 when, watching an international cycling event at the recently built National Stadium, he not only visualised an entertainment show there but also a teaser to that with a hot local act.
“I had in mind something that would feature a Bajan act as the star, and I called Tony Poser Grazette, who was hot, the James Brown of Barbados. If [Sir Garfield] Gary Sobers was the best all-round cricketer, Poser was the best all-round entertainer, outside of Jackie [who had died in 1970], and he was well liked and soft-spoken,” he recalled.
“It was supposed to be one show but it sold out twice at the Globe, which could hold 1 800 to 2 000 patrons. The first night people couldn’t get in, so we had to repeat it the next week: Tony Grazette in concert, with supporting acts. The first time it had ever been done in Barbados! 1973. And that inspired me to go back to my thoughts about the stadium.”
Waterford, however, would be a different ballgame, where 2 000 patrons would have been a joke.
So, Gilkes spoke to the original Opels that included Clarence Thompson, Lionel “Midge” Springer, Hubert “Angel” Grant, Stoute and Charles “Legend” Odell, and booked them as the headline act at the stadium.
He borrowed wooden platforms from the political parties, placed them upon empty paint drums, erected posts and covered it all with tarpaulin.
But upon realising the four-channel PV systems used by bands in the cinemas were totally inadequate for a large outdoor venue, he borrowed the horn speakers used for announcements at the stadium.
“It took the sound right around . . . and the show was sold out, about 7 000 people,” he said, recalling that, with the help of Eric Sealy, he flew to Puerto Rico and bought a 12-channel sound system and mixing board.
The new system was tested successfully on the blind American singer Clarence Carter, whose concert was promoted by Williams, and was later used by Gilkes to present Mike Thompson, the Toe-to-Toe clash between Grazette and Clarence Thompson, the Super Four featuring the Opels, Grazette, Draytons and Wendy Alleyne, and other events, paving the way for a sound engineering industry over a decade later.
Incidentally, it was the lack of a proper sound system that almost caused a riot on the night of the 1966 Independence show featuring The Supremes at Independence Square, Gilkes remembered.
If Gilkes has one regret, however, it is the fact that one of Barbados’ brightest talents, Jackie Opel, had never been truly accepted in his birthplace, even after recording with the acclaimed Skatalites and young Robert Nesta Marley in Jamaica.
In fact, he recalled, Williams had planned a show that might have cemented Opel as a national icon.
“He died a day or two before that show [March 1970] . . . . A lot of what went against him too was that he had just come back from Jamaica, and I believe while there he had been exposed to the new Rastafari culture, because the same Marley, Peter Tosh and others had also started embracing that culture. When Jackie came back, he stopped combing his hair . . . and people said he had gone mad.
“I mean, exactly what they did to Jackie then they’re doing to Rihanna now. It’s no different, it’s just that Jackie had to live with it in Barbados, Rihanna doesn’t,” Gilkes opined.
Gilkes not only wrote about entertainment. He loved it, and put most of his energies into promotion, playing drums, reporting on entertainment and agitating for better conditions for culture, as he spoke on political platforms about the lack of cultural venues with the People’s Pressure Group, for which he unsuccessfully contested a political seat in 1976.
“After 1976 I did the odd show in between but then THE NATION started really taking up my time, because we moved from a weekend paper to bi-weekly, weekend and Sunday, then to midweek, and finally to daily. I was also doing lots of travelling for the newspaper and show business took a back seat for quite a while,” he added.
Besides being a member of the first Crop Over committee launched in 1974 by the then Board of Tourism to capture visitors in the tough period of June to August, Gilkes was also to become chairman of the National Cultural Foundation in 1997 as Crop Over grew under his watch into a festival that included the massive Party Monarch attracting 30 000 patrons to the island’s East Coast.
The rest is history and after the dawn of the millennium, Gilkes was to delve in the promotion of reggae shows, almost haphazardly as a result of a booking that did not materialise.
In 2004 Digicel held its launch show at the Garrison, and Gilkes booked, among other acts, Busta Rhymes, who proved to be unavailable.
But longstanding reggae/dancehall promoter Roger “Freddie” Hill came to Gilkes’ rescue by calling his contacts in Jamaica and discovering that Bounty Killa and Shaggy were available.
They were sent here via private jet, compliments of Sandals owner Gordon “Butch” Stewart and his friend, Digicel founder Denis O’brien, and they virtually blew away the audience of nearly 30 000 at the Garrison Savannah.
That signalled the Al-Freddie alliance and, joined by the late football-crazy Sherlock “Nat” Yarde, Reggae On The Hill under the banner of FAS Entertainment was born in April 2005.
Today, nine years later and with annual sold out crowds of over 15 000 at Farley Hill, Gilkes is proud that, outside of the state-funded Crop Over Festival, he is part of the biggest private sector entertainment event in this country.