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Founding Melodians Member Dies

  • Written by  SMH

Tony Brevett, who has died aged 64, was a founding member of the Melodians, one of Jamaica's most popular harmony groups, which had a hit with their reggae adaptation of the spiritual hymn Rivers of Babylon.

The song, which featured on the soundtrack of The Harder They Come (1972), a Jamaican crime film starring Jimmy Cliff, had a significant international impact and drew a new audience to reggae. It also led to Boney M's popular disco version.

In Jamaica it was just one of a string of hits that the Melodians secured during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when they charmed listeners with superb three-part harmonies and uncommon lyricism. Brevett also had success as a solo singer, particularly with self-produced work.

Brevett was born in Kingston on September 3, 1949. His uncle, Lloyd, was bassist in the Skatalites, Jamaica's leading ska group, and it was a natural progression for Tony to become involved in music.

While attending Ebenezer School in the early 1960s, he formed an informal harmony group with a then unknown Bob Marley and another school friend, George Allison, rehearsing renditions of American songs in a local church. He learned some rudimentary guitar chords after acquiring a ukulele, and after Marley made his debut recording for Leslie Kong's Beverley's Records, Brevett auditioned at Beverley's, but was rejected.

He formed the Melodians in 1963 with Bradfield Brown, Trevor McNaughton and Brent Dowe, who alternated lead vocal duties with Brevett. After Brown dropped out, Renford Cogle began contributing lyrics and helping with musical arrangements, but did not sing with the group.

The Melodians made an initial impact performing at Kingston's Kittymat club and other local venues. In 1966 they began recording at Clement Dodd's Studio One facility, cutting Lay It On, Meet Me, I Should Have Made It Up and Let's Join Hands (Together). They soon shifted to Dodd's chief rival, Duke Reid's Treasure Isle, as Reid was offering £10 a song, while Dodd offered only £6.

At Treasure Isle the Melodians became one of the premier groups of the rock-steady era with heartbroken hits such as You Have Caught Me, I'll Get Along Without You, You Don't Need Me and Come On Little Girl, as well as the spirited Expo 67, which celebrated Jamaica's presence at the Montreal event. In 1968 the group recorded the popular Swing and Dine and Little Nut Tree for Sonia Pottinger, then Jamaica's sole female record producer, before enjoying a further extended spell of success with Leslie Kong, for whom they cut Rivers of Babylon.

Following Kong's death in 1971, the group recorded Round and Round for Lee Perry, and This Beautiful Land, produced by Brevett, but success proved elusive, leading to a temporary break-up. Dowe issued a solo album and Brevett issued noteworthy self-produced work, such as the chilling Starlight, backed the Skatalites, and the popular Don't Get Weary, which highlighted his expressive, deep tenor.

Producer Harry J persuaded the group to re-form in 1976 for the album Sweet Sensations, while a half-finished album, recorded at Lee Perry's Black Ark for Sonia Pottinger, eventually surfaced as Deep Meditation, padded out by older material. The group was then dissolved once more, though they re-formed in the early 1980s for some less successful releases produced by Dowe.

Yet the legendary status accorded the group's rock-steady and early reggae recordings saw further reunions, most notably for a rock-steady revue, staged by fellow singer Alton Ellis in London in 1997.

Although Dowe died of a heart attack in 2006, Brevett and McNaughton continued to perform under the Melodians name, and before Brevett died they were preparing for a 50th anniversary concert, to be held in Miami.

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