King Stitt, Reggae Dancehall Pioneer, Dead At 72
King Stitt, Reggae Dancehall Pioneer, Dead At 72

KINGSTON -- King Stitt, a pioneer in the distinctive Jamaican vocal practice of toasting or deejaying, died yesterday (Jan. 31) at his Kingston, Jamaica home. Although an official cause was not given for his passing, it was reported yesterday in the Jamaican media that Stitt succumbed to complications from diabetes and prostate cancer. He was 72 years old.

Born Winston Spark, he was called Stitt as a boy due to a stutter in his speech. Because of a facial disfiguration, he named himself The Ugly One, referencing the 1967 spaghetti western "The Good The Bad and the Ugly," which enjoyed immense popularity in Jamaica and had a profound influence upon dancehall culture at that time.

Stitt's longstanding association with sound system owner-turned-producer Sir Clement Coxsone Dodd, founder of the venerable Studio One record label, considered the Motown of Jamaica, commenced in 1956. The legendary Count Machuki (b. Winston Cooper), said to be Jamaica's first deejay, worked with Dodd's Downbeat The Ruler sound system at the time when he noticed Stitt's impressive dance moves and gave him an opportunity to flaunt his toasting skills.

Crowds adored Stitt and he became the set's lead deejay when Machuki left to join Coxsone's rival, Prince Buster's Voice of the People sound system. Both Machuki and Stitt were pivotal figures in transforming the role of a sound system's deejay from solely selecting records into a vibrant personality whose nimble word play engaged as well as energized the crowd, becoming attractions in their own right.

Like Machuki, Stitt's animated shouts and nursery rhyme phrasings, mimicking the "jive" talk of American radio jocks of that era as he introduced records or free styled over their instrumental breaks, was the genesis of the Jamaican deejay phenomenon which in turn gave birth to rapping in America.

King Stitt became the first deejay to have a hit record with "Fire Corner" produced by Clancy Eccles, for whom he recorded numerous hit singles released on Eccles' Clandisc label, between 1969 and 1970.

Dodd released several Stitt singles that were later compiled into the 1993 release Dancehall '63; a compilation album of rare 7" Stitt singles called Reggae Fire Beat was also released on the Netherlands-based Jamaican Gold label in 1996. Although Stitt rarely recorded after the 1970s, his inimitable toasting graced the jaunty ska track "Small Axe," featured on Buju Banton's 1998 album, the Grammy nominated "Inna Heights" (VP Records/UMG).

In 2005 Stitt's rhythmic yelps complemented the honeyed vocals of Sugar Minott on the hit single "Give Me Jah Jah".

Stitt was a featured artist at the 2002 Legends of Ska series in Toronto and continued to select records as well as deejay at reggae festivals throughout the world. Stitt's July 2011 set at the Garance Reggae Festival in France, as part of a Studio One Revue, was greeted with thunderous applause from an audience young enough to be his grandchildren and was indicative of the reverence with which Stitt and other Jamaican music veterans are regarded various destinations outside of their birthplace.

Upon returning from a tour of Brazil in October 2011, where producer/manager Chester Synmoie, who was accompanying Stitt, died, reportedly of a heart attack, Stitt became ill and spent approximately two months in Kingston Public Hospital before being discharged. False reports of Stitt's death swirled in early January; his only child, Beverley Spark, confirmed his passing yesterday afternoon.

"King Stitt's passing creates a void that can never be filled," commented Charles Campbell, Chairman of JARIA (Jamaica Reggae Industry Association), which has organized numerous activities throughout February, designated as Reggae Month in Jamaica. "He is an icon, a forerunner of our dancehall deejays who created his own niche in the early days of our industry and became a phenomenon across the island. As we commence our Reggae Month celebrations this evening we will observe a moment of silence in his honor."