Air Supply & Jamaica: Inside the Ongoing, Unexpected Love Affair
It’s a warm late June evening at a fundraising concert in Jamaica; the crowd surges forward, glow sticks in hand, cell phones held aloft to capture the moment as the headlining act takes the stage. The singer’s honeyed delivery of the lyrics (“close your eyes I want to see you tonight in my sweet dreams”) is nearly overwhelmed by screams from female fans and the audience singing every word of the hit song.
The rapturous outpouring wasn’t for the latest dancehall sensation or a roots rock legend: This was the return of Air Supply, the veteran soft rock group’s sixth performance on the island since their debut set in 2007 at the Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival, which provoked an equally enthusiastic response. Russell Hitchcock (lead vocals) and Graham Russell (vocals, guitars, keyboards) met in a 1977 performance of Jesus Christ Superstar in Australia and formed Air Supply shortly thereafter. They signed with Arista Records in 1979 and sold millions of records throughout the 1980s. In their Jamaican debut 10 year ago, just like their performance on the island last month, the duo were visibly moved by the audience’s fervor throughout a set that rocked much harder than their music’s easy listening categorization would suggest.
“You never know how a country is going to greet you when you go there for the first time, if the people will like your music or even know who you are so it was a surprise, initially, to realize the audience knows our music as well as they do here,” Russell Hitchcock told Billboard in an interview at Couples Resorts San Souci (located close to the Jamaica resort town of Ocho Rios) a day before their June 24 performance for the nonprofit Issa Trust Foundation. “A large percentage of the population in Jamaica likes our music, which is very unusual because we are really romantic and the island’s music is very different, very reggae, and yet in some strange way we fit right in there,” adds Graham.
Further evidence of Air Supply’s popularity on the island can be heard in the numerous cover versions of their songs by Jamaican artists including vocalist Ghost’s haunting, high-pitched reworking of “Making Love Out of Nothing At All,” Sanchez’s “Here I Am," a staple within the beloved singer’s live sets, and vocal quartet L.U.S.T.’s gorgeous rendition of “Just As I Am,” which topped various Jamaican and international reggae charts when it was released in 2008, earning accolades from the song’s co-writer Rob Hegel. These and other reggae versions of Air Supply’s music, like the originals that spawned them, still receive regular play on Jamaican radio stations.
“Jamaica has a long lasting love relationship with Air Supply and they look forward to renewing that vow with them every so often; their music is one of the reasons we have so many kids here,” jokes Singing Melody, one of the four outstanding voices in L.U.S.T., alongside Tony Curtis, Lukie D and Thrilla U. “Their music really strikes a note among Jamaicans. They’ve performed here many times and their shows are always jam-packed; I think they should just buy houses and live here because the people love them so much.”
Air Supply’s beloved status in reggae’s birthplace -- and their ability to attract large audiences there -- has led to their appointment as musical ambassadors for the Issa Trust Foundation, a nonprofit organization established in 2005 by Couples Resorts, founded by the late Abe Issa, a pivotal figure in the development of the island’s booming tourism trade and the first president of the Jamaica Tourist Board. Chaired by Abe’s son Paul Issa, the Issa Trust Foundation provides pediatric medical care, at the highest standard possible, for many children whose families could not afford it otherwise, and collaborates with hospitals, health centers and local organizations throughout Jamaica to identify the most significant health issues. The Issa Trust Foundation’s first major fundraiser, An Evening with Air Supply, also featured Jamaica’s Tessanne Chin (season 5 winner of NBC’s The Voice) and reggae artist Djani. The sold-out affair moved 1,800 tickets ($80 for general admission, $150 for VIP) and raised $160,000 (after expenses) with all proceeds going to the pediatric unit at Jamaica’s St. Ann’s Bay Hospital.
“We wanted a musical ambassador who could bring attention to the foundation, get the word out about who we are, what we do, and we wanted them to come to Jamaica and perform. So we reached out to Air Supply because they are so big here,” explained Diane Pollard, President and CEO of the Issa Trust Foundation. While on vacation in Jamaica 20 years ago, Diane approached Couples Resorts about establishing a nonprofit to assist with pediatric care because none existed on the island at that time. Based in Iowa, Diane, formerly a loan executive with United Way, sources funding for the foundation, writes the programs and visits Jamaica at least six times per year, working with the island’s doctors and nurses to ensure the programs are effective and properly implemented.
Air Supply toured the St. Ann’s Bay Hospital in 2015 and spoke with the children there, and saw first hand the lack of basic facilities, which clinched their involvement. “It was very sad because the equipment the hospital had is archaic and to see the kids suffering so badly for the want of a ventilator is horrendous in this day and age so we are trying our best to make people aware of the situation. We’ve put information about the foundation on our website and social media; children are our future and they need to be taken care of,” acknowledged Russell. “We travel the world and see some heartbreaking things, people living under freeways, homeless children living on the streets. You can’t change everything, but you can change some things. This was an opportunity to raise money and for us it is all about helping where we can,” offers Graham.
Following their acceptance of an ambassadorial role with the Issa Trust Foundation, it took over a year to schedule a date for the Air Supply fundraising concert, due primarily to the band’s hectic touring itinerary. While contemporary top 40 radio has long forgotten Air Supply, much of the world continues to embrace their melodic, lushly produced music; they performed 130 shows in 2016 and are solidly booked through most of 2018, with Asia, Mexico, Central and South America particularly strong territories for the group. “You have your day in the sunshine, critics and radio were all over us when we first started, we had an incredible string of hits, and then in 1987 radio just refused to play us in North America, tastes changed and kids wanted something new,” observes Russell. “Our music is classified as light, easy listening and when people first see us they expect a mellow, quiet performance but we have always considered ourselves a rock band and we are very proud of our live shows.”
In 1979 Clive Davis signed Air Supply to Arista Records after hearing a five-and-a-half-minute version of their ballad “Lost in Love” written by Graham, a top 20 hit in Australia and New Zealand. Davis had the song remixed and released it in the U.S. in January 1980, as the title track to the Lost in Love album. The single peaked at No. 3 on the Hot 100; the album sold three million copies, reaching No. 22 on the Billboard 200, and spawned two more top 5 singles “All Out of Love” (No. 2) and “Every Woman in the World” (No. 5). More soft rock favorites followed throughout the 1980s including “Even The Nights Are Better,” “Here I Am” and “Making Love Out of Nothing At All." "Lonely Is the Night," released in 1986, was their last Billboard Hot 100 hit.
Air Supply waived their performance fee for the Issa Trust Foundation event. For the evening’s auction segment, Graham donated his custom built Telecaster guitar which fetched $3,000, a sum matched by the group’s donation to the foundation. Graham also wrote a song called “We Are Here” for the occasion and specifically requested children from the nearby Free Hill Basic School (whom Graham and Russell heard sing on a previous visit) join Air Supply onstage and provide backing vocals in their world premiere of the song.
The money generated by An Evening with Air Supply will go toward purchasing much needed equipment for the hospital including 35 beds, over the bed tables, patient monitors, lighting, chairs for parents at each side of the bed, air conditioning and new windows. “We want the pediatric ward to be of first world standards and we are now discussing the steps to get this done,” notes Pollard. “I hope we can build relationships with companies to help; $160,000 sounds like a lot of money, but the project will cost a lot more.”
With their fundraising efforts and ongoing ambassadorial role expanding the fond relationship between Air Supply and Jamaica, can collaborations with the island’s reggae acts be far behind? “We would love to work with artists here but no one has called us,” acknowledged Graham. “It’s just that simple if you make that outreach,” adds Russell. “It is really a matter of timing, we are always on the road but we are always open to the idea.”