A pivotal figure in expanding reggae’s international renown, record producer, songwriter and vocalist Winston Riley, 65, passed away yesterday succumbing to the gun shot wounds he received on Nov. 1, 2011 at his home in Kingston, Jamaica. According to his son Kurt Riley, a disk jockey on Jamaica’s FAME FM radio, Riley had spent the past two and a half months comatose in a Kingston hospital.
A consistent hit maker since the late 1960s, Winston Riley was targeted in a series of unexplained violent confrontations throughout 2011; he was shot in August and stabbed in September prior to being shot in the head and arm on November 1. Jamaica’s Constabulary Force had been investigating the relationship between these incidents but had never publicly released their findings. Kurt Riley was unaware of any motive for the brutal attacks on his father.
Riley’s career began as a singer in 1962 when he formed vocal harmony group The Techniques with Keith ‘Slim’ Smith, Frederick Waite and Franklyn White. The group regularly performed at (future Jamaican Prime Minister) Edward Seaga’s venue Chocomo Lawn; their debut single “No One” was released exclusively in the United Kingdom on Columbia Records. The Techniques first Jamaican tracks were recorded for Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One label in 1965. The shift in Jamaican music from ska to rocksteady and a move to Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle label brought The Techniques a spate of hits in 1967 including “Queen Majesty” and “You Don’t Care” which are now regarded as classics.
Riley left the group in 1968; he founded the Techniques record label and met further acclaim as a producer with the 1969 singles “Come Back Darling” by Johnny Osbourne and the Sensations and “Who You Gonna Run To” by the Shades. More hits followed including the (primarily) instrumental “Double Barrell” by Ansell Collins, punctuated by the animated shouts of Dave Barker (credited as Dave Collins) which topped the UK charts in May 1971. Two years later Riley produced the evergreen Stalag 17 rhythm, which has provided the musical support for an estimated 400 songs. Riley produced deejay General Echo’s number one (Jamaican) hit “Arleen” in 1979 on the Stalag rhythm as well as Echo’s widely influential album “The Slackest LP”Echo challenged that era’s prevailing cultural identity and inaugurated a trend towards slack, i.e. vulgar lyrics, which has remained a mainstay in dancehall.
The mid ’80s were a very successful period for the versatile Riley. He effectively guided the early career of Rastafarian female deejay Sister Nancy, producing her first album “One Two” and the timeless single with which she is most closely identified, “Bam Bam”. As digitized dancehall beats supplanted organically crafted reggae rhythms in 1985 Riley revived the bass heavy Stalag 17 for sing-jay Tenor Saw’s massive hit “Ring The Alarm”, which Riley released on a one-rhythm compilation “Stalag 17, 18 and 19”.
The following year Riley produced “Boops” (Jamaican patois for sugar daddy) for deejay Super Cat. Arguably that year’s biggest Jamaican hit, the topically humorous and controversial “Boops” generated heated debates, spawned numerous answer records and brought Super Cat international success.
Riley’s steak of successful productions stretched well into the1990s with hits for numerous deejays including Red Dragon, Cutty Ranks and a teenaged Buju Banton while the careers of cultural singers including Admiral Tibet and Courtney Melody also benefitted from their association with Riley.
In 2008 Riley commenced work on an all consuming enterprise: transforming the site of his Techniques Records on Orange St, where he has been based since 1993, into a refurbished studio and Jamaican music museum. Throughout the 60s and 70s downtown Kingston’s Orange Street was referred to as Beat Street because it was lined with record shops and recording studios including Augustus Pablo’s Rockers International, Niney the Observer, Studio One, and Joe Gibbs. Born and raised in downtown Kingston, Riley is undeterred by the crime that currently grips the downtown area; he has reportedly invested more than $500,000 into the museum/studio renovation, which he has described as his dream project. Riley has also avowed to write books and produce a documentary that will tell the stories of individuals like himself, whose enormous contributions to Jamaica’s music industry have been consistently overlooked.