You can spend a long time listening to Jamaican music before it hits you - and I mean, really hits you - that so many of the songs yearning for repatriation, for "going back home," for coping with ghetto living and systemic, daily "sufferation" are to be taken seriously and inseparable from the music's design overall. In looking back at Cebert 'Jackie' Bernard and the Kingstonians' body of work, those yearning and coping sentiments were always right there, right up front. His was a pleading voice, as if the world hadn't heard or understood him yet; he couldn't stop trying.
Yet there was a quiet grace to Bernard, even when cajoled into his faltering singing voice. In truth, that voice always did sound as if it couldn't possibly hold up. Sheer emotional intent somehow seemed to carry Bernard's songs, though the able assistance of Jamaica's skilled musicians/arrangers surely played a role.
There was also the fascinating structure provided to the melodic motifs via the Kingstonians' harmonies. Unheralded to the end have been Bernard's vocal trio spars: his brother Lloyd 'Footy' Bernard and Lloyd Kerr. Listen closely to how they give extra exuberance to "Singer Man" or how the low menace of "Put Down Your Fire" is embellished by them.
From top to bottom, the Kingstonians had a unique sound. The early rocksteady tracks, in particular, really are an amazing series of recordings. Working with the great Lynn Taitt's arrangements for their Sir JJ rocksteady output, the Kingstonians put themselves on the map with songs that still send a shudder through you. They enliven, even as they brood. No one else quite captured that forlorn yet assertive feel.
When Bernard penned "Sufferer" in 1969, the hit-making economy of Jamaica's music industry was only allowing for a handful of statements in this direction. Questions of endemic hardships and injustices had largely been put aside during the country's nascent period of post-colonial musical expression. It probably didn't seem a winning export model, yet "Sufferer" became a big hit in the UK. That tune should've given Bernard a solid paycheck, but one doubts it materialized; the concept of irony was hardly stretched at all in this case, given the song's theme.
As opportunities lessened at the turn of the '70s decade, Jackie Bernard would increasingly record solo, sounding more isolated, more straining, more poor. The vein of "sufferer's" tunes was in abundance during this time, though it hardly changed anyone's fate, and certainly not Bernard's. He was still full of commentary, though, forever committed to every breath in front of the microphone. Few producers in this era gave him a look, of course, but in typical fashion it was Lee Perry who ended up producing a Bernard song that had zero commercial potential. It was hardly the point by then.
Earlier last year, many intensified fans of Jamaican music became aware of the rough condition that Jackie Bernard found himself in. A caring soul from Spain who was visiting Jamaica spotted Bernard and saw immediately that this was a man teetering on the edge of the living world. What followed was a touching online campaign to raise funds for Bernard, with the humble goal of getting him medical attention and improving the livability of his tiny living space. Several thousand people ended up raising over $20K, which felt every bit the massive jolt of support it was.
Not that Bernard's frail existence should've surprised many. Famed Jamaican producer Lloyd "Matador" Daley told me that in the '80s, "Singer Man," as so many knew him as, would come to his gate to beg for money. A friend of mine who used to visit Kingston in that decade recounted how Bernard sold him a self-knitted tam; he was trying to hawk them all over town. The picture you get is of a man lacking in what's euphemistically classified as "life skills."
So this could be no definitive tribute to Jackie Bernard. Too much of his life is unknown to us fans from the outside, those perpetual cultural travelers of the West that we are, always in search of a soul elusive and everlasting. In the little bit of Youtube footage that is out there, Bernard is always an older man, frail, fearful looking at times, haunted in his eyes by what might be an incapacity to master his own present and future, never mind a retelling of why the past mattered so greatly to him and to us all.
But I am reminded of other Youtube footage showing him riding around in a car in Rio de Janeiro with a bunch of young Brazilian fans, and they're playing him that rarest of rare tracks by the Kingstonians (re-named the Harmonizers for this hushed outing), "Go Back Home." Who knows when he'd last heard it, but you could see him stare into the space that was the past, into some studio in Kingston, surrounded by his brother and Lloyd Kerr, and all those musicians were gathered around, crafting a little miracle of a song around his plaintive singing. Bernard identified the great Leslie Butler's piano as it was playing the melancholy and fading outro, and just like that, a soul everlasting drifted in. — Mark WIlliams
"I Make A Woman"
"Put Down Your Fire"
"Idrin & King"
The Uprights (Jackie Bernard & Bill Gentles)
"I A No Want Stall"
"I Am Just A Minstrel"
"Jah Jah Way"
Jack Lord & the Upsetters
"Economic Crisis (Dubplate Mix)"
"I Don't Care"
"Go Back Home"