In the 1970s, Toronto became a major hub for live reggae music, as Jamaican superstars such as Jackie Mittoo, Leroy Sibbles and Ernie Smith, who became the leader of Roots Revival, migrated north.
In 1978, changes in Canada’s immigration system, combined with unrest in Jamaica, led to an exodus of almost 100,000 Jamaicans immigrating to Toronto. After a 1976 assassination attempt was made on reggae superstar Bob Marley, political violence made the island unsafe for outspoken artists, says reggae historian Dr. Jason Wilson.
“After having written ‘Jah Kingdom Go to Waste,’ Ernie Smith knew his life was in danger,” says Wilson. “The song was considered incendiary by the Jamaican government. As a result, Smith packed his bags for Toronto.”
Roots Revival formed in 1978. This band photo was taken by the Star’s Boris Spremo in the basement of Tiger’s Coconut Grove in Kensington Market in the summer of 1978. These gigs nourished the city’s burgeoning status as a world-class arts centre. As Roots Revival guitarist Paul Corby recalls, everyone who was anyone showed up.
“I remember Moses Znaimer getting a ticket for parking his Karmann Ghia on the sidewalk,” says Corby with a laugh. “We rehearsed there for free all week in exchange for Saturday night shows that would have people swarming in the street out front.”
Performers like Smith were a huge draw in Toronto. He played underground spots like Tiger’s, the Bamboo and the Horseshoe, as well as established venues like Harbourfront Centre’s Brigantine Room. Then there was the sold-out “reggae Woodstock” in 1980, which featured performers such as Smith, Messenjah and Truths & Rights. Of that seminal show, reggae historian Wilson wrote, “Toronto’s Jamaican expats were now — with ardour and avidity — singing King Alpha’s song in a strange land.”
“Ernie was a Jamaican superstar, a sort of Jamaican Charley Pride,” says Corby.
Reminiscing over this photo, Corby points to each of his fellow Roots Revival members in turn. “Ernie grew ’locks while he was here. Desmond left the band on the first day of the first tour when his wife came to the door and told us he wasn’t coming! Keysman got homesick for Jamaica and left a few weeks after this pic was taken. The most amazing Clive Ross sang and played bass and was creative on both levels simultaneously. Wadi Daniel from Trinidad is still referred to by many prominent Toronto musicians — not just reggae-philes — as the best drummer they’ve ever heard. He’s about 18 in this pic.”
Roots Revival won Best Band at the Black Music Awards in 1979 but disbanded the following year when Smith returned to Jamaica after the death of his father. Corby and the remaining members carried on with the gigs they had booked, with Jojo Bennett as provisional band leader. But, says Corby, “When it became clear that Ernie wasn’t coming back, Jojo left to form the Sattalites and we continued on, quite successfully, as Bloodfire.”
Four decades on, Corby is still passionate about performing and sharing music. Fans can listen to his online radio show, Corby’s Orbit, on Radio Regent (broadcasting out of Toronto’s Regent Park) every Friday night. Smith, who now lives and jams back home in Jamaica, remains an icon of Toronto’s reggae heyday.
-Jessica Dee Humphreys, thestar.com, May 2, 2021