Tommy Cowan: backstage king

From the One Love Concert for Peace to the first Reggae Sunsplash, producer and promoter Tommy Cowan has been behind the scenes

Tommy Cowan. Photography by URBANIMAGE.TV

The first time I met Tommy Cowan, I ended up in one of the
Caribbean’s most notorious prisons.

The year was 1976. I was in the middle of my first trip to Jamaica, an island
that had intrigued me since I first heard and got hooked on reggae music years
earlier. I was working on a music feature for a major Canadian newspaper,
and Jamaican friends had told me that, rather than scurrying around the island
looking for reggae musicians, I could just as easily let them come to me.

Go to Kingston, they advised, and make yourself known at 1C Oxford Road.
That’s where Tommy Cowan, reggae jack-of-all-trades, had established the headquarters
of a company called Talent Corporation. And that’s where virtually every
reggae performer on the island would hang out in the heady days of the 70s,
an era still widely regarded as the music’s golden age.

I took their advice, and I’d barely introduced myself when Cowan asked me
if I’d like to accompany a couple of the bands he was managing, Jacob Miller
and Inner Circle and Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus, to Spanish Town Jail,
where they were playing a concert for the inmates the following day.

I jumped at the opportunity . . . Which is how I found myself in the middle
of a grim prison yard, surrounded by almost 600 inmates, 55 of whom had imminent
appointments with the gallows, listening to some of the best reggae I’ve heard
to this day.

A few hours later, while I was still trying to get to grips with what I’d
seen and heard — Spanish Town Jail is not, believe me, a very nice place —
I was on the road again with Cowan, this time heading for the Kingston home
of superstar Jimmy Cliff, where there was some record business and socialising
to be taken care of. It was then I started to realise that, journalistically
speaking, I’d struck reggae gold. Tommy Cowan not only had his finger on the
pulse of this wonderful new music, he was a significant part of that pulse.

If the full story of reggae, rocksteady, and ska is ever told, Cowan, without
a doubt, is the person best qualified to tell it. He’s been at the heart of
the action from virtually the beginning, as singer, songwriter, manager, producer,
concert promoter, talent scout, agent, and MC. His career began way back
in 1964, when Kingston was throbbing with the new sounds of ska, and a fledgling
group known as the Wailers had just started to make it big in the Jamaican
charts.

Cowan joined a group called the Mericoles, who soon became the Jamaicans,
and had a smash hit with a song called Ba-Ba Boom Time, winner of the
prestigious Festival Song Competition in 1967. As well as recording, the
Jamaicans toured frequently, and Cowan got his first taste of life on the
road in the United States and Canada, on the same lineup as Byron Lee and
the Dragonaires. And he started to learn about the business of reggae.

In the early 70s he made a major career move, joining Byron Lee’s Dynamic
Sounds organisation as marketing manager. With the guidance of Lee, one of
Caribbean music’s most astute businessmen, as well as a legendary bandleader,
Cowan was soon dealing with major labels like Atlantic, Motown, Columbia,
and Polygram, promoting concerts with R&B superstars like Aretha Franklin,
Percy Sledge, Ben E. King, the Drifters, and the Temptations, and helping
manage the careers of many of the top Jamaican performers of that era.

He was also honing his business skills, and the ambitious young Cowan soon
decided he was ready to branch out on his own. Lee gave his full support,
and Talent Corporation was born. Before long, Cowan was guiding the careers
of Ras Michael, Zap Pow (featuring a promising young singer called Beres Hammond),
Inner Circle, and Israel Vibration. And his sprawling Kingston yard had become,
as he puts it, an “inspiration centre” for reggae performers.

“Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, and Bob Marley would frequent the place. Bob
would play football at 1C, and he released Natty Dread and One
Drop
there. Bunny gave us Blackheart Man to release and promote.
Peter’s Babylon Queendom and Legalise It were released there
as well.” Cindy Breakespeare (who went on to become Miss World, and is the
mother of Bob Marley’s son Damian “Junior Gong” Marley) worked in a restaurant
on the premises.

For a few years, 1C Oxford Road was the heart of the reggae world. Then
Tommy decided to join his good friend Marley in establishing what was to
become an even more famous reggae address — 56 Hope Road, a few blocks away.

Cowan produced the legendary 1978 One Love Concert for Peace out of 56 Hope
Road, using the sprawling colonial mansion, now converted to the Tuff Gong
recording studio and reggae hangout, as its nerve centre. He toured Europe
with Marley, and played a key role in organising the historic Zimbabwe Independence
Concert.

After Marley’s death in 1981, Cowan joined forces with the Reggae Sunsplash
organisation, became main MC at its annual reggae festivals in Montego Bay,
and toured the United States, Europe, Africa, and the Pacific islands when
Sunsplash started to take leading reggae acts on the road.

And these days, Cowan’s long and varied musical journey has taken yet another
intriguing turn.

After many years as a Rastafarian, Cowan converted to Christianity, and,
in partnership with his wife, singer Carlene Davis, established Jamaica’s
leading gospel music organisation, Glory Music, where they produce CDs and
concerts, the best known being the annual Fun in the Son festival in Ocho
Rios.

As always, music is keeping Tommy Cowan on the hop. As he puts it, “I’m
maxed out!”

I only hope he finds the time, some day, to sit down and write the still
untold story of reggae, and to share his treasure trove of memories of someone
who was there, onstage, sidestage, backstage, and at every stage, from the
music’s infancy.