Fellow Jamaican Paula Reed said she hadn’t danced like this in years after attending the reggae concert of legendary singer Ernie Smith.
Reed was visiting Pittsburgh for the second time and heard about the concert and decided to support it.
“I loved everything about it,” said Reed. “It reminded me of home.”
Smith and his son OJ’s band, The Resolvers, performed at the Byham Theater for a benefit concert, which was slated to provide economic relief. Proceeds from the concert were split equally between three charities: The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, the Mon Valley Unemployment Committee and a group of displaced Jamaican workers.
“I do what I can to help people. I’ve always done that my whole life. People in the Mon Valley are struggling from the once thriving steel community and there is a group in Jamaica that relies heavily on tourism and we’re trying to help them,” said Smith.
Mon Valley unemployed committee co-director Barney Oursler was happy that his organization was included in the project.
“This is great,” Oursler said. “A lot of people are getting unemployed and running out of benefits and things like this are very important. We’re very pleased to be included.”
Iris Valanti, director of communications for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, agreed with Oursler.
“It’s important when the community puts together these events. We were surprised and delighted that we were chosen to be a part of this. It was good music and a good time for Pittsburgh,” Valanti said.
Smith was born in Kingston but raised in St. Anne. Blessed with a deep baritone voice, Smith wanted to become a radio announcer. After an unsuccessful attempt at that career, the married father of two got discovered when he approached Federal Studios looking for work as a songwriter and ended up recording his music himself.
He earned his first chart-making success in the late 1960s with “Bend Down.” Jamaican number one hits “One Dream,” “Pitta Patta” and “Ride On.” quickly followed. In 1972, Smith won Japan’s Yamaha Music Festival with the ditty, “Life is Just of Living,” which was written originally for a Red Stripe commercial.
The following year Smith was honored by his own country with the Badge of Honor for Meritorious Service in the Field of Music. Smith released “Life is Just for Living” in 1974 on Trojan records. After “Pitta Patta,” came further reggae hits “Duppy or Gunman” and “Key Card.”
Reggae wasn’t the only genre in which Smith found success. He gained even more exposure with the cover of popular songs like “Everything I Own” and “Help Me Make it Through the Night.”
As a songwriter, Smith gained notoriety with “Tears on My Pillow ( I Can’t Stand It)”, which topped the UK charts in 1975 when it was recorded by Johnny Nash.
Smith’s 1976 effort, “The Power and the Glory” was seen by critics as a criticism of Prime Minister Michael Manley’s policies, which led to threats on his life and prompted him to move to Toronto. There he recorded the albums “To Behold Jah” and “Skareggae.” As the ’70s drew to a close, Smith recorded several gospel-tinged albums including “I’ll Sing for Jesus.”
In 1981 Smith moved stateside, living in Miami and later in Fort Lauderdale to be closer to his wife and kids. However, Smith was besieged by financial, drug and alcohol problems which stopped him from performing and recording for a while. In the 1990s, Smith returned to his beloved Jamaica right before Hurricane Gilbert and began recording again.
“Gilbert brought me home. I was coming and going to Jamaica back then and I had went to Ochos Rios to do a show and it was canceled because of Hurricane Gilbert,” Smith recalled. “I was there when it hit and the day after everything was blown down and I saw a guy picking up fruit off of fallen trees and sharing it. People were sitting in front of destroyed homes and still smiling. One man said ‘I lost everything but man was it a thrill!’ I knew that Jamaica was where I was supposed to be. Gilbert reminded me of what it was like to be a Jamaican.”
And that love for his country was displayed during his Pittsburgh concert.
The night began with political reggae group, The Resolvers. The Fort Lauderdale-based group is fronted by Smith’s son, O.J. and backed by daughter, Sahara and niece, Dionne. Once the Resolvers finished their own 45-minute set, the group backed Smith during his two-hour performance.
The family element is what drew Lynn Tomasits and her son, Sebastian, to the concert.
“We were lucky enough to see Mr. Smith in Jamaica and we love his music and the fact that he performs with his family,” said Tomasits.
The Resolvers got the small audience pumped up and dancing in the aisles with songs like “Popular System,” “People Unaware,” and the Pink Floyd cover, “Breathe.”
Following a 20-minute intermission, Smith took the stage dressed in a white suit and black shirt.
“We bring you greetings and talent from Jamaica and Ft. Lauderdale,” said Smith before breaking into songs like “Exodus,” “Zion Bound” and other favorites in his beautiful baritone voice.
“Somebody Here Believes in You,” was written to show his evident love for his son, O.J. He also performed arias from his latest creation, “Country Mile,” released on VP records last year. Not one to sit on his laurels, Smith is currently working on a gospel album.
The audience danced and sang along during Smith’s upbeat concert. Despite the low turnout, Smith and the Resolvers put on an amazing show. Pittsburghers who were not in attendance missed a wonderful evening of beautiful music.
The evening also introduced new fans to Smith’s catchy and soul-stirring music.
“I hadn’t heard of Ernie Smith before and I wanted to come and see his work,” said Braddock resident Charles Jenkins. “I listen to a lot of reggae and he reminded me of another reggae singer, The concert was wonderful. It’s unfortunate that it wasn’t a packed house.”