Eric Clarke & the Pioneer Generation: Clayton Goodwin on the Potentially "Star" Musician Who Refused to Be a Star and to Whom, Even Today, All the Big Names of the UK Music Industry Defer. Eighty-Year-Old Eric Clarke Personifies a Generation That Was, in Itself, a "Star" and That Does Not Deserve to Be Forgotten

New African, January 2009 | Go to article overview

Eric Clarke & the Pioneer Generation: Clayton Goodwin on the Potentially "Star" Musician Who Refused to Be a Star and to Whom, Even Today, All the Big Names of the UK Music Industry Defer. Eighty-Year-Old Eric Clarke Personifies a Generation That Was, in Itself, a "Star" and That Does Not Deserve to Be Forgotten


Eric Clarke has become part of the social landscape of the New Cross district of southeast London in which he has lived for the greater part of the 42 years in which he has been in England. He is no different to any other 80-year-old Jamaican going about their business on the streets of the city, and could be overlooked easily as just "one of the crowd". If you did overlook him, however, you would be wrong, because Eric is a living legend in the world of music. He led one of the most polished, and best, big bands; he was compared favourably as a trumpeter to the legendary Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong, and is still respected by those musicians whom we, ourselves, respect.

Clarke belongs to that "lost generation" of (primarily) Jamaicans who created a vibrant mixture of jazz, R&B, soul, mento and a score of other rhythms and music-forms in the l960s, setting the scene for their more recognised successors, but who are now generally unknown to wider society. They are generally forgotten now--whereas other, inferior musicians are remembered--because, in spite of their fame and the thousands of fans whom they entertained at live performances in a host of venues from Masonic black-tie dinner-dances in august venues to the pubs of inner-city London, they made no records, or the few which they did make were in sub-standard back-street studios.

By playing mainly within their own community instead of chic, trendy West End night-clubs, they did not come to the attention of the scribes who have kept the history of popular music, and those few Caribbean heritage newspapers whose pages they adorned for so long, have no effective system of archives and back-numbers.

Eric Clarke's story is their story. He, himself, is a walking encyclopaedia of Jamaican (and African-American) music. Follow Eric on a walk through the markets, pubs and streets of south London and he will point out the old man supping his Guinness, the road-sweeper, the slightly deranged elder begging for a drink or a small loan, the old lady to whom the passing years have not been kind, and be will tell of their musical triumphs in days gone by when their faces were known to everybody in their neighbourhood and beyond.

Alas, too often now, when Clarke phones, it is to tell of another once celebrated musician or singer who has passed away. When Eric came to England from Kingston, Jamaica, in 1964, the Caribbean-heritage community in the UK was just coming to terms with the fact that they would not be returning home as they had imagined initially. And if they were going to stay, they wanted to enjoy themselves, or at least to deaden the disappointment of their seemingly dead-end lives.

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Small-time clubs, town-hall dances, and, above all, "bluesy" house-parties began to flourish. Mayall Road in Brockley--coincidentally, the street next to that in which Clarke lives now--was infamous for hosting a dozen or so house-parties every Saturday night and beyond.

By then 36-year-old Clarke ("Sleepy") was already a noted musician who had played with most leading bands in his native country. That interested Laurel Aitken, the flamboyant vocalist, clad inevitably in gold lame for his stage performances, who is credited generally with "kicking" off Jamaican music in the UK. He persuaded Eric to form and lead a big band just like those in which he had played "back home".

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Aitken, who was then based in Brixton, moved later to Leicester in the East Midlands, and maintained a substantial following of fans overseas, particularly, and surprisingly, in Japan until his death just a couple of years ago.

"Eric Clarke and the Debonairs" dominated their sector of the music industry for a decade. Their rivalry with near-neighbours, the Jamaica Jubilee Stompers, inspired each to greater achievement: the "scene" was big enough for both of them and their styles were so different that each excelled in their own way. …

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Eric Clarke & the Pioneer Generation: Clayton Goodwin on the Potentially "Star" Musician Who Refused to Be a Star and to Whom, Even Today, All the Big Names of the UK Music Industry Defer. Eighty-Year-Old Eric Clarke Personifies a Generation That Was, in Itself, a "Star" and That Does Not Deserve to Be Forgotten
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