DEATH OF JACKIE OPEL – THE CREATOR OF SPOUGE
March 9, 2016 marks the 46th year of Jackie Opel’s untimely demise in a car accident on Bay Street, St. Michael, Barbados. Born 27 August 1937, Opel was christened Dalton St. Clair Bishop. He attended St. Mary’s School which is located in Bridgetown, Barbados. While at school he acquired the nickname “Manface”. Short and stocky he had a very mature-looking face for a child – hence the coining and acquisition of this nickname. Interestingly, today, many of his Barbadian contemporaries still refer to him as “Manface” even though universally he is known as Jackie Opel.
Opel began to sing from early in his life. He belonged to his school’s choir and was a chorister at St. Mary’s Anglican Church. Prior to leaving Barbados Opel appeared at several places of entertainment around Bridgetown. However in Barbados, during the middle of the last century, making it in entertainment was difficult, particularly if one was poor and Black.
During the early 1960s, Opel spent a couple of months in Trinidad. This choice was influenced by the fact that Trinidad had a very vibrant night life built around live acts. His sojourn to Trinidad provided Opel with several opportunities to expose his artistry as an entertainer.
Opel went to Jamaica sometime in 1962. This proved to be a good career move. Jamaica had a very vibrant entertainment industry – not only were there many more performing opportunities than in Barbados but Jamaica had a thriving recording industry. The ability to record one’s music is vital to the sustainability of an entertainer’s career. Opel recorded with many of the leading producers in Jamaica’s music enterprise – however it was with Clement “Coxson” Dodd that Opel achieved stardom. His “Cry Me a River” was a local chart maker. Additionally, it was distributed internationally through Dodd’s overseas connections. “Cry Me a River”, rendered in a soul style, is reminiscent of that genre which was very popular with American Black artists of the 1950/60s.
Jackie Opel in the studios of the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)
While Opel recorded several soul songs, it was his ska recordings and work with the internationally-famous Skatalites that shot Opel to stardom in Jamaica. Ska was the sound track of Jamaica’s independence. The Skatalites were ska’s principal ambassadors. While ska was predominately an instrumental genre, several ska compositions required vocals. Opel, along with Doreen Shaeffer and Lord Tanamo (Joseph Gordon), provided vocals for the Skatalites, whenever a ska piece had such lines.
Opel is widely remembered for his showmanship – dancing, singing as well as his command of the stage and audience. Percy Sledge, who he outperformed, commented very favourably on Opel’s abilities as an entertainer. Sledge was not the only visiting act who made such comments about Opel. Ben E. King and Joe Tex as well as many regional acts were similarly impressed by Opel.
Opel was Barbados’ first solo artist to gain international recognition. His greatest contribution to Barbados however was the creation of spouge – now advanced as Barbados’ signature rhythm. Musicologist, the late Janice Millington described spouge’s antecedents as:
British culture (including Welsh, Scottish, and Irish), transmitted through literature and poetry, rhymes, folk songs, sea shanties, classical music, hymns, and other songs of praise, has been constantly available, providing entertainment, edification, and general education to all people of Barbados. North American love songs, parlor songs, African American spirituals and folk hymns, and hillbilly music also have contributed to a cultural mixture in which the love of a song, the expression through movement, and demand for theater continue to be of paramount importance.
Millington describes spouge as:[a fusion of] the ska beat of Jamaica with calypso rhythms of Trinidad. Spouge employed a special rhythm played on the cowbell, bass guitar, trap set, and other rhythm and electronic instruments. Added to this were trumpets, trombone, a saxophone, and vocalists. In the 1960s there were different types of spouge: the Cassius Clay style (or “dragon spouge”) and Draytons Two style (or “raw spouge”).
During Opel’s lifetime he, along with the last major backing band with whom he worked, The Troubadours (then known as Syd Jones and the Gay Troubadours), worked tirelessly to have spouge accepted nationally. While other individuals and groups performed and recorded in this idiom, national acceptance was sometime in coming. The privileging of spouge as the musical signature of Barbados could be said to coincide with the island’s 1981 hosting of CARIFESTA IV. Spouge was the sound which Barbados presented as its musical identity at CARIFESTA IV. Since 1981, many efforts have been made to indelibly stamp spouge on Barbados’ soundscape. While spouge is still sung and heard, it is not the most popular genre on Barbadian playlists or live performances. Despite spouge’s limited popularity, Opel’s significant contribution to the musical landscape of Barbados cannot be denied. He remains the only Barbadian to have created a musical beat – an accomplishment that every Barbadian should be justly proud.
Opel’s contribution to the soundscape of Barbados was recognized by the Government in 1998 when it named the ampitheatre in the new General Post Office in Opel’s honour.
Plaque in The Jackie Opel Amphitheatre
Select discography of spouge recordings
Blue Rhythm Combo “Sweet Spouge Music”
Cassius Clay “Dragon Spouge”
The Checkmates “Spouge Beat”
Draytons Two “Drink Milk”
—. “Raw Spouge”
Flatbush “Which Way You’re Going Baby”
Tony Grazette “Sweet Spouge Music”
—. “Oh Lonesome Me”
Jackie Opel “Higher and Higher”
—. “Live and Let Live”
—. “You Gotta Pay”
—. “You Send Me”
Richard Stoute “Any Day Now”
Clarence Thompson “Express Yourself”
and The Organisation
Millington, Janice. “Barbados.” The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, vol. 2, South America, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. Dale A. Olsen and Daniel E. Sheehy, eds. New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc., 1998. 813 -821. Print.
Contributed by Elizabeth F. Watson, Library Consultant/Researcher.
 Cassius Clay is also known as Young Cassius.