The Legend – Norma Fraser
Being introduced by Rita Marley to her son Ziggy as a “legend” is akin to knighthood, sainthood, a coronation. But it is completely comprehensible that such a singer should receive such an honor when it was she, Norma Fraser, who taught Rita Marley how to sing in the first place, counseled her to marry Bob, and went on to lead the life of not only a virtuoso vocalist, but a centered, spiritual, strong woman as well.
Norma Fraser was born in St. Andrews in Jamaica and attended Merle Grove High School. Although she loved music as a child, she never realized she had any talent, nor aspired to. “My father could sight read. He could look at a musical piece and just sing the notes, but I had no musical talent at all. None. But I loved music. I grew up in St. Andrews in the suburbs of Kingston and we used to have a lot of American artists who would come do concerts and my parents would give me money to go to matinees because kids would go to matinees at the Carib Theatre, Ward Theatre. I was there all the time, just to see them because I love music and I would meet a lot of them too—Sam Cooke and his wife, Paul Anka. I loved all types of music and we just go to listen. I had no aspirations really of becoming a singer,” she says. In fact, like the rest of her family, Norma first became a school teacher. But she realized it wasn’t her calling as she turned to her passion, music.
Norma remembers the days of the sound systems, although she says they typically attracted a bit of a rougher crowd for a young girl and so she favored attending the theater and club shows instead, but still the sound systems influenced her. “The sound systems were huge. Everywhere you went you heard what was coming out of these studios. My parents were sophisticated. In my family there were three girls and two boys and I’m the fourth one. My mom and dad are educators, which is why education in our family was so paramount. Oh yes, god yes, great educators. The Frasers are teachers. So I wasn’t allowed to go to the sound systems but my brother had a dance once at one of our homes and he had one of the best sound systems come to play. He knew nothing about the downtown language or the money or anything and here I am, I wasn’t even singing then, and I said, ‘Let me stand by the gate,’ and he didn’t want me to stand at the gate and I had a feeling they would steal from him because here’s this educated buy but he knows nothing about that kind of life. So I stay at the gate but they still rip him off and took all the money and he didn’t do it again. But I learned a lot about the sound system because they play some good music at my brother’s dance. The sound system brought all the records and the top records. And the sound system that had the best records, he’s the one that had the best following,” says Fraser.
But Norma’s involvement in music went from spectator to participant when she realized that the music was not just up there on the stages of the theaters, but it was within her as well. She says, “One day I was in the shower and I said, ‘Well, let’s see if I can sing,’ and I just opened my mouth and something came out and I said, ‘Wow man! I can sing! I can sing!’ Just like that. It was weird!” So Norma formed a band, a small group of fellow artists, and they began to practice and perform to cut their chops. “We had this little group. There were three of us, Dwight Pinkney who was a great guitar player and another guy and they called him Weedy Head. That was like a nickname,” she says. Pinkney went on to become a successful guitar player with his bands The Sharks, Zap Pow, and Roots Radics. He performed backup for The Wailers on their song “Put It On” and artists such as Culture, Gregory Isaacs, Yellowman, Bunny Wailer, and the Itals. Weedy Head’s real identity is not known. “We were Catholics and we went to the CYO, the Catholic Youth Organization and we formed our group. So we came up with this song, ‘Money Can’t Buy Love,’ and so we were all singing, practicing, and Dwight said, ‘Let’s go and audition with Roland Alphonso,’ and Roland Alphonso took me and said, ‘I want her, she has good ears. You guys need to go plant yam or something, enough for you,’ and I think Dwight took it to heart and he practice, practice, practice so much he became an accomplished musician. I started to sing with Roland’s group. It was a trio. That’s the way it started,” she says.
The first song that Norma Fraser recorded was a tune called “We’ll Be Lovers,” a duet with Lord Creator, in 1961. The song was an instant hit and stayed on the Jamaican charts for over a year. She also recorded a tune with Lord Creator called “Come On Baby,” and both songs were recorded for Vincent Chin on the Randy’s label. But all of Norma Fraser’s subsequent songs were recorded at Studio One for Coxsone Dodd. It is extremely unusual during the early 1960s for an artist to record so exclusively for only one producer. Typically musicians and vocalists would move from studio to studio to seek work—Coxsone Dodd, Duke Reid, Prince Buster, Leslie Kong, Justin Yap, Vincent Chin—most artists made the rounds. There were no contracts, and if there were, they were never honored. But Norma Fraser recorded only for Coxsone Dodd and she says he was good for her career. “Coxsone Dodd was extremely powerful, but he was very unassuming. But I think that was a ploy so you would think he is in your corner, he is going to take care of you. ‘I’m here for you, you don’t have to ask me for money now, you know I’ll take care of you, just come and do a recording now and I’ll take care of you.’ He didn’t act very authoritative, not at all. He had a very easy way about him. He would use the word ‘Jackson.” He call everybody ‘Jackson.’ If he say Jackson he would disarm you. ‘Oh man, how you doing Jackson?’ He’d call you and say come on in to the studio and do some work and after you finish he’d say, ‘Why don’t you do two more?’ and he’s so pleasing that you just go in and do two more. He sees ‘ching-a-ling!’ I was very selective and loyal, I’m that kind of person. The only person I recorded for outside of Coxsone was Randy’s with Lord Creator and then I went to Coxsone. I didn’t go all over the place like a lot of these artists. Very loyal. Super loyal. A lot of these guys, even girls, record for everybody, and they got nothing,” says Fraser.
Studio One was the epicenter of the music industry during the 1960s and it was here that she first met Bob Marley and Rita Anderson becoming close friends to them both. In an interview with journalist Vanessa Salvia of the Eugene Weekly, Fraser told her memories of teaching Rita to sing. “Rita was not a singer but would show up at the studio grounds often. She asked me to teach her how to sing and I did. She then latched on to Bob Marley and would do some backup ooohs behind them,” she said. Fraser also told a reporter about a time that Rita consoled her about marrying Bob. “Rita Marley asked me if she should marry Bob and I told her ‘Yes, yes.’ Rita and myself were friends before I met Bob. She would always hang out at Studio One hoping to get a break but she could not sing at the time. I taught Rita how to sing. She now refers to me as the ‘legend.’” She and Rita and Bob continued a strong relationship over the decades.
At Studio One, Norma composed many of her own songs. The process of creation was most important to Norma, not the music industry, but she quickly learned the naïve can suffer for their art, and she grew wise through experience. “I wrote when I was with Studio One. It was natural for me. I didn’t really understand that music was a business. Ernest Ranglin arranged some songs for me, I wrote them and he took them to England, they made money. I didn’t even know anything about that, I just wrote them. I didn’t understand that side, that music was a business. You’re not just a performer, you need to be cognizant that there’s a business side to this, or economics,” Fraser says.
She performed at the Carib Theatre, Ward Theatre, State Theatre, Majestic Theatre, the Copa, the Ocean View Club in Montego Bay and she worked with such artists as Ken Boothe, Derrick Harriott, Hortense Ellis, Hopeton Lewis, Desmond Dekker, Delroy Wilson, The Claredonians, The Soul Brothers, Roland Alphonso and another member of the future Skatalites, Jackie Mittoo, who was known for auditioning musicians. She says, “Jackie Mittoo was really the motivating factor, the driving force, and I would just come in and he’d say ‘Sing,’ and he would just arrange at the same time. Awesome. Just genius, just arranging. We didn’t do no rehearsals, those guys were just pros.”
She says that the musicians in the studio were more than just professional—they were polite to her and never made her feel uncomfortable. They treated her like a professional as well. “All the musicians were respectful to me because of the way I carried myself and they know that I’m from uptown. I’m educated, I’m respected. With the other girls they wouldn’t do that. But with me they didn’t dare. Around me they didn’t even curse. Class is embedded in that culture. I remember when I had shows and Roland would pick me up and when he took me home he’d say, ‘We need to go because I told Mrs. Fraser I’d have you home at a certain time,’ and he’d take me back home,” Fraser says.
Spending time with downtown artists in the downtown studios may have ruffled a few feathers in Norma’s family, but she stayed true to herself because she not only had a passion for the music, but for the culture and the people. “Jamaica, they’re so classist. If you’re from this family you have to behave a certain way and you better not deviate from that norm. If you live uptown you’re educated but I was the one who would bring people home from down in the streets because I’ve always loved the underdog, always,” she says. These themes of life and hope made it into Norma’s songs that she wrote. “Hope and love and the human condition. These are things out there that may pose a challenge to us, for us, but together we can solve it together, as a group, the people who are all together on this planet here. We are all one. We are all here to solve problems and if we don’t, we die together. You against me, me against you? No, no, no.”
Norma Fraser took these messages of love and hope and unity to the stages where she performed and the studios where she recorded. Sure she recorded her takes on a number of other people’s compositions, like Aretha Franklin’s Respect, and Cat Steven’s The First Cut is the Deepest, but she also performed her own compositions around the island with performers of every ilk. “Johnson’s Drive-In was big. I performed there a bit. I was with a bund of bands. I was with The Cavaliers, The Sheiks, and when I was with The Cavaliers it was a line-up of all of The Skatalites—Jackie Mittoo, Lloyd Spence, Lyn Taitt, Lloyd Knibb, Lester Sterling, Headley Bennett, Bobby Gaynair, the best, the best, and here I am in the front. And we performed in the best clubs, like Club Havana, Jamaica’s Latin Quarter, and I perform with Desmond Dekker. I did a song with Lloyd Brynner called Malika, a duet. He was a very very close friend from Trinidad. He would come to Jamaica and go to the studio and we would perform in Montego Bay. I was huge at one time. Big productions,” she says.
When Fraser went to Montego Bay she secured a residency at one of the most prestigious clubs in the tourist hot spot, Club 35. This club opened in Montego Bay on December 21, 1963 and was a membership club that also patronized tourists. It was a supper club (a dining establishment with a social club) that also featured other types of entertainment including magicians. Lord Brynner frequently produced calypso shows at Club 35. Fraser says she enjoyed her time at Club 35 and was fortunate to get the work. “I got a fantastic gig there when I was very young. I was the featured vocalist. It was a very prestigious clubs. They were mostly tourist, suit and tie,” she says.
Fraser was never satisfied being relegated to the back of the band when singing, but that was a tough gig to find in those days. “There weren’t too many women,” she says. “But I didn’t realize it at the time, didn’t categorized it like that or label it that way. There were just a lot of men really.” A Daily Gleaner Merry-Go-Round article dated September 15, 1967 notes Fraser’s success against the backdrop of the male-dominated industry.
Female vocalists are now quite scarce on the local pop scene. Ever since it became fashionable for men to sing falsetto accompaniment to pop tunes, the girls have practically disappeared from the show scene. When you do find a girl as part of a group, she’s usually just making one more of the many ‘ooh’ and ‘baybee’ sounds which seem necessary for most tunes. For this reason it has been interesting to find a new record out which features a Jamaican girl. She’s Norma Fraser. . . . Norma sings everything — jazz, pop, ballads and even calypsos. But she finds the field for women vocalists in Jamaica is very limited. On the pop scene, it is group stuff which the fans are buying and the successful groups are mainly all-male. But, according to Norma, she’s not disheartened. In her travels, she has established contacts which should bring return engagements in various places. For the home scene, she would like to link up with a good band. She thinks show business, with all its uncertainty, beats school teaching any day.
When the ska and rocksteady era changed over to reggae, Norma sang for some of the artists who have now become legendary. But it wasn’t her performances that she remembers from this time as much as the friendships she made which are still a critical part of her spirit. In 1966 she performed with The Wailers in 1967 on “I Stand Predominant,” on Peter Tosh’s “Rasta Shake Them Up.” But the end of the ‘60s signaled an end to Norma’s musical career in Jamaica as she left the country, disenfranchised with the direction of the industry. Even though Bob Marley asked her to join his group, she declined. She moved to the United States in 1970 and virtually left the entertainment business altogether, except for performing for Bella Abzug, a congresswoman from New York, during her campaign for election. Abzug was instrumental in the support of gay rights and while in Congress she introduced the very first national gay rights bill, the Equality Act of 1974. She co-authored the bill with fellow congressman Ed Koch who went on to become mayor of New York. Abzug once said, “I’ve been described as a tough and noisy woman, a prizefighter, a man-hater, you name it. They call me Battling Bella.”
As much as Fraser may have been an instrument of social equality herself, standing tall among the men of her day, she is not a fighter, not one to battle in that sense of the word. Instead she is a collaborator, a comrade, a friend. She is still friends with Rita Marley today and remembers Bob Marley fondly. “Bob and I were alike, very giving and sharing. We’d give you the shirt off our back. If you want it, you can have it. He was a good person. There are two things I value, and that’s honesty and integrity, no matter who you are. You have those two things and you’re my friend for life,” she says.
In America, Norma returned to her roots in more than one way. First, she got her master degree in gerontology and psychotherapy. Education was always important to the Fraser family. Second, after two decades away, she came back to music. In the 1990s she supported Inner Circle and Yellowman on their tours and she went on a solo tour to Colorado and Texas. She still regularly performs on the west coast and she resides in Oregon. She has released a number of solo albums in recent years including “Get Up Stand Up,” “One More Chance,” “C’mon Baby,” and “Hot Again” on her own label, Gyftt Records. She says, “I’m getting back to my music now because over the past years, so many people have come up to me to tell me how the music has bettered their lives. They’ve encouraged me to come back. I’m more mature now and truly understand how music can bring joy to people’s lives.”