Obituaries, Dec. 14, 2023: Bernie Pitters, Norman Lear & More
This week, we acknowledge the passing of a famed Toronto reggae keyboardist, a dub poet, an American television legend with an under-recognized music influence, and more.
Bernie Pitters, a veteran Toronto-based reggae keyboardist and producer, died on Dec. 9, at age 68. His passing was noted by his sister in a post on Pitters's Facebook page. The Reggae North website reported complications from diabetes as the cause of death.
Born in Birmingham, England, Pitters moved to Jamaica at the age of eight, and began his playing career there, prior to relocating to Toronto in 1976. His early groups included Otravis Band and Ishan People.
One of the many Toronto reggae groups he played with over a career spanning five decades was The Human Rights, who dedicated their album Reggae Strong to their keyboardist, whose face graces the back of the record.
On that group's website, member Friendlyness explains that "Bernie is a godfather of the Canadian Reggae scene. He came to Canada in the ‘70s and studied organ with Jackie Mittoo. He toured with Toots and the Maytals for 10 years and thought of Toots as a father figure."
"He also played with countless Jamaican artists when they came to Toronto, including Gregory Isaacs, Johnny Osbourne, and John Holt. Along with Jay Douglas, Leroy Sibbles, Glenn Washington, Carol Brown, JoJo Bennett and others, Bernie really made Toronto an important part of the international Reggae community.”
Pitters was part of Leroy Sibbles's band, as well as such outfits as the Toronto Reggae All Stars, Truths and Rights and The Hit Squad. In a 2018 Facebook post, Pitters recalled that latter outfit as "a backup group in the 1990s featuring Glen Washington on drums, Friendlyness on keyboards and Tony Campbell on guitar that played for many artists like Buju Banton, Bounty Killer, Frankie Paul and Beres Hammond."
Pitters was also an active record producer, recording artists including R Zee Jackson, Leroy Artist Brown with Sly and Robbie, Jay Douglas, Blessed, Treson and more.
On Facebook, Toronto reggae group Memberz posted this tribute: "Losing Bernie Pitters, a cornerstone of Canadian reggae, means losing a chunk of history, knowledge, wisdom and truth that is unimaginable and immeasurable. The Memberz send their respects and their condolences to all friends and family of the man. He is here in our hearts forever."
Veteran reggae musician and guitarist Paul Corby told Billboard Canada FYI that "I played with Bernie in a lot of configurations. Bernie was the original keyboardist in my African 'cover band' Boncongonistas, and we were together in Leroy Sibbles's band for awhile as well. Bernie was a very dear and affectionate soul, edged with a strict intolerance for any diversions or distractions from the musical work at hand.
"The one exception I recall was driving up Yonge Street, late for a sound check at the Masonic Temple. He stopped driving, got out of the car and went up to the driver of the truck in front of us to negotiate for a case of mangoes that he had seen stacked in the back of the truck. Horns were honking as Bernie and the driver haggled. When we got to the venue we were all sticky and yellow-faced! We have been missing his music for awhile. Now we'll also be missing the laughs. Go in peace Bernie."
Veteran Toronto reggae star Fergus Hambleton (The Sattalites) tells Billboard Canada FYI that "I met Bernie when we were both playing in Leroy Sibbles's backing band, Ital Groove, in the '70s, when Bernie was probably 19 or 20. He was an amazing keyboard bubbler who always added an incredible groove to everything, and he was a sweetheart! He had been quite ill, but was always cheerful when I visited him."
Everton 'Pablo' Paul, another Toronto reggae luminary, offered this tribute to Billboard Canada FYI: "Bernie was a sought-after producer. I worked with him on a few sessions and some of his ideas were really off the wall, comical even, but when they were executed, you could hear his vision and his idea flowed. When it came to reggae there were few, if any, keyboard players who could match Bernie for his special touch and feel.
"Bernie was a very funny guy. He would regale us with stories of his time on the road with Toots and the Maytals. He laughed in the face of his diabetes and whenever we were doing a session at my Side Door studio my wife would, at Bernie’s request, make him tea. 'Don’t forget the sugar,' he always said.
"I am truly sorry I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye and especially sorry that I will never have the opportunity of playing with Bernie again. The world lost a good man with his passing. May he rest in peace and may the band be up to his standards."
Reggae North states that "Pitters holds the record of receiving the most awards given to an individual by the Canadian Reggae Music Awards, totaling 20. He is an inductee in the Black Musicians Museum in Toronto, and he was awarded a gold record for playing the keyboards on the Bruce Cockburn hit song ‘Rumours of Glory’."
In 2015, The Toronto Reggae Hall of Fame was launched, and Bernie Pitters was fittingly honoured as one of its first three inductees, alongside vocalist/bandleader Jay Douglas and drummer Everton 'Pablo' Paul.
News of arrangements for a public memorial will be forthcoming.
Bernie Pitters - White Christmas
Jayson Hoover, a Vancouver soul singer popular in the '60s and '70s, died on Nov. 5, at age 78.
His death was recently reported in a CBC news item that noted that Vancouver record store owner David Jones is now working on a documentary about Hoover's life and music.
CBC reports that "Hoover came to Vancouver from Edmonton in 1964. He appeared on the CBC program Let's Go!, performing cover versions of Motown hits. He was the frontman of the Epics, a soul band that disbanded in 1968. He then formed the Trials of Jayson Hoover, a group with a more psychedelic sound in the mould of Sly and the Family Stone."
The Trials of Jayson Hoover released a single in 1968, King Size, that earned some radio play. The most prolific soul/R&B artist on the Vancouver scene, Hoover released a dozen 45s (some on Mushroom Records), with his most popular track nationally being 1974's "Love Will Get You," which received airplay on 200 stations across Canada.
One of that group's most memorable gigs was at Vancouver's Pacific Coliseum in Dec. 1968, opening for Vanilla Fudge. The middle act on the bill?: Led Zeppelin.
David Jones held a memorial at his Vinyl Records store in Gastown, attended by several members of Hoover's family.
Norman Lear, an American screenwriter and TV producer known for such hit TV comedy series as who created, developed or co-produced some of television's most beloved comedies, such as All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons and One Day at A Time, died on Dec. 5, at age 101.
His work had a major impact on American society, and his passing was noted internationally. Lear's involvement in the U.S. record industry has not been widely recognized, but is a significant one. In 1999, he and Hal Gaba led a consortium that purchased Concord Records, a label created in 1995 to reach beyond the original famed Concord Jazz label. Concord artists have won 14 Grammy Awards, out of a total of 88 Grammy nominations.
Concord Records' roster has featured such artists as Paul McCartney, Wings, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Paul McCartney, Carole King and John Mellencamp, and the label acquired such other labels as Stax Records, Fantasy Records and Telarc Records.
Canadian record label executive and jazz musician Scott Morin posted this tribute on Facebok: "This man was an absolute legend in the entertainment business in every sense of the word. A lot of people don’t know that he ran Concord Records for many years. I was honoured to have breakfast with him once in LA and I’ll never forget it, and all the wisdom he imparted over an omelette in Hollywood. RIP to a true leader, hilarious cat and lover of great music."
Benjamin Zephaniah, a British dub poet, author, actor and campaigner, died on Dec. 7, aged 65, of a brain tumour.
The Guardian reports that "Writers, poets, musicians and politicians posted tributes to Zephaniah on social media following the news. Author Bernardine Evaristo wrote that he was a "trailblazing poet" and "force of nature" in a post on X. Jeremy Corbyn, former Labour party leader, said that he was "a devoted friend of the marginalised and dispossessed," "a beacon of hope" and an "inspiration."
In 1982, Zephaniah released a debut album Rasta, which featured the Wailers' first recording since the death of Bob Marley as well as a tribute to the political prisoner (later to become South African president) Nelson Mandela. In 1996, Mandela requested that Zephaniah host the president's Two Nations Concert at the Royal Albert Hall, London. He released seven albums of original music.
Zephaniah also had a recurring role as Jeremiah “Jimmy” Jesus in Peaky Blinders, appearing in 14 episodes of the hit series.