The Godfather of Reggae

Clint O'Neil, legendary radio DJ and guardian of Jamaica's musical heritage, stirs it up at 'LRN

"[Reggae singer] Bigga used to drive Bob Marley around in his Jeep. He learned most of what he knows about music from Bob Marley. Everybody would hang out at Bob Marley's house. Hangin' out with these guys every day, you never wanted to go to work. That was a major problem for everybody, including myself. Nobody wanted to work. Everybody wanted to hang out. Luckily, Miami was cheaper in those days."

O'Neil doesn't like to reveal his exact age, but he confides that he was born a year or two before Marley (who would have turned 49 on February 6) in Halifax, Manchester, a small mountain town in central Jamaica. After he moved to New York with his family at the age of fifteen, his love affair with reggae blossomed. "In the part of Jamaica where I grew up, people made their own instruments out of whatever. Washboards, saws. Reggae music was completely new to me when I found it. Maybe that's why it still feels new," O'Neil speculates.

A quiet teenager, he broke into the music business by DJing at parties, preferring to spin records rather than get involved in all the drinking and cavorting. (Bob Slade, host of WLRN's Off the Beaten Path cutting-edge rock program, says that to this day it is next to impossible to get Clint O. to consume so much as a beer.) He was a quick learner and he soon made the transition to nightclubs, at one point commanding the turntable at La Martinique, a popular club across from Carnegie Hall.

These were the pre-Marley years, when reggae was just beginning to gain a foothold in the U.S., thanks in no small measure to the success of the movie The Harder They Come and its soundtrack. By 1972 there were enough dance halls servicing the northeast's Caribbean community for an enterprising young DJ to live in New York but travel regularly along a self-designed circuit from Toronto to Washington, D.C.

Which is precisely what Clint O'Neil did, pulling in decent money for work he enjoyed immensely, until fate dealt him a cruel blow A or so it seemed at the time. "We had just invested in new equipment an' bought a truck, all cash," he recalls. "We had a mixing board, a mobile studio. We had the whole schmeer in the truck. An' somebody stole the damn truck!" O'Neil pauses, shakes his head at the memory, and smiles resignedly. "Before that, we were laughin' at the radio. We were makin' ten times the money the radio stations were offerin'. But when I lost all that equipment, I had to go to the radio. There was no choice."

In 1978 O'Neil vacationed in Miami. He never went back to New York. "All these people down here wearin' shorts an' sneakers A that was enough to convince me," he says. "For a long time I couldn't get a job. I tried a couple of commercial stations, but the program directors never heard of reggae music before. They thought it was raggedy music; they threw me out, basically. I had to convince 'LRN to try this. I gave them some demographics, I said, 'You got all these Caribbean people from Trinidad, Jamaica, the Bahamas. You need this!' Finally we convince 'LRN to give it a try. By this time I had been away from the clubs for almost a year; I was basically broke."

He started doing late-night reggae at the station, from 2:00 to 4:00 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. "One Saturday night when I first started workin', I fall asleep," O'Neil recalls. "I figured, 'Wow, man, this is it. I'm fired.' But Monday mornin' everybody called the station worried about me. 'What happened? What happened?' they wanna know. That was 1979. Since then we've been able to pay the rent and buy some food and cigarettes."

Everybody in the world needs some help in the reggae business," O'Neil will tell you ruefully. And not surprisingly, when people need help, they call Clint O'Neil. Studio musicians fresh from Jamaica and in search of a band. A club owner who needs a DJ. A concert promoter who needs an emcee. A high school that needs a speaker for career day. A producer who needs to find a singer. A singer who needs to find a songwriter. A songwriter who needs to find a producer. A tourist who loses a passport. A prison chaplain in Georgia who needs literature about the Rastafarian religion. A convict in Maryland who wants to say hello to his girlfriend in Miami. They all call Clint O.

"Somehow we managed to wind up the diplomat, the mediator, with the trust of all the people," O'Neil says. "I don't know if I'm a social director or what. Whatever the deal is, if it's in the community, it comes to me some way. Fundraisers, dinners, concerts A you name it, we'll be in the middle of the mix."

Says Reggae Report's Peggy Quattro: "Some people in this business have gotten down on me or criticized the magazine because I'm white. Clint doesn't see any color barriers. He has defended me and supported me." When asked if she can supply the names of local reggae people who have been helped by O'Neil, Quattro's response is immediate: "My God A everybody!"

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