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By Ashley Rogers
Singer Wayne Wonder has thrilled thousands of grassroots reggae fans with his seductive and sensual voice over the years, but only recently -- with his single "No Letting Go" voiced on dancehall's undisputed riddim of the year, Diwali -- has he scored long-awaited airplay on mainstream radio. This may finally be the moment for the golden voice of the golden age of Penthouse Records to shine.
Nicknamed "Wonder" as a child for his thoughtful, philosophical nature, VonWayne Charles grew up in a Jamaican household filled with gospel music. "Listening to music and hearing my mom singing was a big influence," Wonder says. "I used to stand on the dresser and sing for her. She'd call my dad in to hear and watch and they encouraged me. It was fun, we used to do a lot of collaborations and just bugged out."
But it was the pull of dancehall spirit that brought the young Wonder into the recording studio in his early teens. "I was with Sly & Robbie," he says of his beginnings. "Sly actually auditioned me and I ended up at King Tubby's studio during the early Eighties. That's really where I got the understanding of what a studio vibe was like."
It was Wonder's elementary school friendship with one of dancehall's renowned riddim-makers, Dave Kelly, that had the most impact on the singer's career when the two collaborated at the legendary Penthouse recording studios. "It was just one big vibe to make music," remembers Wonder. "Our motto was 'As our creative juices flow, we stick to our philosophy of using the studio to have fun.' It was just that type of vibe, we didn't care what anyone else thought, and we were just there to do our thing!"
Throughout what is considered the golden age of Penthouse productions Wonder worked with brothers Dave and Tony Kelly, who laid down riddims for such artists as Cobra and Buju Banton. When Banton emerged from Penthouse as the premier dancehall DJ, Wayne was alongside him, sweetening to Buju's gruff, deep-throated style with his satiny flow. Their song "Movie Star" remains a favorite still requested at every dancehall session.
Wonder not only sang on a number of classic Penthouse releases, but he also contributed as a mixer and songwriter. Wonder co-wrote the lyrics for Alley Cat's hit "Back in the Days," his brother Texture's tune "Hotti Hotti Gal," Frankie Sly's "Wa Wa" (over the Heartbeat riddim), and most famously, Banton's "Murderer" and "Deportee."
Wonder's pen has been so pervasive that he has actually added to the vocabulary of the Jamaican language, shifting the meaning of an old word for scratch sores. "After I wrote 'Wa Wa,'" he explains, "Frankie came back with the song 'Fassy.' He was actually the first one to use that term. Fassy was just a word we used amongst ourselves [at Madhouse Records]. If somebody did something, we'd say "Yo, a fassy ting that!" These days, fassy is an integrated patois term."
Wonder's first solo efforts were released by Penthouse Records, including his self-titled debut and his sophomore album, All Original Boomshell, in the mid-Nineties. Afterward his old pal Kelly brought Wonder along to Artist Only! Records, where he released Da Vibe and later Schizophrenic, featuring his DJ alter ego, Surprize.
Since then Wonder has struck out on his own. "It was like my transformation," says Wonder of his early work. "I realized I needed to stop covering songs and start writing original material -- [to] be original." Two years ago he established his own imprint, SingSo, based out of Jamaica. He is now cultivating his own set of artists, Showki Ru and Demo Delgado, through what he calls the "Entourage Project."
His greatest satisfaction comes from the surprise success of "No Letting Go."
"I've waited for this moment for a long time," Wonder reveals. "I've been mostly behind the scenes. Right now the light is shining on me. I really have to give Jah thanks."
Fueled by the success of the single, VP Records plans to release a complete album called No Holding Back in March 2003. Wonder promises big things: "The singles for the album have more musical qualities to them. The writing is deeper with material that everyone can relate to. It will have a different sound than the works done with Penthouse or even previously with Dave Kelly. I've done a lot of work with producers Lenky, Titimous, and Don Vendetta. But I'm not leaving out my roots! Tony Kelly will be doing production as well. There's just no holding back right now," he smiles, "the sky's the limit!"