RIP Noel "King Sporty" Williams, Miami Reggae Pioneer and "Buffalo Soldier" Writer
When King Sporty died, Rihanna cried.
The man who wrote "Buffalo Soldier" with Bob Marley in a smoke-filled studio in Hialeah flew to the other side on Monday, January 5 in a Miami hospital at the age of 71.
With roots in Jamaica's Trenchtown music scene that wholly informed hip-hop, pioneering forays into electronic dance music, and an indomitable funk, the man born Noel G. Williams led a life in music that affected millions. And he did much of it from his longtime home in Allapattah, where he was also a mini real estate tycoon.
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King Sporty started out as a DJ and producer at Clement "Coxsone" Dodd's groundbreaking Studio One label in Kingston, Jamaica.
During the first-wave ska music heyday of the 1950s, soundclashes of mobile DJ systems would occur in areas like Trenchtown, where slick-suited rudeboys and gyals would meet to dance to the newest records and cheer on rival systems to see who could play better, newer, more danceable records at the loudest possible volume.
Soundclashes were proto-hip-hop dance parties held on the street and produced by similar social conditions as in South Bronx, New York, where rap was eventually born.
Massive speaker walls were often loaded into old ice cream trucks painted with label slogans and colors.
These events were serious business for the label owners who sponsored each crew as a means to sell more of their artists' records. They were sometimes dangerous, as when gang fights erupted into straight-blade ratchet melees.
The music was a mix of American R&B hits and Caribbean rhythms, such as the mento and calypso beats. Jamaica was heavily influenced by jazz and other black American music played on Miami radio stations, whose waves were propelled by tradewinds over Cuba, Hispaniola, and the Lesser Antilles.
A young King Sporty would have only had to throw up an antenna to hear Milton "Butterball" Smith playing hits by Louis Jordan, Wynonie Harris, or Wilbert Harrison on WMBM.
Many of those records were placed on radio at the behest of Florida music distributor Henry Stone, who was in the business of popularizing them in order to sell them.
That Henry Stone would one day pay King Sporty $75,000 for the rights to Timmy Thomas' "Why Can't We Live Together" in 1972 was set in motion by a chain of events leading back to Sporty's youth.
Ready to take his talent to the next level, Sporty moved to Miami in 1968, where he operated two record labels, Konduko and Tashamba.
Unlike many would-be music impresarios of today, King Sporty understood every aspect of the music business, and how to exploit it. He had his own labels, where he wrote his own music, and had all of his copyrights assigned to his own publishing company, which was represented by BMI.
He also picked up the works of others and signed them to his label, and covered songs he thought he could turn into hits, or that he just enjoyed.
Like anybody in South Florida looking to get their records out beyond the tri-county area, he eventually found himself involved with Henry Stone and his Tone Distribution empire.
Stone had an open-door policy, and anybody who took the trouble to knock on his door was rewarded with an opportunity to work with him.
What Sporty brought to the table was a growing catalog of powerful copyrights. At the time, they were nothing, but they had the potential to be massive hits.
This was the case with "Why Can't We Live Together," to which Stone bought the rights after hearing something he had never heard before in it. Maybe it was the simple knock produced by the built-in drum machine from the organ that Timmy Thomas used on the track, or his plaintive wailing about the inhumanity of man, but Sporty heard a hit, and Stone did too.
"Why Can't We Live Together" came out on the Glades label and caught fire immediately as the public glommed on to its danceable political consciousness at the tail end of the Vietnam War.
Stone had planned to lease the song to Atlantic Records, with whom he had close connections in Ahmet Ertegün and Jerry Wexler. But he decided against it in the middle of his flight to New York when he realized they wouldn't be using him as the distributor. Instead, he chose to manufacture and distribute it himself, and created TK Records in order to do so.
In a way, if it wasn't for King Sporty, there may have never been KC & The Sunshine Band.
For his part, Sporty continued writing and recording songs, such as a historic tune about black American soldiers fighting in the Civil War. He and a dreadlocked singer from Jamaica named Bob Marley worked on the tune together in the smoky upstairs studio of TK Productions in Hialeah.
That song was "Buffalo Soldier," one of the most listened to, re-listened to, bought, sold, and re-bought songs in the history of recorded music. Literally. Marley's Legend compilation album, released by Island Records in 1984, made it so.
By then, King Sporty had settled in Allapattah, where he kept a groundation of herbs, fruits, and vegetables such as scallions grown from seeds that he'd personally escorted back from Africa.
In the years prior, he had also courted and married Miami's queen of soul, Betty Wright, another TK connection, with whom he shared his life till his dying day.
But Sporty never stopped making music. At the same time as Pretty Tony Butler was inventing freestyle music just one neighborhood away in Liberty City, Sporty was creating his own computer funk with tracks like "Music Street," an early electronic dance song. Meanwhile he maintained close ties with other reggae pioneers like Inner Circle, and other Jamaicans like close buddy Abdul Muhsin.
As the decades passed, he continued to make synth-assisted, beat-programmed funk, in the vein of his Sporty and the Laptop "Computer Age" 12-inch single from 1996.
King Sporty's ear for a hot beat, his arranging skill for clean horns, choppy guitar riddims, driving bass lines, and his knack with lyrics are still a massive force today.
In 2013, Justin Timberlake sampled Sporty's "Self Destruct" for his song "That Girl."
The Miami pioneer's catalog includes at least four albums and 32 singles' worth of material. He probably had much more stored away and archived, and maybe one day the world will get to hear it.
Sporty is survived by many kids and millions of listeners. And he would have loved the fact that right now in Jamaica, little children with radio antennas are dreaming up their own lives in the music business, just like he once did.
Special thanks to Abebe Lewis and Dave Tompkins for information provided in this article
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