Tony Johnson: Reggae Sunsplash visionary

February 22, 2018 6:38 AM

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With February acknowledged as Reggae Month, the Jamaica Observer salutes some of the music's unsung heroes in this daily column.

JUNE will be 40 years since the first Reggae Sunsplash was held at Jarrett Park in Montego Bay. It was organised by Synergy, a company led by four friends — Don Green, John Wakeling, Ronnie Burke, and Tony Johnson.

In an interview with the Jamaica Observer in October 2015, Burke acknowledged the massive contribution of Johnson, who died in 1997 from a heart attack aged 55.

“Synergy was a team effort, but the truth is Tony was the driving force. He had a determination to succeed that was second to none,” said Burke.

It was Johnson's idea to start a major reggae festival in Jamaica. Born in Kingston, he studied at the University of California, Los Angeles in the 1960s and saw first-hand the appreciation for reggae on the United States West Coast during the early 1970s.

Johnson was amazed that reggae superstars Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff had no visible presence in Jamaica in terms of live shows. Returning to Jamaica in the mid-1970s, he worked with the Urban Development Corporation and began making moves to promote a reggae festival of international standard in his homeland.

Synergy formed in 1977, and though funding for the initial Reggae Sunsplash was hard to come by, it took place June 23-30 with Cliff as headliner. Marley was the show's star attraction the following year.

Reggae Sunsplash helped expose a number of artistes from Jamaica, the US, Europe, and Africa. The event drew thousands of fans during its glory years and helped diversify Jamaica's tourism product.

Tony Johnson eventually left Synergy to promote Reggae Sunsplash International in the US, Europe and Japan. The vision he had for a Jamaican festival showcasing Jamaican music became reality.

“It's a very simple message — to choose love, equality, and justice for everyone.”

Also read: Blood in the ink: The birth of the Jamaica Observer could not have been foretold…


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