One of the most unique, and neglected, of Jamaica's vocal groups, the Tennors unleashed a stream of excellent singles across the rocksteady era, with their popularity continuing well into the reggae age.
The group's leading light, George "Clive" Murphy was raised in the rural parish of St. Mary, an upbringing that had an indelible influence on his group's sound. School brought the youngster to Kingston, but love of music took him onto the stage, where Murphy began taking part in talent competitions. Soon, the singer was backing Owen Gray, as well as the duo Owen & Leon, bringing him to Studio One and Treasure Isle, respectively. For the latter label, Murphy cut "Little Girl Over There" and "Hit Yu Let Yu Feel It." Yet, Murphy was still a relative unknown when he linked up with Maurice "Professor" Johnson as the Tennor Twins. Their break came in the back of a cab in 1967, when Murphy successfully auditioned "Pressure and Slide" to Jackie Mittoo, then arranger at Studio One. Norman Davis bolstered the duo to a trio, while Mitto created one of the most memorable rhythms of the decade, a sultry, insistent backing that accentuated "Pressure"'s highly suggestive lyrics. The single became the best selling song of the year, and so popular was its rhythm, that it was versioned continuously over the years. The Tennors had arrived in style, but according to Murphy, the trio never received a penny for their hit. When the singer approached producer Coxsone Dodd for their pay, he was handed three copies of the single and shown the door. Dodd was an imposing figure, and so cowed Murphy that the singer never returned. Determined never to repeat this humiliation, Murphy soon launched his own label, Tennors, and added producer to his other artistic achievements. Besides providing an outlet for much of the group's own music, Tennors also released singles by such artists as former Kingstonian Jackie Bernard, ska hero Eric "Monty" Morris, and reggae artist Roman Stewart. Tragically, the Tennors were reduced to a duo before 1967 was out, with the death of Johnson in an accident. Murphy and Davis continued co-writing, however, although they never intended to follow-up "Pressure" with their own composition "Ride Yu Donkey." In fact, they offered this folksy song to every producer and artist they knew, and only after it was roundly turned down did the pair record it themselves. Murphy's production emphasized the rural qualities of the number, a sound that would swiftly become his signature style. Released in 1968, "Donkey" was a huge hit, its popularity evidenced by its piracy, and only in later years did Murphy discover that a number of the island's producers had licensed the song without his permission to labels around the world. "Donkey"'s Jamaican flip, "Cleopatra," was released as an A-side in Britain this same year, while the Tennors also unleashed several new singles, including the equally folksy "Grandpa," the rural rocksteady of "Massi Massa," and the lovely "Girl You Hold Me," while returning to the rude realm for "Rub Me Khaki." Later this same year, young Ronnie Davis joined the group and soon took over lead vocals from Murphy. His first single with the group was "The Stage," a song that would be part of the singer's repertoire for years, although its name would change to "World Is a Stage." Numerous other singers would pass through the Tennors' ranks over the years, including Nehemiah Davis, who appeared on "Cleopatra," George Dekker, Howard Spencer, and Milton Wilson, to name just a few. Although the Tennors were not to repeat the success of their first two singles until their swan song in 1973, in the interim they continued releasing exceptional 45s over the years. 1969 brought a clutch of them, including such cultural numbers as "Sufferer," "Sign of the Times," "Biff Baff" (aka "Traitor"), and lighter themed songs as "Bow Legged Girl," "Little Things," "Cherry," and "Oh My Baby." One of the best was "Another Scorcher," where the trio backed Jackie Bernard on a smoking single that seared its way up the charts. The Tennors celebrated the rise of reggae with "Reggae Girl" and rejoiced over repatriation on the proto-roots single "Run Come," while 1970 also saw the release of "Wishes," "True," and the exuberant "I've Got Soul." This same year, the Tennors briefly changed tactics, and asked Duke Reid to produce "Hopeful Village," a song with which the group hoped to win the Jamaican Independence Festival Song Competition. It was a fine entry, and a sizeable hit, but the trio lost out to Hopeton Lewis' "Boom Shaka Lacka." Still, they could share in that singer's victory, as the trio had provided backing vocals for Lewis' smash hit. Reid wasn't the only outside producer the group worked with over the years, they also cut two stunners for Sonia Pottinger -- the effervescent "Gee Whiz" and the insistent "Give Me Bread." Internal tensions soon saw the trio's output slow to a trickle, and the band seemed to be on the verge of extinction. Then, without warning, the Tennors returned to Reid's side in 1973, and cut the mighty "Weather Report," an adaptation of Paul Simon's "Only Living Boy in New York." The single was a smash hit, and won the group the Best Performer title at that year's Independence Festival. It was also their epitaph, and the group soon folded for good. By then, Davis had already launched his solo career, later he formed the Itals. Murphy relocated to the States, and eventually began his own solo career under the name Clive Tennors. His debut solo album, Ride Yu Donkey, was released in 1991. Over their career, the Tennors' take on both rocksteady and reggae was unique, combining a folksy, rural quality and down to earth concerns with strong melodies and lovely harmonies. As most of their singles were self-produced and released through their Tennors label, they rarely turn up on modern compilations, and thus their star has dimmed over the years. However, in their day, they were much beloved, and their current status in no way reflects their actual standing in Jamaica. ~ Jo-Ann Greene, Rovi