The Priest from Ballard's Valley

Observer senior writer

Thursday, November 15, 2018

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This is the 70th year since the Empire Windrush docked in the United Kingdom carrying hundreds of West Indians seeking work to bolster that country's war-torn economy. Most of them were Jamaicans who settled in communities in London, the Midlands, Nottingham, and Bristol. The Jamaica Observer presents the eighth in a 10-part series featuring Jamaican entertainment personalities who were either born in the UK or grew up there, and how living in that country impacted their lives.

AS an upcoming singer on the Saxon International sound system in the early 1980s, Maxi Priest's style recalled some of his biggest influences, who included John Holt and Dennis Brown. His biggest inspiration was not as famous — that was his uncle Sydney Elliott.

The Elliott family have strong roots in Ballard's Valley, St Elizabeth. That is where Sydney and his older brother Alfred (Priest's father) were born and raised.

The siblings moved to the United Kingdom in the late 1950s. Sydney was a singer and the father of Jacob Miller who became famous during the 1970s as a solo act and lead singer with the Inner Circle Band.

Born Max Elliott, Priest was born and grew up in Lewisham, southeast London, the eighth of nine children. His parents made sure their children were aware of Jamaican culture and he developed an admiration early on for rocksteady artistes like Holt and Brown, a prodigious talent just four years older than he.

Yet the young Max had an affection for Sydney, who lived in Kent, southeast England. His uncle performed in clubs throughout England and recorded sporadically during the 1960s.

“I always looked up to my uncle. When we went to his home it was an experience. I even have one of his songs on my website,” Priest told the Jamaica Observer in a 2014 interview.

It was not until his teens when he considered a career as a professional singer that Maxi Priest found out that Miller was Uncle Sydney's son. Miller, who was born in Manchester in 1952, took his mother's surname.

Priest is also related to roots singers Fred Locks and Paul Elliott; and rapper Heavy D, whose mother (“Miss Etta”) is also a Ballard's Valley native and his (Priest's) mother's cousin.

The Lewisham, where Max Elliott grew up, had a strong West Indian flavour. The 'elders' kept basement parties and blues dances there in the 1960s, but he and many first-generation black Britons suffered an identity crisis, not knowing if they were British citizens or West Indian tenants.

“There was a lot of discrimination...Nigger this, nigger that. Go back to your country. We went through all of that,” he recalled four years ago.

Priest became a featured artiste for Saxon in the early 1980s. He was an exponent of lovers' rock — a mellow sound that emerged circa late 1970s as a foil to the militant roots-reggae of bands like Aswad and Steel Pulse.

Along with Janet Kay, Carroll Thompson, Smiley Culture and Macka B, other British artistes with Jamaican heritage, Priest gradually found his way into the Jamaican market with easy listening songs such as In The Springtime and Should I.

His self-titled 1988 album was a smash hit, containing a cover of Cat Stevens' Wild World, his take on The Persuaders' Some Guys Have All The Luck, and How Can We Ease The Pain, which were all hits in Jamaica.

For the next 10 years, Priest was a force in Jamaica thanks to the Bonafide album and Billboard pop hits like Housecall (with Shabba Ranks) and Set The Night to Music, a duet with Roberta Flack.

Maxi Priest visits Jamaica regularly and says he makes sure to stop by Ballard's Valley to check in on family. Though Jacob Miller performed in England during his heyday, he never met his famous cousin who died in March 1980 in an auto accident.

Easy to Love, Maxi Priest's last album, was released in 2014.

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