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On Island Profile: Lorne O. Dawson

July 8, 2007 — How does a young man with no money snag one of the biggest music artists of the soul genre to perform on a St. Croix stage? Determination and lots of it!
Lorne O. Dawson had long decided that he wanted to be a concert promoter, having been taught by the best, his grandmother Anita Christian, when at 16 he made an initial phone call to his idol James Brown. Dawson had discovered the number to the recording studio on an album from the man who became known as the Godfather of Soul.
“Each time I called, I would get ‘Mr. Brown isn’t in. He will be back in an hour ,’ and I would go back out and play on Queen Street and then run back upstairs to call again when the hour came,” Dawson recalled recently, while tending to his restaurant and nightclub, Lornie D’s Harborlight, located a stone’s throw away from where he grew up on Queen Street, Frederiksted. “I believed in James Brown so much, I got my grandmother’s phone cut off trying to get him to come to the Virgin Islands. Now, I had no money, but I just knew I had to get him down here.”
He said that when the phone bill came in, it was well over $1,000, “and in those days that was a lot of money.”
Dawson, now 64, and who goes by the stage name Lornie D Shepherd, recalls that his grandmother “was mad with me for days, but much later she would smile when she remembered because she saw the determination.”
Moreover, he says, he had simply been following in her footsteps.
“She was the pioneer of concert promotion and I had wanted to be a promoter from a child growing up,” he says.
His grandmother died in 1969 before he realized his dream of getting Brown to perform on St. Croix.
“It was January 21, 1971,” Dawson spits out the date without hesitation, six years after he initially tried to reach James Brown. “That’s something I will die remembering.”
His grandmother had died three years earlier but “she was there — trust me,” he says.
Brown also performed in Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, Trinidad and Antigua as part of a Caribbean tour that Dawson pulled together.
Brown’s death on Christmas Day last year, brought back memories, Dawson says.
He saw Brown live in concert on October 10, 1964, at the famed Apollo Theatre in New York. Later and before he was 21, he met with Brown in Cincinnati, Ohio to plan for the Caribbean tour.
Brown, he says, flew in on his private Leer jet.
“Soul Brother No. 1 was at the top of his game,” Dawson recalls, adding that by the time he’d already brought in several widely known entertainers to the Virgin Islands he had yet to turn 20.
His initial foray into concert promotion was snagging the Mighty Sparrow, who now goes by Dr. Slinger Francisco, after being awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of the West Indies, Trinidad.
Sparrow performed at the Sheridan Nightclub formerly Smalls Paradise nightclub, which was modeled after another New York landmark of the same name. Smalls Paradise, Dawson says, was owned by Mario Moorhead, now a community activist and radio personality until it was sold and underwent a name change. Dawson was just 17 at the time.
Entertainers who followed include Wilson Pickett, Aaron Neville, Ray Charles and Gospel Great Mahalia Jackson. Dawson’s memory on their performance dates isn’t as sharp as it is when the subject is James Brown.
“He was on top of the world and I idolized him,” he says of Brown, recalling too that his friend Mableton “Taco” Lawrence, who idolized Otis Redding, kept up a long, friendly rivalry on who was the best entertainer — Brown or Redding.
Dawson says that in his heyday, he owned a record store, The Big RL, and hosted both radio and TV shows, which he used to promote the entertainers that he would bring in.
Much later, other acts included Reggae’s Eric Donaldson, Sam and Dave and the “who’s who in Calypso” — from Calypso Rose and Lord Nelson to Byron Lee and the Dragonnaires and G.I. Brass before it became Eli Matt and G.I. Brass. Imaginations Brass, Mandingo Brass and Milo and the Kings, and Eddie and the Movements were among the local acts also promoted by Dawson.
After 40-plus years in the business, Dawson has slowed down a bit, but remains synonymous with concert promotion and a degree of success unparalleled in the business.
These days he stays busy managing his restaurant and nightclub, Lornie D’s Harborlight. Local groups like Cool Sessions of St. John and Spectrum Band of St. Thomas have played at the nightclub which has a capacity of 800 to 900 people.
Dawson says that concert promotion is expensive and is chief among the reasons that he’s slowed down. Still, he isn’t ready to retire completely from concert promotion and is expanding the restaurant to accommodate a stage and crowds of up to 1,500.
He says that concert promoters must be prepared to pick up the tab for air and ground transportation and hotel accommodations in addition to all of the costs of setting up the required venue.
“It is a struggle because you have as many as 40 people coming at a time,” he says.
In 2001, the Dr. Slinger “Mighty Sparrow” Francisco made one of his last trips to St. Croix under Dawson at the Island Center.
Dawson says that setting up the venue alone cost more than $10,000.
Dawson, who has been married 36 years to Elizabeth Martin, has six children, five of whom are adults. Two of his children, Bernard and Anthony are already following in his footsteps. The others are Dale, Alvis and 5-year-old Christina.
“Sometimes it’s profitable. Sometimes you lose your shirt,” he says of the business, adding he’s gotten entertainers on the island who never got to perform because of rain. Dawson says that because of this, he has lobbied to get an enclosed venue built on St. Croix to no avail. However, he credits two people who supported him in his bid and attempted to make the dream of an enclosed venue come true — former government employees David Benjamin and Valmy Thomas, a pro-baseball athlete who once worked with the Recreation Department.
Dawson says that James Brown performed at the Paul E. Joseph Stadium, an open-air stadium, which was relatively new at the time.
“I thank God that it did not rain. Everything went fantastic,” he recalls.
To reach Lorne Dawson call 773-4121 or 473-7980
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