Blinky and the Roadmasters won’t serenade St. Croix neighborhoods this Christmas. Blinky won’t come around with his sax in the wee hours, singing out “Good morning, good morning … ah come for me guavaberry.” And you won’t pour him his drink.
Stanley and the Sleepless Knights will play quelbe and carol through the villages, yes. But they will play without their talented percussionist and dear friend Harold Johnson.
These two cultural legends, Sylvester “Blinky” McIntosh and Harold Johnson, Sr., both passed away last month, McIntosh on Nov. 11 and Johnson on Nov. 12, his grandmother’s birthday. Christmas won’t sound quite like itself this year.
Sylvester “Blinky” McIntosh
Known as Blinky to most but called Junie by family and Sylvester by old classmates, McIntosh came by his musical lifestyle naturally. He was born in Frederiksted in 1934 and grew up with his father Ivan playing scratch and his mother Ethel singing cariso, a predecessor of calypso.
From his mother, he picked up songs handed down through generations. From his father, he learned the musical scale and the guitar.
At 15, Blinky joined Ivan’s band, The Merry Makers.
So began his tradition of serenading the neighborhoods at Christmas time. The Merry Makers set out on foot, caroling from house to house in the wee hours. Now the carolers travel by truck.
Likewise, he raised his seven daughters and two sons in a musical household.
“He was always playing guitar at home in the afternoons; Uncle Tino came by and played sax,” said Blinky’s daughter Hollis.
In yuletides of his children’s youth, Blinky and his fellow musicians always serenaded the family at home in Marley. They would have a meal, and then, brimming with spirit, head out to serenade others.
“He and the band played every Christmas morning at Belardo’s in Frederiksted. Then they crossed the street to Vel’s and played there,” said Christine, another of the McIntosh daughters. The whole family went along to enjoy the good time.
Known widely as a vocalist and saxophonist, Blinky also played flute, banjo, drums and piano.
In the earlier days, he played with various popular Crucian bands, including Pond Bush and the Hot Shots, Joe Parris and the Hot Shots, Archie Thomas and his Rhythm Makers, and Jamsie and the Happy Seven. On vocals and alto sax with Joe Parris, he recorded three albums in the 1970s.
Toward the end of the 70s, McIntosh formed his own band: Blinky and the Roadmasters. He named himself after Blinky McQuade, a cartoon character that he had admired in childhood for his strength and talent. Because he worked with the St. Croix Department of Public Works, Blinky called his band the Roadmasters.
They won the annual Road March contest in 1979, and “My Wife” reigned as theme song for Carnival that year. That was only the beginning.
Blinky won a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1987, was honored at the White House, and recognized as a Master Traditionalist Artist. President Ronald Reagan congratulated him. Dick Cavett visited St. Croix, met Blinky and interviewed him. Blinky and his band played in the cult classic 1992 film “Captain Ron,” which starred Kurt Russell and Martin Short. He performed at the Tournament of Roses and at Wolf Trap in New York; he played for Mohammed Ali’s daughter’s wedding on St. Thomas and jammed with Dolly Parton.
“We didn’t see him as famous, he was Daddy,” said Sandra McIntosh. Music was a part of everyday life, recounted the McIntosh sisters.
On the local scene, Blinky also played with Jazzy Blue and with Bully (Wayne Petersen) and the Kafooners and sometimes sat in with the Ten Sleepless Knights or with Jamsie Brewster. He played his sax on Sundays at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church alongside Junie Bomba on percussion and other Crucian greats.
“He could play in any key, self-taught by ear, “ said Christine McIntosh. “He learned to read music in his sixties.”
Her sister Karen, a calypso singer, described Blinky’s unique style.
“If someone would play a bar in four notes, he would play it in 20,” she said. Her father always walked with his saxophone and would sit in with musicians, such as Eddie Russell at the Blue Moon, she said.
Or whomever, wherever.
Blinky McIntosh loved all kinds of music – jazz, soul, merengue along with quelbe. He played it all, and he sang the songs of Mighty Sparrow.
Blinky dubbed his style Crucian Buck-Up, though his kids grew up calling it quadrille music. The term quelbe came later, they said. His hits include “Caroline,” “My Wife,” and “Fishes.”
In 1990, Rounder Records came out with the band’s album, “Blinky & the Roadmasters – Crucian Scratch Band Music.” The band recorded the album in one take, beginning to end, and it is still available on Amazon.
Hollis McIntosh was sitting in the Rainforest Cafe in San Antonio when she heard her father’s music come through the speakers, “I told the waiter, ‘Hey, that’s my dad!’” The waiter checked out Blinky McIntosh forthwith.
In time, members of Blinky’s band began to pass away. Milton Payne, Milton Gordon, Ira Samuel, Tino Francis. According to his daughters, Blinky had come to feel his turn was coming, although he rarely took sick. He pumped iron and was known in bodybuilding circles as Sampson Sylvester; he was fit.
Nevertheless, Blinky’s time did come. He was sick only six months, diagnosis to death.
Family tradition will continue. Blinky’s mother was a cultural bearer known for keeping the art of cariso alive. Mahogany Road has been renamed for her: Ethel McIntosh Memorial Drive. Like their father and grandmother, Karen and Christine McIntosh sing. While Christine sings for her own pleasure, Karen, whose stage name is Lady Mac, entered every festival calypso competition until three years ago.
“I’ve won, and I’ve placed,” she said.
Blinky’s youngest daughter, Laurene, is a ballet dancer, and four of his grandchildren either play music (one plays sax) or work in the music business.
Meanwhile, Karen keeps one of her father’s favorite songs on her phone, “Enjoy Yourself, It’s Later Than You Think.”
Harold V. Johnson, Sr.
As a kid in the 1940s Harold Johnson hung around his uncles and listened to them play scratch. He set pots and pans between his knees and pretended they were congas and bongos.
His life as a percussionist had commenced.
At 13, Johnson joined his uncles’ band, The Simmonds Brothers, and played at snazzy hotels such as The Buccaneer, The Comanche Hotel, and Hotel by the Sea. He played marimbola, steel and squash, along with other percussion instruments. On many Friday and Saturday nights, they all congregated at Uncle Ferddie’s candy store to play music and dance. They boiled crabs in galvanized pans and roasted fish – a great family affair, looked forward to all week.
Over the years Johnson performed with the Trojan Steel Band, the Watergonian Steel Band from Watergut, the Vibratones, and Islander Band.
Johnson was 80 when he died. He had been married to Eleanor Gibbs Johnson for 65 years, and, as she tells it, he played music right up until last April when he told bandleader Stanley Jacobs of Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Knights that he might take vacation from performing … just until he felt better. Johnson had played with Stanley and the band for 12 years.
“We were childhood sweethearts,” said Mrs. Johnson. The two met at St. Mary’s Catholic School, became tight as teenagers, and married in New York in their early 20s.
In those days, if musicians could not afford instruments, they fashioned their own, she said. They bored holes in a piece of bamboo and created a flute; they used a wheel’s rim for percussion. The same ingenuity was practiced in south Louisiana amongst Creole and Cajun musicians.
“In the old days, they walked with the steel pans strapped to their necks,” Mrs. Johnson said. “They pushed the big steel drums down the street; they didn’t put them on a truck.”
Though not a musician herself, Ms. Johnson understood her husband’s passion for music; she was his biggest fan.
“Harold bought all the CDs he could get his hands on. He collected cassettes, and old time records, and he would lay on the rug with his earplugs and listen. He loved music to the bone,” she said.
“In our day, we had the mambo, the cha-cha-cha, the merengue,” she said.
Johnson loved Spanish music. He listened to jazz, and he tuned in to other Virgin Islands musicians: Taco and the Playboys, Image Band, Jam Band, and others.
“And he loved his spiritual music!” said Mrs. McIntosh. “He loved all the different hymns, especially “Ave Maria” and “Amazing Grace,” his mother’s favorite.”
Music for Johnson’s funeral at Holy Cross Catholic Church, where he was a lifelong parishioner, included “Amazing Grace,” “A Closer Walk With Thee,” and “When the Saints Come Marching In.” Stanley Jacobs and his cousin, Percival Nurse, played a duet at the service, and six members of the Ten Sleepless Knights gave musical tribute at the graveyard.
Mrs. Johnson, known as Aunt Ellie to many, loves the Crucian cultural music that her husband and Blinky McIntosh each played so well. She hopes the old tunes will be passed down.
In lieu of flowers, she asked that folks honor Johnson with a donation toward the scholarship fund established by Stanley Jacobs for the education of young local musicians.
Down the line, a younger set might serenade the villages of St. Croix with the sounds of Christmases past, and you might pour them their guavaberry.
In the here and now, Stanley and his Sleepless Knights and others continue tradition.