Edward Seaga went from being one of the most important and successful producers and record company owners in Jamaica to become Prime Minister of his country -- probably the only recording executive ever to be elected a head of state. Along the way, he set the stage for the 1960s boom in ska, and the explosion of interest in reggae music in the '70s.
Born in Boston to a Jamaican-Lebanese family, Seaga graduated from Harvard University in 1952 with a B.A. in Social Sciences. In 1955, he supervised the recording of an album of ethnic music on the Folkways label, a project that grew out of scholarly research that he'd been engaged in. This whetted his appetite to do more with music, and he later produced sessions by Jamaican artists for more commercial recording organizations. Seaga founded his own label, WIRL (West Indies Recording Limited), in the late 50s, and among his first signings was the Trench Town singing duo of Joe Higgs and Roy Wilson.
WIRL scored a huge hit in 1959 with their first single, "Manny O," a ska single that sold 30,000 copies. Seaga's other artists included Byron Lee & the Dragonaires and Slim Smith. Seaga's company soon became the most successful recording organization in Jamaica and the West Indies, helped by the fact that, in contrast to virtually every other recording organization in the islands in the late '50s, he saw to it that his artists were paid, and paid well for their hit records. In a country as stricken with poverty as Jamaica, and still struggling to achieve independence and respect, this counted for a huge amount and made Seaga stand out as an entrepreneur in the music business.
In 1959, the same year that WIRL broke out as a business, Seaga's formal political career began when Sir Alexander Bustamante, the founder of the Jamaica Labour Party, nominated him to serve in the Upper House of the Jamaica Legislature (later the Senate) -- his appointment at 29 made him the youngest member in the history of the Legislative Council.
Seaga became a key architect of the constitution that became the framework for Jamaican independence in August 1962. Already recognized as a passionate defender of the poor, and a fiery orator capable of moving voters or his fellow legislators, Seaga became an elected member of Parliament in April 1962, representing Western Kingston. He is the longest serving member of Jamaica's Parliament, having been re-elected for 37 consecutive years.
Upon winning his Parliamentary seat, Seaga was appointed to the Cabinet of the newly independent nation as Minister of Development and Welfare. It was in that capacity that he helped facilitate the spread of ska far beyond the boundaries of the West Indies.
The New York World's Fair was about to open, and he saw a unique opportunity. He arranged for Prince Buster, Roy Willis, Eric Morris, Peter Tosh, and Byron Lee and the Dragonaires to perform at the World's Fair, in an extended engagement (also featuring the 1963 Miss World, Carol Joan Crawford, also from Jamaica) that additionally allowed these artists to play in Manhattan, bringing ska to the patrons of several of the city's most celebrated night clubs.
Other recording entrepreneurs had come along in the interim, most notably Clement Seymour ("Sir Coxsone") Dodd, cutting music by the Wailers, the Skatalites, and other artists whose sound was less mainstream than Lee and Higgs, and more radical than WIRL's output. Seaga's WIRL, however, remained profitable and influential as a source of popular, mainstream-oriented ska. Sometime after the World's Fair showcase took place, Seaga sold WIRL to Byron Lee, who renamed it Dynamic Sounds Recording, and turned it into one of the most popular studios in the world, for international stars ranging from Paul Simon to Eric Clapton. Seaga's formal involvement in music was over after the mid-'60s, but the impact of his work has extended for decades.
The resulting boom in tourism coming off the World's Fair activities was more than Seaga could have hoped for, but the cultural consequences were nothing less than enormous. Ska was already getting heard around the world in the guise of Millie Small's infectious hit "My Boy Lollipop," but the introduction of ska to New York audiences and media -- the Clay Cole Show, which was then only slightly less influential than American Bandstand, even ran a film clip about the music -- helped extend the music's reach immeasurably. It laid the groundwork for the explosion of interest in reggae in the United States seven years later, and made it easier for artists like Bob Marley to find an audience in America.
Seaga's career was confined to politics from the mid-'60s onward. He took on the more prominent job of Minister of Finance and Planning in 1967, and in 1974 Seaga assumed the post of leader of the Jamaica Labor Party, which made him official leader of the opposition party in Parliament. This set the stage for his elevation to Prime Minister following the 1980 elections -- he was re-elected without opposition in 1983. In addition to holding the Prime Minister's job, Seaga also held the portfolio for Information and Culture.
His establishment of the Jamaica Festival gave the music and culture of the island an annual showcase, and he is responsible for numerous successful anti-poverty, urban redevelopment, and educational aid programs that have helped some of the poorest of his constituents, in his home district and also on the island at large. He has served on the boards of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and been given awards by countries throughout North America (including the United States) and South America, as well as Europe, and remains a potent political figure in Jamaica 40 years after his entry into politics.
The legacy of his musical activity, however, both directly and indirectly, can be found in virtually every major record store in the United States, Europe, and Asia.