It's surprising how many of Jamaica's biggest names from the '60s have been so ignored by the archivists, and thus remain little known off the island. Shenley Duffus is a prime example -- with a long string of popular singles to his name but no album to cement his fame, he's been relegated to a smattering of compilations, even as he continued to draw crowds back home right up to his death in 2002. Born on February 10, 1938, in Roland Field, Jamaica, Duffus was raised between Spanish Town and Kingston. Neighboring schoolgirls were the first to spot the youngster's talent, encouraging him to sing the blues. He was 12 when he made his stage debut at the Crystal Theatre in Spanish Town, and from there it was off to the talent circuit. In 1958, Simeon L. Smith took Duffus into Federal Studio and oversaw his first recordings, although they weren't pressed for release until the next decade. "Over & Over" arrived in 1961, as did a duet with the singularly named Anette -- "Million Dollar Baby"/"First Time I Met You." The latter 45 was picked up by Blue Beat in the U.K., and also saw release in the U.S., where it proved to be popular.
By then, Coxsone Dodd had already lured Duffus to his stable. The singer's first cut for the producer was "What a Disaster," aimed straight at his feuding friends Derrick Morgan and Prince Buster. Even bigger was "Fret Man Fret," another shot at the warring Prince, written by Lee Perry, the first in a series of hits the upcoming producer penned for Duffus, many commenting on the Prince Buster/Leslie Kong war. In 1963, perhaps bored with the battle, Duffus linked up with Vincent "King" Edwards, and unleashed another string of popular singles, among them "Rukumbine," "Digging a Ditch," and "Bet You Don't Know." Moving on, in 1965 the singer recorded a clutch of fine boogies for Theo Beckford's newly launched King Pioneer label. At the dawn of the reggae age Duffus joined forces with Cornel Campbell to front the newly formed Now Generation band. The group's live work kept the singer busy, but Lee Perry lured him back into the studio in 1972. His re-recording of "Bet You Don't Know" was one of the clutch of "Beat Down Babylon" versions the Upsetter oversaw that year. It barely rippled the waters at the time, but 25 years later, thanks to the insertion of a single line sung in Amharic, the song became an instant hit in Egypt.
By 1972, Duffus was having less luck as Perry pushed him into cutting covers, and "At the End," "Goodnight My Love," and "Sincerely" all fell flat. Their final recording, however, a cover of William Bell's "To Be a Lover," was different -- it was to become not only Perry's biggest hit of the year, but Duffus' most popular 45 ever. But even Perry seemed to have shortchanged the singer, and Duffus' returned to the stage and rarely left, eventually finding a happy niche with oldies fans. Although a pair of self-produced singles arrived in the early '80s, the singer obviously preferred the stage to the studio. He continued performing live right up to his death at 64 from heart failure. An extremely versatile performer, Duffus never lost his love for the blues, and brought a touch of it to all his music.