Words by Scott Brown
Jamaica and Miami both lost a musical innovator with the passing of Noel “King Sporty” Williams this week, at age 71. Best known internationally for co-writing and co-producing Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier,” Sporty had a diverse and creative music legacy, producing, writing, and performing reggae, soul, funk and proto hip-hop music during a decades-long career which began in Jamaica’s pre-reggae days and took him to Miami, where he was a major figure in the city’s burgeoning Black music scene in the ’70s and ’80s. He leaves behind a wife in famed soul singer Betty Wright and several children, including son Yusef Williams, well-known as the hairstylist for Rihanna. (Rihanna was one of the first people to share the news of Sporty’s passing, tweeting “R.I.P. King Sporty” on Monday night)
Sporty has previously been highlighted here on Large Up for his connections and contributions across a variety of genres. But his foundation in music came from working under the legendary reggae producer and Studio One founder Coxsone Dodd. He voiced and wrote reggae songs for Dodd’s labels and artists, working with musicians including Jackie Mittoo. But he eventually focused on a different sound after settling in Miami and creating record labels of his own.
Around this time, Jamaican expats heavily contributed to the development of music in South Florida and independent labels were laying the foundation for disco, a sound which evolved in part out of Miami. King Sporty was developing his sound in the middle of all the action, producing music on his labels and working with artists such as Timmy Thomas, of TK Records and “Why Can’t We Live Together” fame.
“If you want to look at that whole Miami sound, that really came from King Sporty’s brain,” says Abdul Mushin, a Jamaican-born Miami radio veteran and promoter who was a close friend of Sporty’s for the last 37 years. “The band that played with people like Betty Wright and KC and The Sunshine Band–those are all his personnel. That groove that you heard that had that feeling was Caribbean and R&B mixed together? That was him.”
In the 1970s and 80s, Sporty produced a plethora of music under his own Konduko and Tashamba labels, ranging from from his own reggae tunes to some of the first electro records in a city now known worldwide as a capital of electronic music. In fact, several years before teaming with his friend Bob Marley for “Buffalo Soldier,” Sporty was directly involved in another landmark hit, in Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together.” Thomas wrote and composed the track, which is widely regarded as the first R&B hit to feature the sound of a drum machine instead of an organic trap kit. Sporty originally released the song on Konduko before it caught the attention of producer Henry Stone and TK Records, and ultimately topped the Billboard R&B charts, reaching #3 on the Hot 100.
In the early 1980s, as electro (and, later, Miami Bass) were taking over in Miami clubs, Sporty and his stable of artists contributed local electro-funk/dance hits like Connie Case’s “Get Down” and his own “Do U Wanna Dance.” Around the same time, Bob Marley was seeing a continued explosion in international popularity thanks to the posthumous greatest hits collection Legend. The album featured “Buffalo Soldier,” a track unreleased during the singer’s lifetime but which would become one of his most iconic songs after first appearing on the 1983 album, Confrontation. However, the commonly known, reggae version of the track from Confrontation and Legend was far different musically from the original version, an uptempo electro-funk number cut during one of Marley’s final recording sessions in 1980 (and which sounds like nothing else in Marley’s catalog).
Sporty’s musical legacy, especially in Miami, is further cemented by his marriage to Wright, the undisputed queen of Miami soul. Though best known for R&B classics like “Clean Up Woman” (and more recently her collaborations with rappers such as Rick Ross and Lil Wayne), Wright participated in numerous reggae recordings over the years, showcasing a fluency in the genre no doubt influenced by her marriage to Williams. Recently, Sporty’s catalog was also revisited by Justin Timberlake and Timbaland, who sampled his “Self Destruct” on Timberlake’s 2013 single, “That Girl.”
Bob Marley, Betty Wright, Coxsone Dodd, Rihanna? Reggae and soul music share many connections, but King Sporty might be one of the most interesting and unique bridges between these worlds.