I got to know Jamaican singer-songwriter and guitarist Val Bent (born Rupert Valentine Bent) while producing the Jamaica to Toronto: Soul Funk & Reggae 1967-1974 compilation for Light in the Attic around 2004-5. He was back in Jamaica after living in Canada for many years, where he laid down some of the toughest soul and funk records this country has ever produced. Bent came to Toronto, Ontario, as a musician with the Sheiks in 1964, and decided to stay despite our chilly winters, a far cry the Jamaican sun. He became an important musical member of the city’s growing Caribbean community and a mentor to many young players. The Sheiks became the house band for Club Jamaica on Toronto’s busy Yonge Street, which acted as a second home to Bent. Manager Fitz Riley would cook up curry chicken for the patrons and musicians, which reminded Bent of his Jamaican roots. It was here that he first met another young Jamaican immigrant, Earle Heedram (aka The Mighty Pope), who quickly became the new lead vocalist for the Sheiks. Bent was knocked away by Heedram’s powerful voice and commanding stage presence. Together, they wrote and recorded “Eternal Love,” which was released as a 7” single on the Raymond Records label in 1967 (and subsequently featured on Jamaica to Toronto). Regardless of the record’s deep soul and passionate performances—listen for Bent’s twanging guitar and back up vocals—the record sank fast without radio or media support. Despite a lack of record sales, the Sheiks were trailblazing Jamaican-Canadians who brought their music throughout the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, even in the face of ignorant racism, which the group unfortunately encountered on occasion. After returning to Jamaica in the late 1960s for a series of performances (replete with “psychedelic light show”), both Bent and Heedram (along with Studio One alumni, drummer Joe Isaacs, and organ player Chris Scasserra) linked up with American transplant and rock and roll pioneer Frank Motley as the Hitch-Hikers featuring the Mighty Pope. Motley was active on Toronto’s bustling Yonge Street strip, which was filled with nightclubs, strip bars, and record stores, and where Bob Dylan first heard the Band, then performing as Levon and the Hawks. The Hitch-Hikers not only performed popular funk, soul, and pop covers by the like of Eddie Bo and the Beatles, but a series of Bent originals as well: “A Stranger in your Own World,” “Memory Lane,” “Smile Maria Smile,” “You Got the Green Light,” and his namesake “Hell Bent.” After Motley fell ill, the group gradually went their separate ways. Bent and Heedram picked up a couple of hippie musicians and formed the short-lived Wild Oats, but the unit never recorded. Apart from a series of minor regional recordings, Bent focused on live work and performed in Canada throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. After returning to Jamaica, Bent suffered a stroke and retired from the business. He returned to Toronto in 2006 for the now legendary Jamaica to Toronto reunion concert and once again sang back ups behind his musical brother Heedram on the mighty “Eternal Love.” Bent reportedly passed away in his sleep last week in Jamaica and he will be missed by many the world over. We send our best regards to his family and loved ones and count ourselves very lucky to have met his acquaintance. Val, we will miss your laughter and words over the coming years, but will champion your sound forever!
Voluntary in Nature