by Larry Smith
Usually, you can’t find songwriter Eric Minns anywhere in Nassau, the town of his birth. So you might legitimately expect him to be either in Freeport or in jail - but you would be wrong.
Minns, now a spritely 83-year-old, actually spends most of his time in Ontario - where he has lived since 1950, the last 36 years with his third Canadian wife, Laura, a retired schoolteacher. They visit Nassau every Christmas, and usually drop by my office for a chat.
“We fly back to Canada on New Year’s Eve because nobody is travelling then,” Minns explains with cheerful Canadian logic. “So it’s the best time to get a deal on an airline ticket. Plus, after New Year’s there ain’t nothing happening in Nassau anyway.”
As a cancer survivor, Minns doesn’t do much partying himself these days. But he remembers the times that he did. At the drop of a hat he will pull out a slew of photo albums to prove it - images of himself hamming it up with the likes of King Eric Gibson, Charles Carter, Hubert Ingraham, Perry Christie and other notables going back decades.
The high point probably came when the blockbuster group, Bahamen, included Island Boy on their 2006 Junkanoo album. Written in the 1970s, the song was previously recorded by the King and Knights - as well as by Minns himself. In 1981 Minns turned the song into a novel, and he is now working on an Island Boy musical script that will feature most of his compositions.
“Cleveland Williams of the Nassau City Opera has already produced the overture and we are hoping to develop it in time for next year’s Shakespeare in Paradise Festival,” Minns told me over a bowl of Japanese fish soup at Ichiban recently. "It tells the story of a guy like me, an island boy living up north who comes back home where his heart belongs."
Although Island Boy was his biggest hit, it wasn’t his first. That credit goes to Fox Hill Gal, which he wrote in 1975. “I was living in Windsor Avenue at the time and was tooling around Fox Hill when I saw a group of gals on the side of the road. The melody instantly came to me and I hummed it into the portable tape recorder that I always carry around. By the time I got home I had the chorus and then I wrote the verses. That’s how I write all my songs."
As for the music, Minns either gives it to someone who writes the actual notes, or more recently, the song is played on a keyboard into a computer, which produces the musical notation. Finally, the song is arranged for performance.
In 1976 Fox Hill Gal won a Timothy Award, the Bahamian equivalent of the Grammys. And Minns' output over the years has included Once is Not Enough, You Ain’t Hurrying Me, Sunday Christian, Buy Bahamian, Sailboats in Nassau Harbour, Thank Goodness It’s Friday, Columbus Day, I’m Coming Back for Junkanoo This Year, and If You Can’t Find yYour Friends in Nassau (they in Freeport or they in jail).
He published a songbook in 1980, soon after he retired as an active musician, and he won a Cacique Award for the promotion of tourism in 2004.
"I was in Toronto when I wrote Once is Not Enough, attending a meeting of the Association of Bahamians in Canada and talking about affairs at the Ministry of Tourism. At the time they were thinking of modifying the old 'It’s Better in the Bahamas' slogan and one of the ideas thrown out was "Once Is Not Enough...‘Cause when you visit the Bahamas, Once is Not Enough". King Eric recorded it and used it for his album title.”
One of his best pieces is You Ain’t Hurrying me, which compared the way Bahamians and North Americans work and live, and comes over well as an a capella arrangement. The Dicey Doh singers recorded it and it became the first cut on the Smithsonian Institution’s 1997 CD of Bahamian folk music - Islands of Song.
More recently, the New England folk group Rani Arbo and Daisy Mahem picked up the song and have used it at various concerts after hearing the Dicey Doh’s version on the radio. They are set to record it in their next album, Minns says, but their live renditions are easily found on YouTube. The familiar chorus goes like this:
You ain’ hurryin’ me, my brother, you ain’ hurryin; me
I don’t know heart attack or ulcer in ma belly
An’ if I don’t get it done on Sat’day
It could damn well wait ‘til Monday
So when ya rushin’ roun’ tryin’ to get downtown,
Remember, you ain’ hurryin’ me.
Although Minns has been living in Canada for more than half a century, he visits the Bahamas regularly and, of course, spent the formative first 20 years of his life in Nassau, at the family home on the corner of Kemp Road and Shirley Street. His grandmother was Ida Dupuch-Minns, sister of Tribune founder Leon Dupuch. His father was an itinerant Cuban boat captain named Philip Vargas. His mother, Esther Minns, never married, so he was raised by his grandmother.
After leaving Eastern Senior School (now the Shirley Street Post Office) in 1945, he started off working at service stations before apprenticing as a machinist in the Public Works Department under Jack Cole. Later he took on night and weekend jobs in the Montagu Hotel kitchen, and later still he ventured into the entertainment business - it’s a business from which he has never really retired.
His very first show biz foray was at the Peter Pan Club in St Matthew’s Church hall. “We began putting on annual concerts and skits,” Minns recalled. "I did some singing and Bumpsy Pearce and I did a comedy routine called Bill and Sam. We drove on stage in a homemade convertible, with gloves, lit cigars, and oversize bow ties. We literally, as they say, brought the house down."
Minns’ stagecraft and clear voice led to his being tapped by several nightclub owners as an emcee - from the Jungle Club at Fox Hill to the Jungle Club at the Montagu Hotel. There were also engagements at the Silver Slipper where Freddie Munnings Sr held court, the Hillside Hotel on East Street operated by Felix Johnson and Milo Butler, the Ardastra Gardens where George Symonette was the star attraction, and the renowned Paul Meeres Cabaret. They are all long gone now.
"How I shuffled those jobs I’m not quite sure,” Minns said. “But I became friends with the French chef at the Montagu, who often attended the nightclub shows. Consequently, I was invited to visit Henri, who had a nephew my age living with him in Toronto, on my annual two-week vacation in 1950."
Within days of his arrival in TO a Bahamian friend got him a job at the Royal Canadian Yacht Club on Centre Island that paid better than his meagre wage at Public Works and also included room and board, so he decided to stay in Canada. Back then, the only requirements for permanent residence if you were a British subject were a bank account and a job. Minns had to borrow the $1,000 bank deposit.
Later he moved to the Prince George Hotel in downtown Toronto, then to a small town 300 miles north of Vancouver, where he learned to play the drums, then back to Toronto to work as a short-order cook at a lunch bar, followed by a stint as a butcher with Power Supermarkets.
"It was while working at the supermarket that I decided to form a calypso trio and began working nights, eventually quitting my day job. It was as simple as placing an ad for a guitarist in the local paper. We added an accordionist and played our first gig at a movie theatre in Sudbury in 1958,” Minns told me. “As we expanded our repertoire I had to modify the lyrics of some of the West Indian songs we played at various clubs and hotels around Canada, and that got me started on songwriting.”
He ended his touring career in 1979, but continued to write and perform, published a novel about the 1943 murder of Sir Harry Oakes, a calendar featuring pen and ink sketches of Bahamian churches, and two volumes of Bahamian stories and jokes titled Did You Hear the One About the Guy From Spanish Wells.
“I love to entertain and to make people laugh,” Minns told me. “But I also try to make people think. I’ve never put all my eggs in one basket. I enjoy painting, music, live performances, writing and cooking. As George Bernard Shaw once said: A lifetime is too short to do all that one desires."