-The story of legendary singer Morris Dorley
Back in the early 1960s, Liberian Broadcasting Corporation and top hangout spots like the Ducor Hotel ballroom primarily kept their fans entertained with foreign music, creating a situation that made Liberian music unfamiliar and unpopular.
This forced bands like ‘Melody 8 Dance Band’ of J. Richard Snetter’s to focus on performing foreign hit songs back then. However, this limited their ability to record their own songs. But things changed when Morris Dorley came to the limelight with the song “Grand Gedeh Oh! Oh!”
The song became an instant hit, virtually a national anthem, and was performed during the 1969 birthday celebration of President Tubman. Producing his own song, Dorley became the first Liberian artist to have performed at a presidential event.
A native of Bomi County and a Gola by tribe, Dorley fought against all odds and became the first Liberian musician to break away from the influence of American songs and record ‘Afro-Liberian’ music.
Veteran music producer Charles Snetter, who was a longtime close friend of Morris Dorley, described him as the “forgotten father of Liberia’s music industry.” Both friends started to know each other in Caldwell, a township in the outskirt of Monrovia.
Charles Snetter added that if it were not because of Morris Dorley’s bravery to break away from foreign music, there could have been no huge demand for Liberian music like it is done nowadays.
“Although Dorley may have been forgotten, he led the movement that made Liberia music loved by its own people. He laid the foundation for others to follow. Indeed Dorley inspired a lot of musicians who came after him, whether female or male. His music was soulful and touching. Lyrics on point. And he was a musical genius and good performer who always thrilled his audience. He was a regular person who lived a simple life,” Mr. Snetter said.
Zack Robert of the defunct 1980 hit group Zack and Geebah, said: “Dorley was the precursor for many of us and even today’s generational Liberian artists.
“He laid the foundation of which we came and benefit from. He was more than a talented guy. He was a musical genius. He was a person who knew good music and what is soulful to the ear,” Zack said.
Born in 1946, according to oral history, Morris Dorley discovered his musical talent when he started to learn how to play a traditional guitar. After moving to Caldwell, he began pursuing his musical career. The talented singer released a little over six LP compilations, which include the hit singles “Who Are You Baby”, “Osia” and “Voinjama,”—two bangers that rock every corner of the country and cemented his status as a godfather of Liberian music.
However, this was not Dorley stopping point. The legendary singer when on to gain international recognition in the West Africa sub-region when he performed the song “Who Are You Baby,” at FESTAC 77 and won an award for it.
According to music pundits, the sub-region got to start liking Liberian music after Dorley performed his Who Are You Baby song. Pundits added it opened the ears of citizens of the sub-region to new songs and a style of music that was hard to resist.
“Upon introduction, he could immediately form a coherent mental image from which he would spontaneously compose a song to accurately describe that person. This instantaneous song composition was his unique talent,” veteran radio personality George Kiadii Kiadii said of Morris Dorley.
“Frankly speaking, Dorley was truly talented and gifted, with that enchanting music voice that was pleasant to the earth. At FESTAC 77, he overshadowed all the big African artists who attended the event with his performance. That clearly showed how talented he was,” Mr. Snetter said. “It was through him that Liberian music became exported to the sub-region and the rest of the world.”
Unfortunately, despite the fame and international recognition, Dorley was not able to capitalize on it to have a successful monetized music career. Although he made some money from his work, Dorley suffered a lot from serious financial circumstances since he was usually exploited.
Mr. Snetter explained that Dorley’s financial struggles came about as a result of not willing to have a management team or manager to negotiate fair and favorable contracts on his behalf.
“His financial woes led him to become an alcoholic and later on a street singer. He never trusted anybody to manage him but rather drop in the boxes, which has to do with pocket change. Worst of all, he sold his intellectual property rights just for anything, so he found it difficult after retiring from music to make money. Since he was not educated and never wanted a manager, producers exploited him a lot by paying him to make music for them.
According to a post from blogger Mulubah quoting acclaimed music producer Toniah Williams, she explained that Dorley never trusted or accepted management.
“He was not formally educated, so he did not understand the proper role of a manager, which is to negotiate a better contract for the artist and for promotional purposes. Instead, counter-intuitively, Dorley would demand payment before appearing on a radio station for a live interview, even when the free publicity would have undoubtedly been beneficial to his career.
“Understandably, many radio personalities refused to acquiesce to these demands, to the ultimate detriment of Dorley’s career. For purely personal reasons, Dorley chose not to retain a manager,” blogger Berenice Mulubah quotes Mr. William in a social media.
Despite Dorley’s numerous mistake, on some occasions, his musical colleagues and friends would step in to make sure he received his fair share. The legendary Dorley died of alcoholism.
“The sad thing is Dorley died poor. Not just poor but as an alcoholic,” Mr. Snetter said.
Although Morris Dorley died poor, there is hope:his family can still claim the intellectual property of his music; thus helping them to make money from his work.