Ernie Smith sings for late wife at memorial service

When reggae singer Ernie Smith recorded the classic tear-jerking ballad I Can’t Take It in 1967, he admitted it wasn’t from firsthand experience with heartbreak. But when he belted the song at his wife’s memorial service on Saturday, the lyrics could not bear the weight of the pain in his voice.

But baby

Every night I wake up crying

Tears on my pillow, pain in my heart

And you on my mind…

Janet Smith, 73, died on July 1 after battling an illness which lasted over 12 months. Ernie was joined by a few loved ones at an undisclosed hotel, where he reflected on the love of his life and former manager.

“I will miss her,” the Ride On Sammy singer said. “There is only but one consolation, one ray of light, one comfort: she went home to her maker with a smile on her face… Walk good.”

The couple first locked eyes while they were students at York Castle High in St Ann. Ernie was 13 and Janet was 11, but he never realised he liked her until it was time for them to graduate.

Janet, who was described as an academically gifted child, decided to go to England to study nursing. It was there that she met her first husband and had her two sons. The marriage was short-lived and Janet went on to expand her education with studies in history and business. She also became involved in activism, protesting in Liverpool and Manchester against racial injustice, at a time when the apartheid system was still prevalent in South Africa. She soon met a Guyanese national whom she married in 1980, and moved to Guyana with her sons where she worked in media. A series of events forced her to relocate to the United States, and her marriage did not survive the move.

She eventually returned to Jamaica where she reunited with Ernie in 1990. He had also been married and divorced, with children of his own. He was no longer just ‘Glenroy Smith’ from school, but one of reggae’s finest vocalists and songwriters, recording a slew of hits like Pitta Patta, Duppy Gunman and Life Is Just For Living. But Ernie was also battling alcohol abuse, which started in the 70s. He decided to get clean in 1993 with the help of Janet and close friends.

After their reunion, Janet returned to New York where she ghosted him for several weeks. It hit Ernie that it was time to put a ring on her finger, except his former habits had left him penniless, unable to buy a ring. Taking her to a romantic spot, he proposed with a paperclip, and she accepted. The two got married in 1994, and “finished each other’s sentences” over the next 26 years.

“She made such a wonderful, formidable thing out of my career…” Ernie added. But Janet said otherwise.

Yes, she recorded her most intimate thoughts prior to her death, some of which were played during the service.

“He would say I turned his career around but Glenroy did for me what I couldn’t do for him,” she said. “He took me to France, he took me to Germany, he took me to Barbados, he took me to Trinidad, Belize… I have passed through at least 100 counties because Ernie Smith was going there to sing and when I got there I was treated like a star…”

Among her wishes were to be cremated (as too her husband when he transitions) and to have her two sons speak of “the mother who fathered them”. Her requests were honoured at the service, which unfolded via Zoom with more than 300 attendees.