“Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.” — Oscar Wilde
In the autumn of 1987, Jerry Jarvis was in the midst of a spiritual awakening. His best friend had recently given his life to Christ and begged Jerry to follow the same path. He convinced Jerry to pay a visit to his church. Jerry went reluctantly. For much of his adult life he had disdained Christianity and was even a Rastafarian for a while. He was radically pro-black and proud of it. But when he visited the church he was pleasantly surprised. The sermons were unlike any he had heard. They made sense to him. His perspective was starting to evolve.
A few months later, on a balmy January evening in 1988 in South Miami, Jerry was in the middle of his daily jog. As he ran, he began to pray. “I said, ‘Lord, if I am living wrong, please show me the way.’ ” Before he could finish the word “way” Jerry looked down and couldn’t believe what he saw. It was so stunning that he stopped running. It was a Bible. Not just any Bible. It was printed in English and Spanish, and it was open to the New Testament, the Gospel According to John. Jerry picked up the book. He didn’t give consideration to whether it was left behind by someone. To Jerry, it was his divine calling.
He took the Bible home and began showing it to friends and even some spiritual leaders. “Every one of them said they had never seen a Bible like that before,” Jerry says. “No one knows where it came from. No one has seen a Bible like that since.”
In the preceding years, Jerry had been living a life of excess. He was a mega-figure in the South Florida music scene, as a club disc jockey, music distributor and publisher. He indulged in the trappings of fame. He once had 19 girlfriends at the same time. He contracted venereal disease 13 times. He smoked marijuana. But seeing that unique Bible convinced Jerry that he had to take a different path.
THE BOY FROM PUMP GHAUT
Before he became a club impresario, DJ extraordinaire and music pioneer who hung out with Bob Marley and James Brown, Jerry Jarvis was “Jerry for Miss Alice” living in the Pump Ghaut section of St. John’s Village in Montserrat. Jerry was born in Antigua, but at 7 months old his father Tom took him to Montserrat to live with Tom’s sister, Alice Allen. Jerry was an intrepid child. He attended St. John’s School, which years later was transformed into the relocated Glendon Hospital after the volcanic eruption in 1995 destroyed the hospital in the capital of Plymouth. Jerry wasn’t an academic scholar but he was no dunce either. He participated in every school play, often in the lead role. He was not shy. He loved attention. He loved the limelight.
In August of 1970, Jerry was a month shy of his 15th birthday. He had just completed Senior Seventh Standard at St. John’s School. He planned to take the Seventh Standard Certificate Test and pursue a teaching job. Before he had a chance to take the test, a friend told him there was a job opening at the Vue Pointe Hotel. At that time, it was prestigious to work at the ritzy Vue Pointe. Many employees lived at the hotel, and they all had (free) access to the delicious cuisine. During his job interview, Jerry was asked if he had a Seventh Standard Certificate. He did not. So he lied. “I told them I took the test but I’m still waiting for the results.”
Jerry was hired as a bartender. He would also work as a waiter, bell-hop, cashier and wine steward. Vue Pointe was the top hotel in Montserrat. The tourist business was booming and Vue Pointe was always at capacity. Jerry’s co-workers included calypso monarch Winston “Young Warrior” Christopher, future Montserrat Premier Reuben Meade, cricketer and future first-class umpire Basil Morgan and famous chef Tappy Morgan. Jerry became a popular worker and resident character. He knew how to butter up the tourists, crack jokes and make them feel welcome. His salary was $12 a week, but his tips sometimes took him past $100 a week – very good money at the time, especially for a teenager. “I always had the gift for gab,” Jerry says. “I think I was born talking.”
After about a year and a half, Jerry lost his job following an accumulation of minor incidents. He couldn’t return to St. John’s. “It was an embarrassment to the village to lose your job at Vue Pointe,” he explains. So he went to Plymouth to live with a family friend.
Then came a suggestion from his “brother” Kenneth Allen, Miss Alice’s son who lived in St. Thomas. Why not start your own business? Allen took out a loan, bought some trendy clothes and other items and took them with him to Montserrat. Jerry rented a second-floor space in a building on George Street and opened J.J.’s Hip Store. It was 1972, the era of Black Power, Soul Train and the peace and psychedelic movements. Jerry sold bell-bottom jeans, patches, bumper stickers and other sundries. “I was the youngest entrepreneur in Montserrat,” Jerry says. “Before Arrow, before Johnny Mecca, there was J.J.”
“I would make over a thousand dollars on a Saturday, and that night I would go to Errol Eid’s Disco. By the time I left I wouldn’t have a dime in my pocket.”
His business took off. When his stock ran low, Jerry would fly to Puerto Rico, shop for clothing and other items, and return to Montserrat – something that would seem unfathomable today for a 16-year-old. “I would get back from Puerto Rico on a Thursday, go on Radio Montserrat on Friday and announce a sale, and on Saturday I would sell off every item I brought back from Puerto Rico.”
But as soon as the money would come in, it would disappear. “I had no money management skills,” he says. “I would make over a thousand dollars on a Saturday, and that night I would go to Errol Eid’s Disco. I would walk in and say, ‘Give everybody over there a drink!’ By the time I left I wouldn’t have a dime in my pocket. It’s a shame when I think about it now.”
THE PUERTO RICO YEARS
By 1973, Jerry was still enjoying retail success. But he was itching for another challenge. Fate intervened in a cruel way. A water overflow caused damage to the store directly below Jerry’s shop, and he was blamed. The proprietor asked him to pay $700. “Back then $700 was like $7,000,” Jerry says. He made a partial payment, but the trouble hastened his decision to leave Montserrat. He went to St. Kitts for a few weeks, then St. Thomas. Immigration officers in the U.S. Virgin Islands would seek out visitors who overstayed their allotted time, so when Jerry felt like they were closing in, he moved on to Puerto Rico. When he arrived in San Juan he had $10 to his name. He immediately started looking for work. He shacked up with a family friend for a while but was eventually kicked out after he was accused of being untidy. For three months, Jerry was homeless. He slept on top of cars. He even slept in a tree. But he was a survivor. He noticed that sailors would bathe at showers that were set up near the docks when they came in from sea. So he pretended to be a sailor and starting bathing there as well.
Jerry eventually got a job doing maintenance work at a nightclub called Sonny Goodstreet. The manager allowed him to stay in a storage room on the second floor and provided him with two meals a day. No rent, but no salary either. He earned his keep by cleaning the club. One day a huge opportunity surfaced. “The boss came to me and said, ‘Listen, the club is doing bad. I’m gonna fire everybody — the doorman, the bartender, the DJ. Do you think you can be a DJ?’ ”
Jerry didn’t hesitate. He ran to the DJ booth and familiarized himself with the turntables, amplifier and mixer. “Nobody had to teach me anything. I learned on my own. I started practicing all day long.”
Jerry asked the boss for money to buy new records. He purchased music by the hottest artists at the time: James Brown, The O’Jays, Barry White, Kool & The Gang. Disco, Soul, R&B and Funk ruled the day, and Jerry was spinning some serious vinyl. He also educated himself in merengue and salsa music in order to further appeal to the locals. In little time Jerry transformed the moribund club into a top hangout. He had a knack for keeping a crowd on the dance floor with his musical selections and deft mixing. He eventually lost that job, then went to work for a rival club, Rasheed’s, after beating several others in a DJ contest to win the job. He soon turned that club into a hot spot as well. But the clientele began to get sordid. Pimps and prostitutes were prevalent. Ironically, though, it was one of those pimps who gave Jerry some sage advice. “He said to me, ‘You’re too talented to be in such a small place. Why don’t you go to Miami and look up Big Daddy’s?’ “
Big Daddy’s was a popular chain in the 1970s that featured a liquor store on one side and a lounge/nightclub on the other. At its peak, Big Daddy’s had more than 100 locations around the United States. Later on, the franchise changed its format, dropped the lounge and liquor stores, and today is known as Flanigan’s Seafood Bar and Grill.
NEXT STOP: MIAMI
Jerry worked at Rasheed’s for more than two years. He had become the most popular club DJ in Puerto Rico. But in 1976, he decided to make a move. Most of his friends told him to head to New York. Jerry had a sister who lived in Miami, so he relocated there.
“I got off the plane in Miami at 1:30 p.m.,” Jerry says. “By 2 p.m. I was looking for work. I didn’t get a job for three months. I went to Big Daddy’s and they said they had no openings right now.” However, Big Daddy’s later contacted him with some good news: They had an opening for a DJ, but there was a catch. They had three candidates. They wanted to audition each one to determine the winner.
Jerry won easily.
“Big Daddy’s was where I blossomed,” Jerry says. “The people and the atmosphere brought me alive. I had dance contests, a Gong Show, a Brick House contest [named for the popular Commodores song]. I became such a force that I was known all over Miami.”
By this time Jerry had shed his Montserrat dialect and adopted a Yankee twang. He was knee-deep into his DJ persona and needed to stay in character. “I was into the Yankee talk so much that when I went back to Montserrat in 1982, I had to teach myself how to talk like a Montserratian again. I had to learn to say ‘Tek um up’ and ‘Put um dung’ because I knew if I went back there with the Yankee talk they would get upset at me.”
A MUSICAL JUGGERNAUT
Jerry was having tremendous success as a club DJ. He turned Big Daddy’s into one of Miami’s top party spots. He was sought after for weddings and parties. But he was not content. He and the other black DJs in town had to purchase their records by the same method as the general public: in a record store. Jerry found out that there was a local record distributor who worked as a liaison for the top music labels in the country. His name was Bo Crane. The big record companies such as CBS, Atlantic, Arista and RCA would send promotional copies to Crane. But Crane, who was white, would cater mostly to the white DJs. Jerry initially struck a deal with Crane. For a fee of $40 a month, Jerry got promotional records each week from Crane.
However, Jerry saw an opportunity to cut out the middle man and carve his own niche. He decided to start his own “record pool” that would cater to the black DJs. He called it the “Florida Black Record Pool” and rented an office in the back of a record store in North Miami. He wrote to all the top record companies and made his pitch. The companies began sending him albums by the hundreds. Jerry had an entire room in his home with records, thousands of them. He had so many that he gave away many to friends. Each record had a stamp: “Promotional Copy – Not For Sale.” He also began publishing a newsletter: The Jerry Jarvis Powerhouse Report. It contained interviews with top music artists, album reviews, a countdown chart and more. The record companies would purchase ads in the newsletter. The revenue from those ads became a lucrative source of income for Jerry.
Jerry was riding high. When top artists such as James Brown, Rick James, Barry White and others came to South Florida for a concert, Jerry always had a backstage pass. He would get a heads-up from the record companies informing him that a particular artist was coming to town and that he should interview them for his publication. The record companies jumped at any chance to promote their artists, and Jerry’s Powerhouse Report was a vital vehicle.
Jerry was also invited to attend music conventions – in New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles. It was at these conventions that he rubbed elbows with music legends. “Barry White, Stevie Wonder and Rick James were cool,” he says. “James Brown was cool but very boasting. The one who had the biggest impact on me was Bob Marley. He was very low-key. You couldn’t spot an ego bone in him.”
Jerry met Marley during a convention at the Peachtree Hotel in Atlanta in 1979. He asked to take a photo with the reggae icon and Marley complied. He then asked Marley for an interview. Marley told Jerry he has a home in Miami and that he could set up an appointment. Jerry visited Marley’s home. “We had a good interview but Marley got upset with me because I kept pressing him about whether it’s OK for a man to have more than one wife, in accordance with the Rastafarian religion. I knew he had a lot of women. He got aggravated with me.”
Despite the uncomfortable exchange, Jerry says Marley had a profound impact on his life. As a matter of fact, Jerry didn’t comb his hair for three years and eventually became a Rasta.
Jerry had grown up in the Methodist church in Montserrat, and throughout his adult life he had been staunchly black-conscious. “I was always searching for truth,” he says. A friend from St. Lucia introduced him to a book called Truth Hiding in the Wilderness. Jerry read it and was blown away. He began reading more and more books. He would spend all his free time at the library. In his quest for edification, Jerry evolved spiritually. Then his best friend, fellow DJ Abraham “Tiny Head” Dupree, got saved and told Jerry to do the same. That was followed by the life-changing evening when Jerry saw the Bible while jogging.
But another divine calling would follow.
A CHANCE MEETING
Jerry was playing a guitar one day while sitting in the back room of his apartment. He often kept his back door open, a practice that reminded him of life in Montserrat. As he strummed, he sang his favorite hymn, How Great Thou Art. Suddenly, a man showed up at Jerry’s door and told him he enjoyed the music. “Come on in,” Jerry told the stranger. “I’m praising the Lord.” The man entered. He explained that he was a Christian and that he was visiting from Jamaica and staying in the apartment upstairs. “After he left, I started speaking in a language I couldn’t understand,” Jerry says. Stunned, Jerry ran upstairs to share the news with the man. “He said to me, ‘Brother, you were speaking in tongues. That’s the Holy Ghost. You need to get to a church.’ “
At the man’s behest, Jerry visited a local Apostolic Pentecostal Church. “The first time I went to the church I spoke in tongues for more than an hour,” Jerry says. “The preacher told me I need to get baptized.”
Jerry followed through and got saved. It was early 1988. Jerry was still running his “Florida Black Record Pool” and still heavily involved in the music scene. But he had found a more important calling. He abruptly quit the business even though it was his main source of income. He decided that he could no longer promote secular music – much of which had suggestive lyrics. Between 1988 and 1991, Jerry was virtually destitute and often hungry. But he had found a spiritual fulfillment. “I struggled [financially], and at times I wondered if I made a mistake giving up my business,” Jerry says. “I lost my car, I lost my home.”
But in 1992, Jerry says the Lord spoke to him and told him to start a landscaping business. It has been his livelihood ever since.
Since his conversion, Jerry has become an ordained evangelist with his own ministry. He travels around the world spreading the gospel and organizing concerts. He has preached across Florida, in Boston, New York, London, Birmingham, Antigua and, of course, Montserrat. He has preached at jails, hospitals and on the streets. He has a show on Radio Montserrat that is aired on Sunday afternoons. Over the years he has even mended some old fences, such as finally fully repaying the proprietor in Montserrat whose business was damaged by water.
One of his proudest achievements is his work to help seniors in Montserrat. For 16 years he has shipped wheelchairs, walkers, beds and other items to assist the elderly. Not just the ones in old-age homes. But anyone in need. “God told me to take care of Montserrat’s seniors,” he says. He also has an awards show every two years to honor those who help the old people.
Through his ups and downs, he didn’t forsake Miss Alice, the lady he grew up calling Mom. He supported her until she passed away in 1997 at age 72. Although he was raised by Miss Alice, he always maintained a relationship with his biological mother, Abigale Jarvis-Silcott, who is currently 96 years old and lives in Connecticut.
On a personal level, the man who once juggled 19 girlfriends says he has been celibate since 1985. He was briefly married while in Puerto Rico. Jerry says that according to his understanding of the scriptures, a person can marry only once. When someone takes an oath of “Til death do us part,” they should stick to that promise, he says. Jerry says the only woman he can ever be with again is the one he married – and later divorced. But it’s not clear if the feeling is mutual.
Jerry Jarvis has lived in the valley … and on the mountaintop. He has shared his story of redemption multiple times. He talks openly about his mistakes and regrets. Today, his main objective is to help as many people as he can find salvation. Although he is close to retirement age, he’s not slowing down. There’s too much work left to do.
The man who specializes in landscaping is out of the Wilderness.
If you wish to contribute to Jerry Jarvis’ ministry, he can be reached by mail at Prayer Life Ministries, P.O. Box 541181, Opa-locka, Florida, 33054, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.