Guests ‘Guilty’ of Having Great Time at The Verdict Show in Sunset Park

By SANDRA WEYANT | Aug 16, 2017
Photo by: Gail Travers

The verdict is in: all in attendance at Sunset Park in Harvey Cedars on Wednesday night were guilty of having a great time as The Verdict performed its high-energy soca songs and soul-feeding reggae music. Guests of all ages were either seated in lawn chairs or sprawled out on blankets to enjoy both the perfect weather and evening entertainment by the bay.

The band’s talented lineup includes founder, drummer and vocalist Johnny Sferra, more commonly known as Johnny Youth, lead guitarist and vocalist Roland “Raga” Lawrence, bassist and vocalist Marcelino Thompson, and keyboardist and vocalist Parry Jack. Joining The Verdict as a special guest percussionist for the night was Matthew Ellison, who has played gigs with the band for the past 15 summers.

Soca is a genre of music that combines elements of calypso, funk and reggae to form its all-inclusive, unique vibe and sound. It was originated in Trinidad and Tobago in the early 1970s by a man named Lord Shorty. “Soca is faster stuff. It’s hot, hot, hot, and reggae is a bit slower,” Thompson said.

“The name itself comes from ‘soul’ and ‘calypso’ put together,” Sferra said. “Reggae and soca seem to be viewed as one genre by most, but it’s not the same thing. Mostly everything we do in this band is soca, but people still refer to us as ‘the reggae band.’ We do a lot of reggae, but that’s not all.”

In fact, the band is working to enhance its identity by “trying to slide into the name of Caribbean flavor,” instead of being solely known as a soca group. The Verdict performs pop songs and Latin hits from the Caribbean islands, as well, covering such popular artists as Elvis Crespo and Celia Cruz.

Before a gig, The Verdict is already prepared with a set list that caters to everyone, but it also has a method and routine for almost every show. “We usually have an S-curve when it comes to how we do sets. We start off slow, and then we build it up to a crescendo and then bring it back down,” Sferra said.

The ultimate goal? “By the end of the night, we try to get it to that fever pitch, where the teenagers here get into it and go crazy for it, and they want more,” Thompson said.

Sunset Park is the band’s favorite outdoor venue in New Jersey. With its picturesque views and stage setup in the gazebo, it’s the ideal setting for a relaxing and enjoyable time for bandmates and listeners. But those aren’t the only reasons The Verdict loves it. “We have a lot of people who come here to see us all the time. This big group of families comes every year,” Ellison said. “It’s really nice to see so many familiar faces and to feel so much love.”

Sferra grew up in South Jersey and spent his summers on Long Beach Island, so performing in the area is always a special experience that remains close to his heart. He and bandmates look forward to it and actually mark it on their personal calendars in advance. Sferra wishes the band could play on LBI more often, but most of the band members live in Brooklyn, and Verdict does not consider itself to be a bar band. The majority of its gigs take place in other shore towns, including Belmar, Sea Bright and Point Pleasant.

Sferra always had an interest in reggae and soca music and often played with friends from a young age, and that’s when he knew he wanted to create his own soca band. “I was always into the real thing. I wanted to find people who were from the islands and professional. I met Marcelino, and he introduced me to the other guys. We’ve been together since the early ’90s,” he said.

Before developing a deep love for soca music, Sferra enjoyed listening to jazz and rock, taking inspiration from such artists as Frank Zappa, jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, jazz pianist Chick Corea and English rock band King Crimson. But once he heard reggae music, he “pretty much just threw away the rest and only listened to reggae and soca.” He quickly became fascinated with Jamaican singer-songwriter Bob Marley and Jamaican musician Peter Tosh. Sferra has been playing drums since he was a kid and has been a part of several bands ever since; he also sings about “80 percent” of The Verdict’s songs. Aside from his roles in the band, Sferra is a drum instructor and teaches a music program for children in Monmouth County.

Thompson, who is originally from Panama in Central America, learned how to play an instrument at an older age than most, when he was around 19. “I started by being a musician in a Broadway show. I had done a couple of them. My father was a musician, so he started me on guitar, and I started bass after that,” he said.

As far as favorite musicians go, Thompson has many; he admires bassist Anthony Jackson, jazz composer and bassist Marcus Miller, and bassists Chuck Rainey and Will Lee. “I gave up guitar when I realized how easy it was to play the bass,” Thompson said. But he still plays guitar in his own music productions.

Thompson recalled that it was one random day at a copy shop that led to him joining the band close to 30 years ago. “I ran into a guy named John Browning at a copy shop, and he was copying a bunch of flyers that said ‘Soca’ and ‘Johnny Youth’ on them. At that time, I was first call on all the soca music recorded in New York. He was the piano player of the band, and we started talking. He told me to come to Ghost in Brooklyn and see them play, and I did.

“I knew and had played original bass on almost every single song on their set. I then played on stage with them that night, and the rest is history,” Thompson said.

Jack, of Saint Vincent, an island in the Caribbean, is the lead vocalist and keyboardist for the band, but he is also a renowned producer. He has worked with soca artist Kevin Lyttle and musician Maya, among others. His biggest musical influence is Asterisks, a popular 1980s disco-meets-soca group from his homeland.

Bandmates had nothing but positive remarks to share about Jack’s abilities. “He is underrated and underrates himself because he is truly a fantastic singer,” Thompson said. “I think he should do more. He has never produced himself on a project. He does tons of projects for everybody else, but never sings his own projects.”

Lawrence was born in Trinidad, the birthplace of soca music, so he grew up learning and loving it. His earliest musical influences include artists and groups of various genres such as the great Stevie Wonder, rock band Chicago and jazz-rock band Blood, Sweat & Tears, to name a few. Along with being a talented guitarist and vocalist, Lawrence has had many other highlights throughout his career as a musician. He has toured with several soca artists, including The Mighty Sparrow, and he is a studio musician on the side for many West Indian artists.

Ellison, the band’s favorite special guest conga player, has been a percussionist for more than 30 years and has learned a lot from participating in shows with The Verdict. His first gig with the band was at a yacht club on Long Beach Island, and he hasn’t left since.

“They are high-caliber musicians, and I wouldn’t rather go on stage with anybody else. I’ve never been more comfortable with any other band. It’s like putting on a glove. I love them all to death. You’ve gotta love it, live it and feel it, and that’s exactly what we do,” Ellison said.

When Ellison isn’t jamming with the band, he can be found in the ocean, teaching people how to ride the waves. Ellison has been a surf instructor at 7th Street Surf Shop in Ocean City for the past 27 summers. (He has a really good tan.)

Visit to see a schedule of upcoming performances or to book the band for a special occasion.


Set List Snippet:

“Suavemente,” Elvis Crespo

“Angel,” Shaggy

“The Joker,” Steve Miller Band

“Dynamite,” Taio Cruz

“Murder She Wrote,” Chaka Demus & Pliers

“One Love,” Bob Marley

“Three Little Birds,” Bob Marley

“Is This Love,” Bob Marley

“Kingston Town,” UB40

“Rude,” MAGIC!

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