Making Each Cymbal Crash Count

Listen carefully and you can count each of the three cymbal crashes in this unjustly obscure – and humorous – rocksteady 45 from Jamaican vocal group The Three Tops: about a “gambling lady” with a yen for the one-armed bandit:

“Slot Machine”     The Three Tops     1968

I am fascinated by this uniquely minimalist Jamaican approach with regard to the crash cymbal, thus helping to ensure that each use really counts.  Note, too, the kick drum pattern that accompanies each crash, as well as the unusually deep bottom of the mix overall — pushing the bass forward decades before the modern pop world would eventually catch on.  Produced by KarlSir JJJohnson, with what sounds to my ears like Lyn Taitt on the staccato lead guitar.

Kilowatts 45-cSays London’s venerable Dub Vendor about the 45 itself:

Two prime slices of Boss Reggae from The Kilowatts aka The Three Tops, allegedly.”

Armed with this new information, I would quickly learn – no surprise – that blank labels of “Slot Machine” [by The Kilowatts] can fetch up to $400 (though not always, fortunately).

One blank label marked “Gambling Lady” — while another is marked “Bandit”

Kilowatts 45-bKilowatts 45-a

Kingstonians’ $800 Rocksteady

Heavy 1968 rocksteady from the studio of KarlSir JJJohnson, with Lyn Taitt, possibly, on guitar.  But the real mystery lies with the vocalists themselves, The Kingstonians, specifically the basso profundo:

Q:  Are the tapes being slowed down, or does the bass vocalist really sing that deep?

“Put Down Your Fire”     The Kingstonians     1968

While I admit it is possible that the bass vocalist’s range could really be that low, I am suspicious, since none of the other Kingstonians singles from that same year feature backing vocals with anywhere close to the same bottom end.  Listen for yourself — preview audio on YouTube by using song titles from this Kingstonians singles discography.

In 2012, someone would pay $797 for an original Jamaican white label pressing (vs. UK 45 issued on Doctor Bird) of “Put Down Your Fire.”  It cannot be denied:  some people are prepared to spend hundreds of dollars on Kingstonians 45s — including over $2,000 for “Torture and Flames” by lead vocalist Jackie Bernard.

Kingstonians 45-aNote the address on the 45 above – “133 Orange Street” – which would make it next-door neighbors with Rockers International, one of the last remaining vinyl shops on Kingston’s famed record row, Orange Street, and the subject of a Guardian piece from March, 2015: “Rockers International Records on Orange St., Kingston:  Reggae Playlist.”

PRINCE BUSTER‘s former record store – Orange St. [photo courtesy Guardian UK]

Prince Buster's record shop

Rocksteady: Cowbell Golden Era

Will Ferrell’s inspired sketch idea as a cowbell-wielding member of Blue Oyster Cult named Gene Frenkle may have lost some of its freshness, however Ferrell deserves credit for galvanizing interest in this long-neglected member of the percussion family.   Five years after that Saturday Night Live sketch originally aired, Paul Farhi would reveal in The Washington Post’s January 29, 2005 edition that Frenkle was, indeed, a fiction.  Furthermore —

“According to former BOC bassist Joe Bouchard, an unnamed producer asked his brother, drummer Albert Bouchard, to play the cowbell after the fact.  ‘Albert thought he was crazy,’ Bouchard told the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press in 2000.  ‘But he put all this tape around a cowbell and played it.  It really pulled the track together.'”

How interesting, then, to discover the existence of a cowbell Golden Age just eight years before the release of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” in a parallel musical universe located within the Western Hemisphere – and yet not actually of it.  That’s right, 1968 was a peak moment for the cowbell on Jamaica’s radio airwaves and in their dancehalls — but for most of us here in the States, that fact would only come to light 3 decades after the fact, when CD reissues of reggae and its predecessor, rocksteady, began to appear here.

JA cowbellToday’s piece, therefore, salutes the cowbell in rocksteady’s magical-but-oh-so-brief moment in history.  Zero to 180 welcomes your suggestions to this (incomplete) list:

R o c k s t e a d y   &   E a r l y   R e g g a e   C o w b e l l   C l a s s i c s

Hortense Ellis w/ Buster All-Stars  "Somebody Help Me" 1967 [Buster]
Lyn Taitt & the Jets   "Mr. Dooby"   1967   [Merritone]
Alfred Brown  "One Bourbon One Scotch One Beer"  1968 [? producer]
Alton Ellis   "Bye Bye Love"   1968   [Clifton Bough]
Errol Dunkley  "Love Brother" & "I'm Going Home"  1968   [Gibbs]
The Dynamics w/ Lyn Taitt's Jets   "My Friends"   1968   [Gibbs]
The Pioneers w/ Lyn Taitt's Jets   "Give It to Me"   1968   [Gibbs]
Stranger & Gladdy   "Just Like a River"   1968  [Gibbs]
Shorty Perry & Ken Boothe  "Can't You See"   1968   [Links]
Untouchables   "Wall Flower"   1968   [Enos McLeod]
Desmond Dekker & the Aces  "Mother Pepper" 1968   [Kong]
The Ethiopians w/ Lyn Taitt's Jets "Train to Glory" 1968 [Pottinger]
The Gaylads  "It's Hard to Confess"  1968   [Pottinger]
The Melodians  "Swing and Dine"  1968  [Pottinger]
The Coasters   "Stony Hill"   1968   [Daley]
Black Brothers w/ Lyn Taitt's Jets   "Give Me Loving"  1968  [Morgan]
Cliff & the Diamonds  "Mother Benge"  1968  [Abrahams]
The Pioneers w/ Lyn Taitt's Jets  "This Is Soul"  1968  [Gibbs]
The Overtakers w/ Lyn Taitt's Jets  "Girl You Ruff"  1968  [Gibbs]

“Girl You Ruff” – White label release in JA vs. UK release on amalgamated label

Overtakers 45-aOvertakers 45-b

Related Trivia

= “Just Like a River” instrumentally — “El Casino Royale” & “Last Flight to Reggae City

= Ken Boothe’s “Can’t You See” (esp. ‘blanks’) can easily sell for hundreds of dollars.

= “Mother Benge” by Cliff & the Diamonds – as previously mentioned – not a cheap 45.

= In 2011, someone paid $255 for a blank (Amalgamated) copy of “Girl You Ruff

Lyn(n) Taitt Figures Prominently in JA Cowbell Lure

Lynn Taitt & Comets-aaLynn Taitt & Comets-bb

‘Scully’ Advises: Take It Cool

$521 on Ebay confirms my suspicion that the swaggering rocksteady tunefulness of 1967’s “Take It Cool” was a breakout moment, artistically speaking, for master percussionist and sometime-vocalist, NoelScullySimms:

 “Take It Cool”     Mr. Foundation (i.e., Noel ‘Zoot’ Simms)    1967

Would you believe someone paid the staggering sum of $700 at auction two years agoNinety dollars is a relative bargain, given that others have paid $108 and $345 dollars in the past for a copy of this 45.

Zoot Simms 45

Amazon Japan (and Amazon Germany) both offer this song for sale in MP3 format – fascinatingly enough – as part of a compilation entitled Skinheads on the Dancefloor:  Obscure Rocksteady, vol. 7.

Even more intriguing is the eyebrow-raising claim by Discogs.com that Noel ‘Scully’ Simms is “arguably the first Jamaican artist to release a record single” — without then identifying the title (!) of this historic recording.  What gives?

Noel Scully Simms-bb

Scully & Sticky: Percussion Pioneers

Scan the musician credits on classic Jamaican popular music from the 1960s and 70s (i.e., ska, rocksteady, reggae & dub), and odds are in your favor that you will see the name of at least one of these two percussionists: NoelScully’ Simms & UzziahSticky’ Thompson.

Scully                             &                             Sticky

Noel Scully Simms-aaUziah Sticky Thompson-a

Uzziah, the elder of the two drummers by one year, left us in 2014 at the age of 78, I’m very sorry to report.  Scully, who is still with us fortunately, is (I recently discovered) another distinguished graduate of the Alpha Boys School.  And although Thompson has served as vocalist/DJ on a handful of songs over the years (including “Guns of Navarone” by The Skatalites), Simms – I’m only just starting to discover – has been both a sideman and solo artist to a much greater degree than I initially thought.

Simms also clearly has a bit of the trickster in him, as evidenced by the nearly endless number of variant names (a cataloger’s nightmare) formally noted on the Discogs.com website, including one amusing alter ego – Mr. Foundation – that was used on at least six Studio One singles for the UK market, including this chugging groove – “Timo Oh” – that instantly grabs the listener with the distinctive opening crack of the snare drum:

“Timo Oh”     Mr. Foundation (i.e., Noel ‘Scully’ Simms)     1968

Late rocksteady or early reggae?   Stylistically, the song adroitly seems beholden to neither and both at the same time.  45Cat says this disc was released September, 1968 in the UK.

Reassuring to know I’m not the only one who finds this track compelling — in 2012, someone paid the equivalent of $344 (US) for this 2-minute recording, according to Popsike.

 A Selected Discography:  Recordings That Include ‘Scully’ & ‘Sticky’

Scully & Sticky LP-aaScully & Sticky LP-eeScully & Sticky LP-hhScully & Sticky LP-bbScully & Sticky LP-ccScully & Sticky LP-zzScully & Sticky LP-ggScully & Sticky LP-jjScully & Sticky LP-kkScully & Sticky LP-llScully & Sticky LP-mmScully & Sticky LP-nnScully & Sticky LP-rrScully & Sticky LP-ooScully & Sticky LP-ppScully & Sticky LP-qqScully & Sticky LP-ffScully & Sticky LP-iiScully & Sticky LP-ssScully & Sticky LP-tt

Rocksteady “Rain”

One other noteworthy “Beatle-related moment from 1967”:  Jamaican rocksteady version of Fab Four 45-only release “Rain” that almost certainly features the musical backing of Lyn Taitt and his fabulous Jets:

“Rain Rock Steady”     Tomorrow’s Children     1967

Says Copasetic Mail Order about this 1967 debut release from Tomorrow’s Children:

“Tomorrow’s Children were probably favored by uptown youths rather than downtown Rudies because of their funky, hard hitting sounds and lyrics.  With those elements, they successfully created own killer style, which can be undoubtedly heard with ‘Bang Bang Rock Steady’. The group also versioned the Beatles’ ‘Rain’ in fine Rocksteady style.  The original record was released in 1967.  The original 45 will set you back a fortune. Killer tune – guaranteed dancefloor filler.”

Tomorrow's Children-bTomorrow's Children-a

The A-side “Bang Bang Rock Steady” would be, amusingly enough, a cover of Cher’s #2 1966 hit that features the “trilling” sound of Lyn Taitt and his fluttering lead guitar lines:

“Bang Band Rock Steady”     Tomorrow’s Children     1967

“Whine and Grine”: Rocksteady with Pre-Fame Jeremy Sisto

Thanks to Dave Katz’s feature article about Prince Buster in the June 2008 issue of Mojo for leading me to this 1998 Levi’s ad that stars a young Jeremy Sisto before the HBO series, Six Feet Under, made him a breakout star:

The advert utilizes Prince Buster‘s 1968 single “Whine and Grine” for its musical backdrop (although, as Katz points out, this version has been reconfigured by the rhythm section of top UK roots reggae outfit, Aswad – click here to compare with the original release).  Amusing how the “shake it up” lyric sets up the pivotal earthquake plot point around which this ad centers – note how Sisto’s rigid jeans stay unfailingly affixed to his body.

Hope the Prince got paid a King’s ransom for the song’s use.

Island would issue this new version on the heels of the buzz created by the Levi’s ad, and Buster would have a UK Top 30 hit (#21) in April of 1998.  Aswad’s Drummie Zeb and Tony Gad would get producer credits on the updated version.

Sonia Pottinger: Jamaica’s First Female Record Producer

Trailblazing, by definition, can be a lonely enterprise – but someone has to move civilization forward.  Therefore, hats off to Jamaica’s first woman music producer, Sonia Pottinger, who managed to navigate a path through a field that is still overwhelmingly dominated by men and left future generations a legacy of classic recordings.

“Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl” – one of the few photos of Sonia Pottinger

Sonia Eloise PottingerUpon her passing, Howard Campbell in the November 7, 2010 edition of The Gleaner would pronounce her “Jamaica’s most successful women producer” although, curiously, neglect to point out she was the first.  Campbell would also write:

“Born in St Thomas, Pottinger was introduced to the music business by her husband L.O. Pottinger, an engineer who had relative success as a producer in the mid-1960s.  She went on her own during that period, scoring a massive hit with ‘Every Night‘, a ballad by singer Joe White.  Pottinger had considerable success in the late 1960s with her Tip Top, High Note and Gay Feet labels. She produced Errol Dunkley’s debut album, Presenting Errol Dunkley, and hit songs by vocal groups like The Melodians (‘Swing and Dine’), The Gaylads (‘Hard to Confess’) and ‘Guns Fever’ by The Silvertones.”

I was also intrigued to learn that, as Campbell notes, Pottinger bought the catalogue and operations of the esteemed Treasure Isle label after the passing of its founder/owner, Duke Reid (but only after first doing battle in Jamaica’s Supreme Court with Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd, as well as Duke Reid’s son and Edward ‘Bunny’ Lee’; sadly, she would die the very next year after winning her case).   Incredibly, this same publication – just 16 months later – would publish a piece entitled, “Women Who Shaped Jamaican Music” … and fail to even mention her!  Is my indignation righteous enough?  Today’s piece, consequently, is my attempt to bring about some measure of pop music social justice.

Sonia Pottinger, who would go on to receive Jamaica’s Order of Distinction

Sonia PottingerAs pointed out in yesterday’s piece, Sonia Pottinger issued two singles by pioneering reggae vibraphonist, Lennie Hibbert.  Additionally, Pottinger would be among the first of the producers in Prince Buster’s wake to incorporate the traditional and deep Nyabinghi hand drum rhythms into rocksteady and reggae music, as evidenced on Patsy Todd’s uniquely Jamaican interpretation of Miriam Makeba‘s big hit, “Pata Pata” (with backing by Count Ossie’s mighty band) – both versions released in 1967:

Every Culture album that bears the Pottinger production mark is top-notch and a must-own.  Other crucial Pottinger productions worthy of your time include this short list:

Claymation Christmas (Is Here)

Someone went to great effort to animate “Christmas Time Is Here” by The Heptones in this charming claymation-style video:

This song provokes the question:  where exactly does rocksteady end and reggae begin?

“You Don’t Love Me”: Where Blues and Reggae Intersect

Thanks to Steve Hoffman‘s blues show on WPFW, today I was able to make the connection (as many others have done before me) that the inspiration for Dawn Penn‘s massive 1967 rocksteady hit, “No No No,” came directly from Willie Cobbs‘ hugely influential 1960 blues single, “You Don’t Love Me” — which, itself, was derived from a Bo Diddley tune five years prior, “She’s Fine She’s Mine“:

“You Don’t Love Me”     Willie Cobbs     1960

Click here to check out Dawn Penn’s interpretation – or click here to hear the prototype as laid down by Bo Diddley.

Long before Kingston, Jamaica became known as the “Nashville of the Third World,”  some of reggae’s most famous producers and label owners originally gained fame as mobile sound system operators playing obscure (at least, at that time) American jump blues and boogie 45s — albeit with identifying information removed from the labels to prevent other sound systems from knowing the names of the songs or artists behind their most popular records.   Relying on non-Jamaican recordings worked well enough in the pre-Internet 1950s.  ClementCoxsoneDodd, for instance, long enjoyed a reputation as the ranking sound system operator whose signature tune, “Coxsone Hop” (in reality, a 1950 honking sax instrumental called “Later for Gator” by Willis ‘Gatortail’ Jackson) ruled the Kingston dancehalls for an impressive seven years.  Until, that is, the fateful night Coxsone’s chief rival, Duke Reid, pulled the rug out from underneath him completely.  Prince Buster witnessed it all go down (as recounted in Lloyd Bradley‘s definitive history of Jamaican music, Bass Culture):

“I was at the counter with Coxsone, he have a glass in him hand.  He drop it and just collapse, sliding down the bar.  I had to brace him against the bar, then get Phantom [compatriot] to give me a hand.  The psychological impact had knocked him out.  Nobody never hit him.

We hold him up against the bar and try to shut out the noise.  Not only they play ‘Coxsone Hop,’ but they play seven of Coxsone’s top tunes straight.  When that happen, you know that tomorrow morning those tune’ll be selling in every fried-fish shop.”

Fortunately for the rest of the world, what initially seemed like a door slamming shut was actually a window of opportunity for sound system operators instead to obtain their musical “exclusives” by forging their own original sounds – which, in Coxsone’s case, led directly to the creation of Studio One, whose songs continue to rule the dancehalls today.

Coxsone behind the board

CoxsoneHow interesting to see Dodd draw on his prior experience as a sound system operator in refashioning “You Don’t Love Me” for a Jamaican audience.  Even more interesting to learn that Dawn Penn, who initially dropped out of the music business in 1970, would re-work “No No No” in a more contemporary dancehall style and hit the top of the Jamaican charts in 1994.   Most fascinating of all is that fact that two of the world’s top pop singers, Rhianna and Beyonce, breathed new life into this nearly 60-year-old tune when they covered “You Don’t Love Me” in 2005 and 2010, respectively.

Wait – didn’t Willie Cobbs (or Bo Diddley) write this song?

You Don't Love Me 45