Heavy 1968 rocksteady from the studio of Karl ‘Sir JJ‘ Johnson, 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.
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.
Today’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
Thanks to Eric Donaldson’s bio on the Trojan Records website (from the previous post) I found cause to kick myself for not making the connection that Eric is also the distinctive lead voice behind 1968’s great rocksteady single by The West Indians, “I Mean It” — with Lyn Taitt and his fabulous Jets:
“Eric embarked on a musical career in 1964 when he recorded acetates for Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd at Studio One and Duke Reid at Treasure Isle Studios. Following his experience of recording exclusive dub plates for the island’s leading Sound Systems, Eric was inspired to form a vocal group, suitably named the West Indians. He recruited Leslie Burke and Hector Brooks to provide backing harmonies that melodiously punctuated his incredible falsetto. The group initially worked with J.J. Johnson who in 1968 produced their notable hit ‘Right On Time’, alongside ‘Falling In Love’, ‘Hokey Pokey’ and ‘I Mean It'”.
J.J. Johnson would also issue on his Sir J.J. label,The Ethiopians’ great rocksteady and early reggae singles recorded between the years 1968-1973:
Very little seems to be known about this great single from the late rocksteady/early reggae era other than the artist name (Cliff & the Diamonds), the producer (Joe Abrahams), and song title (“Mother Benge”) – check out the hip musical non-sequitur that opens the song:
“Mother Benge” Cliff & the Diamonds 1968
Subtle sweet moment at the 1:21 mark when guitarist, Lyn Taitt, swipes the strings in inimitable fashion.
You can count on one hand the number of times that reggae singles by Jamaican artists have cracked the Top 40 here in the States: “Israelites” by Desmond Dekker in 1969 (#9) and “Double Barrel” by Dave Barker and Ansel Collins in 1971 (#22). Two times (*actually, three – see postscript at bottom). Even Bob Marley & the Wailers were only able to penetrate the top 100 pop charts once (“Roots Rock Reggae” #51 in 1976), while hitting top 40 on the “dance” charts twice with 1977’s “Waitin’ in Vain” (#38) & 1980’s “Could You Be Loved” (#6) and once on the “R&B” charts with “Exodus” in 1977 (#19). Any others from the classic era? I don’t think so.
But what about those moments when non-Jamaican artists infused reggae rhythms into pop music? Paul Simon kind of cheated and got top Jamaican session players to inject his top ten 1971 hit, “Mother and Child Reunion,” with authentic early reggae sounds. Texas-American, Johnny Nash, who cracked the top 40 in 1972 with his hit, “I Can See Clearly Now,” had an even bigger rocksteady hit, believe it or not, in 1968 (#21) with “Hold Me Tight.” Paul McCartney & Wings released one of my favorite songs of the summer of 1973 – “Live and Let Die” – which featured a “cod reggae” bit in the bridge. And let us not forget that when Paul played with his prior outfit, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” on 1968’s White Album was intended to be a Beatle take on what was then the new reggae sound. Eric Clapton, I almost forgot, had a huge hit in 1974 with his cover of Bob Marley’s, “I Shot the Sheriff,” and Elton John, it is worth noting, jumped on the pop reggae bandwagon in 1975 with his reggae-esque chorus near the end of his hit version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
But let us also pay special note to almighty Led Zeppelin’s tribute to the hot reggae sounds of 1973, “D’yer Maker” – which the overwhelming majority of Americans, myself included, had no idea was a Londoner’s playful pronunciation of the name, Jamaica (scamps). Actually, the song title was inspired by the following joke, an exchange between two friends: “My wife’s gone to the West Indies.” “Jamaica?” (“D’you make her?”) “No, she went of her own accord.”
On the Warner Brothers sampler album, Appetizers, you will find the Incredible String Band doing a very credible take on the early reggae sound – although with a distinctly British lilt – on an instrumental named, “Second Fiddle,” a track originally included on the group’s 1973 Island album, No Ruinous Feud: [* video since removed from YouTube]
“Second Fiddle” [Son of Dave – *video substitution!]
The band lists the song’s author as Duke Reid – famed owner of top rocksteady label, Treasure Isle – and Wikipedia confirms that the song is, indeed, a cover version. However, it is interesting to note that when you look at the label of the original Treasure Isle 45 – such as in this vinyl video – “Drumbago Cannonball” is listed as the sole tunesmith.
1973 just might be the tipping point for the use of reggae in American pop music, as this article – “Reggae Be the Rage?” – by Robert Christgau (the “Dean of American Rock Critics”) would seem to indicate.
Bonus video link to Johnny Nash’s TV performance of “Hold Me Tight” with go-go dancing accompaniment – and fantastic musical backing by pioneering guitarist Lyn Taitt & his fabulous Jets.
Any other pop reggae moments on the US Hot 100 charts?
Wait a minute! Jimmy Cliff was brought to my attention, and after a check of the charts – and this should come as no surprise – two hits from 1969’s Wonderful World BeautifulPeople: the title track (#25) and “Come Into My Life” (#89). Thus, we now have a total of three US top 40 hits from reggae’s 1960s-70s classic era.