Reggae’s “Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida”

The Rocksteady Kid — Zero to 180’s radio alter ago — once had the good fortune to experience the frantic exhilaration of spinning classic Jamaican pop of the three-minute variety on the University of Maryland’s student radio station.  I very quickly learned you can’t be complacent when the tunes are coming so fast and furious:  stop to think for very long, and you just might miss your cue for the next track.

Things got even nuttier when the late, great Charlie Coleman (on Eastern Shore’s WKHS) allowed me to program a couple all-truck-driving radio shows in which a goodly number of the tunes were of the two-minute variety.   We were playing with fire each time we tried to carry on a conversation, and sure enough, one time we ended up playing one Moby Grape song too many.

Charlie Coleman & The Dieselbilly Kid @ WKHS     December, 2004

hp photosmart 720I can only imagine, therefore, the considerable ease of being a disc jockey in the 1970s when “Album-Oriented Rock” was the dominant format and short, sharp songs were the exception to the rule.  Stories are legend of DJs putting the needle on such long-winded tracks as Grand Funk Railroad’s “I’m Your Captain” (ten minutes), Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” (fifteen minutes), or that hoary cliche “Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida” (seventeen minutes) so they could then disappear from the control room for vast stretches of time to do whatever.

One of the Rocksteady Kid’s favorite memories – and proudest radio moments – was when he had to cut the radio show short unexpectedly in order to allow the station to broadcast that night’s University of Maryland basketball game.  Thus, with nearly twenty minutes to fill, the Kid made an executive decision to play one final track as a swansong.  And it’s a doozy:

Lee Perry     “Free Up the Prisoners”     1978

I’m a little surprised that, with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s world renown as an “audio alchemist” of the First Order, only one audio clip exists on YouTube (with a paltry 1,248 “views,” no less).

Dave Katz has this to say about this epic track in his biography, People Funny Boy:  The Genius of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry:

“Also noteworthy [from 1978] was ‘Free Up the Prisoners,’ a vocal magnum opus from Perry himself cut on a peculiar ‘Disco Prisoner’ 12-inch single at 33 RPM.  Issued on his new Conquering Lion of Judah label with a beautiful picture sleeve, ‘Free Up the Prisoners’ was nearly 13 minutes of Perry listing the reasons why those in captivity should be freed over a relaxed and rolling re-cut of [Clancy Eccles’] ‘Feel the Rhythm’; two versions of the single were issued in quick succession, the second made notably different through its inclusion of a prominent piano riff.  As the song progressed, a crescendo of sound effects emerged, with sine waves and electric seesaw sounds gradually overpowering the mix; the sobering B-side, ‘Chase Them,’ spoke of non-Rasta elements such as income tax and birth control that needed to be chased away.”

Lee Perry Disco 45Jo-Ann Greene’s review of the song on AllMusic is also worth a peek.

Carl Dobson & the Liberals: Lefty Reggae

In the interest of fair and balanced coverage (given yesterday’s item about 60s soul group The Conservatives), today’s piece features an unshamedly left-leaning outfit — Jamaica’s Carl Dobson & the Liberals on their (1976?) single, “Whopin Mama”:

“Whopin Mama” + Dub     Carl Dobson & the Liberals     1976

Great production from legendary reggae team – Joe Gibbs and his trusty engineer, Errol T. (The Mighty Two) – with the dub B-side surgically attached in this special YouTube mix.

Carl Dobson would also release a couple of singles backed by the “Mighty Liberals” around this same time.

This “wicked” 45 sold at an online auction in 2010 for $26.

Carl Dobson 45Prior to this recording, Dobson would also put out a couple of discs with the esteemed Morwells (Maurice Wellington & Eric “Bingy Bunny” Lamont) in 1974 & 1975.

“Rock Steady Rodeo”: Saddle Up, Mon

1996 saw the independent release of the debut album by a group of renegade Canadian musicians – The Reggae Cowboys – who, in a supreme leap of faith, dared to fuse Jamaican reggae rhythms with, well, cowboy music and imagery.

Van Halen’s “Hang ’em High” as kick-off track

Reggae Cowboys debut LPAs reported in this February 17, 1996 Billboard piece, “Reggae Cowboys Corral Audience“:

“Bird Bellony, leader of The Reggae Cowboys, figures that executives at multinational labels based in Canada might not be too impressed with his five-member group or reggae/country/blues-flavored debut album, Tell the Truth.

With an 1850s photograph of African-American roper and bronco-rider, Nat Love (a.k.a., ‘Deadeye Dick’) on the cover, the album features songs about black gunfighters and cowboys of the Old West.  The album was independently released Nov. 24, 1995 on the band’s Tumbleweed Records.

‘We chose not to look for a deal with a major Canadian record company, because black music, particularly reggae, is dead in Canada,’ says Bellamy, who goes by the name Stone Ranger in the group.

Reggae in Canada has not evolved much from the late ’60s and early ’70s, when such acts as Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley & the Wailers, Toots & the Maytals, Burning Spear and Third World were widely popular, while such Canadian-based acts as Jackie Mittoo, Joe Isaacs, Ishan People, Ernie Smith’s Roots Revival, Leroy Sibbles, Carlene Davis, Faybiene Miranda, and Messenjah struggled to find an audience.”

Two years later, country duo, The Bellamy Brothers, would title their album – coincidentally or not – Reggae Cowboys.  Musical thievery?  It is possible we will never know the answer.

The Reggae Cowboys would produce a video for the tuneful title track behind 1999’s Rock Steady Radio – an album of Bill Bellony originals (save for Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”):

“Rock Steady Rodeo” — The Reggae Cowboys — 1996

According to Discogs.com, this song – the album’s kick-off track – would be (wryly) retitled “Reggae Rodeo” on the track listing itself.  Is it possible this title change hampered the public’s ability to locate the band’s second studio effort?  Another musical mystery that may never be solved.

The Reggae Cowboys would round up one last collection of songs – 2003’s Stone Ranger – before riding off into the sunset.

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:

“Ital Vibes”: Vibraphonic Reggae

Reggae is another realm of popular music where the vibraphone so rarely makes a foray.  As a result, Jamaican vibraphonist, Lennie Hibbert, pretty much has the field all to himself, as the intersection of reggae and the vibes essentially begins and ends with this one soul. Hibbert’s theme song – if one were to exist – would most definitely be “Village Soul,” easily his best known composition, but 1974’s tuneful instrumental “Ital Vibes” is another great starting point for vibraphone-infused reggae:

“Ital Vibes” – Lennie Hibbert – Produced by Harry Mudie

The bulk of Hibbert’s early work appears to be with Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One label, where he recorded as part of Coxsone’s house band, The Sound Dimension, and also released a few singles under his own name.  Hibbert did appear, however on at least two Nyabinghi-inflected singles recorded at the studio of pioneering female producer, Sonia Pottinger:  “The Retreat Song” (with Millicent ‘Patsy’ Todd) and “Pure Soul” (with Count Ossie & Lyn Taitt), both from 1968.  Hibbert would record two long-playing releases as a solo artist on Studio One – 1969’s Creation and 1971’s More Creation – before moving on to Harry Mudie’s label in the early to mid 1970s where he recorded a handful of 45s.

rear cover – 1969 Studio One LP, Creation

Lennie Hibbert

Hibbert’s biography on AllMusic points out that in 1976 the vibraphonist would be awarded the Order of Distinction for his contribution to Jamaican music, as well as his work as an educator at Kingston’s legendary Alpha Boys School, training ground for an extraordinary number of Jamaica’s top musicians and where a hall would be named in honor of Hibbert, who passed in 1984.

Lennie Hibbert photoLennie Hibbert enthusiasts may want to seek out his exceptionally rare debut album, Moon-Light Party at the Myrtle Bank Hotel, although be prepared to pay through the nose: one copy sold in 2006 for $760.  Be advised, however, this is actually a studio album and not a live recording as the title would seem to suggest.

“Bankrobber”: Punk Roots Reggae, 2004

Great live performance of Mikey Dread at Glastonbury in 2004 where, in his tribute to The Clash’s Joe Strummer, he slyly mixes up the tempo about halfway through, as he veers playfully from torporific one-drop skank to ska at the drop of a hat:

Here’s a link to video footage of The Clash playing live with Mikey Dread on the band’s ‘Sixteen Tons’ tour — “Bankrobber” performed as the first song of their encore, no doubt from the three-camera shoot of the band’s concert at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey on March 8, 1980.

“Bankrobber” enjoyed release as an A-side (backed with “Rockers Galore”) after first being issued as a B-side (“Train in Vain” – London Calling‘s ‘hidden’ track that ended up being The Clash’s first top 40 hit) — although some markets, such as Germany, Netherlands, France & Australia, got to enjoy all three tracks on a “maxi” 45 released in those nations.

Clash Meets Mikey Dread

“Nosey Joe”: Where Version Meets Dub

[Note:  Third in a triptych of pieces about songs named Joe]

Technically, this near-instrumental is what’s known as “version” (as opposed to dub’s full-on, all-out adventurousness), though fortunately, this mix is enlivened by light dub treatments that follow the playful spoken word opening:

[Pssst: Click the triangle to play “Nosey Joe Version” by Bongo Herman & Faye Bennett.]

“Nosey Joe Version” is from the mixing console and recording studio of Niney the Observer, a.k.a., Winston Holness (née George Boswell), who replaced Lee “Scratch” Perry at Joe Gibbs’ studio in 1968 after Perry famously (and angrily) left to form his own musical enterprise.  Niney, a protege of Perry, would eventually end up collaborating with “Scratch” on 2001’s Station Underground Report.

Dennis Brown LP

Extra Credit:  Check out the original vocal version via Dennis Brown’s “Wolf & Leopards.”

“Awakening”: Modern Roots Reggae Inna 21st Century

It may be kind of hard to believe now, but at one time in the 1990s and the early part of the new century, the DC area was an important center of activity for roots reggae and other Caribbean sounds.  Georges Collinet, for instance, was broadcasting his internationally distributed radio show Afropop Worldwide out of DC, as Takoma Park played host to the West Indian Record Mart – where staff would spin vinyl records on a bona fide sound system, the way reggae music is meant to be heard but too rarely is here in the States – while Silver Spring served as home base to RAS Records (“Real Authentic Sound”), a respected roots label, founded by Gary “Dr. Dread” Himelfarb, that helped breathe new life into the careers of such storied Jamaican artists as Black Uhuru, Steel Pulse, Israel Vibration, Freddie McGregor, Yellowman, Inner Circle, Don Carlos, and Joseph Hill & Culture among many others.  And, as if by some divine bit of orchestration, these “conquering lions” of reggae could then record at Lion & Fox, a state-of-the-art recording facility just across the Potomac named, incredibly, for a real-life Lion (Hal) and Fox (Jim).

Charging into this robust music scene, playing strictly original songs and helping to bring roots reggae into the Modern Age, was (and is) JohnStone, who braved winter’s wrath in early 2005 to lay down tracks at Lion & Fox for their first full-length release, Eyes Open — which included the uplifting “Awakening”:

Awakening – JohnStone

[Pssst:  Click the triangle above to play “Awakening” by JohnStone.]

Eyes Open - JohnStoneEyes Open Dub - JohnStone

Reflecting DC’s diverse international community, JohnStone brought together players from Jamaica (Andre White), Guyana (Alfred Adams) and Ghana (Chet Nunoo-Quarcoo), as well as the United States (Brendan DeMelle and Joe Mannekin).  Guitarist/vocalist – and NCAA Division III soccer star – Andre White, formed JohnStone precursor, Zion Express, in 1995 with bassist DeMelle (whose brother, Jeff, has played bass with Clinton Fearon & the Boogie Brown Band) and Peyton Tochterman, before moving to DC in 2000 and forming JohnStone with drummer/vocalist, Alfred Adams.  By the time the band went into Lion & Fox to record their first album, Mannekin (keyboards) and Nunoo-Quarcoo (percussion) were also on board – with Ben Crandall joining in on sax.  Eyes Open would also receive a royal remix in the form of a dub version by engineer extraordinaire, Jim Fox.

JohnStone at Voice of America in 2003

JohnStone

[Bottom row]  Adams, Nunoo-Quarcoo & White — [Top row]  Mannekin & DeMelle

 

JohnStone has won several DC Annual Reggae Music Awards, including Song of the Year for 2001 (“Live On”) and 2005 (“Shashamane Land”), as well as Recording of the Year (“Eyes Open Dub”) in 2005 and Best Reggae Band in 2012.  Besides being headliners in their own right, JohnStone have also opened for such legendary reggae artists as Burning Spear, Toots & the Maytals, The Meditations, The Itals, Third World, Sister Carol, and Yellowman.  2007 would see the release of Innocent Children – whose title track was originally conceptualized and written by Adams, horrified by reports of the use of child soldiers in Haiti’s coup d’etat in 2004 – while 2010 would find the band issuing their second all-dub disc, Dub Confidence.

JohnStone’s personnel, anchored by White and Adams, has evolved over the years – Warren Pedersen II now anchors the bottom on bass while Reggie Moore spices up the treble on lead guitar – but their songs and sound are as vital as ever.   Click here to see where you can enjoy upcoming live performances or here to purchase their recordings.

johnstone at rockville town Center – 2010

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Secret Hidden Bonus Track

Andre (who sings lead on “Awakening”) and Alfred share lead vocal duties in JohnStone — here’s another track from Eyes Open – “Never Ever” – that features Alfred’s voice:

Never Ever – JohnStone

[Pssst:  Click the triangle above to play “Never Ever” by JohnStone.]

“Play De Music” vs. “Finger Mash”: Festival Sound Clash

In the liner notes to Baba Boom! – Trojan’s compilation of Jamaica Independence Festival songs from 1966-1975 – one piece of text really jumped out at me:

“1974’s ‘Play De Music’ by Tinga Stewart – a monster hit and the very last one of the archetypal Festival Songs, celebrating the joy of music and its persuasive power to bring people of all persuasions together, that would prove as popular with the judges as it was with the record-buying public.”

Written & produced by Ernie Smith

Tinga Stewart 45

Lo and behold, the Upsetter himself – Lee Perry – released the oddly-titled “Finger Mash” that same year and (coincidentally or not) it pretty much sounded like an unabashed rewrite of “Play De Music,” despite claiming to have been written by Perry himself:

To be fair, the Upsetter mix does feature some trademark Lee Perry sonic surprises.  Sweet falsetto backing vocals, too, from The Silvertones.

Finger Mash - 7 inchHow likely is it that Tinga Stewart stole his Festival-winning song idea from Lee Perry? More importantly, who wins the ’74 Festival Face-Off:  “Play De Music” or “Finger Mash”?

Festival Song Competition:  A Thing of the Past?

Ominous story in the April 12, 2013 edition of the Jamaica Observer about the decision by the Jamaica Cultural Development Corporation to suspend the usual song competition in favor of allowing people instead to “vote for their favorite Festival song as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations” — thus, the “first time since the Festival Song Contest was held in 1966 that it will not be held in traditional form.”