“Sound Clash”: Dancehall Classic from Bunny Wailer

Back in the mid-to-late 1990s, classic Jamaican sounds of the 1960s and 70s began to appear in the American marketplace on compact disc – many for the first time – on such labels as Heartbeat, Trojan, Mango, Shanachie & Blood and Fire, among many others.

One of the more unusual compilations I purchased back then was a 3-CD UK-issued hodge podge of a mix – called Jamaica Ska-Kore – that spans a rather vast musical range from ska and rocksteady to early reggae, DJ, modern roots reggae and beyond.  Part of the mix’s charm is its complete disregard for sequencing, as well as occasional mishaps where the song playing is not the one printed on the track listing — or a repeat of an earlier tune, which is the case for Bunny Wailer’s live rendition of “Sound Clash,” a dancehall classic, which appears both at the end of disc one and track five of disc two:

Bunny Wailer

The Earliest Reggae Recording?

Three years ago, someone paid $99 for this great single by Larry (Marshall) & Alvin (Leslie) that was recorded in 1970 at Clement “Coxsone” Dodd’s legendary Studio One:

“Press Along Nyah”     Larry & Alvin    1970

Last year The Jamaica Observer checked in with Larry Marshall (now residing in Florida), who feels unappreciated as a musical trailblazer and unhappy about the lack of financial compensation in spite of his popularity in the record shops, as well as dancehalls.  Click here for lengthy interview in which Marshall discusses, among other things, the particulars of his contractual relationship with Studio One’s Coxsone Dodd, as well as the Babylonian workings of the music business (e.g., the 1986 UK release of Marshall’s 1975 album, I Admire You, against his express permission).

Alvin, by the way, is not, as some (including myself) have hypothesized, Alvin “G.G.” Ranglin of GG Records fame.

Dance Crasher UK includes illustrated listing of all 7-inch Supreme Records releases.

“Press Along Nyah” (Version) on the flip side.

Press Along Nyah 45

Parlor Game:  Can You Pinpoint the Moment Rocksteady Became Reggae

Larry Marshall will be forever linked to his landmark 1968 Studio One recording “Nanny Goat,” a song historians have long noted as having helped define the original reggae sound.  As Howard Campbell writes in the Jamaica Observer:

“Others argue that Toots and the Maytals’ ‘Do The Reggay,’ also done in 1968, and ‘Games People Play‘ by Bob Andy the following year, marked the transition from rocksteady to reggae.  But for most, ‘Nanny Goat’ was the game-changer.”

Boris Gardiner, in a 2012 interview in Real Time Magazine, meanwhile, firmly disputes the received wisdom about “Nanny Goat” (calling it a “thorough-bred rocksteady beat”), as well as “Baby Why” by The Cables (another oft-cited contender for “first reggae song“).  Gardiner ultimately agrees with legendary Studio One house drummer, Joe Isaacs‘ assessment that “Ride Your Donkey” by The Tennors (with its one drop supplied by Hugh Malcolm) has the first true reggae beat.

Coxsone Dodd, as quoted in Peter Simon’s Reggae International (1983):

I remember what changed the whole sound from rock steady to reggae.  We did a recording by the name of ‘Nanny Goat‘ by Larry [Marshall] and Alvin [Leslie].  A very popular record.  At that time, I had been in England and came back with quite a few gadgets … like a delay.  After ‘Nanny Goat,’ we had a series of recordings with that sound but it was like the guitar being on the delay meshed with the organ shuffle.  This was coming on as something new, and this is where the change came from rock steady to reggae. And you can listen to the guitar change in ‘Nanny Goat’ and quite a few of the Cables‘ tunes.”

Lloyd Bradley offers another perspective in Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King (2001):

People Funny Boy‘ [Lee Perry] wasn’t, however, the first example of the changeover from rocksteady to reggae.  That distinction would have to be shared between Larry Marshall’s ‘Nanny Goat‘ and ‘No More Heartaches‘ by The Beltones, with both records’ producers — Coxsone Dodd and Harry J (Johnson), respectively — claiming the credit for entirely different reasons.  Dodd has cited his use of a delay echo unit he’d recently imported from the UK, which he hooked up to the guitar to end up with a distinct skanga … skanga … skanga sound on the previously straight-down timekeeping stroke; a state of affairs that naturally served to hurry the music’s pace along.  Johnson, however, maintains that it was the rhythmic combination he created of arched fingers stabbing at an organ chord, a conventional guitar stroke and a far more percussive bass pattern that produced the same effect

In truth, both men have a point, and you’d expect nothing less from how this story’s shaping up.  But if you listen to the overall feel of each record rather than try to isolate particular elements, each one clearly occupies a different notch on reggae’s chronology.  Harry’s horn-laden piece of harmony may demonstrate reggae’s characteristics but it’s essentially a rocksteady record dressed up in some flash new clothes; Dodd’s tune, however, utilizes what was then cutting-edge gadgetry — as well as the delay echo he introduced at the same time — and, almost immediately, so many other studios began to adopt and adapt that sound through the same technology.  ‘Nanny Goat’ would seem to be linking forward, while ‘No More Heartaches’ ties with the past.  Thus, it could be argued that, while each played a significant part, Johnson’s record is, in fact, the primary example.

What they both shared, although ‘Nanny Goat’ showed it off more prominently, is what was known as the ‘shuffle organ’, a bubbling, brisk-paced keyboard style that allowed former pianists to show off on the electric organs that were by now studio staples.  The first two real reggae tunes showed up on the Studio One and Harry J labels, and each set-up employed one of the style leaders along this new ivory way:  respectively, Jackie Mittoo and Winston Wright.  Mittoo, once the Skatalites’ keyboardist, was now, at the tender age of twenty, Coxsone’s resident musical arranger/talent scout.  Wright had become acknowledged as Jamaica’s undisputed master of the Hammond when, as one of Tommy McCook’s Supersonics, his lush, infectious tones had been a signficiant factor in Duke Reid’s ruling of the rocksteady roost.  Wright had now gone freelance, and found regular employment with Harry Johnson.  Johnson had no studio of his own at this point, and booked a room at Coxsone’s for those sessions, which meant that both songs were recorded at 13 Brentford Road, with one of the best electric organs on the island.

Chris Salewicz and Adrian Boot add their two pence in Reggae Explosion:  The Story of Jamaican Music (2001):

There were other contenders for the title of first reggae record.  Because of his guitar sound, Alva Lewis claims it for the tune ‘Bangarang‘, a Bunny Lee production recorded in 1969 at Treasure Isle and credited to Stranger Cole and Lester Sterling:  the song was a development of ‘Bongo Chant‘, a British bop tune from a decade before by Kenny Graham and the Afro-Cubists.  Producer Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee also argues that ‘Bangarang’ was the first reggae song, but not, he insisted, because of the guitar sound but because of novice organ player Glen Adams‘ riffs — Striker was adamant that it was kind of a slurred organ sound, as specialised in by Jackie Mittoo (who was also an arranger and A&R man for Coxsone) that defined the first reggae records.

The 4th edition of All Music Guide – The Definitive Guide to Popular Music (2001) makes a different assertion altogether in its section on Reggae:

In 1966 [Derrick] Morgan issued “Tougher Than Tough,” widely credited as the first record in the rock steady genre.  He continued to innovate in the years to follow — among his most enduring contributions were “Went to the Hop” (the first Jamaican song with an electric bass guitar), “Blazing Fire” (the first song to employ an electric piano), “Love Not to Brag” (the first duet with a female artist, Millicent Patsy Todd) and “Seven Letters” (the first reggae song, produced in collaboration with brother-in-law Bunny Lee).

Patricia Meschino, who authored “As Reggae Celebrates 50 Years, Some of the Genre’s Pioneers Look Back on Its Worldwide Ascent” for Billboard‘s July 1, 2018 edition, identifies a handful of notable candidates for “first reggae song” — including “Long Shot (Bus Me Bet)” by The Pioneers — and also solicits feedback from long-time session bassist, Jackie Jackson, who fingers “Feel the Rhythm” by Clancy Eccles as significant and notes, “Right about there, that was a real reggae song, identifying the heart and soul of reggae and alongside Toots’ ‘Do The Reggay,’ those two songs really helped to put reggae on the map.”

“Bangarang Festival”: The Sound of 1969

Very little information seems to exist about this Jamaica Independence Festival song contribution that bears the classic sound of vintage 1969 reggae – “Bangarang Festival” – from The Peter Ashbourne Affair:

Bangarang Festival – Peter Ashbourne Affair

[Pssst:  Click the triangle to play “Bangarang Festival” by The Peter Ashbourne Affair.]

Peter Ashbourne

Present-day Peter Ashbourne find him teaching at Edna Manley College’s School of Music and composing for theatre, dance & film, as well as producing, arranging, writing & performing popular music with an array of Jamaican and international artists.  Ashbourne has not only worked as a studio musician accompanying such artists as Bob Marley, Beres Hammond, Paul Simon, Eddie Kendricks & Manu Dibango, but has also served for three decades as one of Jamaica’s top commercial composer-arrangers, having been creatively involved in the production of over 700 jingles – and winning the CLIO for his 1983 Air Jamaica North America campaign.  Click here to learn more about Peter Ashbourne’s many accomplishments.

Peter Ashbourne Affair 45

“Five Minutes to Live”: Death Sentence Commuted to 18 Years

My heartfelt appreciation to Brian Horrorwitz of Trash Palace for introducing me to a great tune that was sung by Johnny Cash and featured in a mediocre film in which he starred:

“Five Minutes to Live”     Johnny Cash     1960

I am especially in awe of Luther Perkins’ guitar lines, who plays exactly the right notes and not a single note more.  Luther’s terse instrumental passage preceding each verse captures perfectly the unrelenting dread – one imagines – of those awaiting execution, while the economy of his playing thrills me in the same way that complex and showy musicianship used to knock me out when I was a wide-eyed teen.

But if you search all of Cash’s Columbia single releases, you will discover that this obvious A-side was never issued as a 45 — nor was it released on any of Johnny’s Columbia albums either.  Neither was it issued as part of a soundtrack album for Five Minutes to Live (a.k.a., Door-to-Door Maniac), as far as I can tell.  Thus, this song, born in 1960, remained in solitary confinement for 18 years until the 1978 release of The Unissued Johnny Cash by Bear Family, (the German reissue label that compiles lavish and scrupulously annotated box sets of American roots rock, country & blues artists) – and even then, it was only available to U.S. fans as a pricey import.

Five Minutes to Live poster

Is it possible that the heavyweight topic of capital punishment made “Five Minutes to Live” too sensitive for radio play?

Thanks to In the Can for the recording session info:

Wednesday, November 2, 1960 :  At Bradley Studio in Nashville, Johnny Cash
records “Five Minutes To Live” and “The Losing Kind”, both of which are
first issued on the LP “The Unissued Johnny Cash” (Bear Family BFX 15016)
in 1978.

Personnel : Johnny Cash (vocals / guitar) ; Luther Perkins, Johnny Western
(guitars) ; Marshall Grant (bass) ; W.S. Holland (drums).
Produced by Don Law.

Ad in Nov. 1975 issue of Unicorn Times

“Frankie and Johnny”: Sincerest Form of Flattery

We’ve seen musical artists get into trouble with the public (and/or copyright holder) for releasing an original song that hews a little too closely to a prior piece of music, e.g., “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke and allegations that the song overtly mirrors “Got to Give It Up” by Marvin Gaye – as well as “Sexy Ways” by Funkadelic – in ways that go beyond being “reminiscent of a sound” (as Thicke and his producers claim) and into actual copyright infringement (as the plaintiffs assert).

You might recall that the Rolling Stones found themselves in the hot seat when certain people began to notice – Keith Richards’ daughter, Angela, preeminent among them – that the chorus to “Anybody Seen My Baby?,” the big single from 1997’s Bridges to Babylon, also closely resembled the refrain to K.D. Lang’s “Constant Craving,” which had very nearly topped the adult contemporary chart five years previously (Lang & Ben Mink, the song’s composers, were given co-writing credit by Jagger & Richards to keep the peace)

How interesting, then, to discover that people curiously not only seemed not to have a problem with Johnny Sea’s letter-perfect rendition of Johnny Cash in his cover of an old pop standard (that turns 110 this year), but that both versions would perform with near-identical success in the country chart — Johnny Cash (#9) vs. Johnny Sea (#13):

Frankie & Johnny - Cash 45Frankie & Johnny - Sea 45

Fascinating to observe that the Columbia 45 says “arr(anged by) Johnny Cash,” whereas Johnny Sea’s version attributes writing credit outright to Cash!  Both versions, by the way, released in 1959.   Wikipedia claims that at least 256 different recordings of “Frankie and Johnny” have been made since the early 20th century (not to mention the song’s use as the centerpiece of Scene V in ee cummings’ 1927 play, Him).

Interesting to note that Johnny Sea had already embraced his family’s original surname (Seay) by the time he recorded harrowing Dylanesque murder ballad, “Behind My Baby’s Bedroom Door” in 1967 for almighty Columbia.

Johnny Seay

“Baby Rocked Her Dolly”: Frankie (Miller) & Johnny (Horton)

Merle Kilgore really brings the pathos on an original composition that absolutely could have come from the canon of Johnny Cash:

“Baby Rocked Her Dolly” was also covered by Starday labelmates, Frankie Miller (1960) and Red Sovine (1967).  However, for his own version, Kilgore wisely decides to begin — just as George Martin did on “She Loves You” — with the chorus, and to great effect.

Baby Rocked Her Dolly 45Thanks to Nathan D. Gibson, author of The Starday Story:  The House That Country Music Built for the back story on this song:

“[Starday co-founder, Don] Pierce and [singer, Frankie] Miller had found success with a clean, wholesome image, and Miller continued to record down-home, earthy songs.  With his second release after “Family Man,” Miller again found himself in the national charts, this time with ‘Baby Rocked Her Dolly’ reaching Billboard’s #15 spot.  According to Miller, “We definitely tried to keep a family image.  ‘Black Land Farmer.’  ‘Family Man.’  The next one we had was ‘Reunion.’  And then ‘Baby Rocked Her Dolly’ which was a good chart song for me, one that Merle Kilgore wrote.  He originally wrote it for Johnny Horton.  Well, I was gonna record next week, and we was doing the Louisiana Hayride one Saturday.  Johnny was in the restroom and I went in and asked him, ‘Johnny, you got any songs, boy?  I need some material.  I’m fixin’ to record next week.’  He said, ‘I got a good song here for you.  Merle Kilgore wrote it for me but I’m not going to be able to cut it anytime soon.’  So he taught it to me backstage at the Louisiana Hayride and I recorded it the next week.  That was another Bradley’s [Owen Bradley’s Quonset hut] cut.”

“Baby Rocked Her Dolly” was included on Merle Kilgore’s 1963 Starday LP, There’s Gold in Them Thar Hills.

“Johnny Zero”: Reduced to Nothing

Recorded by Merle Kilgore in early November, 1963 at Columbia Recording Studio in Nashville and released January 1964 as a single by MGM:

“Johnny Zero”     Merle Kilgore     1963

Does Merle Kilgore sound like Johnny Cash because they were such good friends, or were Merle and Johnny good friends because their musical styles were so compatible?

Johnny Zero 45

Johnny Zero” (co-written with Don Christopher) can also be found on MGM country compilation album, Great Country & Western Stars.

MGM country LP