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 the audio yourself 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
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].
“Desmond Dekker & the Aces have a novelty chalypso [sic] in ‘Israelites, already a hit in England. Should be big.”
That same issue of Record World, by the way, includes a news report (p. 16) announcing that Uni “has acquired the U.S. distribution” of Dekker’s #1 British hit and has “put it into a rush release schedule,” with a big promotional campaign in the works, while in the “London Lowdown” column (p. 52), Jean Griffiths congratulates publisher/writer Hal Shaper, whose Sparta Publishing company “has been in business five years this week, and what better sign of success than publishing the current No. 1—Desmond Dekker’s ‘Israelites’.”
“The sheer energy that gave Desmond Dekker a breakaway in the “Israelites” is [toned] down on the team’s second release. Just crazy enough to attract second listens, and coupled with Dekker’s on-the-way reputation, ‘It Mek’ should set the team up for another hit go-round.”
But let us also pay special note to almightyLed 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.”
“D’Yer Maker” (“El Tintero“) A-Side of this 1973 EP — Mexico
On the Warner Brothers sampler album, Appetizers, you will find TheIncredible 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 [see Douglas Thomson’s comment appended below].
1973 also produced an Eddie Floyd single “Baby Lay Your Head Down” that was recorded in Jamaica, I just recently (12/29/20) learned, thanks to Shindig‘s interview with Floyd in their October 2020 edition. One 45Cat contributor points to Rob Bowman’s notes for the third Stax singles box set, which state that the song was actually “recorded at Byron Lee’s studio in Kingston in 1971 when Eddie, Duck Dunn and Al Jackson [Stax house musicians] were on a combination business/pleasure trip.”
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 TV performance of “Hold Me Tight” by Johnny Nash [who left us October 6, 2020] 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?
“The dynamic ‘Double Barrel’ duo return with another outing in the same musical vein, but with a bit more vocalizing this time around. Having already had much success in England, single is likely to repeat in this country. Record will take off in all teen markets because of its obvious commercial appeal.”
Worth pointing out that, despite appearances, Dave and Ansel are not actually brothers — vocalist, Dave (surname Crooks, stage name Barker) is enjoined musically with ace keyboardist, Ansel Collins, whose work has graced many classic recordings.
American coverageof Jamaican releases during this early reggae period is so minimal that any sighting is cause for celebration, thus these highlights noted below:
Jean Griffiths, in her “London Lowdown” column for the Dec. 13, 1969 edition of Record World, makes a bold assertion:~“Reggae cannot be ignored — five artists of the sound now in the charts.”
Cash Box‘s “Great Britain – 1969 in Review” for its Dec. 27, 1969 edition begins with this observation:~“1969 has been a year of two definite but not yet overwhelming trends in British pop music — one is the progressive underground or heavy movement, and the other is reggae, formerly known as blue beat and ska, with Caribbean antecedence.”
Cash Box published a full-page ad in its Feb. 14, 1970 edition for Steady Records in which the NYC-based label (whose roster includes Ernest Ranglin) made the following proclamation:~“Reggae may very possibly be the next dance craze in the United States. It is already enjoying a huge success in London, the UK, South America, and the West Indies. An explosion of major dimensions could be imminent for ‘Reggae Revolution.’ To quote the Beatles on a recent ABC-Radio interview: ‘Reggae Music will be the new trend of music for the 1970’s.'”
Cash Box‘s news item — “Reggae Label Forms, Features Reggae Beat” — in their March 14, 1970 issue, announces the formation of Reggae, a subsidiary label of NYC-based/Bob Thiele-owned Flying Dutchman that hopes to capitalize on “the West Indian rock beat that has been sweeping England and the Continent.”~Four albums initially planned, though only two subsequently released — Superman by The Reggae Beat (featuring Bernard Purdie and Hubert Laws) and The Liquidators‘ Super Reggae — by this short-lived label.
Cash Box‘s announcement — “Cotillion Releasing British Reggae Deck” — in their Aug. 1, 1970 issue:~“Cotillion Records is rush releasing the hit English single “Love of the Common People” by Nicky Thomas. The tune is a reggae, the Jamaican rhythm that has become a new trend in Great Britain.”
Courtney Tulloch‘s report for Rolling Stone ‘s March 4, 1971 edition – simply entitled “Reggae” (dominated by a photo of Desmond Dekker cradling a guitar on the beach) – affirms the existence of “the first reggae film,” a documentary “directed by a West Indian, Horace Ove” [originally broadcast on BBC – posted briefly on YouTube].
“The contention of many white pop musicians that reggae is repetitive rubbish may stem in part from their inability to play it.~Several bands, from club groups to hotel dance bands, have tried to incorporate hit reggae tunes into their act and practically dislocated themselves trying to catch the rhythm.”
Charlie Gillett‘s review — “Reggae in Your Jeggae” — of a pair of Trojan compilation albums (Reggae Chartbusters Volumes I & II) published in Rolling Stone‘s July 22, 1971 issue.
The Pioneers‘ faithful rendition of Jimmy Cliff’s “Let Your Yeah Be Yeah” earned the band a Special Merit Spotlight in Billboard‘s Sept. 11, 1971 edition along with this review:~“Currently riding in the Top 10 of the British chart, this infectious Jamaican number, penned by Jimmy Cliff, offers much potential for the U.S.”
Jerry Hopkins‘ report from London — “Reggae: A Mother & Child Reunion” — for Rolling Stone‘s May 25, 1972 edition rightly recognizes the influence of American rhythm & blues on reggae’s roots, as well as the role of British “skinhead” youth in popularizing the early reggae sound.
“Another big change is in the ‘pop’-ularizing of the music.~Until fairly recently, nearly all Reggae was recorded in small Jamaican studios. Although [Trojan co-founder Lee] Gopthal claims as much as 80 percent still is, he isn’t taking into account the “sweetening” done here — the addition of strings and vocal harmonies.~More and more recording is being done here now — most of it in a small four-track studio in the Chalk Hill Farm section, near the Roundhouse.~[Tony] Cousins and [Bruce] White say they won’t be doing any future recording in the West Indies.”
Cash Box publishes “Only a Motion Away” — an examination of the “new” reggae sound — in the June 10, 1972 (part one) and June 17, 1972 (part two) editions [as part of its ‘Insight & Sound’ series].
Cash Box selects “Rock It Baby” b/w “Stop That Train” by The Wailers (original trio) as one of its Newcomer Picks in their Jan. 13, 1973 edition, and includes this review:~“Recorded in Jamaica, the Wailers dip into some fine Reggae material for their first release in the States. Smooth, flowing rhythm tracks yield an almost hypnotic effect that audiences will love. Deserving of much airplay.”
Loraine Alterman‘s piece “It’s Here – Reggae Rock” for the Feb. 4, 1973 edition of The New York Times — excerpt:
“According to disc jockey Jeff Barnes who is Jamaican:~‘Much of the Jamaican music is an indigenous form but it had its beginnings in American down‐south rhythm and blues.~Then there’s a religious sect in Jamaica called ‘Poco Mania’—it means little madness—and that started to have some influence on it.~Another thing which had some heavy influence was another Jamaican music called mento which is similar to calypso.’”
Michael Thomas‘ six-page “gonzo” feature – “The Wild Side of Paradise: Steaming With the Rude Boys, the Rastas and Reggae” – for Rolling Stone‘s July 19, 1973 edition.
“Byron Lee’s face clouds over.~He’s sitting back in his swivel chair behind his desk at Dynamic Sound Studios talking about the early days, when he found ska in the gutter and gave it class, when he used to get out on the road more with the band and wasn’t encumbered by all this capital growth.~Dynamic is the biggest game in town today.~That’s where the Stones and Cat Stevens and Elton John and Leon Russell and all the other bright sparks from England and America have been working lately; it’s where Paul Simon cut ‘Mother and Child Reunion.’ Byron started out four-track five years ago, went to eight-track 18 months ago, and now he’s just put in close to $100,000 worth of 16-track gear into both the top and bottom studios.“
“To take the strain, you need speakers, huge piles of custom-wired, hand-tooled 100-watt speakers four-feet square, lethal enough to boom out the foghorn on the Eddystone Light.~You need a dozen speakers, and half-a-dozen 1000-watt amps — not for sheer volume, but for the bass, to get the bass so powerful it’s a force of nature.~All this ungainly electronic weaponry, all set up in a dirt yard in Ghost Town for the big night of the week.”
Cash Box‘s review of The Wailers‘ performance at NYC’s Max’s Kansas City in the Aug. 11, 1973 issue:~“The Wailers, one of the Caribbean’s top reggae groups, aren’t well-known—yet. But the Island recording artists attracted a nightly crowd of trend-setters, trend-seekers and American musicians, a sure sign that the infectious reggae sound will be going pop in the months to come. The syncopated guitar riffs which form the base of reggae have proved catchy enough to produce hit singles for Johnny Nash and others. The Wailers are the real thing, though, and it’s just a matter of time before their combination of music and lyrics captures the mass market. Their delivery is unique; their message is timely, and it cuts across ethnic lines. The Wailers are kinky and here to stay.”
WETA TV‘s blog account of The Wailers‘ October 14, 1973 performance before 2,000-3,000 unimpressed midshipmen at U.S. Naval Academy’s Halsey Field House in Annapolis, MD.
Lorraine O’Grady‘s survey – “Jamaican Reggae: Who’s Listening in North America?” – for Rolling Stone‘s November 8, 1973 edition, in which Soul Train host Don Cornelius announces “reggae has peaked — it’s had all the success it’s ever going to have in this country” (while a jazz dancer friend of the writer sagely observes “the kids will like it if they ever get a chance”). O’Grady reports on the burgeoning scenes in the New York City/Boston areas, and highlights the artists who performed at 1973’s Jamaican Reggae Festival at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum — Lorna Bennett, Hopeton Lewis, Ernie Smith, and headliner, Big Youth, as well as DJs Scotty and Jeff Barnes.~Later in that same issue, James Isaacs bears witness to the “rousing welcome” given The Wailers at Paul’s Mall in Boston, a “reggae hotbed,” where The Harder They Come is now “in its fifth month at Cambridge’s Orson Welles Cinema.”
Excerpt — Reggae Bloodlines:In Search of the Music and Culture of Jamaica (1977) by Stephen Davis and Peter Simon:
Occasionally in the late Sixties an American record company would buy a reggae single [or ska, i.e., King Records] that had been successful in Jamaica or England release it in the States. The first reggae song to be played on American stations was Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites,” with its archetypal reggae theme: Black Africans, the metaphoric lost tribes of Israel, sold into the bondage of a Caribbean Babylon. The following year, 1969, Jimmy Cliff’s dark, epistolary “Vietnam” haunted the airflow with its touch antiwar lyric and the potency of its rocksteady beat. Like “Israelites,” Cliff’s song had a bit of success around the country but quickly faded away.
HOLLYWOOD — Reggae, the juicy sound of Jamaica, is coming to the U.S. via newly formed Mango Records, a joint venture of Island Records president Chris Blackwell, a pioneer of Jamaican music, and Shelter Records president Denny Cordell. The label will be distributed by Capitol Records. The record industry has previously been exposed to reggae with tropical tasters supplied by artists Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker, the Aces and currently Johnny Nash. It was Chris Blackwell’s production of Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollipop” that first wetted the industry’s palate by introducing its commercial value.
Blackwell literally grew up in Jamaica, where he says the record industry is bountiful, with a record store on practically every corner, most of them producing their own records in the back. He believes that record stores in Jamaica really know how to sell records. They use giant speakers, blasting reggae, to pull customers inside. Once inside turntables are controlled by shrewd DJ’s who know exactly how much of a record to play to guarantee a sale. Singles sell for about a dollar or, as Denny Cordell once witnessed, “six oranges and six mangoes.”
Record vs. Artist
Unfortunately, many artists have been exploited by Jamaican record companies, Blackwell reports. “The record, not the artist, has been the important thing there.” His reason for forming Mango Records is to develop these artists and protect their interests. The first scheduled release will be the soundtrack to the Perry Henzell movie depicting Jamaican lifestyles titled The Harder They Come. It will be released in February, and Cordell seemed to feel that this film and its soundtrack will do the same for Reggae as the movie Black Orpheus [released April, 1962] did for the bossa nova and Brazilian music in general.
Thus Kingston, Jamaica, may soon become an important musical industry dateline. The city now has seven recording studios, and many top recording acts have been able to get the sound they want there in the shortest period of time. Paul Simon, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, and Leon Russell are just a few who have recorded in what Blackwell terms “laid-back” surroundings. It was also learned that the Recording Plant has just opened a 16 track studio in Jamaica; only this one is aboard a yacht.
Blackwell began his career by importing rhythm and blues records from New York into Jamaica, selling them to mobile discotheques. These “sound systems,” as they are called, were very competitive and relied on acquiring records that were in demand. Chris would purchase records and scratch off the label so no one would know how to get the record. He was then able to sell them for top dollar. A copy of Ray Charles’ “What I’d Say”  once won Chris fifty dollars.
Other releases on Mango Records will be “Breakfast in Bed” by Lorna Bennett and an instrumental “Suck a Mango” by Sound Dimension[s], featuring Ernest Ranglin. Reggae music will also be highlighted during Capitol’s “Island Month” scheduled next month. A reggae LP, which Capitol describes as Jamaican underground music, is by Bob Marley and the Wailers called Catch a Fire.
Other albums to be released during Capitol’s Island Month include packages by Traffic, Free, John Martyn, the Amazing Blondel, and Mike Harrison.
The Mango Records logo will picture a little hun on an island – a “shelter” on an “island” – under which Blackwell and Cordell hope, in their words, to harbor Jamaican acts from unscrupulous exploitation.
The very special package encases a very special music — some will call it Reggae, but we prefer to call it Jamaican Underground Music — it’s the music of the people in Jamaica. This form of music has enjoyed wide popularity in England, and has been reflected here in Paul Simon’s “Mother & Child Reunion” and Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now.” The Wailers have toured in England with Johnny Nash, and produced the hit “Stir It Up,” written for him by Bob Marley of The Wailers. Listen to Catch A Fire a couple of times — it’ll make you do more than smell salt air . . .