Carlton Livingston is one of the many great singers from Jamaica whose undoubted talents are frequently overlooked. Carlton started with a group of singers in the Trench Town suburb of Kingston (this was a group later known as Knowledge). Then turned his vocal skills to deejaying in the early seventies with a sound system alongside well-known micman Lone Ranger before returning to singing again later on in that same decade. His first release was 'The Tale of Two Cities' on Channel One's Hitbound label in 1977. Carlton had several hit tunes for Sly & Robbie, Clive Jarrett's Dynamite imprint and Jah Life among others. Some twenty years back, around the time of his first albums for the Bebo label he also recorded for Studio One, one single from these sessions, "Why", was released in 1981. Following this there was another single and he has worked on and off for Coxsone since that time. There is also a Studio One album completed , but unfortunately, still awaiting release. The following interview was conducted with Carlton on the 2nd of February '03, shortly after he had just finished some recordings for Coxsone and when his Studio One LP was expected to appear at any time. My thanks to Carlton for taking time out to do this (actually calling up!), Johan, Brian Keyo (Tallawah), Robert Schoenfeld, Tim P and Mike Turner for support and assistance.

Q: Give me some of your family background and the music you were surrounded by?

A: I was born in St. Mary, that's a parish close to St. Ann on the north side of Jamaica. I am the fourth of six children. Musically, my musical background starts from my mother who was a singer in the choir, and my other sisters they just sing in the choir so I've got to trace my musical background to my mothers side of the family. I started singing early, 'cos I usually go and practice with my mother and my sisters. That's basically where my foundation came from.

Q: So your mother taught you more or less how to do phrasing, the rudiments, or was it someone at the church the family went to?

A: The early influences was the church, because it was mandatory for me to go to church on Sundays (laughs)! And there was no choice, no arguments, there's no discussion. On Sunday morning you get up, you do what you have to do and by eleven o'clock you have to go to church. After starting out young, after a while the choir appealed to me and I start to stand in the choir at a young age. My mother and sisters, y'know, and that's basically where it came from.

Q: You were never a part of a band in the early days? What time are we speaking now - late sixties?

A: Well, with the choir that was, like, late fifties. But then in the music, I mean recording or even the influence of getting into the studios was in the early seventies when I was part of a group. A couple of guys, we had a group. To be honest I have forgotten the name of the group. But there was one guy in the group, his name was (Anthony) Doyley, and basically he... I think he is the one that really got me into music. I mean to get me into the state where I am. Because I used to go to Trench Town Comprehensive High School and basically sneak away and go listen to Bob Marley down on Third Street, rehearsing in the yard. And then he decided he want to start a group and he asked me to come into the group. We usually rehearse at Excelsior high school, which is a high school that's very versatile in Jamaica. But we basically had a problem in the group with that everybody wanted to sing lead, and I only wanted to sing harmony (laughs)! So eventually we just rehearse but we never got anywhere. Then I decided...

Q: You never entered a competition at the time?

A: No, you know what? Because basically I'm a very shy person. I never usually... To be honest, it's like even get into music, it was like my friend Doyley (founder of the harmony group Knowledge) had to push me into it, basically. Because, y'know... he used to say "You know, you can sing!", and I was like: "Yeeeah, sure!" And he say: "No, you can really sing". Him say that "Really, with your skill you could sing pretty good". But I wasn't interested until Doyley came along and he really push me after the group broke up. Before the group reach anywhere and broke up, everyone say them want to sing lead and I decided... I said: 'if they say I could sing pretty good then basically I don't need any group - I could go solo'. Well, even after the group broke up, to be honest, I never really say I'm gonna pursuit until I met this guy named Tony Walcott. That time was, like, about 1977 or '78. Me and Lone Ranger, we were working on a sound system by the name of 'Fantastic Three'.

Carlton Livingston

Lone Ranger

Q: What about Soul Express?

A: Well, Soul Express... basically Fantastic T'ree is Soul Express, I think it evolved into Soul Express. Yeah, you're right, my bro'- that's a good one (laughs)! Yeah, Fantastic T'ree, because three of us started it. It was Fantastic T'ree and it evolved into Soul Express, and... basically you're right! That's when Lone Ranger came in with Soul Express and he was the deejay and I was...

Q: No, no! You were the deejay and he was the singer then.

A: Right, right! And then it just basically evolved into me being a singer and he the deejay, and they say "the rest is history...". But you're right. Yeah.

Q: But how come you got into deejaying, first as harmony singer in the Trench Town group, and then a bit of deejay business?

A: Maybe I was just trying to find myself, that's the only conclusion I can come to (laughs)! Because as I say, in the music, I wasn't... I didn't know if to pursuit, I wasn't interested in it. Because I don't know the reason why but then I started to deejay and then after I deejayed for a while I started to sing on basically Studio One tracks. The guy I started with - Noel, he said to me: "Carlton, you see the response from the crowd? You should sing!" Then I start to voice one or two tracks and Ranger got back off the singing. Then he start to deejay and eventually he just evolve that deejay is his style - fully. Singin' full, (would) be my style. And it was while in Soul Express that Tony Walcott discover us. You know, me, Ranger, Puddy (Roots) and Welton Irie we usually go to his house Sunday mornings and do basic rehearsal over Studio One tracks. Learning to harmony, making sure when the bridge come up you've got to change your tone and stuff like that, and basically he guide us along.

Q: Who was owner for Soul Express?

A: Noel Smith, otherwise known as 'Skinner'.

Q: How long did you stay with him and that sound? You stayed there for quite a while?

A: Yeah, we stayed with him for a while because I was part-owner of the set.

Q: OK. This was about '75, or '76?

A: '75/76, yeah. It was Noel Smith, me and another guy name Noel Vassel. That was when we start Fantastic T'ree and then like I said it evolve into Soul Express. But we were all part-owners of that set, up to the last minute when it stopped, which was like '83/84, something like that.

Q: Were these people from the St. Mary area like yourself, or was it a Kingston sound?

A: No, this was a Kingston sound. It was in Franklin Town - that's Eastern Kingston, near to Rockfort, Dunkirk, that type of area. It was like about a stonethrow away from Dunkirk, a rough neighborhood by the name of Dunkirk. We usually play down there a lot. Basically we were like in those days... 'Soul' was the thing - inside. You know, soul bellfoot pants (inaudible) together. But we were never like a soul set, or like a Rasta set. We were like in-between. We straddled both the soul and the Rasta. So we usually have the bigger draw. Because the dreads from House of Dread, which was up in Allman Town... Franklin Town top, duly come listen Soul Express and the guys who usually follow the other set - them who had the soul set - usually come because we play all type a music. But our speciality was like Studio One, rub-a-dub style of music. So basically that's where it came from.

Q: How come you formed this sound?

A: We usually go to school together. We use to go to Vauxhall school, Vauxhall Junior Secondary School. And - it's the love of music. Actually, basically we started out building amplifiers during about... we start learn about radios and stuff like that from a guy that usually work at... a Jamaican by the name of Earl Toyloy. He taught us how to build amplifiers, and stuff like that. And we start to build amplifiers for people and then we were like "let's build ourselves a sound". We scrape some money together and Earl Toyloy gave us parts to build it, and the first amplifier we build was a KD-88, it was like way back in them days. And we start to build something like a 12"-inch, them evolved to 15"-inch. Then we start with 18"-inch, then you know... it really took off, it took off.

Q: What about your early, early influences or at least the music closest to your heart in the younger days, before we jump too fast into the recordings. You've said that you love the fifties rock'n'roll, the rockabilly, not something you hear too often about in reggae, usually it's the old style R&B and the soul from Detroit and the south of America.

A: Yeah, because at that time my older sister she would play Fats Domino, and people like that. The Drifters, and my favourite singer, you know, Ben E. King - stuff like that. Sam Cooke is my favourite singer. Sam Cooke is my singer! I love Sam Cooke, I love his gospel set and all them other stuff. I mean, I think, basically, I pattern myself off of Sam Cooke. I love that guy, and when I heard he got shot and killed I think it really shook me. I mean, it just really bothered my part. I felt it, because my sister used to play those records every Saturday morning when she was cleaning the house and stuff like that. So I heard all them guys and I just sing along to them tracks. So basically my influences is Ben E. King and Sam Cooke and stuff like that.

Q: Would you say this can be traced in the music, of some of the records that you've made so far?

A: Yeah, I would say the early stuff. There is a lot of influence in it until I really found the sound that I'm in. 'Cos if you go back and listen to 'Why', which was the first song I did for Coxsone, you could hear that influence. You know, the sack-up type of stuff. One particular track that, when I do it, I close my eyes and I remember it... and it's on the 'Trodding Through the Jungle' album - 'Here I Stand'. That's basically a Sam Cooke song which I... rework it. That's the way of how much I love that song.

Q: In the beginning and for many years you never played an instrument, you worked with tapes a lot what I've learned. Do you compose on any instrument these days?

A: Yeah, I was just a straight-up singer. I tried to play the guitar - never got around to it. Keyboards - never got around to it. To this day I have a keyboard. As a matter of fact, I just came from New York and Jah Lloyd (not to be confused with the deejay by the same name) just gave me a Macintosh and I said: "OK, now I'm just gonna sit down myself in the studio and learn to play the keyboard". 'Cos I had a keyboard for the last couple of years. My daughter plays it but I never get around to it.

Q: Composing without an instrument, isn't that a bit harder... I don't know...?

A: No, you know, it's much more easy. In any form it's easy to me. I mean, in the beginning it was kind of hard, but after a while it just come natural. Because when I usually write my songs it's like sometimes... basically other peoples experience. Most of my songs are other peoples experience. Or, am I hearing somebody say a phrase and it just stick in the back of my head and I'll maybe get a melody, it's hard to explain. I don't know where the melody is coming from! And there are times when I write songs before I even know what riddim I'm gonna put it on. Then usually when I'm going to studio and I hear a riddim and I, like: 'OK, I might make a slight change but this is the riddim that this song is matching'. And it's uncanny.

Q: So moving up to the debut 45 you did, 'TheTale of Two Cities'. What led up to it, doing that one? That was the first record bearing your name, 1977.

A: Right. It came from the same name I was telling you about - Tony Walcott. He was a type of person that usually collect like Studio One, Treasure Isle - stuff like that. He was a collector. First person that collects that I knew about. And he would just go around and play songs on certain sounds, walk with, like, a suitcase of songs. He took me and Ranger to Channel One, and I did 'The Tale of Two Cities', and I think Ranger did something else. Then after that I think - because Channel One was in the west and they're more catering for people, like, who lives in West Kingston - like Waterhouse and them places, and we were from the east. It was like it was a long trip to go over there. They, who live in the west, they usually look at you and say: "Eastman cyaan do the same as Westman". Yeah, you know? A slight prejudice, yeah. Because I can remember one day I went to the studio and Blacka Morwell say to me, "Wha' yu doing 'ere?" I say, "Blacka Morwell, why you say 'what are yu doin' here'?" I'm gonna sick... And he'd laugh at me. And I always, before he died, I say, "Morwell, remember them days when you say that to me"? And he say, "Yeeeah, but y'know, it was no hard feelings". So, I did 'Tale of Two Cities', and then because of that I kinda ease off a little bit and then we end up doing... he (Walcott) took us up to Coxson.With Coxson now it was much more easier, to work with.

Q: So how did you end up getting the deal with Channel One for that very first release, Walcott was instrumental in doing this? It came upon their Hitbound label at the time.

A: Right, right. Because one of the little known secrets about that time coming up with Channel One is that most of the riddim track you hear on Channel One they play, Tony was the one who took the records down there and give them the idea for the songs, because he had a lot of Studio One which more people didn't have, and a lot of Treasure Isle which a lot of people didn't have. So when Jo Jo (Hookim, main man at Channel One) starts to play tracks, I don't know where the occasion came with Jo Jo but I know you go down with this cassette... I mean with the records, and he'd play the song for Jo Jo and he'd repeat the riddim tracks.

Q: The riddim for 'Tale...' sounds familiar, do you know the name of it?

A: I haven't got a clue. I don't know to this day - haven't got a clue. I always ask Tony, and Tony say "Don't know the riddim". I just heard the riddim came one morning when I went inside there, and I said to them, "Let me hear it again?" And I listened about three times, and I wrote the lyrics right then and there.

Q: Tell me about the inspiration for the lyrics, it's a heritage thing?

A: Right. It's basically from... I can't remember! There's a book named 'The Tale of Two Cities' by George... what's his name again...? It's a French guy who wrote this book. It was basically telling you about the colonial influence. It's like the lyric was like "they came from their far away land, said they're gonna set us free, but instead they rob and they thief...". It was telling you about the colonial rule that came to Jamaica with their ideas, but instead of doing what they said they came to do, they'd do other stuff.

Q: The singles discography Roots Knotty Roots shows that the single came upon the Hitbound label originally, but not the label I have my copy on - which is the 'NOTS' label, produced by one 'L. McKenzie', at 24 McDonald Lane. You're aware of this one?

A: Yeah, that's Channel One. That's what you call a "bogus label", but it's still Channel One. 'L. McKenzie' was one of the engineers, I forgot his name...? It wasn't (Crucial) Bunny, not Solgie - it was another guy, before Solgie and Bunny. He was the one that originally start the engineering at Channel One... Maxie! Maxie, right!

Q: So, 'NOTS' - is it legit, or a pirate?

A: No, it's Channel One. But that's just a label that they used, out of the way. I don't know how. But I'm familiar with that, that was Maxie. They put Maxie on the producer (credit) for the distributor. I don't know how but I remember that stuff.

Q: The song's writing credit states that it is by 'R. Walcott & G. Chester'.

A: Right. That was a mistake. I don't know where that came from! Because t'was the one who took me (there)... I don't know if they thought maybe he was the one who wrote it?! And Chester is my friend Leon Synmoie's brother, he was there with us from the beginning too. So (that's why) I think his name's there, but I was the writer. At that time I didn't know anything about the business of the music, so I think maybe I just let it slide, 'cos I think I was happy to have my voice on a record too.

Johnny Lover.

Q: Are you familiar with the deejay piece to that riddim, 'Jah Station' by Johnny Lover?

A: No, I've never heard it. I'm surprised that since I record that song, last December was the first I've heard it back again in the longest time, in years!

Q: Really?

A: Yeah! This guy up in Vermont he put it on a CD and send it to me. And I was just... you know?

Q: "Long time no see".

A: Long time, long time... yeah (laughs)!

Q: So how did that track spin off for your career - what happened to it? Did you record anything else in that same session?

A: No, that's the only song I did for Channel One. Never did get around to do anything more for Channel One. And as I said the politics of Channel One was more geared to people in the west. You know, people in the west were like...

Q: You didn't like the vibe around there?

A: No, the vibe was OK, it was just hard to get your foot into the door with all those people in the west with the talent and stuff like that. And I said we're from east and in the west it's just a politics what is going on in the other side of the world.

Q: One camp here, another camp there, you better stay away.

A: Yes, exactly! Right.

Q: The next step was recording with Alvin Ranglin? You had another tune on the Orthodox label in '78 called 'Living As A Poor'? This was before GG's?

A: Right. Actually that song I did... was for Thrillseekers. The same guy Chester that had his name on the label as the writer? His brother Leon Synmoie? Had a label named Thrillseekers, and it was as a matter of fact while at Channel One voicing 'The Tale of Two Cities' we met, and he decide he's gonna do some recordings so he asked for a couple of songs. So he asked what I think, and we end up down there to do maybe about two tracks and then we end up with the album 'Soweto'.

Q: That album came a couple of years after this, didn't it?

A: Right. But basically it was around the same time we did those tracks.

Q: In '78.

A: '78. And it was like we took a day and did, like, about fifteen tracks.

Q: With the Revolutionaries backing.

A: Right, the Revolutionaries backing and...

Q: Did you voice everything then or did you come back to it later, to update them? You never re-recorded the vocals?

A: No, everything was voiced then in '78.

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