Considering the astonishing quality of a lot of this man's work over the years, it is somewhat disastrous that Owen Gray isn't more highly regarded than he is, being in the shadows of his younger peers such as John Holt and Bob Andy just to mention a few. Whatever the reason is cause for speculations, perhaps his choice of material and direction hasn't always felt sincere, but on the other hand Owen has always delivered the goods in whatever style he recorded, possessing one of Jamaica's greatest voices if you didn't know. But Owen Gray is one of the true pioneers of the Jamaican music industry alongside such revered artists as Jackie Edwards, Laurel Aitken, Simms & Robinson, Alton Ellis, and Derrick Morgan to name just a few, yet he hasn't received the recognition that is still due, particularly from a government which still fails to do the job in honoring these vintage names for their outstanding contributions to the development of Jamaican music. Some of this you will find being discussed in this lengthy interview. My thanks to Owen, Trish (Roots Rockers Promotions), Tim P, Donovan Phillips, Michael de Koningh, and Steve Barrow.
Q: You grew up in a Catholic home where your father was a soldier and your mom stood for the musical schooling, so to speak, playing piano and all that. A large family I guess, you were not the lone child?
A: Yeah, that was right. No, there was six of us. I had two other brothers and three sisters that follows me, it was three boys, then three girls after.
Q: Anyone else in the family who followed you in penetrating the music?
A: Um, not seriously, really. My brother, my second brother, he plays a bit of flute, y'know, and strum a little guitar and things like that, and he does a lot of writing. He writes a lot of songs, y'know. But that is like later down, yeah. But for me when I started, I used to (chuckles)... like under my bed with the bedspring pickin' and pluckin' and... you know what I mean? Until when I was in the choir, yeah, I was in the boys choir at church. I used to sing first tenor.
Q: Where in Kingston did you grow up?
A: Trench Town.
Q: What was Trench Town like in those days, if we speak the forties?
A: Trench Town was very nice them days, y'know. Cleaned up and, y'know, clean and... not like now. Not like now at all, at all.
Q: Not as tense and rough as it tends to be nowadays.
A: No, no, no. It's more than even tense over there now, you understan'? Because over there that's where they call Concrete Jungle, you understand. And in my boy-days growing up it was... you feel free, you don't have to worry about no guns and whatever, y'know. Because even though you had a few of the business people who used to own their little shops and business, they used to have their piece. But they never use it as prevalent as in how you see what's happening now. They didn't even have no need to use it, you understand what I mean, because nobody was robbin' from your next door neighbour or your friend, because the same place my mom she was a customer there, the main shop, y'know. And we as boys we used to hang out at the shop, just like a few places in this world that you see they hangin' out going like... you know? But you had to be indoors, you couldn't be out there until all ten o' clock, ca' your mom will come hunting you (laughs)!
Q: I see (chuckles).
A: Hey, you understan', so the whole thing about growing up in that town, or in that city, was more or less on a level.
Q: So what brought about this shift from a peaceful part of town in being one of the worst areas?
A: Yeah, but it's not only in Trench Town...
Q: Agreed, sure. I heard Trench Town is not even the worst area any more.
A: You have Jones Town, you have Denham Town, you have Hannah Town, all them town becomes classics in the late years, you understan' me? They become classics, because you have artists live in them town areas I'm calling - Jones Town, Denham Town, you know, Trench Town, Allman Town. We have a lotta town in Kingston, and then you have Spanish Town, then you have Browns Town, small town and town - you have towns and countries, you see. But in Kingston itself, it weren't like now. Because I think since Independence, yeah, that's when these places became what it is today, it is more worser now. You see, certain people cannot go into certain towns.
Q: And this is divided by which 'political area' you belong to.
A: All right. Because where I used to live, my yard was a PNP yard. Trench Town itself was a PNP area, out of Trench Town used to be Labour. It's like here, PNP over here is just the Conservatives and Labour, yeah? And people, when it used to be election and thing like that, people never use knife or no guns or anyt'ing like that - people used to use stone (laughs)! Because if you're a Labour they stone you (chuckles). And if you're a PNP they stone you. But some, it may be a knife-stabbing or a knife-cut or even a machete-chop too. You know with the machete, y'know. But the gun-business wasn't prevalent - not in my boy-days, because to be honest I never heard a gun fired.
Q: It wasn't what was 'necessary' the same...
A: There was no - as I said a few people used to have, but there was no cause to use it, you understan' wha' I mean? Because it was poor and happy people. It just comes in what I've seen in Brazil in a city called Sao Luis that I've been to, poor and happy people. You see, you get no hustling, you get no hustlings from these people. If you give, you give - they don't hustle you. They go out there, the kids them on the beach on Sundays, and whatever day you're out there and they're there, and they try to sell. Because a parent may have like say ten kids, and can't feed all ten kids, so they're out on the road, y'know. But when it comes down to a place like Sao Paolo, that's the baddest place for people to be. Because the government see to it that they remove them, wherever they sleep - on the (inaudible) and all them things. And I've been to a next city that I've seen the same thing, a place called Fortaleza. I remember, because it was last year I went to Fortaleza, and I did a New Year's Eve show there, and from there I went to Sao Luis - because it's just an hour's flight, and do the New Year's show, you understan'. And it was very heart-rending to see these mothers, y'know, three, four, five kids on the pavement on New Year's morning, you understan' what I mean? On New Year's morning, early when we left that show, daylight coming, and I had to stop the car - better to stop the car, man. I said, "Stop the car and let me get out", you understan' what I mean, and this guy says, "Why you want to come out?" I said, "Stop the car and put me out and you can drive along me here". And I went out there and I gave away some money, y'know. Because it was heart-rending, it was heart-rending, it was really heart-rending to see these people. They don't know where they're going from where they are, you understan'. And the kids cries and whatever, some sick, some... whatever, y'know. I don't like to see punishment, man. I don't like to see punishment at all. Those people's been punished, a lot of us. A lot of Jamaicans have been punished. But like I said, not like those cities. Not like those cities I see. No way, no way. Jamaica cannot be like Brazil, it can't be like Brazil and a few other states that I've seen, you understand what I mean, it can never be. But as I said growing up in music, y'know, I start listening to American music.
Q: Lots of gospel?
A: Yeah, because I used to sing gospel. Yeah. And then I used to listen to a lot of Rhythm & Blues from America, right.
Q: Lloyd Price.
A: You have Lloyd Price, you have Smiley Lewis, you have Fats Domino. 'Blue Monday', all them tunes, I used to listen to them t'ing. 'Kansas City', heh! Because I used 'Kansas City' and win a contest in Jamaica, you understan' what I mean (chuckles). Yeah. Because there's this man called Vere Johns...
Q: Man behind the 'Opportunity Hour'.
A: That's the man that we did... Yeah, that's the man that open a lot of gates for artists, Jamaican artists them time. Because that particular show...
Q: Who was Vere John really? He wasn't originally from Jamaica from what I understand?
A: No, no, no, no. I forgot, I think probably he's from Panama, I think he was from Panama. Yeah. Because he had two sons, right, but I think he was from Panama. But he was the one that opened up a lot of doors for artists in Jamaica in them time, right, and the show he used to keep was called 'Opportunity Hour'. So you go for a rehearsal and if you pick, y'know, he used to use like sez, six artists doing... you may have like two groups, two duos or four singers, a duo or four singers or you have dancers. But various different kind of activities in that time.
Q: When did he start that contest, we're talking mid fifties or even earlier than that?
A: In 19-... Yeah, in the fifties, something around '55. It start from around '55, '56/7/8. Yeah. Right up till them time, because I started recording around 1957.
Q: That early, I thought it was at least circa '59 you started?
A: No, no, no, no. I start record in 1957.
Q: But you are considered one of the first so-called 'popular artists' in Jamaica.
A: Well, it's not 'one of', it's the first, I am the... you know (chuckles)? And then you have... because there was Laurel Aitken - you've heard about Laurel Aitken?
Q: Oh yes.
A: Well, Laurel Aitken never made... he used to sing calypsos. You know, he used to sing calypsos, that's what he used to sing. But I'm talkin' about the Blue Beat records. Laurel Aitken came to Jamaica, he went away in 1954, you understan' what I mean. And when I started with Chris Blackwell, the company in Jamaica at the time was called R&B, which was 'Rhythm & Blues'. That was Island, that's Chris Blackwell.
Q: Right, that was prior to Island, the label.
A: That's when he starts. At the age sixteen, seventeen, when I made the first Blue Beat record in Jamaica for a man called White, he used to have a record shop called Hi Lite - Hi-Lite Records. His right name is Smith, right, but his business, his record shop is called Hi Lite Records, yeah. And I made the song called 'Who Saw The Lightning Flash Across The Way (And Who Heard The Thunder Roll Down The Bay)', 'I Love You Baby (And I Want Nobody Else)'.
Q: So that's the...
A: 'Who Saw The Lightning'. That's the title of it, 'Who Saw The Lightning', y'know.
Q: What format was it? 78 rpm? The old wax they had in the thirties, forties, fifties.
A: No, it was an seven-inch.
Q: But at that...
A: It was a seven-inch, the small records, the small ones them.
Q: Right, they had stopped issuing the 78 rpm discs by that time?
A: In the fifties you used to have 78 rpm, yeah, but that came on a seven-inch. But they can put it on a 78 rpm for the sound system, you understan' wha' I mean? Because when I did 'On The Beach', it was done... Coxson put it on a 78 rpm for the sound system, and then he pressed it on seven-inch for the shops, so it becomes... you know? And that was the first ever special for a sound system made in any part of the world.
Q: Historically that was the first tune to celebrate a sound system in the lyric.
A: Yeah, is the world's first special that was made for a sound system (chuckles). The world first, the world first - not another, the world first. And that was it. Funnily enough, that song wasn't really written for Coxson, y'know. That song wasn't really written for Studio One.
Q: But who was it written for?
A: Now what happen is that (chuckles)... it's funny. What happen is that there was an outing, a dance, in Ochi - Ocho Rios, yeah, and that was a Sunday. And the sound system that was playing there was Sir Edwards.
Q: King Edwards?
A: Which is King Edwards' sound, you understan' me. And I was on the beach and looking what was out there going on. But as a youth I was strong with pen and paper, if I don't have any paper I must find paper.
A: (Laughs) You understand. And as I sat on a rock, myself and Blues Busters was down there, and I sat on the rock and was watching the waves and I'm watching people going by and listen to the sound at the same time, y'know, and I just written the tune! So the Monday I went to see him, and I said to him, say: "Mr Edwards, I've got a tune for your sound system". And he said to hum it to him, so I did. He says: "OK, Wednesday you coming down to the studio", right. The studio was Federal, that's where everything used to take place when it comes to the music business, mostly. If they don't use like RJR studio or JBC, you understand what I mean. (Hawking) So, when I went down there then he tell me "Come back the next day", then he start tell me to "Come back next week". So I mean, I'm down on him and ask if him don't want the tune, and I couldn't see where he start to get (inaudible). So I say, "Oh, I'll leave him alone". So I went to Coxson, and I told Coxson about the song. So all I got to do instead of saying 'King Edwards', I just say 'Sir Coxson'. And the same day I hum it to him they had rehearsal, because they was going to studio the same evening. And they had like a pre-rehearsal, and he went down there and told Roland (Alphonso) to rehearse with the tune, and we did. And when we got down to the studio, he said that the first tune must be done, and it's only one. Because them time it was only two tracks, you understan' what I mean?
Q: One for the vocals, the other one for the backing.
A: Yes. And so you're doing it live. You don't put on and come back again, like now.
Q: It just had to be tight.
A: I did it, I did it - just one take. And that was it, and it become big in Jamaica. And it becomes big all over, and everybody want that... you know what I mean? When the people hear that they says "What!" And that's how I started too, and so I was improving what I was doing and doing a lot of more writing an' t'ings like that. 'Cause I made a few records with him. Like a tune called 'Hully Gully' and 'Sinners Gonna Weep And Mourn', 'Pretty Girl'...
Q: 'Mash It' for Chris Blackwell.
A: 'Mash It' was for Chris Blackwell. But I did a lot of records for Coxson, because he was a big name, he was the big man. Then you did have the Duke Reid.
Q: What about those 'Mash It', 'Understand My Love' and 'Far Love' tunes?
A: Yeah, for Chris Blackwell. But the first record I did for Chris Blackwell was...
Q: 'Please Let Me Go'?
A: 'Please Let Me Go' I did and the other side, the B-side was 'Far Love'. That's the first one I did, that's about the first one. The record that Laurel Aitken had made called 'Boogie In My Bones', that was one of my - is a song that I've written that he took with him when he was going to... 'Boogie In My Bones' and 'Little Sheila', when he was going away, right. Because we used to be together, t'ing like that, a juice and juice an' t'ing like that. And he went to England and it's in England here he made those records, and Chris Blackwell brought it back to Jamaica and releases it. They wasn't made in Jamaica, they're made in a studio in New Bond Street in the West End.
Q: Was the Starlite label involved with those releases in the UK?
A: Well, he... Chris Blackwell had released it with Starlite.
Q: Which one was Shallit behind at that time?
A: Right, Shallit wasn't... it was Blue Beat, Melodisc - that was Shallit, Melodisc. You know, at the time we had no contract business, so I had been recording for various producers. Because I recorded for Prince Buster too.
Q: With 'Tree In The Meadow'?
A: Yeah, 'Millie Girl' y'know, those time there. But as I said, for me growing up in an environment, an environmental place that... It wasn't like now, of what it is now, it weren't like that before.
Q: You mean in the sense that you didn't really sing for money as the main goal, it was more based on the music itself first and foremost? The rest was a bonus.
A: The prestige.
A: The prestige. We wasn't lookin' at... those time you want to hear yourself on records, you understand. You want to hear yourself on records, you want to be out there that people hear and people chase you around, just like when they come to all these shows that we used to do for Vere Johns and people clap and shout "ray"! And he says it's coming down the line for number one and people say "ray"! The loudest and the longest clapping, you're the winner.
Q: Was the music business something you could look at for making a living from, even in those times?
A: Well, the producers them was making just a living, so they must saw something there.
Q: (Chuckles) True.
A: (Chuckles) Right. But I had my trade, y'know, because I was doing printing and bookbinding, that was one of my trade, you see. And I tried my hand at a few things, I try my hand at a few things and I make a food-money out of it, y'know. (Laughs) I made a food out of it. Yeah man, so my family can have a meal and whatever, y'know what I mean. So a progress from there.
Q: But it was hard enough to squeeze out anything in terms of existing on music, your artistry, at the time.
A: Well, I wouldn't say hard, yunno, because if you were thinkin' about just depending on music, it would feel hard to you. That's the only thing you can do to raise money, or raise some funds. But it never struck me as living, living off what I'm doing. It never really gets to me to say well, I'm gonna live off me music an' t'ing. Because mind you, in them time Jamaica didn't have no publishers, yeah? Jamaica didn't have no artist agents. The same producers who we used to work for, they used to kept shows in Jamaica, especially in Christmas time when you'd get a little more money. When you get a five pounds - and five pounds in Jamaica is a fancy in the early fifties, y'know (chuckles). It's like you have a hundred pounds or so. Because of money, the money was... five pounds in Jamaica as a youth, y'know, you're coming like a big boy (laughs)! Look at five pounds now, you hold a five pound to the wind and it blows out every cent of it (laughs)! So, you hold the five pounds to the wind and it blows out every penny out of that five pound. You see, if you have a hundred pound, and you go into the shops, it almost done. But I give thanks and praise for really... to the Father to be taken me from so far and brought me so near. And at my stage of age, y'know, my stage of age, I'm still continuing to do so and people still want to hear me out there and people still want to see me perform and people still buying my record. Because I'm doing gospel, not only lovers rock, I'm doing also gospels, because I've got five gospels out there.
Q: Gospel albums, OK. That's good.
A: Yes, I've got five gospel albums, you see. And I still do my lovers rock, I still perform whichever one.
Q: What was competition like back in the fifties? Who were your main challengers so to speak?
A: Yeah, it was Derrick Morgan and the late Wilfred Edwards, which is... called 'Jackie' Edwards. Well, I introduce him to Chris Blackwell when I was about to go and recording for Chris Blackwell, because I teached him to play piano and we used to play for each other on stage.
Q: Oh, you and Jackie?
A: Yeah. He would play for me and I would play for him.
A: You see, so... it was money, y'know. He was my - in the music business them time he was my very best friend, as an artist. He was my very best friend, because we lived close together, y'know. Because my aunt, he used to live at my aunt's place, his father was a tailor, and his father used to make my clothes, you understand. His father used to make my clothes, right, and he used to live at a place where my aunt she used to cook for him and things like that. And we used to ride his bicycle. The first record that we made for Chris Blackwell, yes, we bought a bicycle each out of the money. He bought a Raleigh and I bought a Rudge.
Q: OK (chuckles).
A: Yeah, you know (chuckles). And the same day we rode it come up Maxfield - that time we used to live in Maxfield Avenue area, and we both rode in coming up to Maxfield Avenue and, y'know, brand new bicycles and parked it and lots of eyes started lookin', and then after the bicycle now I started to ride Quickly, then from a Quickly to a Dream. And then both of us had Lambrettas together - he had a Lambretta, I had a Lambretta, right.
A: Myself and Wilfred 'Jackie' Edwards is the first two Jamaican artists to go to University college of Jamaica, to learn musical drama. We was sent there by Chris Blackwell, because the both of us was workin' for Chris Blackwell.
Q: What was your first encounter with Blackwell?
A: Ah! I was workin', I was doing a show at the Palace Theatre.
Q: A talent contest?
A: No, a live show, not a talent contest, it was not a... right. And while I was in the dressing room, someone says to me, says there is a gentleman who want to see me, right, and I say if he can come, and he comes and we meet him and he introduced himself as Chris Blackwell, you see. At the time he used to live in a place called Stony Hill, right, and you introduced yourself an' t'ing like that and do the song and rey, rey, rey. And then another time he says, well, would you like to do a record for me and thing? So blah blah, I say yeah. So we had another show again at the same place a few weeks after, and he came. So he asked me if I have a song, I said yes. Jackie didn't have a song so I quickly helped him to write two of his songs called 'Your Eyes Are Dreaming' and 'We Are Gonna Love'. That was his first and that was around 1959, I wrote that 1959. Yeah.
Q: What was your impression of Blackwell in those days?
A: Well, to be honest, I was lookin' at just... my impression was just a man of heart, wants to give some Jamaicans a chance in the music business to establish themselves. Because I didn't know that my records was coming to England, in them time I didn't know. Because Chris Blackwell was doing some business with Starlite Records, so I didn't know that my records was coming to England 'til my brother, until one of my brothers came here, and my brother was living in the Brixton area. And there was a man who had two record shops, one used to sell Blue Beat records and one used to sell like the pop, the pop stuff.
Q: Who was this?
A: A man called Richards. Yeah, they had two record shops in Brixton there. And apparently when my brother introduced himself for those people, and he mentioned my name to them an' t'ing like that, they get in touch with me. And in the space of two and a half months I was in England. They sent for me here, through my brother. Because Chris Blackwell was playing a little bit of games and being here I didn't have no contract with nobody at that time, you understand what I mean, I was a freelance. So I did not have no contract with them or anything like that, didn't have no contract. So I came and I was living at this man's place, a very very nice man, very nice man. Veeery nice, very nice, you see. Jackie came here one month before I do, Jackie came here the month of April and I came here in May. And he was living where Chris Blackwell was, y'know, in the West End part of London, which I just cool out my head differently, you see.
Q: Jackie used to go around by bus and sell Blackwell's records I think.
A: I don't... probably he used do it for Chris Blackwell, but I never do nutten like that. No, no, no, I never do nutten like that. I think he used to carry records to record shops them, little record shops out there, you see. But I never did nutten like that, never.
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