Roy Panton interview
Roy Panton came up at a time in Jamaican music when it was changing from the local R&B to the edgy, harder and shuffling sound of ska. As such he was a pioneer and also a popular act in the early to mid 1960’s. As was so popular for a time, he shared vocal duties in duo combinations with other upcoming stars like Millie Small, Cornell Campbell, Patsy Todd and Eric ‘Monty’ Morris’. But mainly he was a vocalist on his own, having possibly his biggest success with ‘Endless Memory’.
The list of great recordings is one of those impressive stories of a successful Jamaican music industry and creative flow: ‘Mighty Ruler’, ‘Beware Rudie’, Control Your Temper’, ‘Good Man’; ‘Lolita’, ‘Run Old Man’, ‘We’ll Meet’ with Millie, and on and on it goes. But Panton got out of the business too early, he came back briefly and then it seemed he was gone for good forty years ago. Not so. Some years back he was rediscovered, got back to a scene hungry for ‘vintage’ acts and timeless music, and has made appearances lately in Los Angeles and Mexico, with probably a lot more to come. Thanks to Roy & Yvonne, Carlton Hines, Teacher & Mr T, and Steve Barrow.
Your early life, Roy?
Well, I was born in West Kingston, and I grew up in western Kingston, went to school there. And I move away in the fifties for a while, I go further away, in the northwest, and that would be an area called South, y’know.
That is what you call Waterhouse now?
Waterhouse, right. And we lived there for a while. Now, in school I used to be in a choir that I always sang with. And after I finished school I would go to the Ambassador Theatre, and that is in west Kingston, as a matter of fact Denham Town. I would say on the border Denham Town – Trench Town. And I would watch the talent shows that Vere John hosted at the time. He was the only person one could be involved with actually, for an artist. On a whole, not just singers but if you have an act, so to speak, you could go on stage and it would bring you more confidence. You’d get more full exposure. (Chuckles) But I never had the confidence! I never had the guts to go on stage at that time. Some of the people I’d admire are a lot of those from that time on stage at Vere Johns; Lascelles Perkins, Owen Gray, Jackie Wilfred Edwards, to name a few.
But I started out singin’ with a group. The leader of that group was Stranger Cole, not actually as lead singer but he was like in the front. And the name of the group was The Rovers. But it did not really make any stride or anything like that, because we recorded only one song as far as I can remember, for Duke Reid, and after that the group fell apart. And we all went separate ways… but we were still on good terms.
What year would this have been, ’59?
In the fifties. No, I’m not sure it was ’59 but I know it was in the fifties for sure. Yes. I did some recordings in the late fifties. And after I recorded with the group – that was my first time in the studio – I team up with (Eric) ‘Monty’ Morris, and we were called Monty & Roy.
Yeah. You had tracks like ‘Jenny’?
‘Jenny’ for Coxson. I think we first recorded for Duke, though… I mean, for Beverley’s.
What about ‘Myrna’?
No, that’s with Millie for Beverley’s. That’s later on. But at the early stage, like when I first started out with it was with Monty, and the first two songs we did was for Beverley’s.
Mr (Leslie) Kong.
Right. And ‘She’s Mine’, flip ‘Girl of My Dreams’ – and ‘She’s Mine’… I don’t know if you know this guy called Charlie Babcock who was around in the fifties?
He was a Canadian born radio personality in JA.
Canadian deejay, he’s from Canada, right. And he played that song a lot, ‘She’s Mine’. So after that we went to I think it was Duke Reid, we did ‘Sweetie Pie’, ‘Since You Left Me’, y’know, that has some Count Ossie drums in it. I remember the saxophonist was ‘Bra’ Gaynair (a devout Rasta, ‘Bra’ came from his association with, and visits to, the Count Ossie camp up in Warrika Hills), I don’t know if you recall him?
‘Bra’ Gaynair (aka Wilton ‘Bogey’ Gaynair), that’s the name we used to call him. I don’t know his first name. But he was one of the top sax players in Jamaica at the time.
A jazz player, basically?
He was… yah, probably, yes. But then everybody played, yunno, the same thing, in the hotels they would play different stuff. But in the studio nobody was playing jazz, it was like boogie woogie until we got the ska. ‘Cause when we started out, it wasn’t ours, it was more like a boogie woogie thing.
The shuffle, right. And then ska came of age, or came from somewhere. But in my opinion, the first ska – or record – I heard, was ‘Easy Snappin”, with that ‘uh uh’ piano sound, y’know what I mean, Theophilus Beckford?
And he was playing it after that and it was the first record as far as I know, long before the ska.
Right, that tune came out in like ’58 and kinda pre-dates the ska era…
Yeah, it came out in the fities, but it came out before I started singin’. But I think, the thing about it is that it was a totally different sound. And then it wasn’t being expanded on until later on until somebody came up with the name ska. So I would say, if you want to place which song came first, then I’d say ‘Easy Snappin’. ‘Cause before ‘Easy Snappin” you never heard anything with that ‘cha cha cha’, y’know wha’ I mean, it was more the boogie woogie or the shuffle as you said. We used to try and play sounds like that. ‘Cause even when Laurel Aitken recorded his first songs, and Wilfred Edwards and Monty, it was like soft songs and shuffle. So I would say it was the first ska. So from Duke Reid we went to Coxson, an’ that’s where we recorded ‘Jenny’. And after that then Coxson suggested… Owen Gray came up, he recorded with Owen first – Owen was the first from the audition he recorded. And he made ‘Sugar Plum’, ‘On the Beach’ and some songs like that.
What became so attractive with duos at this time? Would you describe how taste developed in that direction, we’re talking the early early sixties now.
At that stage, as far as I can remember, Keith & Enid was the first. But duos, as two guys, Higgs & Wilson was the first… Bunny & Skully, because Bunny & Skully is from Vere Johns. Those guys recorded before… Let me tell you who recorded before, Derrick (Morgan) – ca’ Derrick as Derrick & Patsy (Todd), Alton & Eddy (Perkins), came after those guys as Joe – I’m talkin’ ’bout Higgs & Wilson, Blues Busters, Keith & Enid, and Alton Ellis. So we started out as a duo after those guys.
I heard – Keith of Keith & Enid, was that Keith Stewart who passed away pretty recently?
Yes. ‘Worried Over You’, yah, that was the intro to duos. And Alton & Eddy was ‘Muriel’.
Higgs & Wilson had ‘Manny Oh’. And obviously Blues Busters, they were, I would say, after those three hits I was talkin’ about. Now I could be off a little bit when it comes to who was before or after. But as far as I can remember I heard those guys’ song before the Blues Busters. But they could’ve been recorded at the same time. Sometimes producers record a song and don’t release it, and recorded another one after and put out that one, you understan’ wha’ I’m saying?
So to state what time they were recorded, I could not say. I can only go by when I heard them. And in Jamaica you hear them, y’know, ’cause you’re right there, around the time when they were recorded. But Keith & Enid I know for sure was the first, and then it was, like, Derrick & Patsy recorded, followed by Alton & Eddy, y’know.
This was patterned after the American R&B scene, basically, to have a duo.
I think so, because you had Gene & Eunice and Lee & Shirley, they were like the stars of blues or rock’ n’ roll. Shirley & Lee was pretty big and they performed in Jamaica. Gene & Eunice, I don’t think so, but Shirley & Lee came down at the time. That was the American Rhythm & Blues, so we tried to pattern our songs from them.
An obvious question would be, in this case, to ask of your experience, as a youngster (chuckles), of having to deal with Duke Reid?
I’m sure what I’m gonna say is no news. You know, he always had his guns in his waist. I thought what he had was a cane chopped off an’ carry a big stick (chuckles). And Duke is, like, he used to be a police officer. But, he was OK, y’know, but he had to do it his way.
Did he give you the impression that he knew a lot, musically speaking, did he seem to know much how to go about things at the time, about the music itself?
About the music? I wouldn’t say so, I would give Coxson more credit in that. The reason why I say it is because Coxson was more like a pioneer. Coxson would do things that nobody had done, but then after Coxson do it everybody would try to do it. Coxson would record songs that I know Duke Reid wouldn’t record until Coxson had recorded them.
He was more willing to risk things artistically and commercially?
Yeah. He like to create new sounds, on his own thing. And he was noted for that. Because even when it came to – back then it wasn’t disco, it was sound system – his sound was different from Duke Reid, talkin’ from the sound coming from his speakers. So he was more jazzy than Duke.
How you mean with ‘more jazzy’?
His music was… he would play jazz, for example, to record it would be jazz he’d record, y’know what I mean. He covered jazz, a lot of jazz. Let me give you an example. When Coxson came out with ‘Freedom’ – I don’t know if you are familiar with that Clancy Eccles tune?
And ‘Freedom’ was one of Clancy’s earliest songs, and at the time we didn’t know it was a foreign song… it was also cut by Nina Simone. But anyway, to make a long story short. Duke Reid got us to do ‘Freedom’, y’know what I’m saying, I mean ‘Freedom’ was nowhere near the Coxson one because the ‘Freedom’ that we did was the original one that Nina Simone wrote. So the Coxson ‘Freedom’ was better, but Duke Reid wanted to ride on that. But that’s just an example.
Would you say that, even back to the earliest period, Duke was after a more polished sound? Coxson on the other hand was the grassroots personified, rough, unpolished.
No, I wouldn’t say that. Because I honestly believe that Coxson liked the pop sound also. But, if you were to complain with the songs that was left out of Duke Reid’s sound, different from what’s out there, he would touch it. Some of the promoters wouldn’t want to touch it, because it’s not the norm. That’s why I say he was really a pioneer in this business. Because he recorded a lot of these type of songs first. The only thing he never touch first, that was with the drums – that was Buster, like what (Prince) Buster did with (the Folkes Brothers’) ‘(Oh) Carolina’. Then that’s when Duke came in an’ try do songs with the drums. But I don’t know if Coxson ever did. That’s how it wound up with the drum beats, ’cause Duke Reid brought Count Ossie in to get the drums. But this is what I’m tryin’ to say, Duke was good at this t’ing to try an’ copy. I wouldn’t say that Coxson didn’t do that, but Coxson copy a lot from America, y’know what I mean. And at the time we didn’t know. ‘Cause a lot of songs that Coxson record, we didn’t know it was American songs.
He sort of practised this in two ways; playing on sound he scratched off the labels to foreign records, local recordings…
Oh yeah, they all did!
… and obviously didn’t tell what it was.
Because songs like ‘Riding For A Fall’, we didn’t know at the time that it was a song recorded by The Tams, we thought it was a Delroy (Wilson) song.
But he had the musicians playing the melody, and presented you with a lyric to go with it, and unknowingly to you, this was a foreign composition although it happened to be a ‘local’ arrangement.
Well, to be honest I can’t really, yunno, comment on that, because I wasn’t really given much songs to sing which was chosen by him. So I can’t really comment. But later on, as I say, today I’m finding out more songs that was recorded by more than I that was covered back then in Jamaica. Like, we weren’t exposed, we were just exposed to the songs. It was the only thing to know at the time. So we didn’t really know. It was some really really good songs, but we didn’t know – we were getting this from this guy’s friend. (Chuckles) You know?
The marketability and commercial appeal of a song, we are talking a long gone era and musical and creative values which has diminished over time, but without trying to be provocative here; how much was written from your heart at the time, and how much was focused on the ‘appeal’ in question? That thing versus this thing, so to speak.
No, with me specifically writing a song jus’ for fans? Like, you take up a theme, a lyric, or melody. ‘Cause when I used to write, I wouldn’t write the melody at the same time as the lyric. And obviously I couldn’t write the music, so I would hum the music with the lyric. But it’s not a form of personal experience. I never wrote a song from personal experience. It’s always something that I dreamed about, like, take up something like a ‘story’. So it was all fantasy.
Like written from a ‘third’ person’s perspective.
My songs? No, my songs that I wrote were like from scratch – day one, my songs. And like I say, sometimes I would write a song, and the next day I forget the melody (chuckles). I had the lyric and tried to find a melody (for it), to fit the lyric. But that’s the disappointment when you can’t write notes. And in the beginning, speaking for myself, I used to write all of it myself. But the great thing is, if it’s no music you’d have to memorise the song. You know what I mean, you gotta memorise it. So when I write… Again, when I was writing songs I would sing it over and over again until it stuck, yunno, lodged in my brain. As long as I do that and wake up the next day and memorise the melody, I know it’s there – I’m not gonna forget it! But it’s like, when you know something it comes naturally, so that would come naturally too. ‘Cause I used to write a lot of songs.
And then you wrote everything – lyrics, melody – altogether in a whole creative process, back in those days.
Oh yeah, altogether.
Now the process is ‘shortened’ to just fit lyrics to a common rhythm and melody.
Well, you can do that too. You know, back then we didn’t. Because, funny enough, we didn’t try to write songs like anybody else. ‘Cause if you write like that, it’s the same. You know, very few… I can’t remember any artists that would write for another artist. But back then we didn’t have rhythms to fit the lyrics in it, because you’d have to write your song alone to fit the rhythm, the melody or the music. Now you can go into the studio and you get a rhythm and you put lyrics in it. But you see, the person who wrote that music owns the music, you jus’ own the lyric.
(Chuckles) I mean, I have no problem with that! But then I can’t get the lyrics – I mean music – to write lyrics ‘pon, because… And then, technology is so much different now, because you can put it on a computer and file it away so you don’t forget it. Back then we didn’t even have a tape recorder (chuckles)!
Had to do it ‘live’.
The ‘tape recorder’ was the brain (laughs)! Those were primitive times, man.
Probably, but that meant more focus on the creative process to get everything together.
It had to be! You had to be more focused, because when Coxson say you have to go to the studio tomorrow with two songs, y’know, ‘bring two songs’, if you haven’t got two songs you try an’ write two songs. And most times you’d memorise the lyric, so you write it down and more concentrated. And the melody, because the lyrics you can sing – but the music you can’t, it’s laid down in the studio. And you never really ask anybody to put music to your lyrics, y’know what I mean. And then you go to studio with the proper thing. Sometimes we’d go and record, after we had recorded the song, if you ask fe the music right back, I can’t sing it without the paper (laughs)!
I don’t know the lyrics. You know (chuckles)? And it’s funny because I have songs today that I haven’t heard in years, and I know it’s me singin’ it but I can’t sing it jus’ like that because I don’t remember all of the lyrics to all of my songs.
Talking about content of songs, lyrics, how come you never wanted to ‘expose’ yourself, you said you didn’t want them to sound personal?
No, what I wrote… not from my experience, my songs is more fantasies. I just fantasiezed things. Like, for example, the song… I don’t know if you have ‘Endless Memory’?
A song about a beautiful picture hangin’ on a wall. I was sittin’ at work and it just got to me to write a song, and I dreamt up these, all right, took up these lyrics. And it’s funny, because quite a few people would ask me if that really happened to me, and I said no, it’s jus’ something I wrote. But people probably think the main ingredient to every song is to appeal to them, but to me it’s mainly to try and get some money from it (chuckles).
Because ‘Endless Memory’ is about a beautiful picture hangin’ on a wall… and it’s probaly the most widespread song, it’s all over, all over the internet. And it’s played all over. And during the era of the rude boys – you remember that?
I wrote a song about ‘Beware Rudeboy’, and it’s nothin’ I experienced but it’s jus’ the time of what is happening. So I wrote that song.
Back to the duos again. You teamed up with Millie (Small). A Coxson suggestion?
Coxson suggestion, yeah. Because, when we were at the studio, like, she was new to these things…
Must’ve been like fourteen or around there?
Or somethin’, yea, something around that age. And she wanted to record ‘Sugar Plum’. And Coxson said that we should combine on it, to make it stronger. ‘Cause her voice at the time was really unique, y’know, higher than Shirley – of Shirley & Lee. But her voice was even squeekier than Shirley, y’know.
When we would harmonize it would, y’know, make it stronger. And I harmonized ‘Sugar Plum’ with her, and ‘Sugar Plum’ was really a hit for her and Owen Gray. And then we did another song. But it was mostly solo. And then Coxson turned to me and said well, why don’t you sing with her. And I said OK, and then seeing that it going good with Derrick (Morgan, and Patsy Todd)… ‘Cause at the time Derrick was more happening, Derrick & Patsy. Coxson suggested that. When she left for England I was alone and teamed up with Yvonne (Harrison). We joined together, we recorded for Tip Top.
Lyndon Pottinger’s company.
Also, before anything else, how did you find Millie, how did you two get along?
No, we got along. It was good. Millie stayed with my mother at one point because she’s from Clarendon and was going back and forth, so she stayed with my mother for a while until she had her first hit, then she had her own place in Kingston. But we got along.
Were you surprised that she hit big in ’64, that she had the ability somewhere?
I wasn’t surprised I’d say.
Why do you think Jamaican music up to that point, beside the fact that the track was an English production, a European flavor to it, but why do you think Jamaican music could break at that particular point in time?
I think it was the promoter, Chris Blackwell, who got it started.
And it was big in Jamaica. And he recorded Millie at that time because Millie’s voice was so unique, and you have to give him credit, y’know, to seek her out, and everything jus’ explode. ‘Cause that song, ‘My Boy Lollipop’, it was originally an American song, and at the time we didn’t know. But anyway, she recorded the song and it took off. But, they dubbed it as ‘blue beat’, they came up with the idea to rename it ‘blue beat’. And then they started to kinda get over some of the Jamaican stuff and call it ‘blue beat’ and I remember at the time, the Minister of Social Welfare & Development was Edward Seaga.
And he sent some guys over first to demonstrate… Because, y’know, most people think music goes through America, and he sent guys over to show we had ‘ska’ from Jamaica. And Jamaican music was more appreciated in England, still, than in the United States. In the early sixties there was a recording company representing where it came out, Columbia, and that’s it. And I don’t know if it was someone else who recorded some Jamaican music. And you hear different stories. For example, this song, I dunno if you’re aware of it but ‘Give All of My Love…’ by ‘Monty’ Morris? Well, we all sung on that, on the chorus, and I never forget that it was Federal studio – I think it was Columbia, we did it for Columbia. ‘Monty’ was the lead singer. Like, everybody who was anybody was invited to the studio at the time, Blues Busters, myself, Charmers, you name it. And we did the voices, the back up voice. And that was for them, but I don’t know if it was released or not. But, like I say, they came to Jamaica to do some recording of ska. But they didn’t know much about it. But in England, that’s where Jamaican artists went when they had a number one record.
Can you recall as far back as when you started, say ’62 to ’64, if Jamaican artists even went over to Miami, Philadelphia or New York to do the odd gig, for the local Jamaican population?
In the sixties, as far as I can remember, I’ve never heard of any performances from Jamaica going to the States to perform. No, they might’ve been but I have never heard anyone going. Now, I could say the first time – the first act who travelled to the States to perform would probably be the Blues Busters. And why I say this is because, I remember in the sixties they used to come and go. But they would sing songs, even if it’s a Jamaican song, to sound jus’ like an American artist. And I’m sure you have heard the Blues Busters on record?
And those guys talk like a Jamaican but sound like an American when they sing. But those guys are the only ones I know who used to go, I’m sure, because they went up there with Sam & Dave. So I’ve been told. But I didn’t see, I’ve been told that they were in Miami with Sam & Dave. But those are the only guys as far as I know. And there was another girl but she wasn’t recording top songs, she wasn’t recording much or tour, but word say that ‘she go foreign’. You know what I mean (chuckles)?
They say ‘foreign’, as soon as you pass Port Royal (outside Kingston) you’re ‘in foreign’ (chuckles).
Yeah, it doesn’t matter where (laughs)! You’re in ‘foreign country’!
The happenings immediately after Millie left for the UK now.
After Millie left I was kinda solo, soloing for a while. And then I join a band called The Cavaliers.
That to me would sound like a supper club band or something in that vein?
It was a dance band. The Cavaliers was Lester Sterling, alto sax, he was the leader of the band. You had a man by the name of Malcolm, drummer.
Yeah. I try to remember… I can’t remember everyone. But anyway, Rita was with the band at the time. Rita, Bob Marley’s wife. So I joined the band, and it was Rita and myself on lead vocals. It wasn’t for a long while, ’cause I don’t know of the guy who played trombone for this band – Sammy? Yeah, well, he was the trombonist for the band. He wasn’t in the studio I think. Anyway, the band went on for a while and then disband. But during all that time I had a feeling – I can’t remember exactly how we hooked up, but it could be through Derrick Morgan, ’cause they’re related, cousins. And Derrick and I moved together, we used to be friends. It was still in the early sixties… I did a couple of solos, for Prince Buster, Coxson also.
How did you team up with Cornell (Campbell)?
Oh, with Cornell it wasn’t really ‘team’. You see, back then we used to help each other in the studio. For example, if I’m alone in the studio and I sing the song I might need an harmony, if there’s another vocalist there, the producer could say, well, ‘harmonise it, help him out’. And the other person get up and help you out. There’s no chart, there’s no payment for that. But that’s what we used to do, we used to help each other. So I had a song – or a couple of songs, I should say – and Cornel, who’s younger than I am… and Cornell was in the studio and we decided to add another voice, and it fit perfect. If it was either him or the producer who suggested it but anyway, that’s how we added harmony to a song. But not that we sang as… at the time he was also a solo singer.
I believe the fruits of that session was ‘Salvation’ and ‘Sweetest Girl’ with Cornell, for King Edwards.
King Edwards, right. We did a few for him. As a matter of fact, there’s one song that I recorded that I wrote for his sound system, he would use it when he’s playing out ‘Now I’m the King and I’m about to win’. And I think he never released that song, ’cause it was for him, exclusively. (Half sings) ‘I’m the King and I’m about to win…’ – something like that. I don’t think he ever released that, ’cause I can’t find it anywhere (chuckles).
What we know Jamaican music for is, in many ways, a form of music which intensely addresses social issues. Back in the sixties though there was very little in terms of social or political comments, this got manifested in the music later. Would you say that producers held it back to avoid controversy and lack of airplay, or songwriters didn’t have this on the ‘agenda’, so to speak?
No, it’s not that – that’s the way it was. We always talk about love, girls, and what have you. I would say the firs’ artist, or the first time a song started to represent the environment, or the atmosphere, was with the rude boy thing. Prior to that it was all, y’know, ‘I’ve got a girl that I love’ and stuff like that, but it wasn’t meant to shelter anything or cover anything. But with the rude boy thing, what came in with the shooting an’ all that, that’s when the artists start to write about that. So more or less ‘reality’ said it. Prior to that it was all love, love is all.
People were trying to stifle the lyrics because it wasn’t politically correct or anything like that, no. ‘Cause, with producers, anything that would sell, they’d do it! If you write a song saying ‘this guy’s taking his pants off’ and so on and it sell, producers would put it out there – they wanna make money.
There’s no conscience to say, well, ‘we mustn’t put it out’, y’know what I mean, because you have a good song. Anything that’d sell.
And watch the cashflow…
Yeah. We started out writing songs about love and stuff like that because at that time we never had the rude boy problem. That came after.
But I mean, there’s always social topics to address in any era, and regardless if JA had colonial British rule or shortly after independence, there was always difficulties to communicate.
You know what? We in the recording industry, we never thought about t’ing like that. We never really – I’m speakin’ for myself – and I can’t recall any songs with lines intended to think like that. Because, if you remember, guys before me, Wilfred ‘Jackie’ Edwards for example, his song was ‘Tell Me Darling’, right, ‘tell me that you love me’. Owen Gray was ‘On the Beach’, he’s dancing on the beach, or stuff like that. You know, those songs was about love or talking about some girl that he want to see. But no one wrote songs, or no one felt like writing if you were oppressed, for the sake of writing a song ’bout a man being oppressed and I want something for my oppressor or things like that, no. Because in the fifties, it was free and it was easier. I mean, money – I’m not saying that money wasn’t important, but it wasn’t something that people would die for, like today. If you had money you had money, if not, you had a life. We lived like that, we used to anyway, back then. So we didn’t feel oppressed or anything, and you could go anywhere. Now it’s a totally different situation.
And this is because of the legacy and consequences of the British rule Jamaica was left with, or what is to blame it for?
I would say yes, because it happened after independence, it started then. But I would blame politics. Because you should be able to express your opinion and feel free to do so without getting threats, or being afraid. But unfortunately that’s not the way it is. For example, the society that most people live in, like in Europe for example, you can say, well, I agree with this or disagree with that, and I can express why I disagree with you. But no one would kill you! But in Jamaica, just because of certain politics, you don’t go around tellin’ the people that you don’t like this person or you like this person, because you might talk about the ‘wrong’ person!
(Chuckles) So, y’know, I know it sounds ridiculous but it’s true.
‘Watch your tongue’.
Yeah! And it’s not only my opinion I’m talkin’ ’bout, but that’s the reality. ‘Cause I remember when I was a teenager growing up and we used to go to these political meetings and so on, I mean, people might throw one or two stones, but that’s it! But then it got to be more ‘hi-tech’, yunno, they ‘throw’ bullets as opposed to stones!
Can you recall what snowballed the rude boy ‘movement’ in the early sixties?
How do I remember it? Well, I can’t pinpoint one particular thing, but if I would point at one thing to cause it, that would be the politics and guns and guys that figure more or less that they have to ‘back it’ of a political party. So it’s not just one thing.
Did you ever get personally involved in this stuff?
No, no. That wasn’t my life. You know, I never get involved in things like that. Number one, I never got a reason to, because I don’t do things to impress my friend. And a lot of guys want to do it because either they feel intimidated or they want to impress their friends. So I never get involved in that.
But that ‘rude boy phenomenon’ never really died down, either.
It started out from politics and it expand. And as a matter of fact, the government ‘took it over’. But the rude boy thing became like a whole movement, rude boys with guns, guys going to dance and crashing it, and that’s the trademark of the rudeboys. So I guess everybody who wants to be somebody, then they’d join up with the rudeboys at that time.
For the reputation.
Yeah. And, to me, you are either foolish or brave, and I wasn’t neither foolish nor brave, so…
(Laughs) Yes! I mean, I knew a lot of guys, ’cause I gew up in the area in Kingston.
What level of violence did you see or hear about prior to the rude boy era?
Well, the violence I remember is guys having fist fights. It was always fist fights in those days. I remember one person who had a gun, a ‘badman’ they call them back then, and his name was Rhygin. You’ve heard about Rhygin (largely the inspiration for ‘The Harder They Come’)? A gunman, which was kinda rare. Because, back then, two police patrolling and only one had gun. One carried a gun, the other one without. Guns was few and far between. But after the political system took over, guns start to spread. I didn’t know how the guns came, but I know guns were around.
Some people would argue if all this gun business and extreme violence in Jamaica, is somehow rooted in the Jamaican spirit. You experienced a different Jamaica growing up so you would probably disagree with such a belief, or statement?
That’s a wrong thing for one to say. Because it’s not that Jamaica is formed out of violent people. I mean, everywhere you go you gonna find violent people. But you cannot label a society like that. But, like I’m saying, when Jamaicans are accused of being ‘primitive’, back in the fities – and I say the fifties, ’cause I was born ’41 – and I grew up obviously in the forties and fifties, but in the fifties I could more or less use my freedom more so because I was older, as opposed to in the forties. In the forties I was more under my mother’s supervision. In the fifties I was turning to be a teenager, and had more freedom to go about. And it was never like that! Not that it was always like that. In the sixties it just got worse. And Jamaica wasn’t like that. If you would find people who have lived in the US, Canada, England, they’d tell you the same thing! In the fifties they could have their door open, the door to their home opened, leaving the door open and stuff like that. And nothing happen! Today you can’t do it there, I’m sure you cannot do it anywhere. You know, if you’re in a remote area you gotta be careful. So times change and unfortunately that’s the way it is. But like I say, in the forties and fifties, we go through the same thing. We go to parties, we would walk home. You know what we were scared of back then? We were scared of ghosts, can you imagine that!?
We weren’t scared of bad men because there weren’t many like that. And you know, we would walk… today you wouldn’t think of that now. But Jamaica is not this type of place. It’s just that it’s a small island, violence seems worse. Because if a country like Russia, the US, whatever, is spread out, because it’s a large country… much more than Jamaica, per capita, you have more murder going on there than you see in Jamaica. I’m not saying that any killing is good, but some killing is really necessary rather than foolish.
But it destroys the ‘joy’, whatever, of trying to build and shape a healthy society.
Yeah, but people doing it don’t think about that.
They’re only looking after their own thing. ‘Cause Jamaica used to be a paradise island for tourists, and I’m sure it’s not the same way it used to be, even in the sixties. They don’t realise that it’s hurting them, because if you live in a society where the economy is in decline, also it’ll hurt you too.
Human nature, always striving to or pushing the boundaries, often too far.
Do you see any change there as far as Jamaica is concerned?
You mean light at the end of the tunnel?
You know what? I hope I’m wrong but I don’t see any.
No… I don’t see any but I hope that I’m wrong. I jus’ can’t see anything in the short term, the future will be bleak for Jamaica. Maybe it’ll be brighter later.
Well, y’know, sometimes – I’m sad to say – too much freedom means a lot of problems. Corruption.
So I don’t have the answer for it. But I would hope that it will change. It can never go back to what it was, but I would hope that the – and you always gonna have crimes!
But the foolish killings, people should agree to end it.
I think today’s problem is back to what they had then, glorifying a destructive behaviour, violence on top of more violence… instead of talking about making conditions better.
Yeah. Well, regardless of what you are talkin’ about and what the lyrics are, there’s always a market for it. So I don’t think we will ever get rid of certain lyrics. There’s always a market, depends on the artist.
Is it down to the producer or the artist himself to see the responsibility of what kind of message you put across, and the consequences for it?
I would say both. I’d say both the artis’ and the producer. But then a lot of the artists now are producing their own songs, they just use a recording company to put it out there, but apart from this they’re the producers. As long as it will sell the record company wants a piece of it. It’s just like movies. If people didn’t love a certain type of movie they wouldn’t go see them. They would stop making certain movies if the demand isn’t there, they’ll make it for the society that’ll watch it. So it’s all a money thing.
Probably so. Looking at your long list of recordings, 45’s, it struck me that most of this never got compiled for an album, there was never a Roy Panton LP available.
No, I never made an album. And I think maybe one of the reasons for that is that I never really stayed long enough to do that. Because I started out, like I say, in the mid fifties and I got out of it in the mid sixties, at around ’64. I couldn’t take certain things so I got out of it. So I never hang in long enough. ‘Cause when I started in the fifties that’s when they really start thinking of making albums, jus’ as far as I can remember. It was mostly 45’s on the market and stuff like that. In the sixties they would find the songs together for an artist with the intention to put out an album, then I had got out of it.
Looks like you got out of it around 1970, ’71?
No, no, no. I got out of it before that. I got out of it about ’64, ’cause I remember travelling to New York. I got back to Jamaica in ’66 and started working. But I was singin’ as a band vocalist, but I wasn’t recording. And then I lost two recordings I did, which was ‘Same Old Life’ and ‘Endless Memory’, I did that over and I think it was ’70 or ’71, I got out of Jamaica ’72.
There’s one duet between you and Millie, again, called ‘Standing’ or ‘Stand Up’ on the N&H label around that time.
Yeah, that was Anette, honest.
Yeah. Anette and I recorded at the time because Millie was supposed to be in the country but didn’t show up. So Anette and I recorded that. Same thing with Patsy.
So ‘My Poor Heart’ was included in that?
That was with Anette too.
Supposedly recorded in about ’70.
And then after that now Millie and I recorded ‘Shirley’.
You had ‘Same Old Life’ for Harry J, that was another one during that period?
‘Same Old Life’. Yeah, right, ’71. And then I did ‘Endless Memory’ after, too. Either ’70 or ’71 but I know it was jus’ prior to me leaving Jamaica. ‘Same Old Life’ was for Sky Link and Harry J released it. Because, you know what? We recorded ‘Silhouettes’, but we needed a third voice and Harry J didn’t like it, so he shelved it. And it so happen that Dennis Brown released it, a number one for Dennis Brown. Just the same old thing, because ‘Silhouettes’ was supposed to be our song.
So what brought you over to Canada?
Well, it was my first wife, she had relatives here. She came up here and settled down, and that’s where I wanted to be.
How did you find the scene for Jamaican music up in Canada at that time?
I did not really comply with that when I came up. Like I said, I was out of it. I came up to work, and I got a job and was workin’. Some years ago, I think it was 2002, someone put me on live for a radio station, and I did an interview. He found me through someone at my work, and this guy knew of Jamaican music and Jamaican artists, asking me about the songs, the times and why I had been out of the limelight, and so on. People hadn’t even realised where I was, they thought I was in England.
And this turned into what? You’ve had suggestions to record again?
You know what? Yvonne (formerly Adams, sister of the late Glen Adams) and myself did a few recordings – like you say, the rhythm… This guy Willi Williams, you know Willi Williams, ‘Armagideon Time’?
Well, we did a few recordings for him but we haven’t heard anything about it.
OK. But some stuff in the can at least, sounds promising.
There has been some stuff, yeah, reggae – that’s the only reggae I’ve done like that. This guy got a studio in his basement, and he sent us the rhythm, or the music, and Yvonne wrote the song. Yvonne wrote the lyrics and, y’know, fit them with the recording.
(Chuckles) How did you feel, being in the studio again after so many years?
It felt good, it felt good.
How does your perspective look like when you look back on the evolution of Jamaican music over the years. For a long while you became like the observer, viewing the development from the outside rather than actively participating in it. Can you feel good about the result over the years, what the music turned into?
I can feel really proud. And unfortunately, whatever the current theme or style that is around, the history of Jamaican music begins in Jamaica, y’know. Where it started, ’cause Jamaican music now, a lot of people think it’s reggae, but it doesn’t start from reggae, it start from mento. And then from mento to shuffle or boogie, then it evolved into ska. And then rock steady, which is rarely mentioned even though it was short-lived, it evolved from rock steady to reggae. But a lot of people don’t know of rock steady, they know of reggae. But most people don’t recognise the rock steady.
The rock steady phase was so sweet it was more or less Jamaican soul, with a backbeat.
You could say that, because it was melodious.
The guys that really did nice rock steady was groups like the Paragons or the Melodians. Later the Mighty Diamonds, their songs was more rock steady. And I would think that – and I wouldn’t be too firm in stating this – but I would suspect that was probably because of mainly one man, Duke Reid, that rock steady became what… he had the Paragons, and obviously Alton (Ellis), he was with Duke Reid. ‘Better get ready, it’s rock steady’ he did for Duke. Now with reggae, I would say Bob Marley had a lot to do with it.
Because of his international influence.
Yeah. And the songs that he started recording, it was a little different. Like if you listen to an album like ‘Catch A Fire’, for example. With the Wailers, ‘Catch A Fire’, Bob Marley wasn’t solo yet. So I would say that was reggae… I would not say seh, well, it all start from Bob Marley, but I would think he had a lot to do with it.
In terms of arrangements, the sort of riffs and melodies he put in?
Right, right. And exposure too, ’cause he took it to another level with his appearance.
By the way, did you ever record with Herman Sang and his band?
Yeah. Herman Sang was the musical arranger for Tip Top, that’s where he did his recordings.
Also, he was recording with Derrick Harriott and the period with the Jiving Juniors.
Yeah, yeah. He used to play keyboards. He’s somewhere here in Canada.
Have you ever got any requests to try and compile most of your early stuff?
You know what? I’ve been asked that a couple of times, and then we’d say OK, but it never really reach anywhere. I mean, I’ve seen CD’s with my songs, a couple here and a couple there, but I get nothing from it. It hasn’t really done anything because everybody’s trying to ‘Yeah man, we can do this’ and so on, and we never heard back. Business never change, y’know what I mean, people always tryin’ to (chuckles) I should say ‘control’.
How would you look back on that era, how do you ‘place’ yourself in the history, can you look back on it with pride or you’re not feeling bitter because of what happened and what should’ve happened for you but for some reason didn’t?
Well, lets say the music, the songs that I wrote and recorded, I have no problem. Because, like I say, they had good lyrics so as far as that is concerned, yes, I’m proud. The only thing is that, I never got enough financial gains that I should’ve. That’s on the wayside of this, I guess I wasn’t mature enough at the time. But outside of that, I can’t look back with anything other than pride. I never made a lot of money, man, but not many guys were making a lot of money. But, I’ve moved on.
We really covered a lot here. As a matter of fact, we cover more than jus’ music, we covered about life! Music is sweet sounds to the ear and it’s about life, so…
It’s been way too little in terms of reissues of Panton’s best material over the years. In 2011 we had Japan’s Rock A Shacka to press Roy’s ‘Endless Memory’, produced by bassist/arranger/singer Boris Gardiner and released originally circa ’68 on Gardiner’s Bronco imprint, at the tail end of the rock steady era. Kudos to them for having the good taste to do so, but somehow it’s not enough. The English albums of King Edwards material is, apart from the occasional track on various Trojan anthologies, the only available sources to a few of Panton’s songs to date. But my rantings continue: isn’t it about time we see a fully realised compilation of his vintage material collected once and for all, just like so many other obscure or half-obscure artists out there. It’s about time, no? And it is, ‘Roy Panton, Yvonne Harrison & Friends – Studio Recordings 1961 – 1970’ is that compilation just realised. A Spanish release apparently, it’s something to check out not only for the typical ska heads. Great introduction to two very underrated Jamaican artists.