Interview with Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee Part 1
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Let the spotlight now shine on one important, but controversial, part of the Jamaican music business, in the role of the producer. In most cases these people only sponsored the project without taking active part in the actual production of the music. A ‘real’ producer is looked upon as someone shaping and forming the sound of a recording. He or she was actively involved and together with musicians worked out the magic in the studio. In JA this came mainly through musicians and engineers. In reggae music they are, for the most part, just looked upon as ‘financers’. But naturally there are exceptions. Niney, Lloyd the Matador, Coxson in his early days, Keith Hudson, Lee Perry, Clive Chin, Sonia Pottinger, Phil Pratt, Jo Jo Hookim and Bunny Lee are in these times regarded as the exceptional producers who spent the time needed to get the goods out of their stable of artists.
“STRAIGHT FROM STRIKER’S HEAD”
Lee was also known as the effective one, cutting the most out of a limited time available. For some, he is not up there with the most innovative of producers throughout the history of Jamaican popular music, but nonetheless he has contributed his part of new and exciting innovations over the years. If nothing else, he is a brilliant story-teller with a detailed memory like few others. He will serve you a ‘verbal plate’ of treasured musical memories for years to come, if you come close. The following interview is one such occasion. My thanks to Bunny, Reg (Three Kings), Carlton Hines, Carl Gayle, David Corio, Laurent Pfeiffer, and (especially) Steve Barrow.
If we go back to your youthful days in Jamaica, what did you look for in music, say the late 1940’s, it was mainly jazz and mento, wasn’t it?
Yeah. No man, the early days of Jamaican music was – whe you call it now – mento and calypso. Yes, it would be mento, calypso and a t’ing named quadrille. Quadrille is a form of mento but it going through first beat or second beat or t’ing like those. Those t’ings Jamaican people start off with.
So what was your first love, musically speaking?
Well, we used to listen to a lotta those quadrille business an’ calypso. And then Jamaica start bringing in the Rhythm & Blues. People like Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis, Roscoe Gordon and… you know, Louis Jordan. Louis Jordan was one of the biggest of those days. You have Louie Prima, Smiley Lewis was big too.
And the sound systems was from some time in the 1940s.
Yes, the late ’40s, right. Because you used to have – man used to keep dance now with orchestra. With orchestra is like band, musicians used to come an’ play. You’d have to hire a band. Because the calypsonians dem used to come an’ do them t’ing firs’ an’ them quadrille, and then the other band would sing the American songs like Louis Jordan an’ all those t’ing, like Val Bennett an’ those people.
That was optimal.
Yeah man. Probably it was a pick-up band with different, different musician, yunno. They was the name band, it was a mento band, but the mento band they were versatile, they could a play Rhythm & Blues an’ everyt’ing.
Where did they keep the dances?
House dance, people used to rent houses an’ keep the dance. And you used to have a few like all Liberty Hall an’ t’ing like those.
This was at the same time when the sounds used to play?
No, the sound system come in after now. After the sound system come in, a guy in Jamaica name Goodie’s, I think he may had the firs’ sound system. Nick The Champ, a man name Nick The Champ, him come from Maxfield Avenue. An’ Hedley Jones, Hedley Jones is a technician. So those guys start bring in them sound system business now. Yeah, when the sound system come in now, it was better, beca’ when the band dem tek a break, yunno, dem eat out the profit. Them eat off your curry goat an’ all a dem t’ings deh, an’ if you say anyt’ing whe dem nuh like, dem jus’ pack up an’ gone home.
So that’s about the time when you started to follow sound systems.
Long time, man. From sound systems come up we was… you know, in our teens. Before we in our teens we used to listen to Jones, Count Jones, Hedley Jones them an’ some other sound. Any time a sound system string up, yunno, it draw a crowd. Yes.
What was the scene like in your area, Greenwich Farm?
Not Greenwich Farm alone, man. You have Greenwich Farm, Trench Town, those places. Greenwich Farm, you used to have Jones Town, t’was Jones Pen, those areas was formerly Pen ’til them change them to Town now, is Greenwich Town now. It was Greenwich Farm an’ Jones Pen. Trench Pen is Trench Town now. So those areas is around a long time, y’know. And people used to live in a place named Ghost Town. Whe alms house… when a man dead from alms house, a poor man, dem used to bury dem in a place dem call Ghost Town. People used to build up dem house, capture dem land deh an’ build dem house. Tivoli Garden was Back O’ Wall. So even why today those areas still have violence in a dem, beca’ dem people deh in dem days deh was violent people, like Woppy King an’ all dem man deh come from dem areas deh.
So we’re talking the early rude boys…
Yeah, those was before rude boy. Two-Gun Rhygin, Martin him did name, call him Rhygin. Jimmy Cliff dem mek a show with part-time story, with this script aroun’ him.
‘The Harder They Come’.
‘The Harder They Come’. It was a real rude boy life in a Jamaica, yunno. Yeah.
There’s a certain glorifying of the rude boy in Jamaica, in some circles at least. Did some people look up to these outlaws in those days, or it was rather the opposite?
People used to ‘fraid a dem, man. People never look up to outlaws in a Jamaica dem times. People dem was Christian people an’ go to work an’… Firs’ time from man smoke all a spliff, man, if you smoke all a spliff an’ your parents know, dem ban you! Dem nuh want you to come back a dem yard an’ all a dem t’ing deh. Jamaica did change. Yet the rude bwoys dem them days deh go to Back O’ Wall an’ Ghost Town an’ them place. Man neva glorify badman, badman haffe stay in a bush any time the people a call the police, y’understan’. Yeah man.
But that wave of ‘rude boy-ism’ swept over town sometime in the sixties, didn’t it?
Politics, it’s politics now. These politicians, after British rule gone now an’ we get independence then the politician waan tek over now, that’s when them start.
Infiltrate the communities.
Yes, a man start… a politician start an’ yet a man claim seh dem is your leader, whe a big politician call ‘im an’ seh well, you work with me now. Them give you the money fe get the guns fe get the guys fe intimidate people fe vote for me. But some a the man, them bother him… from them stop there so, them start rob an’ kill people. As I say, some a them a come back from the old days, the whole Ghost Town an’ Back O’ Wall days deh now, a man a chop off all a man head an’ dem days deh dem used to hang people. But it different now, yunno. The firs’ time before a man kill a man, him t’ink… y’know, him seh bwoy, if dem hold him dem a go chop off him head. But nowadays dat no gwaan now, dem new yout’ deh different.
Times change. Like Derrick Morgan said, if you didn’t return a ‘hello’ or ‘good morning’ to the elders, you could get a flogging for that.
Yeah, dat the ol’ days, you haffe respec’ your elders, man. It different now.
It was ‘easier’ to live under British rule?
Yeah. When we did ‘ave British rule, man, it was much better. Yeah man, land order was the order of the day, man. From we get independence the politician dem with dem greedy self, dat mash up the place. That’s why the gunman come in, beca’ each man waan stay in a power, yunno. Most of the politician dem is frien’, when dem meet up dem drink an’ seh bwoy, ‘I give you help to any situation bwoy’, my bwoys dem was down deh’. The bwoy, ‘tomorrow me a sen’ roun’ my bwoys dem too, yunno’. So, when the badman dem start kill dem now, dem take a closer look an’ some a dem get ‘fraid. But sometime it get outta hand, probably even now. Beca’ you hear a man jus’ a kill, kill, kill so, y’understan’.
Yes. And the rude bwoy – it gotten in a the music now, beca’ you’d hear they had a t’ing down deh now with Movado an’ Vybz Kartel now, one on Gully side an’ one name Gaza, one a Gaza. It reach all de school now, de school children dem. The guys dem start instigate this an’ that against dem one another an’ the school yout’ dem tek it up. The nex’ t’ing, a Gaza man a stab a Gullybank man.
The current dancehall feuds is nothing new on the map, is it? I mean, Jazzbo and I Roy…
Yeah, but Jazzbo an’ I Roy… You have it in a the ol’ days too, Derrick Morgan an’ Prince Buster an’ a few others, right. Jazzbo an’ I Roy, but dem rivalry deh now was jus’ fe sell record. No man neva shoot you ca’ you t’ink somet’ing ’bout him, a man jus’ go in a the studio an’ mek up a nex’ song an’ answer you back. But dem new yout’ now dem a play it fe keeps. Yes.
How did you actually start out in the business, was this as a record plugger for Duke Reid, or it goes even back before that?
Yes, also Coxson and Leslie Kong.
How did it come about?
We used to have a panel whe we ‘ave our vote at ‘Teenage Dance Party’. Sonny Bradshaw, him die the other day, bring in that. So, if a tune get earmarked, right, an’ you get your frien’ dem fe vote fe it, an’ it vote to a hit, it play right through the week – powerplay. Right through the week that tune play, so it grow on the people dem. So a man used to want get powerplay fe him tune, an’ we as the panel people, dem vote. Sometime, it’s not every week we on the panel, but you ‘ave other people jus’ vote. But you’d have to influence dem seh bwoy, this week you ‘pon de panel seh bwoy, me have four tune, yunno, me waan dem – one from Coxson, two from Duke Reid, and one from Leslie Kong. You waan dem tune get powerplay, so you haffe vote fe it. The same week when your time come ’round dem come an’… you have to do one another favours. Yeah.
So that’s the link.
Yeah man, because when we leave work a daytime or evenin’ time you go straight to dem record shop an’ you collec’ dem records fe go a the radio station an’ plug it, get it played. So as a man put out a new tune, the big guys dem like Duke Reid, we used to go a dem record shop during lunch-time an’ all that, dem would a leave the record dem fe we so we carry it in the radio station. Small man dem find you now, yunno, like when Joe Gibbs jus’ a start, dem find you fe get… because that’s how you get your play. But the big guys dem like Byron Lee now, the radio people go to all Byron Lee fe play it, beca’ after a while him was the big band in a Jamaica, so anyt’ing him mek – good or bad – it had fe air it. Them days deh you’d have one radio station till you have JBC come in now, Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation, you’d have two station an’ dem was the main one.
Before that was the Rediffusion.
Rediffusion was in a the fifties. Poor people who couldn’t buy a radio, right, it didn’t come – the mother company was from England ‘ere. JUI was the firs’ radio station whe turn RJR an’ dem bring in a radio station, the rediffusion, some lickle boxes, an’ you hire JUI, it used to be fe a month. So people used to have one in a ‘im house. So, a so they get the news an’ it’s the radio an’ the radio series an’ all a dem t’ing. You used to have one name’ Second Spring come over ‘pon a Sunday night-time, man. Like a ‘oman, her husban’ dead an’ she a fe marry again, everybody, everybody a fe listen to that. Second Spring. When a man have a radio in a… all a area, yunno, people crowd ’round dem radio an’ two hundred people listen to one radio. That’s when Rediffusion come in now, everybody could a hire one. Them jus’ install it an’ whether you ‘ave money or not, it spread like wildfire.
What’s the story of your first connections in the music industry, such as Ken Lack, the Caltone label?
Same way. Ken Lack did ‘ave a agency business, yunno. Ken Lack used to manage the Skatalites an’ Ken Lack get we fe come ’round now an’ start do t’ings. Ken Lack used to deal with… Ken Lack use we as a young people fe produce the tune dem an’ all that, an’ it work.
How long did you stay with Ken?
Well, I was all over the place, yunno. I was by Ken Lack, Duke Reid same way, an’ Coxson. An’ I can remember Ken Lack promised me all a car fe mek this… one a him tune go number one. Ken Lack, Joe Gibbs come in a the business an’ you’d have two big guy work a post office – McDermott, Jerry – dem used to come in sometime an’ storm the place… we used to call them the ‘Big Cat’. Used to walk with him back full of record when he was a postman, yunno, when him done… Tom and Jerry, man. Him sing some nice tune too. I dunno if dem still alive now. Tom – Jerry McDermott did ‘ave a heart problem one time an’ him go, him go America go do operation. Him did come back an’ leave an’ go America go live, I don’t know if him still alive. But dem guys deh did do some great music with Bobby Aitkens & The Carib-Beats. Yeah man.
Did you always have that in mind, the ultimate goal, to go into the business fully to produce yourself when you hung around Duke, Leslie Kong, Lack and all these people? Taking the step to go into self-production, how did that come about?
Oh, when you around the business so long now an’ most of the young artists dem get fe know one another. And we meet the evening time an’ fe work ‘pon some a them own… seh dem na get enough revenue, we start decide fe do our own t’ing. An’ the musician dem get fe know we an’ all that. So it wasn’t so hard.
You had the connections already.
How did you get treated personally by these people, Duke for example?
Good, man. Duke Reid was a man that give me the firs’ studio time fe start, yunno. Him had a festival tune an’ tek it ‘way. Me used to go an’ promote it like politics, put on all a loud speaker ‘pon yu cyaar and ‘campaign’! Yeah. So all dance before a radio station, beca’ we couldn’t afford air-time. Put on loud speaker ‘pon yu vehicle an’ truck – we call them ‘truck’ in a Jamaica – an’ go right through an’ advertise it. (Raising his voice) ‘Tonight is the night at Forrester’s Hall, Sir Coxsone’s Downbeat you’ll be dancin’ to in tune with brand new hits!’, y’understan’. All them way the people flock the dance… Mr Curry-Goat an’ Miss Wright will be there dancin’ an’ Red Stripe beer an’ all that, y’know. Them guys used to advertise the dance stylish, man. Them time Red Stripe beer was the t’ing in a Jamaica. And white rum.
Yeah. White rum still – that is the only t’ing I never see dem advertise all when I grow.
I was gonna ask you how you solved the problem with airplay, because I assume you had the same problem back then, during the 1960’s, with payola over the airwaves, didn’t you?
Yeah. When I started now, right, I used to buy a radio show, fifteen minutes. Me an’ Randy, Randy used to sponsor seh… Vincent Chin, ‘Bunny Lee an’ Randy’s a Go-Go Presents’, fifteen minutes to over thirty minutes, every Thursday night. An’ people start listening an’ come in an’ buy the records. Then everybody start do what we do now an’ then we start get it ‘pon the two station till Randy start do it fe himself an’ me start do it fe mine. Them days deh was foundation a Jamaica, twelve pound fe half-hour. But dem days deh, twelve pound, yunno, is big, it come in like all twelve thousand now. But you ‘ave fe save, yunno, an’ when yu record sell you could pay yu rent fe your record shop an’ the time you a produce people come from all four corners of Jamaica every Thursday night an’ Friday, yu shop full, y’understan’. So it used to work out.
So it was a combination of Randy’s and your product at first on that radio show?
It started as ‘Bunny Lee and Randy’s a Go-Go’ first till it change to ‘The Bunny Lee Show’. Yeah.
And it ran from ’67 until long into the seventies?
And then you expanded the show.
Yeah man, we go right on till half an hour. We go right on from fifteen minutes to half-hour from both radio stations. Beca’ everybody – every other new producer an’ the old one dem start. Duke Reid used to have a program, him firs’ start with ‘Treasure Isle Time’ ‘pon a Saturday, whe him used to advertise him liquor store. It was a way of life fe the people dem when him start with a tune name’ ‘My Mother’s Eyes’ an’ the man seh “‘Treasure Isle Time’!” Coxson did start one too. But after dem fade out now we as the younger generation come in.
You came up in a time when rock steady was shaped, competing against those big shots in the music.
Yeah, well, we were pluggers, yunno, so we now come in with our different ideas. First Coxson dem used to copy the Rhythm & Blues t’ing an’ all dat now, and then we slow down the beat. Duke, it was Duke idea still, y’know, to slow down the beat, but we jus’ continue with it. Because when the beat come you coulda hear (imitates bassline) ‘boo boo podobo podobo’, the bassline come out more better an’ t’ing an’ the people didn’t have fe rock so much… swing, yunno, like the pants get a lickle hole. When you have great dancer dem, like Sparky an’ Pluggy an’ Lloyd Pompadoo an’ dem guys deh, dem was electric, man. An’ Persian the Cat now was a rock steady dancer – pretty, y’understan’. Every era produce some great dancers. So rock steady was a beautiful music. Up to now, you still have the rock steady, yunno. But, you see, the reggae – you know what ‘reggae’ is? Is the organ shuffle in a the rock steady. It carry up back the beat lickle (imitates the beat) ‘chuh chuh, reggae reggae’ – that’s the organ shuffle. Carry up back the beat an’ mek it in-between. Beca’ you tek out the organ shuffle outta the reggae… tek the organ shuffle outta the business.
Bunny Lee at the studio (Photographer unknown)
No! Derrick Morgan tune ‘Rudies Don’t Fear’.
That was the first?
Yeah man. A guy name’ Busby. Busby use’ to come in a the dance an’ jus’ rock.
Can you recall how people responded at first to it?
The dance man dem use’ to love it, man. An’ Byron Lee band was the band whe tek up the music an’ go uptown with it now.
So they sort of ‘took over’ rock steady for a time?
Yeah man, them tek over calypso, every damn t’ing!
Byron Lee. Because the whole people dem use’ to follow them uptown, yunno, Saturday night.
So when did the door open up for a visit to European shores, when you decided to try to get a break and succeed in England?
Forty odd years ago. When I come a Englan’ I never know where to go. Jus’ come ‘pon a plane. Island (Records), Dave Betteridge, him did a work fe Chris Blackwell at the time, him did invite me up here.
Betteridge was like the right-hand man to Blackwell?
Yes. Him used to run the country, the country of music. Dave Betteridge used to come a Jamaica fe Island an’ jus’ buy music fe put out inna Englan’. Beca’ our music used to come up on pre. So him – them guys used to mek two to three trips from Englan’ an’ come there. Him an’ Lee Gopthal now, dem did form Trojan (Records). Through dem could get Duke Reid t’ings, dem form a label up here name’ Trojan, because it was ‘Duke Reid the Trojan’, yunno, an’ start put out records. Trojan record company start off a Duke Reid t’ing.
Right. What about Pama Records?
Well, Pama start dem same time too, yunno. I start Pama dem. Pama did start with Alton (Ellis) an’ Clancy Eccles an’ it never work out. Now, ’68 when I up here now, Pama dem find me over Paris Gate, the three brother dem come an’ me see them all black man so me decide fe give it a chance, so dem gimme ’bout £700 pound. I don’t remember if it 300 pound cash or 400 pound cash or three hundred pound cheque. I go Jamaica an’ start mek some music an’ the rest is history.
But you managed to get some compilations out on the Island label at the time, like ‘Put It On – It’s Rock Steady’ for instance.
Yeah man, nuff t’ings with Island, man. When we start Island was the main label, beca’ Jackie Edwards an’ Jimmy Cliff dem was my friend dem before them come an’ live a Englan’. Them was the firs’ set a artist’, an’ Owen Gray. Beverley’s, Beverley’s beat, he used to come down a Greenwich Farm an’ rent a man named Les Buchanan ‘pon a Lizzy piano an’ rehearse before dem go studio. Actually Jackie Edwards go as a piano player ‘pon the Owen Gray session an’ Chris Blackwell hear him singin’ an’ recording. It come out before. Owen Gray and Jackie, they never looked back. That’s how me do so much work with Jackie, when Jackie come up back a Jamaica.
You didn’t license much to Chris and Island, but how long did you last with Pama?
Well, at the time Pama did have the Black Power t’ing, yunno, where all – they give the black man the bly, y’understan’. But I do a lotta work with Island too, man. Ca’ Island come up here with some tunes from Mr Pottinger an’ Mr Robinson, them guys send me to Chris beca’ dem remember yu hear from Chris, dem remember dem get pay an’ Chris use’ to explain an’ seh nutten nuh gwaan.
Could you secure airplay for your product at that time in the UK?
Yeah man. Well, Chris used to make… Dave Betteridge dem run the t’ing.
Certainly not on the BBC, but (Radio) Luxembourg?
No man, dem days deh it used to go in a the trash-pan. BBC never inna no reggae an’ dem music in a the old days.
Not even Caroline or Luxembourg?
Fight, we used to fight. We used to have a station name’… yes, Luxembourg, it was a pirate station. And Radio Caroline. Used to haffe buy time fe play your reggae tune ‘pon it. Yeah man. How long… it come on till in a the evenin’, Tony Blackburn an’ dem guys deh start ‘pon dem station. The BBC employ them beca’ dem get so good.
Lee Gophtal of Trojan Records now, the late accountant, the stories surrounding his work for the music is of a man not so knowledgable about Jamaican music but at least he could get the product out there and not just the West Indian circulation of shops…
Lee Gophtal, him amalgamated with… Black people used to go to him firs’ when dem come up. Is him, Blue Cat, him use’ to put out Coxson t’ing. You had a label name’ Blue Cat, is him, Lee Gophtal, and Dave Betteridge, come together an’ start the Trojan label. Even to this day is Trojan put out some Island tune and Island put out some Trojan tune. But some a dem Chris own an’ some a dem was Lee Gopthal. The man whe really start the t’ing big… the man whe start the big t’ing on ya…
… was those two?
Eh? No man, you have a man name’ Shallit, yunno, him use’ to deal with Prince Buster. Emill Shallit, him start the Blue Beat label on ‘ere.
That’s right, yes.
Yeah. So him do ‘im part too, Emill Shallit. The main t’ree people was when I come a Englan’ forty odd years ago, right, was who now…? Mrs King, Iris King and Iris’ husband name’ Benny. Benny use’ to come a Jamaica too, yunno, an’ put out – a get record. Him use’ to put out anyt’ing whe Ken Lack (Caltone imprint) make, Rita an’ Benny, y’understan’.
Rita & Benny King, R & B Records?
Yes, Rita an’ Benny, right. Them did ‘ave a big distributing place from – dem was powerful people inna the business. Mrs King was a force to reckon with. Them use’ to have a place inna Stamford Hill. If she na sell the record is better yu come outta the business.
When she talk everybody jump! By the way, she a the firs’ person whe bring U Roy come inna this country. And Roy Shirley an’ Maxie Romeo. Max Romeo did come a’ready with Pama dem but him did go dung back, a Rita did bring ‘im back. Yeah.
And that was in the late sixties.
Ah, she put them in which part now… I think a the early seventies, when U Roy come, she put a tour together fe ‘im. I think a Croydon a the firs’ place they did go. A promoter name’ Les White use’ to work with her.
But in the end your relationship with the Trojan crew got sour. They went bankrupt in the mid seventies, got accused from all over for a massive amount of piracy, and so on.
Yeah, the whole a dem is some damn pirates, yunno. Ca’ Trojan use’ to put out Duke Reid t’ing, beca’ through dem mek the Trojan label people think it was… Duke never give them no tune. Is after a while Duke come dung deh Duke draw ‘im gun ‘pon Dave Betteridge an’ Lee Gophtal, dem run like thief! Go write a book an’ mek people know ’bout it. A me haffe cool off Duke beca’ Duke was a wealthy man, him never need no guy a Englan’ fe put out him record, fe pay people or not. Duke did ‘ave him money. Yeah man.
OK, they simply took his stuff, Duke’s productions, without a license for it and put it on…?
…on the Trojan label. I was there when Trojan label formed. Dandy Livingstone use’ to work with Mrs King an’ she an’ him fall out, an’ me an’ him was up by Dave Betteridge an’ Pama did give ‘im some money fe mek a album, an’ Dandy give it to Trojan fe put out. Trojan firs’ album, it name’ ‘Dandy Returns’. You see ‘im come off a plane step, Dave Betteridge go ‘pon the phone an’ sell fifteen thousand of that album right before – ‘pon the phone. Firs’ time when it come on ya an’ a man see yu with all a pre, he mek ’em hold them, he no waan hear it, yunno. From is a white label, if it is even stupidness him a pay a money an’ hold it. You have a man seh “Wha’ dat, pre? Mek a hold dem now”. Him no even waan hear it.
What do you feel was the downfall of the Trojan empire back in ’75 then?
Bad management. Yeah man.
Obviously. How much could you sell of a substantial ‘hit’ back in those days?
Could sell plenty, man. Plenty.
We’re talking figures around forty to fifty thousand?
Yeah man, fe a good seller dem days deh you have thirty, forty, sixty thousand or so. Or a hundred thousand. Ca’ you used to ‘ave Jamaica, Englan’, America did young to it, although you had a guy name’ Brad (Osbourne). An’ Randy’s start fe put out records, Chin-Randy’s was before VP. But Chin-Randy never gwaan good. It was Vincent brother – Vincent, ‘VP’ is ‘Vincent & Pat’, yunno. Me an’ Vincent start, beca’ him bredda never waan pay no royalty an’ put out record. An’ Vincent jus’ start VP Records, Vincent and Pat, him an’ his wife. Him use’ to mek – we do the work a Jamaica, use’ the studio time a Randy’s studio an’ in return we give him the tune dem fe – instead of paying studio time fe release in America. An’ see VP today – big t’ing. Yeah.
What about Keith Chin?
Keith Chin was Vincent brother too. Him use’ to dry cleanin’ business in America.
But what about yourself in this period, say ’68 to ’71, did you go over to New York to cover that market as well?
Yeah man, I start go to New York inna those days, it was me an’ Randy’s. It was Randy’s an’ myself. I use’ to stay a Keith’s house, yunno, that’s how Keith got interested in a record business. Beca’ Keith an’ him wife did ‘ave a dry cleanin’ business in New York.
Randy’s did have a releasing outlet in New York even as early as ’69 or ’70, I think.
Yeah, Randy’s start him produc’ – Vincent start him product long time, right, the brother that tek on the name ‘Chin-Randy’s’ off a Vincent label inna Jamaica. VP was Randy’s Records inna Jamaica, yunno. Chin-Randy’s was one a him brothers, him name’ Victor.
Victor, an’ the other bredda name’ Keith. Yeah.
What was the main players for the Jamaican record market in the late sixties or early seventies in the New York area? It was basically the same names, Brad Osbourne, Bullwackie?
Brad Osbourne was one of the backbone inna the business, beca’ after me an’ Brad hook up the rest was history, right. VP never – when I say VP never born yet, it was Chin-Randy’s, but Chin-Randy’s jus’ decide fe put out your music an’ no pay nobody, an’ claim seh (turns into a complaining voice) “Oh, me cyan owe myself two hundred an’ me cyaan mek back me stamper money”, an’ Brad tell we it was a lie an’ we and Brad start workin’. An’ then him do the same t’ing with Vincent now, so that’s why Vincent start VP Record. Ca’ him couldn’t get no return from him bredda. Keeling (Beckford) has that bredda’s place now, I think Keeling rent it from him wife. And then him sister name’ Molly, she was inna the business, she use’ to put out record. But when her husband dead she never bother. An’ Miss Pat an’ Vincent come over to America an’ live an’ the rest is history. VP a one of the biggest reggae distributor inna the world now, not even in a New York ca’ them buy out all Greensleeves. Yes.
You became one of the first independent producers to use the newly built Randy’s studio in Kingston?
You have to say I start using it before everybody, then Lee Perry. Ca’ when it jus’ started it had a distorted sound. E.T. (the late Errol Thompson) was an apprentice at Coxson’s studio at the time, yunno, an’ E.T. was the firs’ engineer at Randy’s studio.
I think he and Clive Chin, they were schoolmates at that time.
You kinda repeated this by using Channel One when they arrived on the scene.
’74 Channel One arrive’ an’ I have the firs’ tape, the first session there inna that studio, too. History tape, firs’ set o’ tunes that do inna Channel One was me. Me use’ to open the studio dem, yunno. Harry J studio, me firs’ record inna it. Me was the guinea-pig whe test out the studio dem.
Byron Lee did ‘ave a nex’ studio whe… him do it fe Mick Jagger but Mick Jagger dem did prefer the top studio. Byron Lee did set up a studio fe dem (the Rolling Stones), come mostly do all ‘Cherry Oh Baby’ an’ ‘Goat Head Soup’, fe the album, but dem prefer the big studio. Beca’ even ‘Cherry Oh Baby’ a do over five or ’bout six different times, yunno. An’ the one whe stand out was the one they do ‘pon the number one studio, right. Dynamic Sound have the greates’ sound up until this day. Them pull down the equipment now an’ all dat, but it was from West Indies Records. The bass never distort inna that studio. An’ then you have Federal which was before them with the Khouris dem. Federal use’ to do a lotta calypso till them start do reggae, rock steady, Ernie Smith an’ all them guys. So everybody chip in a lickle. Federal was a big manufacturer, like WIRL Records, dem were bankrupt an’ Byron Lee get a name-change to Dynamic Sound. Harry J build him own studio. Bob Marley biggest hit LP dem come outta Harry J studio, ‘Natty Dread’ an’ all ‘Catch A Fire’ an’ all dem t’ing deh. Harry J studio dat make.
But Blackwell did invest a reasonable sum in that studio, Harry J’s?
Yeah. Him did invest, ca’ him did get result. Any way you get result you invest your money. Chris did have a vision, yunno, so…
Yes, but you yourself must’ve had a certain ‘vision’ about recording when you took chances on all those new, ‘unfinished’ studios at the time?
Yeah, but Chris did born up here, yunno, so Chris had money. People like we start from nutten. I start do my firs’ session with twenty pound, put it inna Lynn Taitt hand an’ the four a them come; Lynn Taitt, Bryan Atkinson ‘pon bass, an’ Joe Isaacs ‘pon drums, an’ Gladdy Anderson ‘pon piano. A so me start. Them days deh was thirty shilling a side fe musician, yunno. Them days deh we start with four man an’ they play four tune fe me fe twenty pound. Cyaan bawl, through me use’ to go ’round with everybody the studio time come an’ from there the rest is history.
Did you leave the production ideas in the capable hands of these people or you had a basic idea from the beginning how that first session should be?
Yeah man. You see, we was the youth whe go to dance an’ saw what the people dem like. Ca’ I record even U Roy before, before Duke start record him, with a tune name’ ‘Here Comes the Man Lennox Brown With the Big Horn’, like a live effect. That was suppose’ to come on an LP now, ‘Lennox Brown’. Him did not much talk inna it but at least… ‘hear the brother play an’ the brother pa paaah daaah… you can swing an’ sway’, y’understan’, that was one a the firs’ U Roy tune. That was our t’ing. How we bring all version now. Me could not afford fe do everyt’ing a session, me haffe use the same riddim an’ put horns ‘pon some an’ dub organ an’ dub t’ings… tek all one riddim an’ mek a LP, with different artist, different sound. So everybody start follow we. But, a true, we couldn’t afford it – fe every music, every singer or every instrumental is a different t’ing, is a different riddim. So we start these t’ings, through lack of funds an’ t’ing. An’ when me deh a record Delroy Wilson, Ansel Collins play drums ‘pon that, yunno. Four man again, ‘This Whole Heart of Mine’ in a ’67, forty-one years an’ you hear that tune deh put on right now you’d have a guy say it jus’ make.
Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee doing an interview with Steve Barrow
But some critics would probably say that this practice ‘cheapened’ the music… in the long run.
No man, them know dem tune deh is classic an’ them stand up up till now. Better than what’s happenin’ now.
True, but the issue of ‘versioning’, what it caused was, perhaps, to hold the development back a little. But to each his own.
In a them days deh everybody a do the ‘version’ now. The critics them only talkin’, if you follow critics yu dead fe hungry, yunno, you dead of hunger. Old time people inna Jamaica seh ‘If you ‘fraid a Eye yu cyaan eat Head!’ That mean if you afraid a the fish-eye you cyaan eat the head.
So, you no listen to critics, or wha’ (is) critics, you listen to the band. Man used to say ‘dem wrong’, dem say ‘Bunny Lee an’ him drunkard musician’, beca’ me couldn’t afford the big guys dem, the big guy whe all over the place. Me get my lickle organis’, like a guy name’ Glen Adams, use’ him one finger until… him mek use of it like the big guys dem couldn’t do. We changed the sound. The big guys dem, if dem waan eat them haffe start wha’ we do. Man dance to wha’ him like, him no dance chord! A to E-flat an’ B to B-minor, man jus’ dance! Music wha’ dem like. So the music become… more an’ more an’ more youths join in an’ a lotta more singers, an’ when we tek it a Englan’ to the people dem now, a we break it inna Englan’ here, Pama an’ Island an’ Blue Beat. Then we turn to America an’ Canada.
How was the market in Toronto in those days?
Not too bad. You use’ to have Pete Weston did just leave Micron an’ did jus’ start the Micron Music company, an’ you did ‘ave a lickle guy up there name’ Cookie (Chin) now. Canada was always a small market. Beca’ man use’ to leave from Canada an’ go down inna New York an’ go buy record, ca’ New York was the bigger market. In the rest a the States, dem catch on.
I wanted to ask you about creative juices flowing and how you interacted among the congregation of players; your pool of musicians in the studio, did you let them come up with something or you had them pick up your stuff, basically?
Well, you use’ to have people like Bobby Aitkens. Through dem waan get good like Lynn Taitt an’ dem people, dem play wha’ you want. Them try fe please you instead of one do all ‘Take Five’, it called ‘Russians Are Coming’ now an’ dem seh “Uh!?”, dem tell me seh “No man!” “Any tune yu can play fast it can rock, slow it dung, we a go do this, ‘Take Five’, rock steady”. Classic today, an’ Bobby dem say “Mek we try it, man, on the drummer” – an’ it work. So, it was not a case of musician jus’ pick up everyt’ing an’ gone through the door, beca’ through him is a big-timer yu cyaan talk to him. Them guys was the underdog whe me use’. So dem waan them name big out deh like Lynn Taitt & The Comets or Lynn Taitt & The Jets. Beca’ right now Bobby Aitkens build one o’ the bigges’ reggae riddims of all time, dem even put him bassman name ‘pon it, Laurel White – ‘My Conversation’. In every era dem version that riddim. Bobby Aitkens & The Carib-Beats, ’67. Anywhere that Slim Smith tune put on – bam! The big guys never stop version them tune deh. So when you hear critic a talk, even the other day a tune do with ‘She’s Royal’, right?
Yeah, the riddim dem jus’ a thief offa Delroy riddim an’ jus’ do it over, a Delroy Wilson riddim but Dean Fraser as a musician fe a different horn phrase an’ t’ing, but nuff people no know seh is offa dat. Beres Hammond, him is a man whe love do over people riddim an’ change the horn phrase an’ the t’ing an’ call it different name. If yu no understan’ fe yourself dem tek ‘way your publishing too. Delroy a no alive fe claim it.
When you suddenly get successful, a lot of people tend to flock around you, wanting various things, each one taking a little piece off you, if they can. How did you handle all the hangers-on back in those days?
Same way, man, same way until now. You jus’ deal with people as a individual. You no mek yu head get big an’ gwaan like yu better than dem. Like you mek outta iron an’ dem man mek outta hay… you deal with everybody, as a man. The whole a we a one, yunno. Some man might be passionate more than some or dem t’ing deh, so… But some a the other producers an’ dem t’ing, all when dem come a Englan’, me start the trend an’ mek man know dem can come a Englan’. Me come an’ tek five hundred pound from Pama an’ give Ital Records fe him start, to stop hangin’ aroun’ Coxson an’ other studios, that’s how him could a do him own t’ing. Me never do it fe myself alone, me spread out. You always haffe look out fe your people dem aroun’ you. So, more time it nutten hard fe handle. It come in easier. An’ a man come with idea, an’ seh, “Bwoy, Striker, how this sound?” Me seh, “Hold on deh! Stitch, yu ‘ave ideas – try it!” Right? An’ me go inna the control an’ listen an’ me listen to wha’ they have an’ me seh, “Mek we do it the Stitchie way”. So variety is the spice of life. Ca’ wha’ the other man dem did a gwaan with, Stitchie idea come up better. So, a so it go. That’s why most of my t’ing no sound alike. A musician come with idea, yu mek ‘im work out him idea an’ try it. An’ if yu no like it yu still take it. An’ you take one a your idea. Sometime in the end a musician waan the t’ing I prefer. An’ it – boom! – go out deh an’ it’s a big hit. Beca’ is a wheel, yunno, if it go an’ yu no fix the wheel the wheel a go bad until the whole wheel mash up. So you listen to every man, treat every man ’round you as a man, listen to wha’ dem haffe say. It come like the other day I go somewhere an’ hear some man mek a tune, with Ambelique, an’ them ask me opinion. I say: “Well, keep that, that sound good. Tek a nex’ cut”. The guy jus’ come ‘pon it an’ say: “Bwoy, me no old-time producer, me no waan no advise ‘pon it”. All now dem cyaan get it back, dem wipe it off. So when dem get one-two an’ see wha’ dem a ask me, wha’ me t’ink, me say me a old-time producer, yunno, me no do anyt’ing, me no waan hear nutten. The new guys, dem too big-headed an’ think them know it all an’ dem no know nutten. Some a dem is Mr Know It All.
(Laughs) I guess that’s right.
Tell me about your working relationship with (King) Tubbys, how did that start? I don’t know exactly when he opened up his studio, or when he acquired the old board from Dynamic, circa ’71 or so?
No, it start before, right. The studio dem a get too busy, an’ Tubbys have a lickle place up deh with some curtains, him a go play ‘gainst Tippatone an’ me deh come a Englan’, an’ me seh “Tubbs, we can do special”. All dem ‘special’ business whe man a talk, a me start that, yunno. Can voice some tune in there with Roy Shirley an’ some more man. An’ me bring up somet’ing. Me did carry U Roy come up after him tour with Mrs King an’ U Roy… Tubbs a fret now beca’ him is ‘is deejay at the time an’ Big Youth a clap now! Big Youth a clap on Tippatone sound an’ the man Tippatone a go play. So me seh “No man, me have a deejay inna Spanish Town name’ I Roy, man, whe sound like him imitate U Roy. That a no problem, an’ jus’ go an’ pick up I Roy an’ mek ‘im familiar with the dubs, an’ on the Sunday night the dance was a success. I Roy use’ to do deejay one or two t’ing fe Moodies, but that night I Roy mek ‘im name. Ca’ if him coulda go up ‘gainst Big Youth an’ Big Youth was the biggest t’ing away from U Roy now, him an’ Dennis Alcapone an’ Dennis Alcapone did live a Englan’ at the time now, so I Roy come on an’ stand up! I wasn’t at the dance the night beca’ I did fly out, but him do a special name’ the ‘Iron Gate’, man, an’ one name’ ‘Joe Frasier’ – ‘Joe Razor’, with Roy Shirley. So we start voice tune deh. Use’ to make the riddim an’ Tubbs put dem ‘pon two-track firs’ until it a go on… Tubbs mek a lickle board an’ we start do most of Slim Smith firs’ album, up deh me voice’ it an’ mix it. Beca’ through Tubbs did a cut dub now we did give ‘im ‘pon dubplate, give it fe ‘im custumer. So when Byron Lee change out the board now, Byron seh the t’ing a tek up space an’ me jus’ a seh, “Byron, I woulda get this fe Tubbys an’ we go pay fe it later”. An’ I go an’ tell Tubbs an’ him get it – an’ the res’ is history.
You went over there because, in many ways, it was a lot cheaper to voice at Tubbys?
Yeah man, beca’ we set it up in a lickle bathroom now an’ put some eggshell an’ somet’ing inna Tubbs now, an’ start voice. From inna the early days before him get the board. From we do the special, Tubbs did ‘ave some velvet curtain, an’ we draw them an’ him tu’n down the t’ing low an’ yu plug in you earphone an’ you listen the riddim an’ get the riddim through it, an’ voice. So we start voice tune until we start carry ‘Scratch’ up deh too, an’ the whole a we start an’ the nex’ t’ing yu know, King Tubbys born till the ‘version’ t’ing come in now. An’ we start use up the t’ing ‘pon the board now, whe dem other engineer t’ink a ‘decoration’, yunno, an’ start get the ‘chukho chukho’. You know when the drum an’ bass come in? You ‘ave a man sing somet’ing wrong, yunno, an’ yu jus’ mek ‘im sing an’ when you mix it yu jus’ drop out dem part a de riddim. When the chord change an’ de man dem clash – an’ people start follow we an’ do it, y’know. An’ then Tubbys an’ Ruddys deh a Duke Reid a cuttin’ some ‘soft wax’ you call it dem days, and Smithy (Byron Smith, sound engineer at Treasure Isle studio) mek a mistake an’ leave out de riddim – I mean the voice, an’ him a go stop it an’ Ruddy seh “Don’t stop it, jus’ one. Tek the riddim”. An’ then him tek the vocal after that now, right. An’ the night – man a Spanish Town man, me seh me haffe go over there an’ me see Ruddy put it on, man. Him put on the singin’ part an’ seh “Me goin’ play part two!” An’ so when him put on that, man, the song was a easy song as they ‘ear it, so everybody start sing ‘pon the pure riddim an’ the deejay start talk over it, man! An’ then me seh “Bwoy, Tubbs, yu see the joke whe wha’ ‘appen up by Duke studio the other night, we haffe go do it, y’know”. Ruddy pop down Spanish Town with it, the riddim, so we start do it now. I got Slim Smith ‘Ain’t Too Proud To Beg’, we start with the singin’ an’ lick in the riddim an’ tek out the voice an’ people start seh “Bwoy, Tubbys have a amplifier weh can tek out the voice outta the riddim”, so everybody flock to Tubbys’ sound. But a the sof’ wax, dem cut da way deh (giggles). So, U Roy start play all six piece of one tune. When you come with it again U Roy seh “Come with another version, Rasta!” An’ me say ‘Rooyyy, a de name dat’. Then the name ‘version’ was born. Plenty a de guy dem seh we a drop out all riddim after the vocal, them nuh know why we do it, dem jus’ follow an’ it become a way of life, ca’ we set the trend, man. We do a whole heap a t’ing. Coxson dem start follow too – everybody!