Interview with Johnny Clarke

by Sep 8, 2023Articles, Interview

Johnny Clarke Interview

Where: Dub Club, Echoplex, Los Angeles CA
When: August 19, 2023
Reporter: Stephen Cooper
Photos: Courtesy of Stephen Cooper, Teacher, and the respective record companies (labels/sleeves)
Editing Interview Video : Teacher
Copyright:  2023 – Stephen Cooper

Reggae Legend Johnny Clarke: Big, Champion Musicians Gathered Around Producer Bunny Lee (The Interview)

The lyrics of reggae legend Johnny Clarke’s hit songs are so righteous, because, often, they’re steeped in Bible verses—and imagery—as interpreted through the keen, honest, revelatory, oftentimes revolutionary, lens and vision of Rastafari.

On August 19, in L.A., I interviewed Clarke—for about 15 minutes—after Clarke served a soulful musical feast to more-than-satisfied patrons of the Dub Club; Clarke’s performance was backed by members of the legendary Soul Syndicate (Fully Fullwood, Santa Davis, and Tony Chin), the same legendary Jamaican musicians that backed Clarke, years ago, on most of his hit songs—made for the late legendary producer, Bunny “Striker” Lee.

What follows is a transcript of the interview, modified only slightly for clarity. Embedded throughout the transcript are links to Johnny Clarke’s music, exclusive photos, and more. At the end, there’s a link to the complete audio file of the interview—available on YouTube.

Johnny, I already have you recording but I want to tell you that was a musical feast—
Yeah, true. (Laughing)

—it was a musical feast that you gave us.
Good food, man, ‘cause the people dem give me the support over the years so mi a-feed dem, you know?

Yeah. How did you feel about the crowd and the show?
Bwoy, a-mi a-tell you a man, [there] was a fullness, you know? Give I the energy, you know—multiply.

The encouragement was great!

‘Nuff respect.

Johnny, how was it to be onstage with Soul Syndicate legends Fully Fullwood, Tony Chin, and Santa Davis—who[m] you had so many hits with, with [legendary producer] Bunny Lee?
It brings back [memories and history]. A good family reunion. The original creativity days, you know?

Now Bunny Lee—legendary producer Bunny Lee—whom I told you [before this interview on the phone] I didn’t catch up with before he passed—he recruited you. He actually came to find you at “Idlers’ Rest” with Blackbeard, because he had heard your song “[Everyday] Wandering” in England, right?

Stephen Cooper & Johnny Clarke (Photo contributed by Stephen Cooper)

And Johnny, you did an interview in 1983—so, it was a long time ago. And this guy, [John Futrell], [in an article that’s available] on the internet [on], [he] wrote [that] after he met with you in 1983—he said that you became the most “potent force”—the biggest force—in Bunny Lee’s organization. And he said that Bunny Lee would deliver all the royalty checks to you “on time.” Is that true? Did Bunny Lee give you all your royalty checks “on time?”
All of that happened when mi did sign to Virgin [Records]—when our checks were given individually.

So Virgin was giving you your royalty checks—

But what about Bunny Lee? Was Bunny Lee giving you royalty checks “on time?”
Well dem days dere, it wasn’t about checks.

It was more about the music.
The music, and you know, when a man make a money, a man—it’s nice, because dem days we never around certain high-class things, you know? Because really we come from the ghetto, and for real, for myself, mi achieve in life. Mi give thanks, because it’s really a blessing [given] where I was really coming from, you know? So no matter what—and even then, it was something inna your pockets still, you know?

As a man who wasn’t really working. So—it [was] nice [to] have money, you know?

Now the very first song that you recorded for Bunny Lee was “My Desire,” right?

And I was shocked to learn that [Aston] “Family Man” [Barrett] was playing piano on that song. Was that an unusual thing that Family Man would play piano? Because everybody knows him as the [legendary] bassist. Why was he playing piano on that song?
Because Bunny Lee is a man when him doing a session, all the big champion musicians gather around. The big champion musicians. Some man dem versatile. They can play bass. They also can play piano. They can play guitar if you want them to. They [might] specialize in bass, but if you need dem can play a little piano, [and] you might be surprised at what you get from them when they play.

Yeah—so talented.
Yeah. Versatility.

Now you began a whole heap of songs with Bunny Lee—you had all these hits. And there was the “Flyers” [or] “Flying Cymbals”—

—the “Flyers” sound. Why did Bunny Lee, why did he—both Santa Davis and Tony Chin told me [in previously published interviews] that Bunny Lee is the one who named it that. Why did he name it that? Did he name it that because it had that calypso, upbeat-[type sound] to it? Or why did he name it that?
Yeah because—

“The Flyers?”
“The Flyers.” Yeah, because as they say, it was a change in the music from the one-drop [sound]. That’s why it also became a hit. Because [Bunny Lee] was very instrumental in thinking that the people need[ed] a type of uptempo. And it was coming from Indian—the people dem up there, the riddim is fast. So when him come down now [he] decide to create a fast uptempo type of style, and then it catch on.

People loved it.
It was like a change from the one drop.

And the “hit machine” started.
Yeah, [I had] a string of hits.

Because we just utilize [this] new invention and the lightness of the people. And them catch on to it, you know?

Bunny Lee—he seemed like he was a very good-natured guy [such] that all the musicians loved to work for him. They really loved Bunny Lee. Do you agree with that?
Well yeah, because he [was] a man where him kinda, you know, make everybody feel [good]. More times [that] man would talk some things, and everybody [would] laugh and all dem tings.

Is there a favorite memory that you have of Bunny Lee? When you think about him, is there a favorite memory that you have?
[Bunny] was a man where him could bring ideas to you, you know?

He was creative?

image host
Bunny Lee at Reggae Geel 2013 (Photo: Teacher)

Now many of your songs, in fact almost all of them, they’re so righteous because they’re based on Rastafari. I believe that you said that your older brother, when it would storm—when it would rain, and it would thunderstorm—he would call out “Rastafari!”
Yeah man.

And that was one of the things that started to get you into Rasta. Is that true?
That was in my youth days—

Yeah. Now—
—when I’m at home.

Yeah. Now a good friend—
And mi have bigger brothers, you know?

Yeah. Because your younger brother is a drummer for the—
No. I am the smallest one.

Oh! I thought—you have a brother named—named “Fish” [Clarke] [who was a drummer for the Roots Radics].
Yeah, but him bigger than me.

Oh—he’s an older brother, [I see]. Now there’s an elder that I told you about before you came [to Los Angeles tonight] named Ras Michael. He’s our dean of reggae here in L.A., Ras Michael.
Yeah man.

And when he was in Jamaica he had a radio show—he had a radio program—it was called “[The] Lion of Judah [Time].” And it was [aired] in 1964. Did you ever [listen to] that show—you were a young boy [then]. It was on the radio. It was called “Lion of Judah [Time].” Did your brother or did you ever see Ras Michael—or hear his show? His radio show?
In 1964?

No man. Dem times dere—

You were too young.
Yeah! I didn’t know wah gwan.

My Desire

Roots, Natty Roots, Natty Congo

None Shall Escape The Judgement

You were way too young—9 or 10. But you were still, because you were 9-10, you were there when Haile Selassie came to Jamaica.
Yeah man.

Do you remember that time?
Yeah man. I was in the—I think what they call then the “cubs.”

At school, yeah. You know like [how] dem have like “cubs”—

Cubs—like “cub scout?”
Yeah, and then you have the bigger ones—“scouts.”

But [you see] in primary school, you have the cubs.

What do you—
And I was—I went to stadium in a cub group—

So did you actually see Selassie when he—
Because every school was motivated in that time. Every single school in the country. We all [went] there to the national stadium. Young little child[ren]. Everybody—young and old.

To see Selassie.
Yeah man, because I tell you I was a cub—that’s how young [I] was.

Johnny Clarke - Strickly Reggae Music
Yeah. Now your mom, though, I understand that she was a very Christian, church-going woman. She sang in the church, true?

And did she ever try to convince your brother and you to not follow Rastafari? Was she trying to tell you that you shouldn’t be a Rasta—your mom?
No man. Nothing like that. Because my mother, she never—nobody in those days—Rasta wasn’t really the “in” thing.

But it was just [that] my brother is a man where him kinda deal with it pon a different level, you know what I mean? Him a-check it out through H.I.M followers [and] people—him friends there who would check him every now and again, you know?

And did your mom accept that—was she accepting of that eventually?
No, because she can’t accept that. Because as far as she is concerned that isn’t a Christian thing. Because she was calling out to say, “Stop it!” She was like in another room, [but] she was there also, and she would say “You must be quiet! I don’t like that.” But my brother now is a man where [he who would still insist on saying]: “Rastafari! Selassie! Jah!” (Laughing)

(Laughing) Now, as I said, most of the—many of the lyrics in your songs are based on Bible [verses].” What is your favorite passage of the Bible, Johnny? What is the passage of the Bible that you read the most—that you look at the most?
Wi read the Psalms, you know? Mi is a Psalms-man, you know?

Psalms. You like the Psalms.
Yeah. Yeah man.

Johnny your song “Poor Marcus” which you sang tonight—you sang that song “Poor Marcus”; it’s one of my favorite songs. And Marcus Garvey’s birthday was just two days ago on August 17th. And the day before that was Dr. Julius Garvey[’s birthday]—[Marcus Garvey’s] son—he turned 90 years old. And Dr. Julius Garvey, he has been asking the United States along with Jamaica to pardon and exonerate his father for the racially biased conviction [where] they prosecuted [Marcus Garvey] in New York—

—[and] they convicted him, and deported him to Jamaica. And it was all based on racism. And lies. And Jamaica and Dr. Garvey have been asking the United States: Please clear that up. Please exonerate him. And they haven’t done it. They won’t do it—they haven’t done it. President Biden hasn’t done it. Why do you think that is? Why won’t they pardon or exonerate Marcus Garvey?
Well sometimes people don’t think they’ve done wrong. And they fail to own up to it—and decide to come clean, you know?

They won’t correct the history?
Yeah. That’s just how they think. So that’s why a lot of things was really done negatively in the olden days. [But] the younger youths come to see the light.

Yeah, that’s why you have to depend on the youth to come.

‘Nuff respect.
Yeah keep the youth going, you know?

Johnny, just a month ago, Leroy Sibbles was here. He came in from Jamaica. And he was saying that he was still very angry with the Tuff Gong people, and the Marley family, because they had made a decision to move a show that they play on the radio here in the United States—it’s called “The Joint.” And they replaced that—that’s a show that would play reggae legends like yourself—

—and other people, like Leroy Sibbles, and other reggae legends [too]—they would play that; they replaced all of that with just Bob Marley content—Bob Marley music. And that made Leroy Sibbles very upset. He said that it’s taken away royalties from people like yourself. What do you think about that? And what do you think that the Marley family should do about that?
Well, I don’t know—I personally, because I personally respon[d] where I say it differently. I don’t go with brethren and people, and every-ting. But you—if a man that tries to offend you, you know—you know what I mean? You have a love surrounding brethrens same way, but you, you have to deal with you. Defend that, you know?

Yeah. Respect.
So me, that’s why I—I don’t really compete. I just try and put out the best within I, you know?

Respect. Respect.
It’s all about you. So it’s about what you a-do. So I just try and do it for the best, you know?

Them Never Love Poor Marcus

Strictly Reggae Music

Since I mentioned Bob Marley, were you friends with Bob when you were back in Jamaica?
Yes! Oh gosh, man! ‘Nuff people said—I’m gonna tell you this, this is really the truth, so you best believe this. I used to have a car there by the name of Ford—Ford Cortina.

Oh yeah? A Ford Cortina, eh?
Yeah. A red one with a black stripe, you know? And this DJ by the name of Jah Stitch—

Yup. Jah Stitch, yeah.
He is a man where me and him used to go drive up and down, you know? Like he was the type of man who would move with you, you know? So we drive—we try to drive up to Bob’s place—[on] Hope Road. Because dem days dere, me and Bob [played] dice, you know? And then go around and play kick up the ball. And—

—we park up. And we a-play scrimmage, and [Bob] just passed me and Stitch come out. And when Bob done, him take break and just run over to me and say: “Bwoy, Johnny, you’re too bad man! Johnny too bad, man!”

“Johnny too bad, man. Johnny too bad.” Yeah man, mi a-tell you.

But Bob [was] a serious brethren, you know? And more times I would see him and buck him up at the distribution place—on Retirement Road. You have—one side is “Micron,” and the next side you have “Total Sound,” which eventually became “Sonic Sound”—

(Fully Fullwood appears in the hallway.)

Fully Fullwood: Johnny! Him haffi done.

Oh. Okay.
(To Fully Fullwood) Yes, sir.

Fully Fullwood: Come here. Him haffi done.
(To Fully Fullwood) Ready?

Hey, thank you so much Johnny.
Yeah man.


Check Johnny Clarke  Music