Interview with Ernest Ranglin
It’s a warm Sunday afternoon. London’s Notting Hill Gate branch of Island Records evaporates within its own typical, laidback weekend vibes. Photographer Adrian Boot, Ranglin’s Dutch based manager, Mark Van Den Bergh, plus a few staff members are seemingly pottering about. I arrive to find, somewhat intriguingly, my interviewee, guitar supremo, Ernest Ranglin, preoccupied with a photo session.
“You’re not in a hurry are you?” inquires a raw, Jamaican accent of roadie and long serving all-rounder Satch. Also formally of the original Undivided band. “No, not really”, I reply, instinctively keen to take in whatever source of activity was underway, in what seems like a photo studio annexe. Hopefully, also on hand to catch whatever leaks out of the indiscreet flow of banter. Unquoted of course. After all, I have to be observant and inquisitive when the call to the role of reporter is requested. Without offence. From where I stand, by his own calm and humble standards, for some of the dizzying activity around hirn, Ernest seems remarkably collected.
Judged by the updates from press releases on his recent European tour, the impact of his splendid ‘Below The Bass Line’ album has taken him to a world away from the industry’s usual “hitch hike phases”. And by-golly doesn’t he deserve it. Twenty minutes later, Satch reappears to assure that efforts are being made to complete the photo shoot as swiftly as possible. Apologies from all concerned truly expressed. “Cool runnings,” I replied modestly. After all, time is on my side. Furthermore, delays won’t diminish the importance of meeting one of Reggae’s all time, unsung heroes. Ranglin’s reputation as a musician is substantial, based primarily on contributions as both arranger and session guitarist on many sixties to late seventies recordings for top producers, although up until most recently, his solo recording output has been sporadic. Prior to the Island Jazz Jamaica offerings, for many Reggae fans his most familiar works have been the ‘Ranglin’s Roots’ and ‘From Kingston JA, To Miami, U.S.A’ albums, plus a handful of splendid Studio One singles, most notably ‘Surfin’, which incidentally, was also revisited for the aforementioned set and used by a leading financial institution for a t.v. commercial.
His latest album ‘Memories Of Barber Mack’ continues his return to peak form as first gathered from the critically acclaimed predecessor. After a warmly greeting from the quietly spoken, tender looking veteran, whose face, to much amazement, brims with radiancy, for someone nearing ‘freedom pass’ entitlement, we began to settle down. Those perceived notions of “profits over artistic values” or “overloading a label’s main act, regardless of age,” was quickly swept aside as Ernest laughingly explained: “When Trevor Wyatt (A&R) and I saw how we could improve from the first project and build on what impact it created, Mark, my manager and I decided we’d go full steam ahead on a European tour for the ‘Barber Mack’ LP, then take a nice rest. “And yet still, although I am busy, as you have witnessed from your wait, which I do sincerely apologise, I don’t feel tired. Now you’re looking at someone in his sixties.” Such are the genuine sentiments of an archetypal gentleman. Also launching the vibes onto such a high note formed the perfect cue for this interesting exchange in dialogue. Here’s how it went.
Is it fair to assume that the musical sound or flavour between the two albums for Island Jazz Jamaica are different?
Well the ‘Barber Mack’ album was made with a more Mento flavour in mind. “Whereas the previous one, ‘Below The Bass Line’ was made with Ska and Reggae as the main sound. And although there is a difference it isn’t a great deal.
Did you personally select the tracks for the highly acclaimed ‘Below The Bass Line’?
Between Monty Alexander and myself. He was the musical director. Ideas for those tracks were between Monty, Trevor Wyatt (A&R Man at Island Jamaica UK) and myself. It was really all three of us.
How did this relationship with Island Jamaica come about in the first place?
First I came to England as a guest for or of the Jazz Jamaica project. Then I met up with Monty, who I knew for some time, after which he asked me to do an album with him: ‘Yard Movements’. In between, or I think we had almost finished Monty’s album, we went to the Montreal Jazz festival where upon I met Trevor Wyatt. And as a result of Monty’s album influencing its own project, it also made way for mine, which thankfully led me to be signed by Island.
How do you compare past albums like ‘Ranglin’s Roots’ and King Sporty’s ‘From Kingston J.A. To Miami, USA’, to your current material?
If you notice, ‘Ranglin’s Roots’ has the same sorta feel. And as amazing as it may sound, I must make it clear that it was recorded back in 1970. Now with the King Sporty album, I was living in New York at the time when he asked me to Florida to record that album. That was around the early eighties. Sporty and I have known each other for a long time. He used to be at Coxsone’s Studio One when I first went there. He was there along with Scratch, Clancy Eccles and guys like those. Sporty was there from the beginning. I’ve known him for years, ever since I was one of the arrangers at Studio One.
Back then, during those early days at studio one, was he also known as King Sporty?
His real name is Noel Williams, but we’ve always called him Sporty. And he is married to that great soul singer Betty Wright.
What was that special year for you, when a leading music publication named you amongst the worlds leading jazz guitarists?
In 1964 I was voted by Melody Maker as the number One guitar player for that year.
Having played an important part in the evolution of Jamaican music, what are your views on the way musicians are treated nowadays?
Guys like saxophonist Barber Mack and Lennie Hibbert, you got to remember people like those. They are an important part of our heritage.
Like so many of Jamaica’s famous veteran musicians, did you also attend Alpha Boys school?
Because we were all friends, I use to visit both at various rehearsal times and just sit in. But musically I am a self-taught. All my knowledge came from books.
So, amazingly, when did you first start playing the guitar?
From the age of 5. But then, I didn’t know what I was doing. First playing by copying what ever I heard. By ear, so to speak. By the age of 14 I decided to play seriously. Even though my parents were against me becoming a musician, I made up my mind; it was what I wanted as a living. I also wanted to prove to them that I didn’t go to school and waste my time. So because I couldn’t afford a tutor, I had to refer to that old book ‘First Steps In Guitar Playing’. Then gradually on to number 2, then 3 and, so on. I even learnt about chord changes through those and other books similar to that. Now from there moving on, my very first break in live work was when I went over to the Cayman and Caicos Islands to play for the tourist dem.
For most British skin heads, or fans of Jamaican music, which back then it was rock steady, the first time your name became familiar to us was credited as the arranger of Millie Small’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’ on the Fontana label. How did that come about?
Between l958 and ’65 I was working at the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC). The then Prime Minister, Mr. Manley requested a permanent studio band. So a musician named Bertie King was appointed band leader. Tommy Mowatt was employed to play bass guitar, and I was on rhythm and lead guitar. But you had to be able to play or do three other musical chores to qualify as being capable to arrange, then play at least two different roles to play in the band. Anyway within months of the band being officially assigned and employed by JBC the line up consisted of: Lenny Hibbert (a great musician) on vibes, xylophone and occasionally keyboards; Carlos Malcolm, Babba Motta, Bertie King and myself. We worked from 8am to 5pm, five, sometimes six days a week. Recorded tracks for programmes and background music for guest artists. At the same time, to help make-up some more money, I had a band playing mainly weekends at the Half Moon hotel. We sometimes shared the bill with Clancy Heywood’s band from Bermuda. A nice band that played the modern sounds then, but mainly what the hotel directors thought was more suitable for tourist, Calypso, Folk, and Ska. Incidentally he did one side of an album for Wirl or Stanley Motta and my band done the other side.
Now Chris Blackwell use to visit that hotel, as well as familiarise himself with staff at JBC, so one day after a brief acquaintance he asked me to work with him. From the very start he treated me fair. So I cut an album called ‘Guitars With Ernest’. Moving on from there Chris got me more involved with stuff he was choosing for a label he was trying to form, so I worked alongside him as A&R man, working on tracks with Wilfred (Jackie) Edwards, Boris Gardiner, who was then known as the Rhythm Aces. We also recorded Keith & Enid plus Owen Grey. But Millie Small came way afterwards. That is to show you how long I’ve known Chris. As a matter of fact, when I first started with Chris Blackwell, he was based at a temporary office on Odean Avenue, Kingston front, or not far from the base of the original JBC. And that was in the early sixties. A couple of years after he left to form a London base. Then he came back to Jamaica, as he made frequent trips to and fro, then again asked me to be his main A&R man. Now from then, or even slightly earlier and, right up to the end of the sixties, touching the early seventies, a lot of the tunes were just organ, bass, drums, and no horns. Plenty of dem was lacking in arrangement.
Y ‘know back then, is only few producers who appreciate horns in their productions. Mainly Buster (Prince) and Duke Reid. Coxsone just had to have horns because Skatalites was a dominant force, then when the Rocksteady and then the Reggae come in, Cedric Brooks, Roland Alphonso, and David Madden almost lived there. Dem stayed on. But other than Buster and the Duke, a lot of the then up and coming guys didn’t favour horn sections in their tunes. As time pass by, when bands like Byron Lee & the Dragonaires came, even they weren’t too favourable for a horn section. I think it’s to do with that sweet look image, that frontline approach of looking slick, with a guitar in front of dem. Instead of a long trombone or saxophone.
To confront a rumour that has baffled me over the years, I must ask to confirm, did Rod Stewart really play harmonica on Millie’S ‘My Boy Lollipop’?
To be quite honest, from the bottom of my heart, I can’t remember. As a stranger then, it didn’t mean anything. A guy come in, I’m not sure if he was black or white, played harmonica on the session and that’s all I remember. But because everyone says so, well…
After spending time in England during the early to mid sixties, did you go back to Jamaica to work with Coxsone?
Yes, but not just Coxsone. Other producers and musicians respect Coxsone alot. Musically, he can always dip in there. He can’t tell you what note you are playing but can always pass on good ideas. He loves Jazz, R&B, so he has a wide knowledge of music which helps. I also worked with Duke Reid. But to answer that question more directly, when I left England for a return trip back home in the sixties, I went straight to Federal before linking up with Coxsone. I also went back for a short period at JBC. It was at this second spell that I started to broaden my spectrum as a musician and producer. Then, I also produced the first batch of Prince Buster’s hits. I played bass on recordings for mainly Buster, but I’m not a great lover of the bass.
During your time at Duke Reid, were you a member of Tommy McCook’s Supersonics?
No. But I was musical director at a lot of those sessions. Joya Landis, a lot of her recordings I directed. But Duke credited the Supersonics, because it’s coming out of Treasure Isle. I also worked with Sonia Pottinger. Mainly the early releases on her Gay Feet label.
From the string of producers you’ve worked with, or for, who have you enjoyed working with the most? If only for musical ideas and expressions in creativity?
Coxsone. It was he, my bassist Cluett Johnson, and myself who helped mould the Ska sound. Most of those songs credited to other acts, besides the Skatalites, are my works. With Coxsone I also done a lot of final mixes.
During the eighties you did’nt do alot of recordings. Why not?
I worked on only two albums: ‘We Want To Party’ and ‘True Blue’, both recorded in Miami. Back then, I did a lot of live work but not recordings. I liked Sunday night gigs because then at that part of Miami they had a nice relaxing feel to those weekly gigs. Water Way was my special venue. I lived in Miami for six years. I didn’t miss nothing in Jamaica, whether it was recording one off sessions of gigs because being so close I made several trips.
Firstly as Ernest Ranglin, then as a musician, which is the first concept album you recorded?
‘Ranglin’s Roots’. Sadly it was the only album I’ve done for Aquarius. That one plus these two for Island were done with a concept in mind. All other albums by me were done whole-heartedly but usually just to jam with tracks, or the feel good factor over some rhythms I heard, liked, or was offered. Then of course there’s that everyday factor of survival, many of the albums from the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80′ were, like all other musicians played well, but mainly to meet the bills. Coxsone has loads of stuff with me. Federal has at least 7 albums. Some tracks feature a 30-piece band. They called them the Kingston Orchestra. Most of the tracks range from Mento flavoured tunes, right up to Reggae. Incidentally, there’s one album called ‘Mr. Ranglin’. I also played alto sax on them. The tapes for a lot of those recordings have disappeared.
Tell us about Barber Mack?
He was a good alto saxophone player. Also a figurehead in the community because when he drunk rum he did a lot of things a sober couldn’t do. Unless he drank excessively, the drink served as a tonic boost to him, because he would give some of the best hair-cuts when he wasn’t too drunk. Now when he was well over the top, even by his standards, he would play the sax marvelously, and occasionally clown around for great laughs. We missed him when he went abroad. He spent a lot of time in Cuba.
Is it fair to draw comparisons or preferences regarding gigs in England to Jamaica?
I find people in Europe have a more enquiring mind, so they pay more attention to what I’m doing.
Any fond memories of those days with the Skatalites?
Well, I was one of those who encouraged Don Drummond to put his talent to use in the Skatalites, a while after he left Alpha Boys school. Along with Eddie ‘Tan,Tan’ Thornton, Blue Buchanan and, Ruben Alexander, a good but often forgotten or rarely mentioned tenor sax player, plus myself, who encouraged Don. And whenever I hear those sounds, fond memories come flooding back of gigs at places like Duke Street, Function Hall, or Bustemante Hall in the 60’s on Christmas Eve night. As a matter of fact, they were the first shows that I and Lloyd Brevett got paid for live work.
It has often been said that the musicians are the real producers and arrangers behind alot of the hits from Jamaica during the 60’s, 70’s & 80’s. Without being bias do you agree to that?
Many times, singers come into the studio, all got good voices, but they can only hum the idea for a tune or piece of melody, then we as the musicians have to figure out what progression is this. Most times we have to put the whole structured melody. Only a handful could strum a guitar or give us an idea of the key to play in, or the melody chord changes. I’m not saying that I’m a great producer or arranger but yes, the musicians have, until now that technology has taken over, done all the dressing up. Worse still, eventually they become big stars and don’t remember the musicians.
Key musicians like yourself, Willie Lindo, Sly & Robbie, Harold Butler, to name but a few, don’t seem to have any links, or at least don’t mentlon much about sound systems. Growing up in Kingston, surely they must have played a part in your mis-spent youth?
No, I wasn’t much of the dance hall type. I was always a musician’s man. But I grew up amongst those guys associated to sounds back then, and went to a few dances. Sounds like Tom The Great Sebastian, which is where the legendary Duke Vin first started playing from before he came here to England. And other sounds like Count Nick The Universe, Sky Rocket, and Waldrons all use to buy their Rhythm & Blues, Jazz, and Boogie-Woogie from the American sailors. Back then, which was from the late 50’s right through the 60’s, the favourite hanging-out point for musicians was joints like the Roxy Bar an Glass Bucket club in Kingston. Now when you go back that far, Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid or even Buster was not around. All three of them came after in the sound system business. And if you wanted to cut an acetate it had to be Stanley Motta’s Hardware’s or RIR radio station. A while after Federal arrived on the scene. The rest? Well I think anyone who knows Jamaican music history should have an idea about. If not they’ll have to visit Jamaica.