Interview with Mikey Chung
Keyboard, guitar and percussion player, and also arranger and record producer Mikey Chung (born Michael Chung in 1954 in Kingston, Jamaica) is one of those figures in the history of reggae music whose role and contributions deserve to be known by many more people than is now the case. An interview with him was long overdue, but finally (thanks to US based musician/singer Rusty Zinn) it could be arranged in 2011.
Mikey Chung, affectionately known as ‘Mao’, was a member of Now Generation, a band that at one time was playing on about threequarters of the hit sessions in Jamaica. After Now Generation had split up he worked with Jacob Miller and the Lewis brothers, and was one of the musicians that played on Inner Circle’s album “Reggae Thing”, released in 1976 by Capitol Records. In 1978 he became part of Peter Tosh’s backing band called Word, Sound & Power, with whom he toured Europe and the United States. In 1981 he was involved in the recording sessions for the Black Uhuru albums “Red” and “Chill Out”, and then toured with Black Uhuru and the Taxi Gang in Europe. These are all known facts, but there are also a few mysteries that should be solved. Did he play in the Generation Gap or not, and what about Cornell Campbell, who claimed in an interview with Penny Reel that he formed the Now Generation with Tin Legs, Everal Murphy, and Ras Karbi? Questions that need answers…
Thanks to Angus Taylor and Laurent Pfeiffer, who did some research, we now know that Mikey Chung hasn’t been a member of Generation Gap. In an interview Angus Taylor did with Junior Dan, the latter said the following: “So myself, Bugs Parkinson, Norman McCallam, who was the keyboard player, we were at Jamaica College and we hooked up with Paul and John Lindo and Largey from Woolmers. That was Generation Gap as it started then. We had a singer called Carlton Brown.” In that interview Junior Dan also mentions lead vocalist, backing vocalist, keyboardist and trumpeter Mikey Carroll, whose name is featured on the back sleeve of the almost impossible to get LP “Red Hot Reggae” along with Leroy Hammond (rhythm guitar, backing vocals), Dalton Browne (lead guitar, bass, backing vocals, keyboard), Cleveland Browne (drums & percussion), Ronald Merrills (bass), and furthermore Clarence Edwards, Everton Carrington, Loxley Thompson and Terence Golding (backing vocals & percussion). It is also known that Freddie McGregor was the lead singer for the Generation Gap band. When Angus Taylor recently asked Junior Dan about this, he got the following answer: “No Mikey Chung did not play with Gen Gap, he was with In Crowd.”
Well Mikey, I have just found out this week about The Minstrels, how did that happen?
That was the first thing that happened!
When we were getting into the music, learning instruments, at night at school. St Georges College. Have you heard of that before?
We were into singing, we started singing. We were into the Impressions, The Drifters, … It was Geoffrey and I, and a third singer named Lennox Robinson. Then we recorded ‘People Get Ready’ for Studio One. Do you know that record? We loved The Impressions. So he was singing the lead on ‘People Get Ready’. But he didn’t stay in the group long. After that we had another singer, another schoolmate of ours named Claude Braithwaite. He came in, and we did like ‘Yours Until Tomorrow’, for Coxsone the same way. Then we did some other songs for Federal Records. ‘Hey There Lonely Girl’ being one of them. You see I haven’t heard these songs for a long while, and I don’t have copies of them.
Mikey, I have only known about The Minstrels for about a week. How many tunes altogether do you think there are?
Ah, about half a dozen songs. And it’s so strange because I was talking to someone nice and I told him that we used to sing before. And we were called The Minstrels and the guy said “Oh what. The Minstrels have one of my favourite songs!”
The thing with Rock Steady is that there are so many little vocal groups. And it came and went so quickly…
What I tell people is that I feel so blessed in my musical career, just listening to the music, then playing the guitar moving onto sessions. The fortunate thing is, that when we used to sing I feel so fortunate that we recorded for Studio One with Jackie and the guys. And on the other side it was Lynn Taitt. I cannot really express how I feel about Jackie Mittoo and Lynn Taitt, they deserve the highest honours that can be awarded to them. Those guys were a major part in the devolvement of Jamaican music.
I think with reggae music, it’s all part of something, if you say keyboard players… you then have to think about the people around that player. It’s like when something works, and say for instance Now Gen, it all works together. So with yourself and Geoffrey… who was the oldest brother?
I am older than Geoffrey, but I would like to say that what you said is so true, because even within ourselves – myself, Geoffrey, Val Douglas, Mikey Boo, Robbie Lyn, Wire Lindo. You know we had another drummer named Martin Sinclair?
No I didn’t Mikey.
You have never heard of him, but he played on a lot of songs.
This is the thing… Anyway somewhere along the way you and Geoffrey started to play guitar.
I started first. Geoffrey was late coming into the music. I was the one going towards music. The first guitar came into the family when my grandmother went to New York, and I asked her to bring back a guitar. That is the history…
So who is Junior Chung, that was the first time I saw the name Chung on a reggae record. Is that you?
Junior Chung? Well you know how credits went in those days…You look at the back of LP covers and you see nicknames and aliases. There is no Junior Chung.
So when was the very first time you walked into a studio as Now Generation?
Well we were doing obsure sessions before. And the sessions began when Val Douglas and I were in a college called CAST. The College of Arts Science and Technology. I was doing electrical engineering and he was doing mechanical engineering and I was in the common room where the acoustic piano was… most of the time, and not in my class. Hahah. And Dougie he could play acoustic, and he was familiar with guitar, but he would play bass on it. And I would say: “Dougie you are a wicked bass player.” And that’s how we met. And also we went to Georges together as well. St Georges High School. But when we were in class, that is when we started doing sessions. Niney the Observer he used to come up there to sessions. It was Dougie and I who started these sessions. Geoffrey didn’t come in there, Wire didn’t come in yet, although they might have been doing session by themselves.
I have come across a very early tune from the Meditations called ‘King Rasta’ and that sounds like Now Gen – produced by Niney.
My memory is… Now Gen was a studio band first. How the name Now Generation came about. Now Generation was really another friend of ours. He had a band named the Now Generation and being musicians and loving music, found ourselves in that band. And we became the Now Generation.
So who was that?
OK, there was a drummer in there called Sparrow.
All very important stuff… as far as reggae fans in the UK were concerned. The first time it was apparent that a new band was on the scene, was Lorna Bennett’s ‘Breakfast In Bed’. So how many sessions had taken place with the Now Gen band before that big hit?
Well with Martin Sinclair on drums, there was Peter Tosh ‘Mega Dog’ for Joe Gibbs, ‘Them Have Fe Get A Beatin’ Joe Gibbs. You see when you are doing sessions in Jamaica, it doesn’t have to be your main group, it could be anyone. Other people would be there… Hux Brown, Gladdy, Jackie Jackson. After the Now Generation band was formed we were still doing sessions. But then we became so popular that we left the road work. This was in 1972. We decided we weren’t going to play dance music and night club dates anymore and we were just going into the studio and we just kept the name Now Generation. Around the same time we did those songs for Peter Tosh, we worked with Dennis Brown, ‘Baby Don’t Do It’ – Dennis Brown ‘Things In Life’ for Lloydie Matador.
The next big hit after Lorna Bennett was Junior Byles ‘Beat Down Babylon’ for Lee Perry, which had a more rootsy kind of sound.
But the tunes for Joe Gibbs had the same sound. And they featured Lloyd Adams on drums – Tin Legs.
Another fantastic Drummer! But it’s just trying to work out how you came up with that very smooth sound. The Beverleys sound had a very clean sound as well.
Right, right, to me the Beverelys sound is one of the most underrated sounds in the music. Bob Marley’s tunes on Beverleys is some of the greatest works he ever done.
A tune like ‘Caution’ is… and you hear Hux Brown going…
Da da dada..Yes!!! Your right, your right.
But the Now Gen band picked up on that clean sound. The Now Gen sound has got a jazz swing to it, which is hard to explain in reggae terms. Do you think that is accurate?
Yeah, right. That has never been equaled.
I was watching a programme once, and a piece of Jazz music came up. And the conga drum was playing the same thing as what Geoffrey did on the guitar in Now Gen. It’s such a flexible sound. Look at the producers you worked with Mikey.
Mudie, Daley. Since you were mentioning ‘Breakfast In Bed’… well, Geoffrey started out as a singer in The Minstrels. And then he was in a group called The Peter Ashburn Affair. And then he started to do production. And engineering, I did that too.
You had solo hits Mikey, with ‘Breezing’ and ‘Samba Pa Ti’. Did you ever work on a solo album?
No, it’s a pity I didn’t do that.
That’s the way it goes Mikey…
But now I am finally doing an album. Just now in New York. I just did a track. With Dougie and Martin Sinclair. The idea of the album is that I want everyone who’s been involved with my career to have something to do with it. So I have Sly and Robbie, Boris Gardiner, Ansel Collins, it’s unbelievable the session I did the other day… that magic that we had was back! I am going to put Robbie Lyn on it when I get back to Jamaica. But I wanted to tell that with ‘Breakfast In Bed’ – that was one of Geoffrey’s first productions. That song was not produced by Harry J. Harry J was only the distributor.
It was around that time that Geoffrey turned up in London and was talking on Steve Bernard’s ‘Reggae Time’ show on Radio London. Steve played Geoffrey a selection of tunes, and then Geoffrey just spoke about them from a production point of view. It was the first time I had ever heard anyone talk about reggae music in that way.
It’s such a pity that the people who got the credit for being the producers were not really the producers. The musicians were mainly the producers and they got no credit. But I remember what made me feel good was, that during my association with Sly and Robbie was that knowing Chris Blackwell and being around him all the time, and talking to him. And I have heard Chris Blackwell say there is one producer in Jamaica and that was Geoffrey Chung. And I am not putting down other people, but Geoffrey was this organized guy he had everything together.
You can hear it Mikey. That’s why I mentioned Beverley’s. I’m so pleased that you are a big Beverley’s fan. That to me is the link, you can hear that really clean sound in Beverley’s and you can hear that in the Now Gen sound. And who brought that sound back – Now Gen. Can you remember the first time he played that guitar sound?
We were not really paying that much attention to things.
I know we didn’t know what we had. You see the Now Generation is one of the few groups that has never toured.
But there was so much going on then Mikey. So there was Dennis Brown, Bob Andy, Junior Byles, Lorna Bennett, The Heptones, Sharon Forrester. Really big hits.
Delroy Wilson, ‘A Lesson Too Late For The Learning’. Do you know that one?
The Bob Andy production?
I only just heard that again the other day. And there was ‘I Wished It Was Me’ from Delroy.
I came across one on a label called Arc. By a group called the QT’s.
You mean the IQ’s? Hahah. Geoffrey had started his own company now, it was called Edge. ‘I Miss You’ from the Heptones was done for Edge. When they formed that company it didn’t last long. You had the IQ’s and the Corporation Of Love.
Who did you work on albums with, Joe Higgs, The Chosen Few… Are there any other albums?
Just going back to an early question. What we were doing with Now Gen was effortless. We didn’t put no effort into it. It was a natural thing. We just did it. We used to do sessions for Lloyd Charmers – and we do a rhythm track, and Lloyd would just say to me: “Can you do an instrumental over that?” And in five minutes in one take, I would do all of those tunes… ‘For The Good Times’… Not really thinking about them. We were so young, and just eager to do these things. We knew nothing about the Trojan album.
A lot of people got confused when the XYZ band came along, which featured Willie Lindo. They seemed to think that it was another name for Now Gen.
But then Dougie would play bass with Willie Lindo sometimes.
What about Lloyd Daley? He claimed that you was walking off doing his tunes for different producers. And how about the Now Gen Dub album could that be Lloyd? Or Lloyd Charmers?
It could be Herman Chin Loy – he’s got a lot of tracks with the Now Gen. We also did a lot of work with Byron Lee. We did an album called ‘Gold’ where we recut a lot of old hits for Dynamics.
The big hit for Dynamics must be Hopeton Lewis’s ‘City Of New Orleans’.
There is a song from a singer called Keith Good, have you ever heard that?
‘Jah Jah Deliver Us’. That was one of my very first production. And it’s a collectors item. In the early days Now Gen were fought down you know. By other session people. Calling us uptown musicians.
It’s a lack of understanding Mikey.
I am trying to get a reunion thing going, trying to get everyone back together again in one place. We have the video.
That is a great idea, can’t wait to see that. How long is it?
It’s about half hour.
That’s great. We don’t have nothing at the moment. Actually Mikey, can you recall Christmas Day 1974? Because I think you was live on BBC 1 backing up the Singing Priest Father Ho Yung.
It could have been… Laughs.