Bobby Ellis Interview
Rarely do we see any extensive features on instrumentalists in reggae music these days. There are so many unsung, exceptional talents from the fifties, sixties and seventies that still awaits any real recognition and appreciation for their efforts in those days. As it tends to be, they’re just ‘names’ on the album covers. But what is their history, where did they start it all and what happened during the heyday of the music? What was their experience looking back on it? There’s a bunch of great horn players in Jamaican musical history and one of the top names is something of a master on the trumpet, namely Mr Bobby Ellis.
A graduate of the famous Alpha Boys School, Bobby became one of the most requested horn players in the early stage of the music and onwards; from the very start of the local music industry, he was there, being a foundational member of the Mighty Vikings outfit who recorded for Studio One at the time. He was a bandleader for names on the JA North Coast scene like the Young Experience band as well as in Derrick Harriott’s studio group The Crystalites, to name a few. He also toured and recorded with Burning Spear in the seventies as part of Jack Ruby’s Black Disciples band. Bobby is now in his seventies, a seasoned ‘oldie’ but still blowing – as opposed to ‘going’ – strong as far as I could hear on tour with the Ethiopian and Max Romeo in February, ’04. He is a true gentleman of the old school and was a real pleasure to talk to. My thanks to Bobby, Tim (Maestro Ent.), Bob Schoenfeld, Mr Phillips, and Steve Barrow.
Where did you grow up?
Well, as you know I’m a Jamaican. I was born in Kingston.
Which part of the city?
(Chuckles) I call it ‘The Heart of the City’ in Kingston, it’s really central, right. And I’m born 1932, 2nd of July. I went to Alpha when I was nine years.
Alpha Boys School, right.
Yes. That’s where I learned music. The guy who taught me to blow the instrument was Raymond Harper.
Right, he did tunes like ‘African Blood’ for Prince Buster to name one.
Oh yeah, yeah.
So how come you were sent to Alpha school at that time? It’s a Catholic school for street kids, basically. Some say it’s for juvenile delinquents, which is just one of many parts of those who make up the ‘clientele’.
Yes, it is a Catholic school run by Sisters of Mercy. Well, at that time I guess there was a kind of tie between Alpha and the government. I don’t know but I went to the course, I wasn’t a bad boy (laughs)! But I went to the course. You see, my father was working in the hospital and the doctor really in charge of the boy school, he works with him in the hospital, the public hospital. And therefore he asked him, and he said yes, he could do a t’ing. And me and my older brother, both of us went at Alpha. I spent seven years in Alpha.
You got examination in your teens then?
No, after we reach sixteen, I went there when I was nine, and when I reach sixteen, that’s the day we generally left the institution and come out back to normal life. We are around our relatives and things like that. Because you see, when we are at Alpha we are in a institution.
I wouldn’t say it’s very strict, yunno. It was just what do you call… discipline, a well-disciplined place, ’cause it’s an institution. At the time when I was there it was four hundred an’ odd boys were there, you understan’, so you have to have different t’ings that you do, y’know. And learn where to go and t’ing like that, so it was well-disciplined. Well, when I was there after a while, around when I was between I think ten or twelve or thereabouts, right, I had a bigger friend, he was in the band. And he asked me if I want to come in the band, and I tell him yes. I wouldn’t say foolishly of me, he was blowin’ the trumpet and I choose the trumpet also. That’s how come I go in the band, and start to learn to play the trumpet.
What is the general difference, technically, between the trumpet and the flugelhorn, because you play flugelhorn too, I think?
Yes, the flugelhorn. There’s no difference. It’s only the instrument, the instrument that it give you a sound between the trumpet and between the French horn, right. So it give you a slightly deeper sound than the trumpet. And it is a lighter sound than the French horn. So, that’s it. But is the same finger in everything.
How did you find it in the beginning to master the ‘blowing in the wind’ instrument?
Oh! It was quite difficult, because when you have to… to blow an instrument, whether it is a trumpet, trombone, saxophone – any blowing instrument, the first thing is you have to try to blow it and acquire a sound. And sometimes that can take you years, sometimes that can take you months (chuckles) to get a sound. So that is the first thing about blowing an instrument – have to try acquire a sound. Well, as time goes by you learn to acquire it better and better until you learn to control it. That’s a next part of it. You see how the trumpet only have three bars, right. You have like several notes, this first valve alone, you have several of them. So is like, y’know, you have to mentally learn how to tighten your lip and to flatten it, so how to get the different pitch notes. You can figure for instance if it’s first valve, B-flat is first valve, D is first valve and several other notes. So it’s you who mentally (chuckles) have to just figure how much tighten of the lips and all them t’ings you gotta do, and it takes a lot of time and energy to – you are able to control it that way after a while. It take years sometimes. Not like a guitar or a piano, you play a B-flat you must get a B-flat. You have to give it the right amount of ear in the mouthpiece at the time so that the lip can vibrate. That’s why the trumpet and the trombone and those type of instrument doing the vibration, is not like the saxophone and clarinet where them read the vibration – is your two lips have to do the vibration to get the sound. So that’s why I said in the beginning that foolish of me was to choose that instrument (laughs)!
(Laughs) Compared to saxophone and clarinet at least, isn’t trumpet a bit ‘limited’ in scope if you put it against those two?
Nooo… if you’re born with a strong lip, because y’know different peoples muscle are stronger than some, right. You can born with a very good lip muscles, so therefore you can pitch as high. I hear trumpeters pitch as high as a whistle, and I mean (laughs) they were born with very strong lips! Is just that.
At that time in the forties, what music was played at Alpha Boys School?
Classic, we learned classic. We learned classic…
And march music.
We do marches, overtures, selections, waltz. Anything that is classical, that’s what you learn, right. And you learn the different… the tears (?) of music, and what goes with it to learn to play classical music. And generally when you are about playing now, the time when I was up there there was an orchestra. They start playing t’ing like Count Basie and Duke Ellington tunes and all those things, y’know. All right, but by the time I reach up to the time of leaving Alpha, the orchestra dissolved. So I never really get to play in the orchestra. They prepare me, for when I come out in the street and blow my work, is what you’d call a ‘pop band’, yu understan’.
Swing it was at the time. So I played a lickle of it, yunno, but I never play sufficient. At the time I never had a instrument neither. My family was poor and I never have a instrument. I had to work and save until I go and buy a instrument, and I start all over again.
Right, you had to save for a long time.
Yeah, I want to tell you – a second-hand instrument I bought too, before I could buy a brand new one (chuckles). So that’s how it goes. But if you want to do the t’ing in order – you know, in Jamaica our foreparents used to say ‘if you want good you know you have to earn’ (chuckles). So therefore, just make up your mind and try to do it, you’ll get success in the end.
So who was contemporary at Alpha in those days, say early forties?
Oh, a lotta guys like… they were senior too. You have Raymond Harper, a guy name Ferdie Brown – uh – Ferdie Gray, right, was trumpeters. I mean, Dizzy Rich also, beca’ I went into the band around then too supporting the beat, but he left Alpha before me and went to England, that’s where he end up, yunno. But he started there in Alpha, and became a very known trumpeter. All right, you had guys like Tommy McCook, the Gaynair brothers (Bobby & Wilton), Joe Harriott, a guy name Mullo (short for Mullings), he used to play trombone. You know, there was a lot of guys. Because, if you ask the band it depends on what instrument you took at the time. Because you had quite a few of the guys, when they were at Alpha they went into the military band also, which is a brass band.
And the military band is not associated with Alpha school in any way, no link as such, some kind of exchange?
No, is not really associated with Alpha Boys School. From you learn music and you can do it then you make your application, and if they need people – the instrument that you play, you just go and take an audition, whether you either pass or you fail, that’s how it goes.
But it’s not only music you learn at Alpha, what other trades is on offer there, or was?
Music? Noo… You go to your school and you come home, you had the shoe-shop, the tailor-shop, what we call work-shop that you do mechanical… uh, not mechanical, since I leave I hear they had mechanical, motor mechanics. But we used to do like wood-work and things like that. You know, they try to fit you where you would like to go. You had the printery also, to learn printing and book-binding.
Was this – apart from playing the trumpet – the direction you took? What was the trade you learned?
No, well, beside playing the trumpet I was a printer. I learned printing.
OK, that’s your trade apart from the music.
Yes, some of that. That’s what we do.
Was that something you worked with after leaving Alpha?
No, I never work with the printing, never a dime from it (chuckles). But anyhow, that was school still, y’know, learning the trade. I used to love read, I was proficient. I stopped go to school when I was fifteen (chuckles), because I never have no further to go, if you understan’. So I stop go to school like I just go to the printery, and from the printery in the afternoon. So in the evening I go way back off, to the band, band’s office. And it last actually two years, it run so until I left the school.
Some of the Skatalites people like Johnnie ‘Dizzy’ Moore, Nambo, Chico, most of those guys went to Alpha, or they got their training elsewhere?
Johnnie Moore is Alpha bwoy, Nambo (Robinson), Chico (Chin), Dean Fraser.
No, Madden is a Alpha bwoy also. Nambo, Chico dem, well all of those were being taught by a guy named Dave O’Brien. But he was also a Alpha boy, long before I even reach there (chuckles), y’know.
Senior since time.
Yeah, a senior too. Far, far senior, Dave taught them. So these are a (chuckles) protegé, a lickle offspring of what happened at Alpha, Dave taught there.
What was played in the dancehalls? It was mainly swing music, standards, dance-friendly ‘pop’ of the times, not so much the free-form jazz, be-bop came at a later stage I guess.
Well yes, be-bop was in activity but it was really later on we played that. Right, it was mostly foxtrot, and you know swing, and we used to play some bolero, and t’ings like that. In Jamaica, especially in those times, you had to play all various type of music. You had to play our mento, or calypso, or what you want to call it. And what you had was to play ballads, right, and play waltz – everything. You have to be well-rounded, have a repertoire of all the various type of music. That’s what you had, y’know, was to do at the time. So when you go into the dancehall to play, you have to play to suit everybody likeness (chuckles). You know, that was it.
What was the main dancehall in those days?
Dancehall? A place like – it named Bournemouth, you had a place named Adastra out the east too. You had places like Silver Slipper, at Crossroads’ Sombrero, and there were many clubs. It was mostly clubs, yunno, that keep the business going. At that time you had… oh, Glass Bucket, several. I can’t remember all of them (laughs)! What really make all those clubs become non-existent is simply through certain amount of violence, the violence really cut out the clubs, yunno. So, that’s it. Because at one stage you had Red Hills Road, it had a strip of nightclubs, and that was where a lot of people used to go. You had around three or four nightclubs was on Red Hills Road alone. But the violence really curtailing, right, so that’s how it is.
If there was any band at the time who ‘carried the swing’, so to speak, was that Eric Deans’ orchestra?
Well, Eric Deans Orchestra was one of the big names that carried the swing. I want to tell you, it went on till after a while Eric left and went to England, and Roy Coburn took it over, a guy by the name of Roy Coburn. But you really had a lot of other names too, because there is Val Bennett and you have Redvers Cook, and Mapletoft Poule, you have a lot of sets (coughs). There was a lot of clubs and there was a lot of different bands, yunno, or artists just in those times.
And Jack Brown?
And Jack Brown too. I…
Christy Scott, Milton McPhearson.
Eh? All those, all those hard names (laughs)! All those had orchestras in Jamaica. Yeah man.
And you had to be skillful to be able to join a band in those days, it’s always the case anyhow (chuckles).
Well, that is true because, you see, although there was a lot of bands, there was a lot of Jamaicans who loved music at that time, and wanted was to be in the profession. Not like now, most people just want to be a deejay, and that’s it. People used to want to be a musician, right. There was a lot of guys at that time.
What was payment like at that time? It took a while anyway before you were able to join an orchestra, after leaving Alpha?
Yeah! I didn’t have any money so I never really start blowing ’til around six years after I left Alpha, yunno.
Yeah (chuckles). I start practicin’ again. All I had was to work, and buy my own instrument. So I (giggles)…
What did you do for a living in those times?
In those time? I want to tell you I learned all a trade, I learned a t’ing: bus-building (chuckles). Yeah, in those time (laughs)! All I had was to get somet’ing to do, and do it, and try and see. So, if I wasn’t determined really to play music and love it, right, I wouldn’t be in the field. But I thank God I was determined enough to do what I did, y’know, at the time. I thank God for that.
Who would you refer to as being influential on the trumpet at the time? Apart from someone like Raymond Harper.
No, well, at the time yunno, right, we used to listen mostly to foreigners, and at that time Dizzy Gillespie was in his heavens – yu understan’? He was in his heavens, and Charlie Parker and all those guys. That time the be-bop was comin’ on, yunno, so we used to listen to a lot of those gentlemen. And then there came Clifford Brown and Miles Davis. We listened as much as we could and whatsoever training we get, yunno, we learn to develop from there, put them together and be a better player there.
But to play the be-bop stuff in Jamaica, on the commerial circuit, this was ‘behind the curtains’, wasn’t it? Underground, like. You would get hired for playing the swing, the ‘pop’ stuff, nothing as progressive or hardcore as be-bop at the time. I don’t know how open-minded Jamaicans – or should I limit that to the ‘promoters’ – were in those days. I mean, you wouldn’t get a job with that, or am I wrong?
Yeah! No, you wouldn’t get any job, playing the progressive. But what we used to do, yunno, we used to kinda use the progressive stuff to broaden our t’ing deh. What we say now ‘broaden our knowledge of music’, right, and it also help you to play. In other words the progressive stuff was the more harder music to play at the time, ’cause it take a lot of speed and all those t’ings. So when they start, when they playing the swing, it becomes more easier. Because we was practicin’ mostly a harder t’ing than what you go out there and do in the dancehall, so that was the trend. Because we used to have a little thin, very thin book, with Dizzy Gillespie ’52nd Street (Theme)’, ‘Dizzy Atmosphere’, and all those tunes in it. We practice that as like a cheater, that was it was there for, was being like a cheater. And the show, you start from like on the metronome, from that like you say, you start from 80 and from they get used to it they go up to probably 90, and then from 90 to a 100 and from 100 to a 105, until you reach 120. When you are doing it at 1. 20 you are doing it like Dizzy Gillespie, that’s how it used to do. And everybody used to try and have those lickle books, yu understan’, and practice. So not only trumpeters but also saxophonists used to do it, and that’s how we start develop.
Moving into the fifties now, did you branch out and play something else beside the swing and jazz repertoires? Was R&B taking hold among musicians and clubs around this time, or this was mainly played on the sound systems, not among the local bands?
Yes! American R&B we used to listen to a lot. All we had to play it in the dancehall, that’s how come we get converted over to our type of music after a while. Because, is like a cross between R&B, it have a lickle a this and a lickle a that. It have a lickle amount of mento in the rhythm section of it and then we would put on top, somet’ing like an R&B melody or anyt’ing like that. It kinda have a mixture of both.
And some boogie-woogie as well.
Yes, it is more like a boogie-woogie what we develop. It’s like when anybody ask me I always tell them it’s like what you’d call ‘amateur boogie-woogie’, that’s what I tell them. Some people agree with me, some don’t. But from my analysis that’s what I see it work out to.
Some of the Jamaican jazz musicians left in the fifties for the States to try their luck and someone like Joe Harriott ended up being successful in the UK. Was that something you tried to do, like get overseas? Did you get the opportunity to play overseas in the fifties for example?
No, no. I never (chuckles) got those type of overseas t’ings. Really and truly, you have to say it’s very late fifties to early sixties, that’s when you’d call my musical career start taking shape.
That’s when the local recording industry was in it’s infant stage, you were there from the beginning.
Well, I never really started when the local recordings start, yunno, right away. I went in those batches because when our music started, right, I was playing I think with Tony Brown at the time, a band named Tony Brown Band. I don’t remember, but I was playing more with a bigger band. So I was never – I wasn’t really into it until after independence, after Jamaica get independence. That time I was with the Mighty Vikings. And that’s where I really started, it was Headley who… No, how I started, the Mighty Vikings band was voted as the most popular band for that year, I think around 1963. I had a tune, right, and the manager for the band knew Coxson, and we went and did a recording of my tune, two Joe Higgs tune and one Bob Marley & The Wailers tune – four tunes they did that day. I think all four tunes was successful on the sales-market, yunno.
What was the name of the tune?
My tune now (chuckles) did name – it was an instrumental named ‘Cyrus’, I remember Joe Higgs did one tune, ‘There’s A Reward (For Me)’. And the Wailers did a tune (laughs) – I don’t know its flip, man, it’s a simple named tune, yunno (chuckles).
After ‘Simmer Down’?
It was after ‘Simmer Down’, I think that was around them third success tune, right.
‘It Hurts To Be Alone’, the ballad? I don’t really remember the order of those songs to be honest.
No, no. ‘Hurts To Be Alone’, that is a ballad. I’m talkin’ a direct t’ing now, I dooon’t… remember. But it sold very good. It was – call it around three out of four, and then I was with the band…
Before you go further, how did you join or form the Mighty Vikings band? What was the line-up for that particular band?
Well, it was really some Chinese, the guy named Chin-Qee was workin’ at the bank at the time, and they had mostly like some school guys, guys weh jus’ leave school, yunno, some school guys. I don’t remember how I got into them, I think it was a guy named Tony Wilson, he was the contact, ’cause he was the secretary at the union. I think he told me and I went by them, when I went they had the Wong brothers singin’, and they had a guy named Esmond Jarrett, he played with Byron Lee after a while. And his younger brother used to be with Third World, that they call ‘Carrott’.
Right, the percussionist.
Yeah. Well, Esmond, I want to tell you it go farther than that. Esmond father was one of the leading drummers in Jamaica at the time – Don Jarrett, right. Then you find Esmond, then the last one is Carrott (chuckles), what you call Carrott.
That’s what you’d call ‘the apple don’t fall far from the tree’, right?
Oh yeah! And ‘chip don’t fall far from the block’ (laughs)!
Yeah (chuckles). And a guy named Danny Moore, he was playing the vibraphone, or what we call xylophone (coughs). And his father was a third-way bass player also, right, and you had the Wong brothers and you had the Miles brothers, one played trumpet and one play bass. And then this guy named… ahh, who was the bandleader…? Oh gosh, can’t remember his name though.
What instrument did he play?
Guitar, he was the guitarist. All of them, I was the oldest one at the time, some was still going to school. After I was there for quite a few years, by the time I left I started jumpin’ around. I found myself in that time to be playing with Hedley Bennett, we call him ‘Deadley’ (coughs). He was playing with Coxson, he was also playing with the Mighty Vikings band. He was also playing up at Coxson’s, recording. Coxson wanted somebody to write the music, yunno, and Deadley recommended my band. That’s how I get to ‘get into’ the recording business.
What was the competition like at this time, you didn’t have many to compete with, but not many outlets either?
No, it wasn’t really that big, especially if you lookin’ somebody to own a band or for arranging and all these things.
As far as playing ‘live’ on a sound system in those days, was that something you could see even back in the fifties? Was this something that could happen, if you could recall any such things?
No. Well, probably that could have been, but I never really play. It was one time when I was with Soul Brothers and Roland (Alphonso) was the leader at that time. We used to play at some lickle clubs, with sound system, yunno. But it was not for me, actually.
Who in your opinion deserves credit for being instrumental in shaping the ska sound, the gradual process by using elements from R&B and mento, who would you choose among those among the ‘current elite’ at that time?
Well, the guy I would honour by name is Theophilius Beckford, yunno. He did this song ‘Easy Snappin”.
Right, for Coxson in ’58.
Yes, for Coxson. I think that’s where it start. That’s where I come to the conclusion that it was a ‘amateur boogie-woogie’. ‘Cause the boogie-woogie would go (hums) ‘tum tu do tum tu do tum tu do’, and that was ‘tum-a tum-a tum-a’, yu understan’ (laughs). So that’s how it come I arrive at that conclusion.
That just came about by accident, but what a ‘lucky’ accident by Snappin’ though. His own way and style came through quite clearly on that one, didn’t it?
His own style, he couldn’t double up with it ‘tum tu do tum tu do tum tu do’, so it’s ‘tum-a tum-a tum-a tum-a’, yu understan’? So, that was the feel.
And the ska sound evolved. Do you think Don Drummond had a lot to do with how it got its ‘final’ sound?
Eh? Yea, the Skatalite ya now, the old Skatalite aggregation I would give that to. They popularised it, the old Skatalite aggregation. I wouldn’t give it to no (coughs) one person, I just give it to them, who maintained that.
How much was the audience influencing the demand for local recordings when the industry took off in a big way, you saw it more as a natural ‘take-over’ from the musicians, not what the audience wanted, like something ‘genuinely Jamaican’ in the dances.
Nooo, no. How that really came about, you have to give Coxson the credit. Yes. Because you see Coxson used to went abroad, was buying records an’ t’ing. He was very instrumental in all the recordings. Because, before that we used to – there wasn’t recordings done in Jamaica before.
Only the mento recordings.
The mento music, right. It was mostly Lord Fly and Lord Flea and all those people. And they would do one like every two years (chuckles) or so – or a year, yunno, they are a lickle thin. And they (coughs) develop their repertoire before long. But the real, regular t’ing that becomes what we have today, you have to honour it to the Skatalites as a band on a whole: Tommy, Don, you had Johnnie Moore, you name them – Lloyd Knibbs, Brevett, the whole a them. The whole a dem play their part, yu understan’.
Apart from the Skatalites, was there any band that Coxson or Duke used in the ska era? I guess Byron Lee and the Dragonaries wasn’t a studio band as such at the time?
No man, Byron Lee never cope playing our music…
(Laughs) Byron Lee could never! Always try, but could never, right. What really happened, you have to give it to them, they were the band that were used the most, yunno. And I want to tell you, one of the greater exponents of ska – and I don’t think him play with the Skatalite no time at all – was Baba Brooks, the trumpeter. And Rico (Rodriguez), Rico was before (laughs) the Skatalite formed.
But he migrated to England though.
Ahh, yu understan’. So those are the fragments, yunno. That’s why I tell a man, seh ‘Yu cyaan…’ – I wouldn’t hand it to no personal person, right, I would just hand it to seh ‘who did well contribute towards the music’. That’s how I feel, contribute towards it (chuckles), ‘who did well contribute towards the music’. ‘Cause is a lotta people claim this and drop out, is a lotta people come in and drop out after a while.
You had Carl (‘Cannonball’) Bryan and Stanley Ribbs and these people.
You never joined the Skatalites for a short period while at Coxson’s for instance, you basically recorded with the Mighty Vikings at Studio One?
Yeah, I play with the Mighty Vikings and then the Soul Brothers. I play with Soul Brothers, that was after the Skatalite break up, and some went one way and some went the other way. I was playing with the Soul Brothers, because I play on the Roland Alphonso album, the bandleader, and then he left. Those were part of the Skatalite that was up by Coxson, while the next part was at Duke Reid’s. That’s the Tommy McCook group, he did that side, and Roland Alphonso would be at Coxson’s side. Tommy McCook would be the Duke Reid arranger. Well, I went to the Coxson side, that’s how you call it now I become a permanent member of the recording group at the time.
So did the Mighty Vikings cut several sides for Coxson, stuff that never saw the light of day, or the band had several releases at the time? I haven’t seen much to be honest.
No, they never really record, they was just a road band until I left it and some time after they dissolved.
What happened to it, a dispute over money or the usual ‘creative’ disagreements?
A: I don’t know (chuckles), I left it and after a while, a few years after, they dissolved. I think what really happened is that the manager left for a job in America, that’s when they start dissolve.
So now you were one in the Coxsone stable. What other producers did you record for at this time? Matador, King Edwards, Harriott?
Oh yes, yes. Matador, and I do a lot, quite a good amount of recordings. Even for Duke with Tommy McCook.
With the Supersonics.
Just down at Duke, mind you I don’t think the name yet mentioned in the country, yunno, but I did a lot of recordings. The last t’ing I remember I did for Duke, right, was ‘Never Ending Love’ with Sporty, a guy named Sporty.
King Sporty (Noel Williams)?
King Sporty, yeah. That was the last tune I did for him. I wasn’t pleased, right. There was a raise-up there in how the t’ing – he never want to give it to me, that’s why I just never bother with him. And then after that now I try in the Lynn Taitt band. After I left Coxson I joined the Lynn Taitt band – The Jets. Quite a few years with them.
How would you see Lynn Taitt’s role in shaping the rock steady sound?
Oh, Lynn Taitt should get some honours, he deserved it. Two persons I think should get honoured, and get this – that is Jackie Mittoo and Lynn Taitt. Those two musicians honours – they all, you have a lotta other people come, I’m not saying they are not doing anyt’ing, but if those guys never shape, never help shape the music and did so much for the music, it wouldn’t be around. A lotta music come an’ die, yunno.
But the use of horns took a step back, somewhat, when ska left for rock steady. It wasn’t used to such an extent as in the ska era by those producers on the scene during that time.
No, because the Jamaican producers, or the set of people like this, the less they can pay is all the better for them (chuckles).
So that’s what they always try to do, yunno. The less they can pay is all the better for them. So they generally operate that way.
So less sessions meant an increasing schedule on the North Coast hotel circuit for you, playing for tourists.
Yeah. I did, what, two stints on the North Coast, played with Mallory’s father, Hooter Williams. And then I left home after a time and then Lynn Taitt dissolved (the band) and went off for Canada, and then I left for the North Coast to play with Billy, Billy (chuckles)… oh gosh! I can’t remember his name but I played with his band at the Yellow Bird and went on to play with Lance Thelwell at the Holiday Inn Hotel. I did around a year and a half I think.
Did you play with Boris Gardiner at that time? He was in one of those bands frequently playing on the North Coast hotel circuit I think, at that time.
No, I never play with Boris Gardiner. After a while I just came back into town.
I think Carlos Malcolm could’ve been the one you was searhing for, he had an orchestra up there at the time I think.
No, that was before. Because, when I just joined the Mighty Vikings, Carlos wanted me was to come and play in his band, afterwards. All I had was to turn him off, because I had a band I was leading, yunno. That’s how it went.
But the specific reason for ‘avoiding’ horns, when you had less horn arrangements in the rock steady or early reggae era, it wasn’t totally of financial reasons. I don’t know, was there enough ‘space’ to use horn players extensively within that fast beat of the early reggae sound at the time? Organs and keyboards took over those parts, because it was kind of new and fresh to use that instead, wasn’t it?
There was space, always space there. Yeah. Always space there for the horn lines, right, but they never use to pay. That’s why, you see, if you notice with Lynn Taitt, he did a lot of time if you notice it, he always have horns in most of the tunes that he plays on, especially with his band. It’s a lot of horn lines with Lynn Taitt, because his was a smooth dance band and a session band, he always get the horns with the Jets.
But no-one in the Jets took over when Taitt decided to migrate to Canada?
No, no, no. When Lynn decide fe leave for Canada, we hear long before about it, right. He never went right away, yunno. (Coughs) Because they sent for him from I think around the Easter, and he never leave until after the independence, because he had so many jobs. And he tell them seh he can’t afford that, that’s how it went with him.
But when you worked with Jackie and Taitt, who took care of the horn arrangements? You had the input between those two and the other horn players in the band, a collective effort.
No, most of the time – when I was at Coxson, with Jackie Mittoo, how the whole development went, when these guys dem come in, they went to Jackie first. And then now Jackie he made the riddim for the song, and if they want horns, if they would need horns, they’d tell him. And then he send me them – I had an office, he just come round deh… send them round to me and they would blow. He’d tell them what key the song, yunno, recorded the background, and then now when they come to my office them tell me the key, I pitch a key on my trumpet and they start sing it and then I record the horn arrangement.
So you took care of most of those arrangements without the involvement of others like Jackie and Lynn for that?
Yes, I used to do the horn arrangements. I find that mystic but I think I was the first person Coxson ever give an office as (chuckles) an arranger at 13 Brentford Road. Yeah, I think I was. I wouldn’t say I’m the only one but I think I was among the first one to get that. And that’s how it used to work. Jackie did the riddim and I did the horn arrangements. Well, with Lynn Taitt now, we’re just going into the studio, and I was in charge. Not to really say get up or off the line, but wheresoever him put it in the song, yunno, I would listen and relate it back to the rest of the horn people; when they are to come in, which phrase and what of what is what. I was in charge (chuckles) of the horn section for him, and in so doing get true impressions, very good. And still all I had was to play a part, but it never matter to me, yunno. But I was workin’ well. But I think Taitt should have gotten, or should get…
A lot of credit. And also Jackie Mittoo, because I have worked with those guys and I have seen what they have done to our music.
What about Don Drummond?
Don?! Don deserve it more than anything else, everybody know that! But I don’t know why somebody don’t posthumously give him.
He has been in the shadow of Jackie somehow, even though Drummond wasn’t partly responsible for the rock steady and reggae formats like Taitt, Jackie or Leroy Sibbles, you cannot deny him his place among the best Jamaica ever had.
Well, you see, a lotta people not going talk because what really happened, you know, in those days the music wasn’t considered so great as what it is today. So therefore in those time that didn’t happen because even a guy named Vere Johns…
Good! That guy should have get honoured! Because if there wasn’t a Vere Johns there wouldn’t be a Alton Ellis, there wouldn’t be a Delroy Wilson, there wouldn’t be nobody! Yu understan’ what I’m dealing with? Yeah! (Coughs) He is the man that started those t’ing an’ get the whole t’ing moving, and you don’t even hear nobody talk about him. So it’s just life (laughs), yu understan’. A lotta guys don’t know wha’ mek them name, right. I don’t grudge them, but I would like they learn where everything is coming from, and who put in what and who did, right?
There should be some kind of establishment in Jamaica pertaining to the history of the music and those involved from the start, and a very detailed one at that.
Right now, people try to write about the music history, yunno, but generally they go to the wrong people, most of the time. To write our history, you’d have to get certain amount of musicians, right, certain amount of producers, and other people connected to the music history, like you did have the Khouris and West Indies (WIRL) and all those people. After now you could take a real good look at it. But like a man just go to one producer, but the one producer don’t busy with the whole industry, it’s the business that he was doing at the time.
There is at least one classic riddim, one instrumental that you have written, but the title escapes me at this moment…
I don’t know right now, I just can’t get that title… back in my head, the rhythm that is mostly associated with Bobby Ellis. I believe this was a seventies rhythm.
Oh! Probably you are talkin’ about ‘Stormy Weather’? That is, whe him name…? Doctor Dread done it over with ‘Diseases’ (Michigan & Smiley). The riddim, them use the riddim on this t’ing about ‘Diseases’ and t’ing like that, probably that is the one you are talkin’ about that I did. (Coughs) I have somebody workin’ on it right now, because (chuckles) I did it for Mrs Pottinger, right, and it looks as if she… the person told me – somebody was tellin’ me long time that they hear it in a film, and she was tellin’ me that she no know nutten ’bout that. Well, I get somebody and when I get back to Jamaica I supposed to hear what happening. Because that guy is a musician also, and he’s in America and he has the knowledge of the publishing t’ing, and things like that. And the last time I talk to him before I came on tour – is he was making headway, but they’re trying to dodge him out. But him say they supposed to pay, him making headway. So that’s where it is. I feel that is the tune, it named ‘Stormy Weather’.
That’s probably right (it wasn’t, I was actually searching for ‘Up Park Camp’, apparently another Ellis composition released to great acclaim in the early seventies). So moving into the seventies, how was the time with the Black Disciples and Jack Ruby at the production board? He used horns extensively, again, after some ‘absence’ in the music up to that point.
(Coughs) Oh yes, I would like to say – Burning Spear about that, aksing… Because I suffer a big disaster in ’79 when the time was very bad, politics that go down. Yeah, and my house did burn down. I did have everything, instruments, I did have masters, I have song on tape and everything (chuckles). Everything go up in flames.
Where in Kingston was that?
Uh, I was living at… a mansion nearby dung… not Meadowbrook – well, it’s lickle bit below.
It’s not Jones Town, the Trench Town area?
No, no, no. It’s the last, call it distric’ or whatsoever (chuckles) it’s called… dung the Bouleward, down to the bottom going to Mandeville. You have Duhaney Park, in Duhaney Park it’s adjoining… but ohh shit man, I don’t remember the name of it, yunno! But no, it just burned down, I lost a lot of t’ings. And I think that’s where some of that music where Mrs Pottinger come in to claim. I thought I did write it out and dem t’ing deh, but it look like I never did copy it, copyright it at the time. (Coughs) I thought I did do that.
What about the solo albums in the seventies, there was the ‘Blazing Horns’ album with Tommy (McCook) for Yabby You for example?
No, they took… Yes, it wasn’t really Yabby You, it was Sounds.
Right, King Sounds, of the Grove Music label.
That was his production?
Yes, King Sounds. I mean, the riddims were Yabby You riddim.
And then he had you to do your thing over those riddims.
Yeah, he used Yabby You riddims and I and Tommy put on melody lines and solos and t’ing like that. And I did somet’ing like that for Bunny Lee too.
With the Aggrovators?
Ahh, with Bobby Ellis and Tommy McCook, rush out that.
But there was no formal plans to put out a solo album, at that time, just the producer compiling these tracks to make an album? That’s how it goes anyway, most of the time.
No, it was just the producer, right. After that I made one more as ‘Bobby Ellis & The Crew’.
Yes, ‘Shaka’ for a short-lived San Francisco label, Dublab.
(Silence) ‘Shaka’, right. ‘Shaka’ was…
How did that come about, you played for Burning Spear at the time?
And this was in conjunction with Nelson Miller (formerly drummer with Burning Spear’s band) you produced that album?
Yeah, yeah. And after that now that’s when my whole world came tumbling down with the fire (chuckles), and everything got consumed. So I have to try start all over again.
How do you view the music in its current state, and horns? You believe horns will get back to the studios in a serious way, ever?
Horns will always be there, the world is round, yunno.
(Laughs) And what goes around will come around, the horns will always be there! What really cut out the horns, yunno, instead of using three persons to complete a sound, right, they use a syntheziser. But when you go out there ‘live’, right, the syntheziser cyaan replace ya (chuckles). And they ought to know that.
That keyboard is just way too ‘plastic’, you will never be able to replace the sharp sound of a horn section, the live feel. I think you proved this over and over on this tour with Max and the Ethiopian.
Of course we need that. The syntheziser cyaan replace for everyt’ing.
By the way, you appeared in ‘Rockers’ too, right?
Yeah, yeah. I did feature in ‘Rockers’. I, Tommy McCook and I think (Herman) Marquis. Down Maxfield Avenue, some backyard, we were playing ‘Satta’.
Right, with Horsemouth’s companion, ‘Dirty Harry’.
Dirty Harry, yeah!
(Chuckles) Was doing ‘Satta’. Yes.
Whatever became of him after that movie?
He died. I dunno, he migrate to America. I see him one or two times, yunno, when I go up there. Well, he got mixed up with drugs, drug business. That’s how he died.
What’s ahead for you now, any recording projects to start or finish when you get back to Jamaica?
No, what I’m trying to do, I’m trying to get loose ends on the both sides together. When I hook up with this guy, we’ll see if we come together to do some recordings. I want to tell you, him and Ernest Ranglin play together.
Are still playing with the Yard Beat band in Jamaica?
Yes, but we hardly get any engagements, yunno. So you’ve heard of Yard Beat (laughs)? You are well informed (laughs)! I’m glad to know that he he…
Bobby Ellis’ contribution to reggae music cannot be overstated or even underrated for that matter, even though he’s been, naturally, in the shadow of fellow sixties hornsmen in the Skatalites. He is present on a number of classic recordings such as Burning Spear’s ‘Marcus Garvey’ album, to name one. Tracing the recorded works of this gentleman is not the easiest when so little instrumental music gets reissued properly these days. But in any case, there are some gems to be found on those that has been put onto CD. For example, the ‘Stormy Weather’ track ended up on Heartbeat’s ‘Reggae Train’ anthology of Mrs Pottinger’s High Note productions, and still available. ‘Put On Your Best Dress’, another Pottinger/Tip Top/High Note/Gay Feet album compiled by Steve Barrow for the Trojan imprint in 1989, is without doubt a classic by now and also readily available on CD where you’ll find Bobby featured. Heartbeat released ‘Riding The Musical Chariot’ back in 1990 which included work by Bobby and the Crystalites band, such as his ‘Alfred Hitchcock’ title. If only the long unavailable ‘Green Mango’ LP by Bobby and Tommy McCook could be the subject for a reissue in its original sleeve – how about it Trojan? It is long overdue, as well as a re-release of the Bunny Lee-produced ‘Black Unity’ LP which came out in 1977 on Count Shelly’s Third World label. And Mr Lee, if possible, have it in its original jacket, that would be a treat…
The ‘Blazing Horns’ LP which, again, combined Tommy McCook and Bobby is thankfully already a part of a reissue-package of two albums on Blood & Fire’s label, including the Glen Brown-produced and extremely scarce ‘Tenor In Roots’ album (in its original issue back in 1975) by the late and great Tommy McCook. It is one compilation I would highly and unreservedly recommend; two masterful musicians literally blowing new life into these most vibrant and electric of Jamaican rhythms, and supervised by two of the island’s ace producers as well. Music as strong as this will simply not be made again, ever. Although Bobby’s first ‘real’ solo album contains a few interesting moments, ‘Shaka’ is not quite the debut, full-length record one would’ve hoped the man could deliver. It’s been out of print for the past fifteen years or so and not likely to show up again in any format I reckon. Neither are the handful of titles he produced for his own Quaking label, which featured names such as Freddie McKay, Lennox Brown and Neville Grant among others. In retrospect, Bobby Ellis’ career is artistically quite remarkable looking back on it, but as with so many in the history of this music, he has far from received what he is due in terms of monetary matters, if not even true recognition. The Jamaican authorities ought to realise at least the value of his long-term contribution while he is still here with us in flesh, instead of showing that appreciation posthumously. Give the man a mark of honour so he can enjoy and benefit from this achievement now, not later. You if anyone truly deserve it, Mr Ellis. Keep on blowing Mr Hornsman, blow on my brother, blow like you’ve never done before. Blow ’til the very last drop.
(Note: Bobby Ellis passed away on 18 October 2016)