The Ethiopian (Leonard Dillon) interview – Part 1
You have copycats and you have the true originals in popular music. I would place a group such as The Ethiopians in the latter category, being the brainchild of lead singer and songwriter Leonard ‘Sparrow’ Dillon. Musically he is like no one else in a sea of less original music makers, lyrically he is a pioneer of the ‘conscious’ or ‘cultural’ form of reggae we know as roots music, pointing to the harsh realities of everyday life. The whole package is one of timeless quality, unsurpassed in the story of Jamaican music so far. I look at Jamaican veteran Leonard Dillon from this perspective. Listen to his early work from scratch up to the present and you get a hint of what I mean. Nevertheless, he received the acknowledgment he truly deserved in 1981, being presented with the ‘Certificate of Appreciation For Pop Music Development’ by the then Prime Minister, Edward Seaga.
NEVER GET BURNED
Dillon, perhaps more known as ‘The Ethiopian’ these days, has been in the business for more than forty years by now. Originally he was recording as ‘Jack Sparrow’, then he formed The Ethiopians with local friend Stephen Taylor, and together they were responsible for a bunch of memorable hits and a strong catalog of songs that is hard to match by todays standards. Who can forget such songs as ‘Train To Skaville’, ‘Hong Kong Flu’, ‘Everything Crash’ or ‘I’m Gonna Take Over Now’? These are almost evergreens within the reggae sphere. I spoke with Dillon while on tour in the winter of 2004, February to be precise. My thanks to Leonard, Tim (Maestro Ent.), Donovan, Michael de Koningh, Steve Barrow, Tim P, and Bob Schoenfeld.
How did you grow up?
OK. Well, I was born in the parish of Portland.
Where is that again, in the northeast of Jamaica?
Eastern Jamaica. And a district which is called Snow Hill, where I later move from Snow Hill to Port Antonio, which is the capital of Portland. Yeah, being there for a while growing up, I grew up in the church with my grandparents. My grandfather he was a conductor in music, and my mother she teaches music also, so I left for Kingston wanting to do some recording. I left for Kingston, and I met up on Peter Tosh. I met up on Peter Tosh (or ‘Touch’, JA pronounciation) and we sang some of the songs that I wrote. And well, he accepted them and he decided that, in the evening, we would be going down Second Street, that is in Trench Town.
This was just one of those trips down to Kingston while you were still living in the country?
Yeah, I was living in the country. But I came into Kingston and decided that I wouldn’t leave Kingston until I make something out of the music, y’know, or make a career of the music. So, Peter took me down to Second Street the night where I met Bob and Bunny, and he told them that I had some songs. So I could not play the guitar, Peter play the guitar and I sung the songs and everyone liked them and the other day they took me up to Studio One, to Coxson.
And this is like, what, ’64?
6-… correct! You got it right (laughs)! Yeah, that was ’64. Yeah, they took me down by Second Street and then we go up by Studio One an’ I sung four songs to Downbeat.
For Coxson himself, or you had someone else doing the audition?
Yeah, I audition before Coxson, Jackie Mittoo, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. And after I sung the four songs they stopped me and told me that I was to come for recording the other day, and I went and I did the four songs.
‘I’m Gonna Take Over Now’?
No, that was in Ethiopi-… it was ‘Ice Water’, ‘Bull Whip’, ‘Woman Wine & Money’ and ‘What You Get You Must Take’. Three of those songs was harmony by The Wailers, and one by a young Delroy Wilson, y’know.
So all of that was solo work, there was none of the other Ethiopians involved.
No man, at that time I called myself ‘Jack Sparrow’.
Ah! OK, yeah, I am aware of that name. Under that name you did at least one song, ‘Beggars Have No Choice’, that much I know about. And that one was for Coxson?
Yes. Four songs as Jack Sparrow, and ‘Beggars Has No Choice’. True. So I did those four, and after I did that four and was around Coxson for a while, Bob and Peter they did not have enough time, neither Bunny, to spend with me to do my thing. So, I left Studio One and I went to live with a friend in Waterhouse, to live in Kingston. And there I met Stephen Taylor and Aston Morris.
Yes, and we sang for about a year, until I thought that we were all right. And I went back to Studio One, this time with a group. We did ‘Owe Me No Pay Me’, ‘Live Good’ and ‘Praise Far I’. We did those three songs and Aston Morris left the group.
Well, in those days yunno, we get nutten for recording. And because I was there before, the first time that I sung four songs for Coxson, I got forty bucks, thirty pounds for the four songs. And then when I went and redid these three songs for him, I think it’s four songs, we only got twenty pounds. So Charlie say that I am giving away his talent, so he left the group. And the next week I and Stephen go up by Studio One and we did ‘I’m Gonna Take Over Now’ and ‘Free Man’, and there he give us forty pounds for that too.
In those days artists wasn’t that focused on getting proper compensation, music was first and foremost in focus.
Is not a matter of ‘focused on getting money’ – no money was daily there, we only thought of that, but no money was there beca’ the music was just exploring, y’know. And we used to think before I get into the business proper, I used to think that somet’ing was happening, but when I get into the business I realise nutten was happening. Because the music did not win that wide degree of acceptance, which is now enjoyed nationally and internationally. So it wasn’t really there, y’know. But, we didn’t even think about the money, yunno, believe me it was not the money we was thinkin’ about. We just loved this thing, we was just lovin’ it. Because even if the producer give us nutten today, and tomorrow, we still in the studio recording, y’know?
So how did you survive in such circumstances, how did you support the household, the living at this time?
Well we used to work, ca’ I’m a builder by trade yunno, so we used to work. But I decided that if I am singin’ I’m gonna stop working, ca’ I have to live off it, so…
On a full-time basis, yeah.
Yes. So I spend a lot of my time now in music, meditate in music, y’know. And I left Coxson after a while and I went out and started workin’ on my trade again. ‘Cause Bob and Peter, Bunny, didn’t have enough time with me. So I leave them and there I met up with Stephen Taylor and Aston Morris.
What was their experience in the music, previously, at that point?
What was their previous experience? Oh well, there wasn’t any more than they was just around singin’, playing the guitar and singin’. But no-one had ever been to a studio or a producer. So that is why he (Charlie Morris) blamed me that I am giving away his talent, because I was the man who was doing the business part of it.
By the way, do you recall who backed you on that session with the first four songs, as Jack Sparrow?
Oh, OK. Yes, well, I can remember it like Jackie Mittoo, Drumbago (Parks), Lloyd Brevett, Johnnie Moore, Jah Jerry (Haynes)… I will try so we can get all of them here… I think I have them all. Yeah, but those are the basic, yunno.
The majority from the Skatalites.
Yes, exactly. That time they were all at Studio One. And I think – OK, Hux Brown was on guitar, Ikey Bennett was on keyboard, and that’s the band. Hux Brown, Ikey Bennett, Drumbago, Lloyd Brevett, Jackie Mittoo, that was the band.
No horn players apart from Johnnie Moore?
No. Yes, well, more horn players there like Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso, y’know, was all the man that I go there and see.
When you formed the group, who came up with the name ‘Ethiopians’?
Well, when we were rehearsin’, y’know, we were rehearsin’ at a place called The Ethiopian Reorganization Centre, where all of our culture was exposed, y’know.
This is in Trench Town?
Yes. So, when we went to Studio One, and we told Downbeat, it was one out of these two (the other option was ‘The Heartaches’), and he choose the one who say, ‘OK, we go with Ethiopians’. And from the day that I say that is like heh, is a whole lot of spiritual inspiration that get to me, y’know.
It was still pretty brave of you to expose that name in the business, especially at this point in time, mid sixties.
Tellin’ you, man. Believe it, ’cause no radio station would play my record.
A lot of people was lookin’ down on Rasta at this time.
Of course they were, I was called ‘Rasta singer’. Is only the well-educated on the roots that used to penetrate our materials.
Even among the musicians, the elite, it wasn’t something that earned respect in those days, you looked down on it in general. That was how it used to be, wasn’t it? ‘So you’re one of those dutty Rastas’, like.
Yeah man (chuckles)! A lotta dem. And you know the way how I was singin’, I was singin’ the Jamaica dialect, and each and everyone was tryin’ to do ‘English’. And I even say to them ‘we don’t talk like that’, so is best for us to sing the way we talk (laughs)! You know? And Louise Bennett (Miss Lou) used to be the one that credit me for that.
But the Skatalites was mainly into the Rasta doctrines, so I suppose you had a good vibe when dealing with them.
Yeah man. Very, very good support. Yeah man, very good support.
Before we move into anything else, I should ask how you came to sight up Rastafari? This has been or is pretty central in your repertoire, obviously.
Well, that was born within, yunno. Is only develop within the I, that was born within. Yeah, because from when I was a young boy my grandparents taught me about Africa, a lot. And they teach me how we come to exist in the west. I know as far as my African name, yunno, I know that we are from Ghana, and I know that my African name is Quao. So my grandparents was very much, I wouldn’t say ‘cultural’, but those days they could not expose themselves. Ca’ my grandfather he was a Christian, he was a churchman, and he didn’t teach me about church. He would more tell me about Africa and how we come to exist in the west.
They were followers of Garvey?
No, not what I know of. I know that they were church people, they went to the Seventh Day Adventist Church. But they were different kind of a Christian people, beca’ they don’t teach me about the church. My grandfather would say ‘The further from church is nearer to God’. He say that church cannot save me. So a clean hand and a pure in heart, y’know. So all they was teachin’ me of the church, he always teach me more of Africa.
Not too common in those days, I guess. Unusual?
Very, very. But that’s what used to happen, beca’ I usually go to the farm with him a lot of time and he would say things to me, he would tell me a lot of things about Africa. My grandmother she told me she come from the Congo, Ghana, and our name is Quao. The first person, the boy that came to the west, his name was Quao. And even a little while ago, when I was talking to the promoter, he knew some people as ‘Quao’. And whenever time I say that, y’know, is like people know it.
Good to hear the link has been maintained well over the years, it’s a strong link.
Yes man, every time, every time. Cannot fade away (chuckles).
You have always stood for a special sound within the music, I would like to know more specifically about your influences. I hear a very mento- or folk-oriented sound, Jamaican traditional sounds or something around that, and combined with old-time Rhythm & Blues.
As I say, I come from the church, and we take the Rhythm & Blues and the calypso and make it into ska/rock steady. You know, is only a matter of slowin’ up some of the instruments, and speedin’ up some, you understan’?
Yes. But there’s that particular Ethiopians sound that, to my ears, relies heavily on the mento feel, plus the old form of R&B. I think this is something that is unique about your sound, you would agree with that?
Listen my brother, in those days you had to create a sound, you had to have your own sound. You have to make songs and make a dance after to make the song selling. You have to make a dance out of the song, you understan’?
So that was necessary, to create a dance to market it?
It was necessary, that’s the only way your song is gonna get a lot of play. You have to make a dance of it. When it’s playing the people dem dance how you dance, yunno. Yeah man, you have to make a dance to the song in the early days, that’s the only way you gonna have dem sell. You gotta do somet’ing different. The change of the days is creativity, y’know, it’s completely different from now, because they are creating a sound, you have to create the dance to make that sound sell. And I ever love to create new style, new patterns, even until this day.
Then you moved on from Coxson to a lot of other producers, from Matador to Prince Buster.
Well, Matador was just a little pass-through, and also Prince Buster was a little pass-through. Derrick Harriott was a little pass-through, I did about two or three songs for each of those producer. I think I do about two for Matador. But my main producer was really Sir JJ.
Right, but that was a bit later, wasn’t it, or you met him in the mid sixties?
When did you go into the Treasure Isle studio, recording for Duke Reid?
That Duke Reid recording, I did one for Duke. I think that was from ’69, ‘Pirate’. I can’t remember if it was from ’69.
I thought that was for Sonia Pottinger, but it seems I got that mixed-up. I guess she reissued that track.
No man, that’s for Duke. I want you to know, I didn’t do any songs for Sonia Pottinger, y’know. No man, Sonia Pottinger is a thief. The songs that Sonia Pottinger have – ‘The Whip’, ‘Cool It Amigo’, ‘Stealing’, ‘Mama’, ‘Train To Glory’ – all those songs, they are my production, they are my money. I did ‘Train To Skaville’, so ‘Train To Skaville’ is my money, yunno. And the money that I got from ‘Train To Skaville’, I did ‘The Whip’, ‘Stay Loose Mama’, ‘Cool It Amigo’, ‘Train To Glory’, and I had to leave Jamaica for a tour in England. That was the first tour with I when Desmond Dekker was also there too.
And that was in sixty-…?
’68. ’67/68, right. And when I was leaving Jamaica, I left my tapes, give to Sonia Pottinger to do my distribution. And I could ask her to this day, I haven’t received them back, y’know. I am now in the process of where lawyers is concerned, to regain all my tapes from her. Because it is not for Sonia Pottinger. It is my material, she stole them.
You certainly have been victim of a lot of piracy over the years, like many others.
Well, that ‘Pirate’ was made off Lloyd Matador. Yeah, he was the one that I made that off.
Yes, but speaking about bootlegging, there’s a lot of that sort of Ethiopians stuff out there, I’ve seen several French CD’s for example with Sir JJ material.
Yeah man, Sonia Pottinger is one like that. She’s doing a lot of that.
Well, you aren’t the only one, but you’ve come across a lot of piracy with your material, that’s for sure.
Yes man, I come across… up to the other day I come across some. One of my producer that I give a lot of respect to, I thought he was one of my best friend, that was Studio One – Sir Coxson. And just in the end of last year, I found out that all the songs that I did for Sir JJ – because Sir JJ died, and y’know where Sir JJ is concerned I technically own those recordings. Coxson go around, and Coxson tried to own and register all JJ’s stuff and register all the stuff that I did for myself, as a co-writer (chuckles). And a fraud-contract that I signed, that I signed a contract with him from 1966.
OK, a fake thing.
Yes. So, it’s one of my biggest problems. So right now Sparta in Florida and Big World in England, they are at it. But I guess it’s going slow now, because it won’t be gaining much. So it’s kinda off it now, y’know.
When the ever-changing sound in reggae switch to a new trend or form, you have always stood firm. You have your own niche in the music, even back then you had it maintained, very consistently over the years.
Of course, man. You know, if I had tried to change, I don’t think I would be here now. Because I’ve got to be myself and I’m here to produce roots music, how can I change from that? You see what I mean? I cannot change from that, and it’s that forever. All I can do is try to create a little more style and a little more pattern, but the basics got to be there. That is the reason why I do not leave acoustic music, y’know. My foundation got to be acoustic, I don’t need a machine drum. I love my string bass, I love my bass – natural bass, I love the guitar. I can’t use computer to play those instruments.
But still you’ve done a few in that style, using new technology, for people like Coxson.
Yeah. That is drum machine, but there’s a drummer on the new album that is out now, ‘Mystic Man’ – you got that one?
No, not yet.
OK. Well, before ‘Mystic Man’, there wasn’t no drum machine. You know, is just lately now I see Downbeat using drum machine. I did some in America when I was living in New York with him, yunno, but that wasn’t much. A lotta those song, I didn’t hear them.
The first tour overseas, in England in ’68, how did that come about? This was through Bruce White?
A: No, it was through Doctor Bird Records, what’s his name again…? Graeme Goodall. Graeme Goodall, he is the one who hook me up to Commercial (Entertainment Agency) now, which is Bruce White and Tony Cousins (as told in the book ‘Solid Foundation’ by Dave Katz). And I did, like, I think it’s two years straight, two to three years with them.
There was several tours in England at that time then?
Yes, yes. And they were all long tours – three months. Yeah man, at that time ‘Train To Skaville’ was going, ‘Free Man’, ‘Owe Me No Pay Me’. Yeah, all those song was sellin’ a lot in England in those days. People used to tell me that when ‘Owe Me No Pay Me’ and ‘Free Man’ sell in England, I should come in my own aeroplane (chuckles). And I could see it in the venues dem when I work, y’know.
You and Stephen went over, but you didn’t have your own band brought over from Jamaica? You had an English band to back you up?
Yes, it was an English band, that was The Rudies. The next year I used The Healers (?). The Rudies was the best band in England in those time. When I left the Rudies, I took the Rudies along when I finished with them, I went back to Jamaica. It was then the Rudies become the number one band in England. And the next year when we came up, y’know, they got swell-headed and me aks to change them to the Healers. And when I left again the Healers become the number one band (laughs)!
I think the Rudies became the Cimarons… uh no, sorry, they became Greyhound later on, a pop-reggae group, ‘Black & White’ and those type of songs.
Did you take time out to record anything while in England?
Yes, one song. One slow song.
Which one was that?
How was the reception among the audience in England when you came up?
In the sixties? Wild! Wild, too wild! It was so wild. Not up to… up to a couple of days ago I keep saying it on the tour over and over, there’s no excitement in the music now. In those days, man, they used to have to hide us from people. When I’m doing my last number, my agent always be at the door with my clothing over his shoulder. And when I left the stage he would throw a coat over me, and straight to the car and off we go. You know, he used to be…
If the car ever be there we have to lock up in there because is people around it, y’know. It was wild, man, it was too wild in those days. One night I see Desmond Dekker end up in a hospital, yunno.
Yesss! Girls was getting at his scarf, one hold one end and one hold the other end, and was stroking him to death (laughs)!
(Laughs) Yeah! I tell you, man, they were crazy in those days. Very, very crazy. I tell you, we used to have to hide from them, y’know.
So they booked these tours for black clubs, the West Indian community, or for white audiences at colleges? I suppose it was both, but catered mainly to the Jamaican crowd.
Yeah man, white and black, yes. We play at lotta universities too. But the thing about it, you used to have to open up at a place called the Ram Jam in Brixton, and if you don’t make it at Ram Jam, you won’t be touring (chuckles). So you have to make the Ram Jam, and that’s where we always open.
So that’s the key place in those days.
Yes. And you have another place called the West Indian Club, that was a late night show you had at two o’ clock. We used to do two, three shows per night, yunno.
Right, it was divided to several sets a night.
Yeah man, two to three shows per night. Now and again it’s three, but regular two.
How long was the set, usually? Circa forty-five minutes to an hour?
No man, hear how we show used to line up now: Everywhere we work this tour was, the tour was to an hour an a half. But we used to have an whole show, because we was to sing a part of the first segment, then we would dance. Because we have a way – we have some dancin’ me and my partner, then we would dance. Then everyone would leave the stage and leave I alone where I have some comedian play weh I give some little jokes, y’know. And after that then we come up again with another segment of I and my partner singin’. That’s the way we used to line up the show, you come and you see an whole show; you see singin’, dancin’, comedian, and singin’ again. That’s the way we used to do it.
Sounds more like a variety type of thing.
Yes, it is. Yeah, yeah. When you come to see it, what you’re hooked on in those days, you are seeing a complete show, not just straight singin’. We have a spot that we dance, beca’ we used to be good dancers, yunno. Very good dancers. And after we dance I would still be on the stage and I would give some little jokes, a comedian, like. And after that we take a break, and then we come back now and close it up with both of us singin’ again.
Were you aware of the skinhead following in England at this time?
Weh yu call the ‘skinhead’?
So called British skinheads with a love for Jamaican music.
Dem days deh you didn’t have much Rasta. You didn’t have no Rastaman, you hardly see a dreadlocks. You hardly see that, yunno, you hardly see a dreadlock. When I say ‘I am an Ethiopian’ I sing for nations, I sing for the people.
When did the working relationship with Sir JJ, ‘JJ’ Johnson, begin? Wasn’t it actually before ’68, like two years before that?
I met Sir JJ before England. I tour England ’67, yunno, and I tour ’68. But when I went home ’67 I told JJ he must come now. I tour ’68 and when I went home ’68, I told JJ he must go to England to look after some of his business, because the songs them a singin’ up there. That is how JJ went to England.
What was your first encounter with JJ? He didn’t have any experience in the business before this?
Well, no. Well, I just saw him and tellin’ to ask him if he wanted some songs from me, and he say yes, he would be interested. Then he look up on me and said he want me to write a song, and the topic of the song must be ‘Everything Crash’, that’s the only thing he said to me. So I left and I went home that evening. And the other day when I went to him and sang it to him, y’know, he is a man give big laugh. He give me his big laugh and say we going do it. And we went into studio an’ even when we doing it people was laughing after us what the song we’re doing.
I dunno, because look now: ‘Wha’ gone bad a mornin’…’ – nobody talk like that dem time on record, yunno. Everybody’s stush and English an’ upper grammar, y’know what I mean? They wasn’t thinkin’ about the way Jamaicans really talk – ‘wha’ appen’, or ‘wha’ gwaan.’ ‘Everyt’ing all right.’ Yu know wha’ I mean? They want us to say ‘everything is alright’, and I mean, that wasn’t really we. You know (chuckles)?
Instead you wanted to put the native way forward.
Yes! That was what I was tryin’ to push, y’know, the way how we did really did think. And I give thanks to the Almighty for that, beca’ it last, yunno, an’ it did a lot for me.
Did you find other, contemporary artists questioning what you were doing with the language, the whole culture?
At those days? I was underrated, man! I was underrated, beca’ we wasn’t singin’ ‘English’, yunno. And there’s the guys dem, even the Wailers they was doing over Impressions songs an’… y’know what I mean? Blues Busters, these guys was singin’ foreign songs doing them over and they rehearsed them and sing them… well, I didn’t do that.
What was JJ doing before he met you, what was he involved with?
He’s a juke-box agent, yunno, and he have a record shop. He has a record shop and he’s an agent for juke-boxes. He used to have a lotta juke-boxes, you could buy juke-box from him.
Most of the so-called ‘producers’ only financed the sessions back in those days – and up to now, never actually participating in the arrangements, the musical aspect of the production. How was JJ in this regard?
He was one like that, yunno. He was one like that. He send me to the studio, and sometime we finished and waiting on him, sometime he come and catch it. Sometime he would come to the studio from the beginning. If he hear something that he like and have an idea, he’d put it there. But he always allow me to be creative and he can only join in and try to make me, what I have, presentable, y’know.
So you took care of most of the JJ productions, you got the space you needed.
Yes man, one of my best producer. Free hands, that is why I get so much hit songs. Ca’ the majority of these songs – all the songs that I did for JJ – ninety-five/ninety-six per cent, is I who arrange these songs. The horns – my mouth would play them first, the bass pattern, my mouth play it first, y’know.
What was JJ like, personally, on a private level?
Very… listen now, very quiet, humble man, nice man, a man to his word. At those days a producer would want you to sign with him, and he look on me and him said, “Bwoy, me nah sign no contract, yunno, we nah have to sign any contract. We a two big man, all we have to do is live up to we words”. He was like that. That’s my best producer, man. JJ, he’s the best man I ever believed in. If you come for your money on the tenth of the month, remember, he won’t forget the tenth when you get there, it is there and you’re not waiting long. Ca’ he have it like the day before, waiting on you, y’know. He was a different man. And that’s why I say he got so much hits. If you notice my catalog, the majority of the hits is for JJ. And what is not for JJ is for me. I am the one who produce those, y’know. Coxson have a couple in it, but that was as far as the production concern goes.
So JJ negotiated and secured the deal with Lee Gophtal at Trojan for the debut album, when he went up to the UK in ’68, and this was released the year after.
That is the time when I told JJ to went to England, and he did a deal with Trojan.
Then they had the ‘Reggae Power’ album out.
Yes. OK, that’s my first album. With a girl on the cover, that’s one of the first. It was an English girl, yunno.
And those three pictured on the back of the cover, that’s Charlie still in the group?
No, that’s not Charlie, that’s Melvin. That’s ‘Mello’, he came in the group 1968, the same time that I met Sir JJ.
Did he join you after being in a different group?
No. He was just one that go and come, go and come. The guy had never toured with us, yunno, he never been around. He come and he will sing, he sing three-four songs with us, and we don’t see him for a while. Then we see him again another time. He wasn’t like a permanent one.