The Ethiopian (Leonard Dillon) interview – Part 2
In part 2 of the interview, Leonard Dillon talks about Stephen Taylor (‘the other half’ of the Ethiopians), Sir JJ, Coxsone Dodd & Studio One, crooks in the business, and his “Slave Call”, “On The Road Again” & “Everything Crash” albums.
NEVER GET BURNED
So what became of the group when Ethiopians entered the early seventies, the situation changed pretty much.
The situation change, and we were going through slow time. And there now Stephen went on… was buyin’ gas at the gas-station, an’ sell the gas after the gas-station closed in the night. And that’s how he got died.
What really happened there?
He got killed. It was a transportation that knock him down, killed him on the spot.
That was in 1975.
Right. You have the dates, you got everything right, eh (laughs)?
Right (chuckles). Tell me more personal details about Stephen, because not much more is known about him, other than being ‘the other half’ of the Ethiopians.
It was a great guy, man. Great guy. He’s a guy like this: he may take a lickle time to make what he’s doing, but when he do and hold on to it and he shut his eyes – whenever time I see Stephen shut his eye, remember I’m relaxed, beca’ he got it (laughs)! Yeah man, it was a great guy, great guy to have around me. And then, you know, every short man can dance good, you know what I mean? And he was very good with him legs too, y’know. So that’s why we used to dance so much on stage. But he was a good guy, miss him a lot.
Oh boy, how did you react when you heard the news what he…?
Well, how I react… what got to me, for over two years I was sick, I was sufferin’ from shock. I would be talkin’ to you and every ten and a half seconds I would make a deep breath, and hhhhhh… you know what I mean? And that was happening to me for a while, so I leave Kingston and go to the country. And after still going back to Kingston for medication and until I was kinda relaxed, and started to breath normal again.
Did Stephen leave a family at that point?
Yeah, he had his family but he only had one son, he only got one son. And now, I’ve been searching for that son over a couple years now and I cannot find him. Beca’ what I want to do – and this is a t’ing I’ve been trying to say in this interview, yunno, I want to sign some of the songs to him. Beca’ although it is I who write my songs, I write all the songs the Ethiopians ever did – I’m the writer, arranger, composer for these songs, and there are some, like ‘Skaville’, ‘One Heart’ – we didn’t write those songs, I only have the horn section, y’know, when we’re going to the studio and we just jam to what’s happening. So each man put in what he had. And when I got my royalties, Stephen, I always give him some money. And ever split it even, because… y’know wha’ I mean? But he always got some money. So right now I’m feeling so guilty not having his only son around to collect somet’ing, beca’ I wish I could find that boy. I would sign some of the songs to him that me go on collect for life, y’know, but I can’t find him. I’ve said this a lot of time and I just can’t find him, I wish I could find him.
Could be living in the States, or Canada perhaps.
I know that his name is Anthony Taylor. In your writing, when going up to your website, you can do this for me, you can put it on that I wish to find my partner’s only son, which is Anthony Taylor, y’know.
Of course I will.
Yeah man, I need to get in touch with him. Because his father did a lot of work with me and I think he should eat, his children should eat, you understan’?
Yes. So that was a big set-back for the career, the Ethiopians came to a halt there, no doubt.
Yes man, very much. And it took me twelve years, you know that? It took me a couple of years well to get back, going back to the studio, and…
But then, at the time, you felt you just couldn’t replace him, or what was your feeling about it?
I tried to make another band, yunno. Because I had a Nyahbinghi band, where this album ‘Slave Call’…
For Niney in ’78, yes.
You can see the brethren dem on it? OK, that was a band I was trying to arrange. But everyone got reluctant so I decided that I’m gonna stay solo. So it took me a long while before I do this album for myself and release it to Heartbeat, ‘On The Road Again’.
Yeah, to Heartbeat. Here I am again from that.
By the way, what happened to Sir JJ? He was murdered?
He got killed, yeah.
So what happened, to be more specific?
Well, they shot him three times and he didn’t die, and the fourth time they cut his throat. So, y’know, we all see it was somet’ing that was planned.
Truly a brutal act, yeah. He had his enemies coming at him.
Well, I want you to know, yunno… you see, in those time you don’t have to have enemy, because even that man did not die. Yeah man, if Sir JJ didn’t die, man, he would have a lot to do with Jamaican music.
He had that ear for music, and schrewed, very business-minded and good at it.
Yeah man. But I just feel that within, these guys them try to get him out, yunno.
You felt it was connected to anyone in the music business?
Well, it is not really for me to say. But you can know by what you see, after you noticed that it was somet’ing that was planned, like. You know? And you can’t tell, because I know these guys will get you out, y’know.
Well, it’s more a mafia business than anything.
And under such circumstances you will have to watch your back, right (chuckles)?
You can’t say too much, you know it (laughs)! You can’t say too much, you have to watch what you say.
Has the situation changed for the better in that regard?
Well, I can never think of things happen for the worse, yunno. Even when the best don’t come, you still think for the best. It can never be for the worst. Yeah man, you don’t think of the worst.
How did the ‘Slave Call’ album come about? This came out on Count Shelly’s imprint at the time, and produced by Niney.
That’s another criminal, because that ‘Slave Call’ album, I don’t collect a penny from it. Only my copyrights, which I own. But my mechanical rights, I don’t collect no money from Niney. And that album, hear how I did it: Niney produced financial backing for the musicians and the studios, right, and I present the material, with no money. Because it was a deal, he’s going to England to do a deal, come back and let me have money, beca’ it’s a business arrange, right, and that’s it. From he left for England, that’s it. Right now I’m trying to curtail (?) a lot of them now, because I find Keeling Beckford, I find a lot of them. In a while I’m going to have all of my material dem under my sleeve.
And release them independently.
Good. That ‘Slave Call’ LP was out on the Third World label, have you approached Count Shelly about it too? Even though he’s not the producer, but I suppose he had more than one finger in the whole thing?
Yes, I approach Shelly but he said is Niney he pay, I can’t get nutten from Shelly. Is Niney and him is in business, yunno. And is years I don’t see Niney, I don’t know how to find him. But I only wish to meet him one day.
(Laughter) Crooks, as they say. At least that’s what it sounds like, even though there’s the other side of the coin.
(Laughs) Yeah man, there are a lot of crooks. But, y’know, you have to give thanks to Jah, because maybe if it wasn’t I them wouldn’t survive, or many like I. Because I have the ability to do things that you can live off, give thanks to Jah.
And you’re still here at least.
Yeah man (chuckles)! The greatest thing to know is that I’m here, and still going, y’know.
So the whole concept of ‘Slave Call’ was to do something beyond the rockers sound, using Nyahbinghi beats as the foundation.
Yeah, we’re using the Nyahbinghi beat.
And not being only focused on what is the latest fashion – the rockers, bringing in the traditional sounds, upfront.
Yes! More than you have a chart, and… you know?
Still it’s pretty brave to do a concept album like that, it’s a jeopardy; you never know how it’s gonna sell, compared to something that is shaped by and following the market.
No, you see, the t’ing about it, yunno, as Drumbago used to say to me – Drumbago used to say ‘Creativity is what pays’, and I never forget that (chuckles)! Regardless of what I’m doing in music, try to be creative as Drumbago.
There you have something lasting.
And that is for more generations than one, to hear. It doesn’t vanish off the streets the same year it was out there.
Well, if it wasn’t for that, y’know, I would be going through four generations right now.
That’s a good way to put it (chuckles).
Yeah man (laughs)! I’m going through four generations now, yunno.
And it still sells.
OK. Last night, the night before last night, and when I see the young people singin’ these songs that is forty/thirty odd year old, can you imagine how I feel?
Proud, to say the least.
Man, listen to me, man – they give me a lift! Yeah. Some little kids. Young, twenty, late teens.
And wasn’t born when these songs was played out first.
Yes, they wasn’t even born then (laughs)! Maybe mummy and daddy didn’t even meet. You know? And to see them singin’ these songs today! Man, it give me a warmth, y’know. But that is why I did them, for them to live (chuckles). Yeah, and that is why I always try to be creative. Because whenever time the creativity sit, it lasts. It’s not like these music today, they are only using the old riddim tracks. They can only go this far, and die. Because the original has already been there, living the life. So he can’t come and live a life again and again if the life is already there, y’know.
How important is the message for you? It’s not exactly like you choose some sort of middle-path, a social topic is never far from your pen, life is just so much more than romance and vanity.
No, you are doing what you feel, yunno, it’s what you feel you’re doing. You know, reggae music is a cry of a people. Is a cry of a people who is not having life to the fullest of their satisfaction, y’know. So the crying for help in various kinda ways is in the music, and that’s the best way to do it. To communicate, that’s what it’s all about, communicate with the mind. We’re not forcing it upon no-one; we deliver, you listen, you wanna accept, you accept. You wanna go through and meditate upon it and understand what we’re doing, y’know what I mean? So we’re not forcing anyt’ing upon no-one.
After the ‘Slave Call’ album you had like a break for a couple of years and came back with the 1982 ‘Everything Crash’ album for Coxson.
That was before ‘On The Road Again’? Coxson album?
Yeah, that was the time when I leave the scene for a while, when I was in the country. Well… yes, I think you’re right. That was the time, that every time I got a money I would go into the studio and I do one or two songs, and I put it out. With an intention any time – I went on a tour ’80 (it was in ’87 to be correct), with Gladiators, and I realise that the companies them in America, they don’t want no single, they need an album. So, I went home and all I did is, when I do get my royalties, I did two songs, or three songs, or one song. And I have them back there, until Heartbeat helped me to finish that album, which is called ‘On The Road Again’.
But this one was out before that though, this LP consists of tracks like ‘When Will Be The End’, ‘Hard Times’, ‘Empty Belly’, ‘Locus’, ‘Open The Gate’, and all those tunes. That ‘Everything Crash’ LP was out in ’82 that we’re talking about now.
That was on Coxsone, ‘Everything Crash’. Yeah. I’m talkin’ ‘On The Road Again’, the title song is ‘On The Road Again’. And I have a lot more. But those was a lotta new songs.
And most of those was recorded during the nineties.
But what about this ‘Everything Crash’ LP, this is a very consistent album and one that is highly regarded by Ethiopians fans all over. If the Ethiopians name is dropped somewhere, you often hear talk of that record.
Yeah. You see, that album now, I just did that song over for Coxson and he called the album ‘Everything Crash’.
Most of those tracks was cut in the same session, or this was compiled stretching over a long period of recordings from the seventies up to the early eighties or something like that?
Yes, some of them.
So how come you went back to Downbeat again?
Well, because I left the music scene for a while and the easiest way to be heard right now is the Studio One label, so I just went back and did that before I did my album. ‘Cause whenever time you want to be known, yunno, the Studio One label is a label that really expose you. ‘Cause everyone love Studio One and are familiar with Studio One, everyone rates Studio One. So you don’t really – Coxson is a man that don’t really pay money, yunno. You don’t do music for Coxson for money, you do music just for the label’s sake, to really expose you. Because Studio One label go wide, y’know.
Is that the same period you cut tracks like ‘The Prophet’ and the great ‘Incessantly’, or this was earlier?
Yes, those are the period. Early eighties. Yeah. ‘Cherry Pie’, ‘When Will Be The End’, all those songs deh, y’know.
But some of them didn’t end up on the album though, they’re still uncollected as far as I know, which is a shame, a great shame. He should have, but he didn’t do it.
No, a lot of them don’t come on the album. Right now Coxson have a whole heap a song, whole lotta songs. When I was living in New York I can remember I did thirty odd songs for him, and I don’t think he released even half of them. But that’s a guy who always have a lotta songs of artists that is not released, y’know.
Tell me more of a song like ‘Incessantly’, that’s one of my personal favourites if I should mention that.
Well, it’s natural truth, ‘always I fight to resist poverty’, yunno. Sometime how I have to even survive is by really dealing in herb business. You see the ganja? You know, sellin’ a lickle collie or some way, yunno, that was definitely true, a crying from the heart, man. ‘Incessantly I man fight to resist poverty, mainly sellin’ collie to collie, to keep I and I man family from going totally hungry’, y’know wha’ I mean? And those are natural things, man. Yes man, some have day to day surviving so, how you put it in music.
And ‘Prophecy’? That was an album you did for Nighthawk in 1986, with the Gladiators. The ‘Dread Prophecy’ album.
‘Dread Prophecy’? Well, for Nighthawk, yeah. Well, as you hear the words in it: ‘One prophet come two prophet come all a dem to the same somet’ing’, as was said. In this time – that time is any time, yunno. OK. Is just the natural positive things about what’s really happening and what’s gonna happen, y’know.
And you did ‘The Prophet’ for Coxson too around that time.
No, is not a matter of prophet. I love prophecy (chuckles), I love history, y’know, and I’m a man who read a lot. And when it come on to everyday happening, prophecy, history – I’m there, y’know wha’ I mean? Is all the things that I read upon.
How has the nineties been for you, up to now? It’s been the odd album, like ‘On The Road Again’ that you mentioned.
Yes, and this album again, ‘Owner Fe De Yard’.
Yes, but that was a Heartbeat compilation, some vintage recordings.
Do Heartbeat compensate you in a proper way? They have at least three CD’s in your catalog by now.
No sir, I get one of the hardest time from these company. You see Heartbeat, Niney, Sonia Pottinger – one of the wicked act. You know, Coxson is one too, but you’ll get a lickle, you will get ten percent out of the hundred from Coxson, y’know what I mean? But, you don’t get none at all from Niney, none from Sonia Pottinger, you see, is all rip-offs. Well, but you see the nineties right now I won’t cry, because what I didn’t see in the early, now I see it in the nineties. Beca’ in the nineties I started to tour a lot. You know, started to do a lot of touring, not like in the sixties and seventies. Nineties has been a lot of touring. And I did an album there named ‘Tuffer Than Stone’ – got that one, eh?
No, haven’t seen it. For whom did you do that one?
That was for Sankofa Music in France. You know, Sankofa Blackstar.
Who did you work with on it?
Eh? OK. These musicians was Eruption Crew. Yeah, that was a band that I used to tour with, now we split up since 2001, y’know. But that was a band that I used to tour with on Reggae Bash.
And the latest record out is the ‘Mystic Man’ title for Coxson?
Yeah, that’s the latest.
All new recordings for him, or there was some of the uncollected stuff put in as well?
Yes, some of them is new, and some of them is some old songs that Coxson had a long while that didn’t release.
How do you feel about that, mixing different eras like this? New technology with some of the classic analog recordings, it would sound a bit strange to me at least, and I’ve only heard the odd track from it so far.
Well, you see, I don’t see the sound different, yunno, because what I hear today is nothing to compare of what is there, and will be always there. No music that come out today is new. Because, number one: no creativity is there, they’re doing everything on the old riddim. These guys did over on my ‘Engine 54′. Sizzla take my number one riddim track and make a hit out of it. And so much of them keep using the riddim tracks, yunno, I can’t rate dem music deh. Ca’ they don’t give me no inspiration, dem don’t give me no – they don’t listen me in a way that I may be creative, y’know. As I said before, man, they are eating out of dirty plates (laughs)!
Beca’ we already eat out of them plates, yunno. Don’t laugh (chuckles). It’s true, isn’t it?
Them must be creative, man. You know? Got to be creative. You know, is like, when I ask some of these producers you see that re-do these songs, I say to them: ‘You are the one that is spoiling the music, ca’ you don’t want to pay musicians, you want to just come into the studio, jam a new t’ing, jam a old t’ing, an’ that is it!’ They expect to go faaar way with that, but yu cyaan run a way. Beca’ we original went half-mile, you’re gonna go two chain. You see? You can never go quarter-mile.
With that in hindsight, the music is in a slumber, it’s more or less standing still right now as you see it?
OK. That is why we, the veterans, have to wake up. And that is why I’m getting to the studio, that’s why I’m laying some new riddims, riddim tracks. That’s why I’m telling Coxson I’m not singin’ on those old riddim tracks no more. He have to lay riddim tracks and, y’know, he allow me now to go in and lay riddim tracks. I only do that for him to know that my intention when I go down now you don’t hear anyt’ing yet, when I go down now I’m gonna start work on an album. I have a couple shots already from it, I intend to go down now and complete a CD. This one is Ethiopian’s produce again, then you gonna hear the difference now. You know, you gonna hear the difference again. Ca’ whenever time I produce my t’ing, they are the ones that always go off.
Who will release it?
Which company? Well, I cannot say that company yet, beca’ I have to be scoutin’ for the best deal. When I say the best deal, the best deal that I know where my royalty is supposed to be paid, will be paid. You know, I’m not even talking about the front money, I’m talking about the deal that secure pay when the time come, y’know.
So that is what’s ahead.
Yes, that’s what I’m meditating on.
Looking back on what you have achieved in the Ethiopians, how would you summarise it all at this point in time?
You mean if I like it? What I’ve been through?
Yes, what do you feel about what you can see in that mirror?
Yes, the whole experience – I will do it again (chuckles)! I would do that same cycle again. Nothing to regret, y’know. Although these things in business is unfortunate, but these are all a learning process. I’d go through that same track again.
Life is one long lesson, eh?
Blessed. True, true.
If there’s one ‘Voice of Thunder’ already (the late Prince Far I), then we have a contender here in the warm baritone – or should I say’ bass’ when speaking – in Leonard Dillon, The Ethiopian himself. He is nothing but a monument of how vibrant and dynamic the music was in its foundational stage, and was a true pleasure to watch performing on stage while touring with Max Romeo; travelling with a band consisting of the Bobby Ellis-led brass section, Barnabas on drums, and a harmony section featuring the late Jennifer Lara in the winter and spring of 2004. He totally stole the show that evening in my opinion and ‘charmed’ the whole venue filled with hip, ragga-fed youngsters, slowly winning them over, one by one. He is the embodiment of what roots music is about, but in the most gentle of ‘musical manners’; never too hard or forceful in style to alienate himself from his audience, an audience who knows what to get within the Ethiopians’ musical frame of mind. It’s simplicity in sound, a country style – ‘less is more’ so to speak, which makes it so much more effective, and peppered with topical lyrics. He is the quintessential Jamaican folk singer, dressed in a ‘popular’ musical costume. Coxson passed some months after this interview took place, and the Studio One family has yet to dig deeper into the Dillon catalog. The ‘Everything Crash’ LP would be a good move to reissue for a start, among many other gems for the label. As discussed within this space, Dillon does not benefit from much of the current output of the vintage material, except keeping his name historically and artistically ‘alive’ out there, perhaps. Hopefully that situation will be changed for the better, and pretty soon we hope. There are naturally a lot of stuff from such a vast catalog like Dillon’s that should see reissue apart from the mentioned Coxson material, like for instance the GG’s album ‘Open The Gate of Zion’ or the Nighthawk-produced combination with the Gladiators, ‘Dread Prophecy’.
There are numerous great 45’s that has been uncollected over the years that someone (maybe our man himself?), somewhere, should take care of and clean up for the rest of us unlucky enough not to own the original copies, to hear. He produced the Willows harmony trio on his own Opians label back in 1975, what else is there in the can from Dillon’s production house? Only he has the answer to this. When historian Steve Barrow set his foot inside the house of Trojan Records in the mid eighties, he compiled probably the most comprehensive and substantial of all the Ethiopians ‘anthology albums’ out there, no wonder then that the ‘Original Reggae Hitsound’ LP has remained in print throughout the years. ‘Reggae Hit The Town’ was another complement (of several including Michael de Koningh’s recent addition on Trojan to that one), released in the year 2000. It would surely be of some ‘comfort’ to know that Leonard Dillon has received some kind of compensation for this work, but it is more unlikely than anything else. More likely is his – and the late Stephen Taylor’s – significant place in the history of Jamaican music. Honour and respect goes to the man we know as The Ethiopian.