Interview with Andy Bassford
Enjoying success in both the ska, rocksteady and early reggae years, Cornell Campbell managed to peak even higher in the mid 70’s ‘flying cymbals’ era. Alongside producer Bunny Lee the pair churned out hit after hit after hit and there was no way you could deny them. No wonder the singer’s popularity took a bit of dive at the end of the 70’s. Variety is the spice of life after all and times, they were changing. It should not come as a big surprise that the versatile singer adapted easily to the new beat coming out of the Kingston studios, but to score a huge hit in the process, that is something else. And “Boxing Around” was exactly that, a superhit.
In a great interview, conducted by Angus Taylor, Cornell explains that the song was recorded in a whim, only to be shelved because of a row over payment. Once Jack Ruby’s sound started playing it as a dubplate, the song took off and became seriously in demand. The superheavy riddim itself also prospered and many versions followed. Unknown to many a fan, though, the riddim relied heavily on the input of a “Connecticut Yankee.”
After having played guitar on Horace Andy’s “In the light” album (in New York for producer Everton DaSilva in 1977), Hartford resident Andy Bassford decides to move to the Big Apple. Horace had different plans, though, as he wanted Andy to record some more material for him. Only this time the recordings had to take place in Jamaica, and thus, in july 1980, Andy Bassford arrived in Jamaica. A great storyteller, his tales about the people he met there, how he got around in Kingston or how he managed to get auditions make for a great read and are highly recommendable. Eager, passionate and very honest, this is what he had to say about “Boxing Around” and his time in Jamaica.
CONNECTICUT YANKEE BOXING AROUND
“Boxing” was the third thing I did for Joe Gibbs and it stayed on the JA charts for over two years. The band is the original We The People rhythm section. Lloyd Parks on bass, Devon Richardson on drums (a great live player who didn’t do many sessions), Bo Pee on rhythm guitar, and Bubbler on piano. Bubbler overdubbed the syndrums, as Devon was a total purist at that time and wouldn’t play them. My part was an overdub too. Errol Thompson was the engineer and producer. I came up with the counter melody to the bass line but it was his idea to play the bass line as the solo; I would have played something else! Based on how the tune sold, I would say Errol was probably right. I counted something like 50 versions of it.
I’ve never heard of Devon Richardson before. Could you tell me some more about him? Any other session he played on?
Devon is one of Sly Dunbar’s favorite drummers and was my best friend in Jamaica; he played with Lloyd Parks and We The People for decades and is in most live videos you see of Dennis Brown. The version of “Promised Land” at Crystal Palace is Devon at his finest. He didn’t do that many sessions though. Devon can play anything. However, he didn’t enjoy the pressure of coming up with parts on the spot, particularly with songs or artists he didn’t like, which frankly is a big part of studio work. Devon doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
Devon was always religious and became born again in the 90s. He left We The People some time after, as he didn’t want to play music that had messages he didn’t agree with, to play gospel and jazz. After a while, he got fed up with the business in general and just taught drums. Devon is a remarkable teacher. He actually taught many Jamaican drummers how to play (without charging most of them a cent) and has a legendary music collection that he would share with anyone who would come to his house. Devon had a huge influence on the music through his live appearances and his willingness to share his knowledge. Ask any drummer who came after him! But he cares absolutely nothing for the limelight; the only thing he likes about the music business is music.
Other songs you might know that Devon played on: “Waiting In The Park” by the Chantells, “Good Thing Going” by Beres Hammond, and “Love Has Found Its Way” by Dennis Brown. Some of Lieutenant Stitchie’s gospel albums from the 90s feature him too, but I don’t know which ones.
When was the “Boxing” riddim recorded?
I know I played on it in late 1980, probably October or November because my first session for Joe Gibbs was in late August and I was playing in a hotel band on the north coast for almost all of that September. (I did my part on “The Cheater” on my day off. That was the second song I played on for Joe Gibbs). I don’t know when the original rhythm was cut but my guess would be earlier that year from the sound of the track. Although I played with We The People for five years (plus joining them to back Dennis Brown on tour for three years afterwards), the song was recorded before I joined the band. I’m pretty sure Errol did the mix, although Ruddy Thomas did a lot of engineering there in that period along with Errol and Chuny. I knew Cornell from hanging out at Idler’s Rest but I never saw him at Joe Gibbs, though a lot of people did hang out there. He wasn’t there when I did my part.
“Boxing” was actually written, or co-written by Oswald “Chuny” Palmer, who was the third engineer at Joe Gibbs. Chuny was very young but a terrific engineer; he did live sound for Dennis for a while later on. The song is purportedly about a young lady named Marie who used to work as a clerk at Lloyd Parks’ record shop, which was on Half Way Tree Road, not far from Joe Gibbs. I think Chuny and Marie had a child together later on. I can’t confirm this though. However, I can confirm that before the song was released, I asked Marie out myself (she was very attractive and I didn’t know that Chuny knew her) and she shot me down out of the sky! If the song actually is about her, I suppose I got her back a bit by playing on it.
Could you talk some more about Chuny? What else did he engineer?
I really don’t remember what Chuny worked on specifically, but he did live sessions, overdubs, and dub mixes, as well as vocal mixes. He’s still around, I think he lives in Florida and does live sound for people. I haven’t seen him for quite a few years. He was around a lot, the studio usually ran from 10 a.m. to sundown, sometimes much later depending on who was working. I tried to be out of there by nightfall as it was a very desolate area just blocks from Trenchtown and I didn’t drive. You could never get a cab there after dark. Maxfield Avenue was bad too (where Channel One was) but even at night it was a hopping neighborhood with a lot of traffic. All the engineers at Joe Gibbs when I was there, Errol, Chuny, and Ruddy Thomas (who also sang lead in We The People and had his own recording career) were complete engineers who could do whatever was required. Sometimes all three of them worked on the same song, depending on their scheduling. Errol generally mixed the highest priority tunes though.
Cornell Campbell’s song was the first to come out on the riddim, if I’m not mistaking. The riddim is an original, right? Quite rare for a Gibbs production.
Yes, Cornell’s “Boxing” is the original version as far as I know; at least his voice was on the track when I played on it. We did a fair amount of original rhythms for Joe Gibbs, although a lot of the stuff they recorded was remakes of US tunes. Wayne Armond of Chalice and Willie Lindo wrote a lot of original songs, as did Dennis and many of their other artists. There was always recording going on there, and I suspect there is some very good unreleased music. I can’t confirm this though.
I think it’s the bassline and guitar that make up the tune. The riddim is sparse, superheavy and open. Even if all versions seem to differ from each other, “Thousand Things On My Mind”, for instance, lacks the piano but does add horns. What do you think made this particular riddim so succesful that it is still played today?
As to why it’s survived, I don’t really know. As you say, it’s sparse and well constructed, though very simple, so it allowed for a lot of things to be put on the top. If you’ve heard versions with horns, they are probably Dean Fraser, Nambo, and either Chico Chin or David Madden. Those were put on after the original was successful. They weren’t on the track when I worked on it.
Did you ever had to deal with Joe Gibbs himself? I was having a conversation with a friend the other day, in which he stated that Errol Thompson’s releases on his own Na Naa label, were pretty mediocre, so Gibbs must have had a vote in the final release. What’s your experience?
I didn’t like Joe Gibbs, though I never had any problems with him personally. We were on speaking terms, but he was rarely around the studio and that was fine with me. I don’t really want to get into it at length but I didn’t like how he treated people. Joe was mostly involved in Miami running the business there so I didn’t have to deal with him much. What I knew of him was related to what happened with Dennis Brown, whom he managed for a while as well as recorded. (Nice conflict of interest right there, and that was just part of it.) I must say that I never had a problem with money with Joe Gibbs. That part was always cool. I can’t speak for the artists on that though.
I loved working with Errol, who actually did all the production as well as most of the artist auditions and easily half or more of the engineering. Errol was very open to my ideas, he was a terrific engineer, and he was very encouraging. Plus he had lots of good ideas himself. I consider him one of the best producers I’ve ever worked with.
I was very raw when I started, but I was very enthusiastic and willing to spend as long as it took to come up with parts worth recording. I think he appreciated that. Errol was a true artist as well as a businessman and understood that it sometimes took a while to get good results. The fact that they owned the studio probably helped a lot with that attitude! I learned a great deal from Errol; along with Sylvan Morris at Harry J, both of them were instrumental in teaching me how to play sessions effectively. I don’t know how much Joe weighed in on what they released. I never saw them discuss releases, but they could have done so by phone. I know that Joe was involved in all the big decisions they made, for better or worse.
I was playing “Feel Like Jumping” on Heartbeat the other day when I saw your name mentioned in the credits as well. What else did you play on?
Look at the discography on my website! It’s pretty complete as far as albums/CDs go. I’ll never track down all the 45s and versions of rhythms though. There’s also a ton of stuff I played on for Coxsone (Dodd, Studio One) that I’m almost certain he never released, including some incredible early Wailers tracks I overdubbed on. If you ask me about specific artists, songs, or producers I can usually remember, but the 90s in particular are just a blur as I was on the road so much.
Joe Gibbs was the worst ever about credits. They just used the same credit list from the early 70s on everything. They left my name off “Foul Play,” which made me furious as it was my first major label recording, and it was a Dennis Brown record! I’m still annoyed! I offered to proofread and type up their credits for free and Errol just laughed at me.
In fairness, sometimes even major labels screw up the credits, and sometimes people want their names left off things for contractual reasons. I’ve fixed or added to stuff for bands where part of the deal was that my name wasn’t going on it, but that’s different, as they tell you up front. Sometimes for internal political reasons they can’t tell the guy in the band that somebody fixed his part.
Coxsone didn’t put credits on records during his heyday because Berry Gordy didn’t: he idolized Berry. If Motown didn’t put musicians names on the albums, well, as far as Coxsone was concerned, he shouldn’t either. He actually felt some regret about it later, I think. He didn’t realize at the time how important it was to a musician’s career. Coxsone did give me credit on everything he released that I played on, as far as I know. However, leaving your name off is better than putting the wrong name on!
You played at Channel One too, right?
I did some of the early Roots Radics stuff with Junjo. I actually saw Dwight (Pinkney) and Flabba (Holt) on Tuesday, playing with Israel Vibration and sounding better than ever. Interestingly, three of the tracks that I played on that people ask about most, “Boxing,” “Gunman,” and “Fire House Rock,” were cut within a couple of months of each other, at the very beginning of my time in Jamaica. I also did some things for other producers there, including a couple of Judy Mowatt tracks for Ossie Hibbert, and one session with Delroy Wilson for JoJo Hookim.
Wow, you must have a huge archive of pictures.
No, none. I didn’t own a camera, and it wasn’t common to carry them around then. I don’t remember any of the other musicians taking pictures either, except possibly on tour. We The People was the biggest band on the island and we didn’t have a promo photo until three or four years after I joined! Photographers and musicians were different people then. It’s not like now where everyone has a phone with a camera in it. Fans, tourists, or journalists took whatever pictures exist from that era. The studios were full of people hanging out, it could be chaotic, and I was very much the new kid on the block. I didn’t want to make waves.
Remember that I arrived in Jamaica during the worst election year of its history, 1980, and a number of people genuinely believed I was a CIA agent! What else would I be doing there? (Maybe some of them still think so.) The last thing I was going to do was to pull out a camera and start taking pictures of the people around, many of whom were engaged in technically illegal activities.
It also never occurred to me that anyone would ever care about any of this thirty-odd years later! Studio work is almost completely anonymous, for better or worse. I was just thrilled to have work playing the guitar and to be around my heroes. I was living day to day. I had no plan except trying to make enough money to eat and keep a roof over my head until I could get better at it. I was sure each session might be my last because I had no idea what I was doing and there were so many good, established guitarists already working the studios…
Special thanks to Andy Bassford for his time and the great chat and a shout to Nick Faris for the link.[Recommended further reading: Andy Bassford – Black Sheep: a Connecticut Yankee in reggae]