Interview with Carl Malcolm
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When, earlier this year, a family emergency caused me to travel to Maryland, I asked my good friend, legendary sound engineer Scientist, whether there were any reggae stars in the area I should try to interview during my stay. Without hesitation, Scientist suggested I should see if star reggae singer Carl Malcolm – who recorded songs that sold millions and rode the top of the charts in Jamaica and the U.K. in the 1970s — was available; quickly I did some basic research, and ascertaining Malcolm’s biggest hits were recorded with world-famous drummer Sly Dunbar, I remarked this to Scientist and Scientist said: “That’s why I think he’s a good person to interview.”
CARL MALCOLM: “I LIKE SONGS WITH CHALLENGES” (THE INTERVIEW)
Next I messaged Sly Dunbar to let him know I was hoping to interview Carl — just to see if he had any questions he might want me to ask Carl if I got the chance — and Sly responded: “Carl is a nice person. I played on 3 of his hit songs; we were in the same band. I played drums on ‘No Jestering,’ ‘Miss Wire Waist,’ and ‘Fattie Bum Bum.’ Just big him up for me.”
Only moments after hearing from Sly — and riding a riptide of good vibes — Carl Malcolm replied favorably to my request to come and interview him May 2nd at his house in Triangle, Virginia, just an hour from where I was staying, in the beautiful countryside.
What follows is a transcript of the interview, modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations. Also, please note, while the interview was videotaped — and the video has been published on YouTube — this transcript includes additional valuable content that does not appear on the video, but that was nevertheless transcribed from an existing audio recording.
— they started performing, and I was like “Wow, I’m in Kingston. And here I am in Chinna’s yard, and they’re performing—can I be any more blessed than I am right now?” And I wasn’t sure if it would be possible.
I saw an interview that you did where [you said] you were there [in Jamaica]—I guess you had a lot of work going on while you were there? You were doing a lot of dubplates and things like that —
They had you working I bet. I bet you they were like, “We got Carl Malcolm here, we gotta—”
(Laughing) Three days [of being] studio-famous.
Man, I bet they were like, “We gotta just get all the recordings we can.”
I worked the whole night [those] nights.
Oh man. Wow. Did you get any time to go the beach and relax at all?
There was so much about you Mr. Malcolm — and I was reading about you online, man — you know there’s so much reggae — every time I learn a little bit more, and then there’s so much more to learn, you know? And I find out all these different things, associations, and bands — bands I didn’t know existed back in the day —
— and then it shocks me, because it’s only the last couple years really where — I mean I’ve always liked reggae — I grew up — I had a guy who was from Haiti who helped raise me, and that’s how I got into reggae because he would always be playing Bob Marley — always in the house, and so, that was how I started. But then, you know, I really was into reggae but it wasn’t until after I stopped practicing law, because I was practicing law, and Scientist — Scientist always likes to talk to me about the legalities —
— he likes to talk to me about the law a lot, but I was practicing law and I’d had enough of practicing law, and I got out to California and I realized, I was like wow, I’m in a reggae mecca. Everybody — I mean, you know, they have the Dub Club there, and it’s not too far from my house — I mean it’s a little bit of a ways because of traffic, but everybody comes through L.A. So my wife — I have to give credit to my wife [Tanya Cooper] actually, because my wife was like “Hey, you love this music, you should go and try to interview these guys. So she was one of the influences, too. And then also I sent you that little clip from that show “Sounds of the Caribbean,” which is a reggae radio show [and] he has a podcast, too— this guy “Selecta Jerry” — and that show comes on every Saturday. You know it was actually started by — you probably know him, I’m sure you know him — Keith Rowe —
Yeah, I know Keith Rowe.
So Keith Rowe, somehow he started this radio show in Princeton, New Jersey; it was like a college radio show and it grew, and they play reggae, and so [the show] is four hours [long] every Saturday. And it’s great because he mixes new and old reggae, and then he has a “Dub Zone”—[where he plays] all dub for like an hour and a half. It’s four hours every week. It’s a great show. So because I listened to that show after I stopped practicing law, I started to really get into reggae. [And] [t]his is probably, Mr. Malcolm, my fortieth or so reggae interview.
I want to keep going, as many as I can [do], and then my goal is someday — I have actually a publishing company in Jamaica that is interested — I want to put all of my reggae interviews into a book and publish [them] in Kingston. That’s the hope. [Anyway], this is my man, [one of my best friends], Paul [Turner], he’s got this new camera. [Asking Paul] Is this the first time you’ve filmed with it?
Oh man, Mr. Malcolm, I’m not nearly as advanced — I have to let Reggae-Vibes know in the Netherlands, who I’ll publish this interview with, I’ll have to let them know: Don’t expect that I’m always gonna have a video to accompany my interviews as good as this, because I don’t normally have Paul [with me]. Paul actually went to [Montgomery] Blair [high school with me]. How long did you live in Takoma Park, [Maryland]?
Wow! You were there for a minute. I love Takoma Park.
I love Takoma Park, [too] — I loved it. I moved when my business get messed up because of the pandemic thing. You know I had a sound system up there, and the band used to play [there]. But I —
Is [your band] “Positive Vibrations” still playing? Are you guys still playing?
[Only if we have] a concert. I don’t play like nightclubs and stuff like that.
But it’s not done by any means, [“Positive Vibration”]?
It’s not done.
But I just don’t play certain places no more.
Yeah, you [have] to get lucky to see you guys [perform] now [because] you’re more selective.
Well it wasn’t good for me. I used to play like four or five nights a week. In local places.
Especially — some of the places I’d play, it would be people just walking. They have a “Reggae Night” there. They put a band in. Pay a certain amount of money. Everybody gets x-amount of dollars, everybody’s band that comes there gets that, blah, blah, blah. So I realized it wasn’t good for me being an artist. I just got away from being a vocalist in a band. Being a vocalist in a band is a lot of stress because you gotta learn some Dennis Brown, some Bob Marley, some this and that. So it makes you local after a time. You just become a singer in a band. So after about five years, I decided it’s not working out that way for me; I gotta concentrate more on Carl Malcolm the artist.
That makes sense.
Yes. One of the main things that kept me in the band was I played there along my wife — she’s my drummer.
Yeah, I read about her.
And my son, he’s a keyboard —
Your son’s name is Tyrone?
Tyrone — yeah.
How old is he now?
About 37-38 now.
And is he very much into the music, too?
Well he’s more into music — right now he’s out there doing sound.
[Sound] [e]ngineering like Scientist?
Yes, Scientist—he actually used to watch Scientist.
He used to admire Scientist.
He used to watch everything Scientist did.
And when Scientist [left], he developed more, and now he’s number one in the area. Everybody wants [to use] him. I can’t even get him like I used to.
Carl Malcolm with Stephen Cooper (photo courtesy of Paul Jarvis Turner)
Wow. Hey Mr. Malcolm, let me ask you something, and I’ll totally go any which way you want to go with this, because people have different levels of comfort for any which reason. I’m vaccinated. And so we can — we’re outside — if you — if you think it’s okay — I’ll do whatever you want to do. We can wear masks, but we don’t have to wear masks —
We don’t have to wear masks.
Okay. It might be easier for us because we’re gonna be talking for —
I keep it on because of the pollen.
Oh. Okay. Do you mind if I take mine off?
Take it off — yeah.
[Taking off mask.] I’m vaccinated. (laughing)
This pandemic has got us — man, it has been — it was two days after I interviewed [legendary guitar player Earl] Chinna [Smith] that President Trump came out, you know, [and announced] the pandemic, [and said the U.S.] was gonna close down [its borders]. We were lucky to get out of Jamaica.
We almost got — I’m not sure, I was thinking, oh, maybe I could get trapped here — (laughing)
But then I saw the stress my wife [had] — it killed her vacation.
Because she started to stress about everything, and man, you know, I just love being in Jamaica. I think — I mean, I can’t wait to go back. There are things you can’t — the coconut, the pepper pot soup —
All the vegetables — everything. Everything! I feel so good when I’m there. [Is] everything rolling, Paul? Can we —
Do you want something to drink, man?
I’m okay. Paul, do you want anything to drink? You okay?
Paul: Yeah, yeah. Just double-checking something. Sorry.
And [Mr. Malcolm,] if at any moment you need to — I have a fair number of questions for you but if you need to pause [the interview] Mr. Malcolm, don’t worry about it —
Just do your thing, man.
But do your thing, too, do whatever you need to do. And I, uh, have a few of your songs here too, I need to make sure I have close to me (arranging electronic equipment). So is that song “Deeper Pocket” your most recent release?
I like that song, man. I love the official video. (Laughing) What mall are you in [during the filming of that video]?
Right up there (Gesturing off in the distance).
Close by. (Laughing) That’s awesome.
Very close by.
Paul (manning video camera): Okay. I’m ready.
So everything’s good, Paul? We’re recording? Okay. So Mr. Malcolm I’m gonna start the [official] interview now. And now that we’re recording, I want to start officially by thanking you, Mr. Malcolm. Truly it’s a great honor to be here today — at your home in Virginia — to interview you about your historic, close to fifty-year career in reggae. And to start from the beginning — your beginning — I read you were born in July of 1952, in Black River, which I read is the capital of St. Elizabeth Parish, one of Jamaica’s largest parishes. Is that accurate?
That’s not accurate about when I was born. I was born in 1946.
Wow. That’s a big difference.
Big difference, yeah.
Wow. So another reason why you really can’t believe everything you see online.
Yeah, a lot of things out there — a lot of times I do interviews and a lot of things come up and I have to clarify it [later on].
Which is [why] I’m gonna be asking about some of these things that’ve come up in some of the interviews that you’ve done to clarify. And in fact, I’ll start [right now] with an interview you did last year with Angus Taylor —
In England. Yeah man.
Yeah. For “World-A-Reggae.” In that interview, Mr. Malcolm, you said that your father was a local police officer or district constable, “d.c.,” and that your mom and your aunt who you grew up with were seamstresses.
And in other interviews I believe you’ve said it was through the church that you first got involved with music. Is that true?
Yes, that’s true, and then further back because my aunty who grew me up had a little shop. A little community store. On Friday nights, you see — you’d have older folks coming there [to] play dominoes and play—they have little banjos and self-made [instruments, like] they call it a “rhumba box.” And the music started—they used to play every Friday night. So I think that’s where [my] interest [for music] came from first because I wanted to be like them.
You saw them performing —
Yes, every [Friday] night I watched them and I started slipping from the house, under the counter, because they wouldn’t let me stay there, my people wouldn’t let me stay there, because people drinking rum inside and stuff like that. So I’d be hiding under the counter.
But peeping [in]?
Yeah but peeping through little cracks in the counter, right? And I remember one night I fell asleep there and the people out there couldn’t find me. (Laughing)
Because people were drinking rum and I took some rum off and drink some. (Laughing)
(Laughing) Mr. Malcolm!
Knocked out underneath the bottom — (Laughing)
Oh my gosh — (Laughing)
It was funny because that’s where the interest came from. Then my people, my aunt, she used to play the organ all the time. And be singing hymns and stuff, but we never had electric lights. We used to use a lamp. So I would have to hold the lamp for her and turn the pages. Because she’d read music. She wanted me to learn the keyboard, but for some reason I wasn’t interested. But I started a likkle singing.
I read somewhere that—and you know, most people I think who know about reggae automatically think of Carl Malcolm, the singer, but in fact what I read was that you started — and you’ve been saying — you started with the keyboard is what I read —
Yeah I played keyboard —
And of course — and I want to ask some questions about this later—I know that you have some very impressive drumming credits.
Yeah, but, I played the drums, when they said I recorded [on] [The Melodians’ song “Swing] and Dine”—I see my name with [“Swing] and Dine” —
Yeah I saw that — I was gonna ask about that.
I’m not that good.
So that’s not you!?
That’s not me.
There’s another Malcolm called “Hugh Malcolm.”
Wow! What misinformation is out there online!
He was a drummer[, Hugh Malcolm.]. He’s all over the world, everywhere I go, it’s Hugh Malcolm.
And so let me ask, [and] I might need to return to the question: I saw that drumming credit for the [“Swing] and Dine.” [And then] I saw another one — [another drumming credit for you with] Pat Kelly for [his song] “Butterflies.”
Is that you?
Is that Hugh Malcom again?
That’s Hugh Malcolm.
Okay well I’m glad to clarify this.
So I appreciate that. Now, I also was curious, especially with your father being a police officer, Mr. Malcolm: Was there anyone in your family when you were growing up in the countryside of Jamaica, who was really into music — other than your aunt and [the people in] that [“community”] store you were talking about — were there other people —
— were there other people kind of encouraging you in your passion?
Because they didn’t understand — I started writing poetry, you know, little rhymes on paper. So I used to be a different type of person. Other kids would be playing ball, and I would be in a corner, nobody understood me. You know they would say I’m anti-social; “What’s wrong with him?” My mind was [in] different places, you know? And then I started writing poetry, and then later on I realized these can be turned into songs.
Did anyone who was around you in your family think that being a musician could be a good career choice?
My aunt, she saw some music ability in me but, at those times — she never discouraged me, but — she encouraged me to do what I’m doing but —
— but I think she thought that —
You couldn’t make a career from it?
I don’t know. I don’t know — older people sometimes don’t see.
Does your family —
My mother didn’t like it. She was saying, “Why you want to sing when no one in family is a singer?” They thought that singers come from — have to be — [in] the bloodline.
Oh wow. So they questioned you doing that?
Did your mom ever come to see — did she live long enough to see your success?
No. That hurt, no.
I’m sorry to hear that.
My real mom, well, we weren’t good because we didn’t grow up together, you know? My aunt grew me up and we’d see my mom now and again, because I was living in the country and she was living in the city. So when I went to visit them [it would be] in the city.
What about your aunt? Did she get to—did anybody from the family get to see —
No. They heard my records and were very happy about it, but she didn’t see.
Wow, wow, some hard stories.
Now, do you remember roughly how old you were when you left the country to go to Kingston?
I would say maybe about 20-25.
No, no —
I thought it was younger —
— I was younger. I’m sorry. I think we’re talking about something different here.
When you initially moved — because you were living in, in the country, right?
Mountain side. Yeah because I was born in Black River. I grew up in a place called Hodges Land. Went to school there, about maybe 12-13 I left and came to —
No, to mountain side, on the other side near St. Elizabeth, and then maybe about 17, I came to Kingston.
And did your family support your decision to move to Kingston?
Well yes my aunt supported me because my big sister — my sister, we grew up together, and she — my aunt sent her off, you know, to [the] city to get herself situated, [and] to go to school, and blah, blah, blah, and I stayed back in the country. I got a scholarship to go to high school; I went and tried and got one [at] Stratford High School in Kingston. Beside Studio One, [same area,] around the corner. When I went there, I got to an interview, but I thought it was gonna be a [full] scholarship, you know, that everything was going to be free. When we realized that we had to pay for a lot of stuff — my aunt couldn’t afford that.
Yeah. School, all that stuff [involved with it], it gets expensive [quick].
Yeah, it was disappointing I couldn’t do it.
Do you remember where you lived when you first moved to the city?
I used to stay — my mother used to live in a place called August Town.
Okay, yup, I’ve heard of August Town.
For a little while I stayed at Hermitage which is on top of August Town. So I was bouncing between my sister’s house and my mom’s house.
Father Free Us
Fattie Bum Bum
When you moved, was it for the motivation of just because they’re [were] more economic opportunities in general in Kingston, or was it because of your music career, or was it about both?
I got to move because of trying to go to school — trying to leave the country —
Trying to go to school — that was really more about it?
Yeah it was more about [that] at first. My intention was [also] to break into music, but I realized that if I am in the city, I’d have more opportunities. But I had to be thinking about school first.
Now I read that in the years before your singing career took off, you worked at a shoe factory on Spanish Town Road —
— and served as a reservist in the Jamaican Defense Force [JDF].
Would you say that there were any skills, lessons, or benefits you derived from working those [early] non-music jobs that you would say later helped you [as a musical artist]?
Yes. It was living. At first you had to get something to do.
Yeah you leave school, and you start living — my mom said, “You gotta find a job.” She was working at the same place, Bata shoe company, and she took me down there and I got a job and start[ed] working manufacturing shoes. At the same time I was there, I went and joined the [JDF] reserves. But then again [at] the same time, music started to, started to —
— call me. And there was a band called “Skin, Flesh and Bones”—
I’m gonna ask you about that band.
My friend Al Brown used to be the vocalist. And because we had started little dirt bands here and there in the area; we used to live in Hermitage — between [Milton] “Prilly” Hamilton, Al Brown, and myself, we had a likkle thing called “United Brothers” —
That was the name of a band?
Yeah, that [was a band] we started together. And then we went to Federal [Recording Studios] —
To try and get recorded?
But these two people had a stronger voice than me. I was the one that had the zeal to push, but they had the real voice that people want[ed], people didn’t want my voice.
Al Brown and Prilly.
How do you say his name?
Prilly Hamilton. He used to sing with Third World first.
I’ll have to look him up later.
Yeah man, Prilly, very strong singer. He couldn’t make it with Third World because his type of singing was like concert-type. He wasn’t a versatile-type like Bunny Rugs.
Now I thought that you — I read this — now, again, who knows [whether what] you read [online] these days [is true], but I thought I had read that your first band that your performed in was called “The Volcanoes?”
Yes, that’s the same band. But before that I start[ed] a family dirt-band. A band in a dirt yard, ‘cause we had a little man named Tumpy Lee. He had a little — every evening he ha[d] this little setup: a drummer [with] self-made drums, a bass amp[lifier] — a little band.
And we used to, you know —
Start to play on those instruments?
Yeah because our yard was like [Earl] Chinna [Smith’s], we had a backyard thing, and we used to jam. So that’s where it started. Then I got to The Volcanoes.
Roughly how old [were] you — you think you were 17-18 [when you were] in The Volcanoes?
Yeah 18, maybe I was 19.
Also, legendary drummer Sly Dunbar was part of this band?
Yes. Sly was…Charlie. Charles Dunbar, yeah. (Laughing)
Why do you call him Charlie?
Well he was Charlie — everybody knew him as Charlie.
He got his name because he was —
[A fan of] Sly & The Family Stones?
Yeah he tried to dress like him —
Yeah he really liked him — But people knew [Sly] as Charlie?
His name is [Lowell] Charles [Fillmore] Dunbar.
But people also would refer to him normally as “Charles?” I guess I just —
Only people who know him like me. Only people who knew him. Because by the time he got popular, [people] called him Sly, but we used to know him as Charlie.
When you first joined that band, is that when you first met Sly?
Yeah he was the drummer, and Lynford Harvey, the leader of the band was the guitarist.
And at what gigs and at what places in Kingston would The Volcanoes play mostly?
Tit-for-Tat club on Red Hills Road; we’d play Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday.
I’m sure your family got wind that you started to play [in] these clubs. Did anyone become concerned or worried — I just think about your father, for example —
Well he wasn’t in the picture for a long time. I didn’t even know him that well. Because what really happened: I grew up with my auntie. My auntie’s husband’s [surname was] “Walters.” So when I grew up, my name was “Carlton Walters.” I didn’t even know that this [wasn’t] my mother, and this [wasn’t] my father.
Wow. When did you learn?
When they leave from — when they had a split-up in the relationship. And I had to leave family, that side of country, and go to my aunt’s side of the country.
Do you know how old you were — roughly?
That’s when I would say I was about 17. About 16 or 17.
Did that blow your mind to find [that] out?
Yes! Because when they told me that — when I found out — it was kinda tough because —
I’m sure — had to be.
You’re moving from one school, and they say “Get all the papers,” and then when you go to that school, trying to raise yourself as “Carlton Walters” — you’re not “Carlton Walters” —
It becomes very difficult.
— you’re “Carlton Malcolm.” And then my people didn’t tell me, but luckily I knew that — I knew that — I don’t know what really happened. I got so accustomed to being “Carlton Walters” that I thought that my name was going to be “Carlton Walters” all through life. But when it comes to the legal part of it now, I have to be “Carlton Malcolm.”
And even changing your name is a big thing.
It’s a big thing — big thing.
It’s your identity?
Yeah, you know? But luckily [my family was] so good to me —
You got through it?
Yeah. They were good to me.
Now I have a few questions about this band “Skin, Flesh and Bones” which — I would just encourage anyone who either watches or listens to this interview, just go on YouTube, you know, you put in “Skin, Flesh and Bones,” and you can pull up a whole slew of singles —
— and they’re just some of the [most], I would say unique and great —
— reggae music. But before I get there though, a not unimportant fact about you is — I guess again you were only 19-20, and you can correct me [if I’m wrong], you recorded your first single as a lead singer for famed reggae producer, Clement “Coxsone” Dodd —
That was your first single —
That was my first single.
— a song called “Father Free Us.”
Now personally, I really dig that song. “Father Free Us” which anyone can listen to [on YouTube]; it’s extremely pure [and] conscious and says, among other things, that “Discrimination is wrecking the nation.” Did you write that lovely song specifically with the intention of getting Coxsone to record you? Or had you already written that song —
No — I had that song [already] —
You had that song in your possession —
I had a book called (laughing) [the] “Dictionary of Soul.”
That’s what you called it?
Yeah, [the] Dictionary of Soul.
Wow, that’s [quite] a name, [the] “Dictionary of Soul,” awesome.
And I used to write a bunch of songs [in it]; I’ve written about 1,000 songs in it.
Do you still have that book?
See now — let me ask you this: This is a book that you have in your possession?
Now if they ever had, for example — which I certainly think they should and many have talked about this — a “Reggae Hall of Fame” — like they have a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; let’s say they had a Reggae Hall of Fame on the scale and size of the Rock Hall of Fame in Cleveland [, Ohio] —
If they came to you and they said, “Mr. Malcolm, we wanna have a little Carl Malcolm exhibit [and] we’d like to put that book in there, so that school kids and people through history can come and look [at it]. Would you put it there?
It would have to be preserved. It would have to be [a situation] where they don’t lose it. Because that’s my life. It’s worth more than money to me.
I hear you.
Money couldn’t buy that. It would have to be something that’d be beneficial to another generation.
It would have to be a [museum] that would honor it, treasure it —
Yeah, yeah, yeah, because it’s not about the money.
Sure. And I hope that someday Jamaica — there have been some talks, there have been some writers in Jamaica, one I can think of [named] Emma Lewis, who writes a lot and has been encouraging the Kingston authorities [to] build something on that scale [so] that they can preserve history.
You know, if people could look — I would — if they could look at that [Dictionary] of Soul — wow!
That book has songs that are written from — [let’s] take a little break — let me get that book.
Carl Malcolm’s songbook “Dictionary Of Soul”
(photo courtesy of Carl Malcolm)
Carl Malcolm’s original lyrics for “Father Free Us”
(photo courtesy of Carl Malcolm)
(A short break was taken while Mr. Malcolm went to search for his songbook.)
I’m sorry, man, since I moved out here, I can’t find where everything is packed. (Laughing)
(Laughing) I totally can relate. I just moved too, so I know, I had stuff in boxes. I’m still looking for stuff, Mr. Malcolm. Don’t worry about it. But I do think that book someday will be a very, very important thing for reggae [historians] to [preserve]. Now as I was saying this song, “Father Free Us,” which I encourage people to listen to, I understand from reading some interviews about it that you had the incredible — I’d have to say misfortune, I don’t know if you look at it the same way — of having that song be released, I understand, on the flip side, where on the front side of the record was “Satta Massagana” —
Yeah “Satta Massaganna.”
By the Abyssinians?
Yes. That was a stronger song.
Well yeah — oh my gosh —
That killed my thing, you know, because it started to get a lot of play.
Immediately [I was amazed] when I read that, that you were talking about this, that this happened to you, that you had your first single released as a professional come out on the flip side of what is one of the biggest hits in Jamaica. Because when I interviewed — I don’t know if you know him, but I interviewed [legendary] drummer Santa Davis —
Yeah I know Santa.
And so Santa — I was interviewing Santa about how the Soul Syndicate created the “Stalag 17” riddim, and we were talking about riddims in Jamaican culture and music, and he could not impress upon me enough how when “Satta Massagana” came on in the dancehall, everything, everyone would just mash up.
To return for a second to this band “Skin, Flesh and Bones.” I read somewhere that it was a nightclub band — and while I’m sure you did play a lot of clubs in Kingston —
Yeah, we played a lot of places.
— in the early 70s, this was really quite an impressive band that included such legends as keyboardist Ansel Collins — I think, right — wasn’t Ansel Collins —?
No, it wasn’t Ansel Collins, because what would happen is you’d have two bands, one played at [the] Tit-for-Tat [club]—Skin, Flesh and Bones — and then you’d have another [club called] “The Stables.”
Now that band that Ansel Collins played [in], he played keyboards. Dougie Bryan played guitar, Neville — whatever his name — he played drums, [and] we had a lead singer named “Shake.” Anyway when they were getting together to record, they split —
Oh, I see.
Ansel Collins would come from that band with Sly, Dougie, and Ansel Collins—from that band. From this band you’d have Ranchie McLean on guitar.
Now it’s kind of off of topic, but do you know who formed “Skin, Flesh and Bones?” Who was the leader of the band? Or who started it?
“Skin, Flesh and Bones” was started by Sly [Dunbar].
And did he come up with that great name? Do you know?
I think he came up with that great name because they had a lot of different names for different bands, [like] “Blood, Sweat, and Tears” and things like that.
Yeah. I understand that at some point you met and became friends with Clive Chin. And Clive Chin brought you over, I think, to Randy’s [Recording Studios] —
— which is where, I think, you met [up with] “Skin, Flesh and Bones.” Is that accurate?
No, no. “Skin, Flesh and Bones,” like I said, the two bands — the two sets of bands — the two different bands were with different people, individuals who come together —
And play at different times?
First of all, we used to record as “The Revolutionaries” for Channel One.
I see —
But then again, after “[The] Volcanoes” broke up as a group, they formed their own thing called “Skin, Flesh and Bones.”
Because I remember when they left I went down [to] the country and played “Colony” — something like that — down in the country. I didn’t go with them though. I couldn’t leave and go down there. So they went there. They were working at a hotel down there. And that’s when they formed the band, “Skin, Flesh and Bones.”
Now of course over your, as I started of saying, your nearly fifty years as a professional singer, you’ve accumulated many hit songs during your career, Mr. Malcolm — folks can look this up. But would you agree, Mr. Malcolm, that your three biggest hits — the songs people know you best for around the world — were songs you sang with “Skin, Flesh and Bones?”
Yes because most of [the] songs, like I said, is done by [Lloydie Parks], the bass man — he used to play with Ansel Collins, Sly Dunbar, Ansel Collins, Ranchie MacLean, Dougie Bryan, [and] sometimes Willie Lindo, it all depends. So these are the people I used to —
And reggae historians will know, people who’ll watch [or read] this, who know a lot about reggae, they’ll know —
— even without me saying — but I’ll say it anyway — that I’m referring to a trio of songs almost all Jamaican and U.K. reggae listeners have a familiarity with —
And of course I’m talking about “No Jestering,” which came out in I think 1973 or 1974. And then “Miss Wire Waist,” which was followed by “Fattie Bum Bum” in 1975.
Now there are a number of interviews that, again, folks can easily find on YouTube and [otherwise] online, in which you’ve described your inspiration for writing “Fattie Bum Bum” [and] “Miss Wire Waist,” but less so — not that you’ve never talked about it, but a little less so — about “No Jestering.” So I want to examine that song for just a minute, Mr. Malcolm, but before I do that, if it’s okay with you, it’s a very short song, and if you don’t mind me playing it, I would love to play it. Is that okay?
[“No Jestering” plays in the background.] Did you know it was on this album, “Reggae Christmas?”
(Laughing) Man, it’s on so many [different compilations] —
It is. On a lot.
[Song continues playing.] Do you still sing this song?
Uh-huh. Have to.
Yeah. People must always request it.
Okay I’ve played enough of it just to ask what I want to ask — I know everyone would like to keep listening, but I’m going to respect your time and stop it because I know you’ve heard it (laughing) —
— a zillion times. But when I announced on social media that I was going to be interviewing you, Mr. Malcolm, a radio morning magazine host in Kingston — her name is Sharon Hay Webster — she said — she sent me a message [and] this is to quote her, she said: “Beg him give us the story of “No Jestering.” So that’s exactly what I want to do. I want to ask you to describe how you came up with that classic, one-of-a-kind song.
Okay well it’s like society split people in two categories, one from the upper-class [and] one from the lower-class.
Uptown and downtown?
Uptown-downtown. And if a guy from downtown wants to date a girl from uptown, he wouldn’t be accepted in society — we call them “highty-tighty” (laughing). So you want to check a girl uptown, [but] all the people [are not going to accept you].
Yes but you know, I guess it’s just that the lyrics, for me, for example—I want to get to some of the [song’s] lyrics. Because you know a lot of times I think people who listen to reggae, particularly people who are not Jamaican like myself, we listen to the lyrics, we love them, [but] sometimes we don’t always know what they mean. And sometimes also what I found is that — [reggae songs] are [replete] with Jamaican sayings and things that come up in Jamaica; if you’re Jamaican you know [them], because you heard that growing up.
But if you’re American or from another country, you may not know that —
— and there’s a lot of wisdom in some of these things that you hear in Jamaica. Sometimes [Jamaicans] say things that cut to the core —
But let me ask you [this]: The very first two lines of “No Jestering,” I think are, you correct me if I’m wrong, “Jean’s mother says that I should leave her alone, but how can I do that when I want her in my home.” Was “Jean” a real person or just a random name you chose —
Random name —
Random name, but it fits what I’m singing.
She’s the unsympathetic mother to whom much of the song is addressed?
Yeah who see me, for instance, trying to, you know —
Be with her daughter?
Be with her daughter and she’s saying, “Leave my daughter alone. My daughter’s not even twenty-one.” Something like that.
Yeah, yeah. Now “jester” —
— was the word for the professional joker in the courts of kings and queens in medieval Europe.
And that’s why in the U.S., of course, we have the verb “to jest.” But before this song, this massive hit song you had, I’d never heard the expression “no jestering.” Which I take to be interchangeable with either “no kidding” or —
“I’m not joking.”
Yeah. How did you come to use this great word “jestering?” Is that a word that you came up with, or is that a Jamaican expression I’m not familiar with?
I don’t know, I used to read a lot of books —
And you think you just absorbed that word somewhere?
Possibly. When I’m writing, I think very deep and I try to use words that are intelligent —
— that mean a lot. I don’t like to write songs about “A-B-C, 1-2-3.” I like songs with challenges. Like I said, I’m a poet, I write poetry.
You can tell. But just to be sure, it’s not a “Jamaicanism,” it’s not like something that you’d hear, [like] “Stop jestering!” It wasn’t something like that. It’s something you came up with?
It’s something I came up with.
It’s just amazing.
It became a trend on the street. Everybody started using it —
I started using it with my wife the other day (laughing). So it [can] be very useful.
I was so impressed when I read — you know, this song [“No Jestering”] is so big that singer, songwriter, actress, Bette Midler, covered [it] on her 1976 album “Songs for the New Depression” —
Your song — she covered it on this album — I have to ask you — her album came out in ’76 — so this is [only] a few years after you had released it?
To the best that you recall, did Bette Midler and her representatives approach you ahead of time and pay for the rights to use that song?
They didn’t. They approached Byron Lee. Byron Lee was handling [the] Atlantic label at the time, and they released the song to [the] Atlantic label.
Okay. But I guess what I’m wondering is, did you ever see any money from Bette Midler using your song?
Publishing [royalties]. [Some of my] [p]ublishing [royalties] come from that.
So that was a big boon — you must have been excited when Bette Midler —
Did you know her? Did you realize how big [of a star she is]? Did you realize she’s like a cultural [icon] —
I didn’t even know that she was that big.
— in America.
It’s after that I realized, hey, she’s a big [star], you know?
Yeah — who covered your song. It’s very interesting to listen to Bette Midler’s version — I listened to it last night, I listened to her version — [but] I’m gonna go with your version (laughing). All respect to Bette.
(Laughing) Well mine’s not a version, so….
I mean — yours is the original! (Laughing) So I’d go with the original over her version every day but, you know, respect to Bette. Now, have you ever met or spoken with her by chance?
Would you like to meet her?
Oh yeah, I would love to meet her. She’s a person I admire a whole lot of because of “The Rose” and some of [her other] songs —
— she sings.
— and [her] movies. I like them.
“Beaches.” She’s in that movie “Beaches.” I don’t know if you ever saw that.
Paul: [She sings] “Wind Beneath My Wings” [in “Beaches”].
“Wind Beneath My Wings,” that song —
— that’s right. Thank you. One of the reasons I also asked about Bette Midler and, you know, did they pay for the rights to use the song, is I know with “Fattie Bum Bum” — I think, what I read — is that a British group called “The Diversions” covered “Fattie Bum Bum, and they actually hit the charts with the song — using your song. And I believe, taking money out of your pocket. Is that accurate?
They didn’t take money from my pocket, really. I don’t play that way. They saw an opportunity where they could make some money. Because what really happened, at the time I was recording that song, there was an engineer from England, Peppy Rush, he was in Jamaica at the same time, transferring from 8-track to 16-track recording. Because you know, at first we started using 4-tracks, and then we get to 8-tracks. So we were gonna step to a bigger league now, 16 tracks, that’s big time. When I finished voicing “Fattie Bum Bum,” which wasn’t even completed because at the time when I started that song, that song was like a gimmick. I added two verses and told Clive [Chin], “Look I’m gonna come back, I’m gonna write another verse and then come back and finish this.” Now he heard it, he was working in the studio that night and it kept on playing in his ears, and he said, “Damn!” He was with a band called “The Diversions” in England. So he sent a dubplate or whatever —
Peppy Rush, yeah.
He took the song!?
He took the song!
Did you ever talk to Peppy about that?
No. I didn’t talk to him because you see I’m not the producer. My company will deal with him, you know. Randy’s [Recording Studios), they deal with him. I didn’t deal with him straight up because I’m just a singer —
Were you angry that happened — when you heard that this happened? That they [were] playing your song in England, this other group? “The Diversions” — I’m just curious, I don’t know, I didn’t look them up —
It’s another group —
— is it a white band?
It’s a white band.
So a bunch of white guys —
White guys, yeah.
So did it tick you off that a bunch of white guys —
No, no. I don’t — for me, I don’t get mad [when] people sing my songs.
In some ways it’s a credit [to you]?
First of all, it’s a credit. And I look back, if it don’t sound good, I say, “Man, why they mess my song up like that?” But if it sounds good, I like it.
Carl Malcolm (photo courtesy of Carl Malcolm)
Carl Malcolm (photo courtesy of Carl Malcolm)
Now I read too, and I have to ask — I wasn’t going to ask you, but when I read it I could see it in my eyes — when you described, I think, I’m not sure, it may have been with [reggae interviewer] Angus Taylor where you described this, but “Fattie Bum Bum” was such a huge hit — it was on the charts, I think, for like two months in the U.K., and you went [and performed] on the “Top of the Pops.”
Yeah. Top of the Pops, yeah.
It was a show that I think was very, very popular in the U.K., and my understanding from listening to you—or reading you — talk about this experience is that you were kind of wet, you were too young to know how to —
[How to multiply] the volume — the magnitude of the song.
You said something that I think I read, where you said you didn’t know to shake your hips to — like an Elvis — to sort of get the people going (laughing) —
Yeah, yeah. So I didn’t do good on that. Because what really happened [is] everything happened in a hurry. When [Peppy Rush] sent the record to England and the other group did it over overnight —
“The Diversions,” yeah.
They started to ride the chart. And then when my company heard that, they said, “No, no, this can’t happen. Come on, let’s go.”
They put you on a plane from Kingston to the U.K.?
They took me over there without any practice. And they should have never sent me out there without Sly [Dunbar]. That was my band.
But they took me out there and sent me out there with this sixty-piece orchestra who didn’t know anything about reggae — all they knew is about music.
Oh my gosh! Wow.
And they had the music scores and stuff that they sat down in front of. So I felt like —
You shouldn’t give yourself a hard time about that because —
Yeah because I mean —
— I didn’t know that from reading [online about you], Mr. Malcolm, that that’s what happened.
That’s what happened.
Of course you couldn’t —
I couldn’t perform properly—I wasn’t good. It was a letdown.
Yeah. I could see that. Man. So unlucky.
And [then] a lot of people started canceling contracts [that they had with me].
So unlucky because your career could have exploded from that point.
Yeah it could have exploded. But because I didn’t perform right on that stage right there—
They didn’t have the support that you needed.
They didn’t have the support that I needed.
Now I have a few [additional] questions also to ask about “Fattie Bum Bum.” I mean it’s such a unique song, and again I’d like to, if it’s okay, just with your permission — it’s a very short song —
— I’ll just play the song because I think there is a pretty big dispute about what some of the lyrics are to “Fattie Bum Bum.” So I want to check with you. (Playing “Fattie Bum Bum”) Okay now, Mr. Malcolm, you sing on “Fattie Bum Bum”: “Now not because you’re so big and fat, don’t believe I’m afraid of that.” But it’s the next verse I struggle with — and I think you sing, “Self-praise is —
“I’m the king from creation.”
I’m the king from creation.
Okay I love this lyric, but at the same time, I have to confess, I’m not exactly sure what you mean by that.
What do you mean by that? I love it. “I’m the king from creation.” [But] what does it mean?
Okay. Self-praise is no recommendation — I’m not praising myself —
That I get —
I’m the king from creation. That means I’m the master of what I can do.
Nice. Nice. Respect. Now by the same token, later in “Fattie Bum Bum,” there’s another part of it where you sing—now I have to tell you this, because it just happened today, too. There’s a guy in Jamaica, in Kingston. He is very knowledgeable about reggae. And he’s written a book about reggae in fact. His name is Wayne Chen. And so he posted on your birthday, okay, [on his Twitter account]—he posted this — and I’ll just show it to you. He [wrote] “Fattie Bum Bum,” and then see how he wrote it: “Doh mi woulda look like mouse pon a one dollar bread —
— I wouldn’t stop trying —
I wouldn’t stop trying until I drop down dead.
And then he wrote, “1975 U.K. top ten hit. They had no idea what he was saying. Carl Malcolm, singer born 74 years ago today on 18 July 1946”—he got it right, in terms of your birthdate — “in Black River.” And then he posted a bunch of photos [of] you.
(Looking at photos) Yeah.
And I also want to note, he said [via tweet]: “Please give Carl my best regards. His records were memorable backdrops for good times back in high school.”
But I was curious, so that’s what [Wayne Chen] says the lyrics [are]. Online, if you look, it says [on a number of websites]: “Don’t need to look like a mouse on a one-dollar bread, I wouldn’t stop trying ‘till I drop down dead.” Okay —
[Singing] Doh mi would look like — Doh mi would look like — [that’s] patois —
— instead of saying “Although I would look like —
I see. Does [Chen] spell it right? Has he got it right, “D-o-h m-i—”
Yeah you can [do it like that]. “Doh” means “although.” “Although I would look like—”
I still have to ask more about this verse because I love it so much. What does it mean? What does it mean? Because again, like [Wayne Chen was] saying—they[, folks in the U.K. listening to the song when it was first released,] — had no idea what [you] were saying. I have no idea what you’re saying. What does it mean to “look like a mouse pon a one-dollar bread?”
Okay. Here’s a one-dollar bread (showing dimensions with hands). Big like this. Here’s a likkle mouse on top of that (showing dimensions of a little mouse on top of the much bigger bread) (laughing).
Oh — (laughing) Now I understand! Now that’s Jamaican. (Laughing)
A Jamaican saying.
There’s no way you’d know that unless you’re from Jamaica.
Yeah man, definitely.
You know [I wonder] how many people have [sung] this song and have no idea what they’re singing [about], Mr. Malcolm?
(Laughing) For years I get the exact same question: “What did you say again? What did you say?”
Oh gosh, this is so funny. Now switching gears, Mr. Malcolm, and again thank you so much for the time. I want to fast forward past your 1977 hit song “Repatriation” with Ranking Trevor — when I say I want to pass over it, just because of time. But I want to recommend to everyone to go and listen to that song. It’s quite a song. A very, very conscious song. But you moved—it was after that song [was released that] you moved I believe from Jamaica to the United States. Or sometime after that — is that true?
I did that [song in Jamaica] before I came here [to the United States].
But it wasn’t long after that that you moved to the States, is that right?
It wasn’t long after.
Okay. Now there’s an extremely impressive feature article that was written in the Washington Post — I sent this to you — in 1986 —
I mean I was blown away because, even today, you’d never see such an article written about a reggae star. I mean you hardly ever — in the Washington Post! So I was like, “Wow, Carl Malcolm, he must have, when this [article] came out, it must have been a big deal —”
(Laughing) It was a big deal, yeah.
People should look this up. It’s written by Mike Joyce. It’s an article reggae historians need to read. Now this article gives you a tremendous amount of credit, Mr. Malcolm, with making reggae popular in the early 1980s in the Washington, D.C. area.
The article mentions — [and] I think you talked about performing at the Kilimanjaro nightclub. I lived — as I told you, I grew up in this area. But I think I was too young. I wasn’t yet into my reggae mode — I would go to festivals but I wasn’t going to clubs — I was too young. But what were the big clubs that you recall playing — other than the Kilimanjaro? What clubs and venues – if you’re playing reggae music in the D.C. area, where were the big spots to play reggae?
If you were playing reggae music [in the D.C. area] — the big spots — if you don’t [play] Kilimanjaro, you’re not rated. That was —
Yeah that was the spot. The other clubs were smaller clubs, you know?
Okay. So all the big reggae stars, when they came [to the D.C. area], the Kilimanjaro —
That’s where they came. People from Africa. People from all over the world, the biggest stars, came to perform there. So it was an honor performing there.
The article [in the Washington Post by Mike Joyce] discusses your band “Positive Vibration,” which as you told me is still in existence today —
Yes it is.
It hasn’t ended.
Playing more limited venues —
But this band which includes your lovely wife Aneeta — who I met today – and your son Tyrone, you guys would play all over the D.C., Maryland, Virginia area — and you guys would back great reggae artists who’d come through?
Yeah we started backing in the old days—like for Sanchez, before he had his own band. We backed Josey Wales. We backed Tiger [Cat, and Louie Culture]. We backed everybody who used to come through town.
You just started to answer — my next question was going to be: Do you remember, who were some of the most memorable people that you backed?
And those are some memorable names.
Yeah those are some of people we backed. [And there was] Terror Fabulous, Jigsy King, and wow, Tony Curtis, in his younger days, you know —
Wow. I think that the Washington Post article mentioned you were on the same stage — I think it was Barrington Levy that day —
— at Banneker Field.
At Banneker Field, yeah, we were.
I’m sure whenever [big reggae stars] came through they’d call up Positive Vibration.
As a backing band, yeah.
Now did Positive Vibration ever try touring in California or —
You know we went to California one time we went down there — [to] Bakersfield.
Yeah. Why Bakersfield?
I don’t know. I got a contract to play down there. They had a soccer tournament.
Wow that would not be the part of California that I would imagine that you would be in. (Laughing)
(Laughing) I know.
That’s a fairly conservative part of Calif —
(Laughing) It’s hot!
It’s hot as the desert. There’s a big desert there.
Yeah man I went out from the hotel, went outside the front door — (laughing) and I saw that heat. And I went back in the hotel and said, “No I can’t go,” you know?
So you’re not going to be going back to Bakersfield anytime soon?
Well maybe. (Laughing) I’m not in a hurry.
But you know I ask because — maybe I’m biased just because I’m actually now — I consider myself a Californian —
California seems such a more friendly — maybe I’m wrong about this — market for reggae than maybe the D.C., Maryland [area]?
Definitely. Wherever there’s tropical weather it’s always more friendly for reggae.
I just think if you had landed — if fate had brought you to, for example, Los Angeles —
— that Positive Vibration — you’d have a bigger name probably?
Yeah I had a lot of offers to go there, you know, but at the time it was between flying the group down there or driving for days. It would take me a whole week to drive down there and do a show or two, [then] drive back. Killing a week or two. And the money wasn’t going to be right because of traveling expenses for six people on the road—and all these things you know, considerations. Depends on what they want to pay. They didn’t want to pay that much.
That makes sense.
[They would offer] to fly Carl Malcolm down there. But I wouldn’t go without my band.
Yeah. And your band in this case is — most [musicians], I think, feel that their band is their family. In this case, your band is actually really your family.
They’re a part of me, yeah.
I mentioned — the reason I brought up when I saw these drumming credits that you had [listed for you online]—and I’m glad we cleared that up about some of these [songs] they have [incorrectly attributed to you] online, where it was Hugh Malcolm doing the drumming. I guess I mentioned Pat Kelly [too], because you know — did you know Pat Kelly?
He passed not too long ago. I guess it’s been about a year now, and I know this because he was very good friends with Scientist.
Yeah Pat Kelly used to be one of the engineers down at Randy’s —
Oh, watch out! You have a spider right here. On your shoulder. There you go.
(Brushing off spider) Okay. [Pat Kelly] used to be an engineer at Randy’s.
So you knew him from [his] being an engineer.
Yeah in fact I know that because — the reason why I know that, and the reason why I actually once got to speak with Pat Kelly was because Scientist, while I was interviewing him —
— the first time I met Scientist, I was interviewing him at a Thai restaurant, and I started asking him about some of those old recording days, and he called Pat Kelly in Jamaica on the phone! He said, “Pat, I’m talking to Cooper here, he wants to ask me — remember those days, Pat, when you were recording the ‘A’ side [of the record] and I’d do the ‘B’ side?” Or maybe I have it flipped? It was very sad when Pat passed. I was listening to his music recently. One of [his] songs that I would encourage everyone [to listen to] — it’s a song called “Good Day.” Which just talks about how if you wake up and see the sun, and [maybe] feel Jah breeze, it’s been a good day.
So I think about that a lot these days as life has gotten heavy. And I think about Pat Kelly and how he passed. And Scientist. Because Scientist [is the one who] has connected me with so many people, and as you know, it seems unlikely I would be here [today] talking to you —
— without the benefit of knowing Scientist. [And] him so graciously connecting me with you.
Scientist is big around here, man. Everybody knows about Scientist. He was one of the most —
Did you end up doing any work with Scientist or did you just know him?
Yeah man, I can say that, boastingly, when Scientist used to live in New York and I was doing an album down here — and I brought him here to come and mix me down. Yeah I brought him into this area.
So they didn’t really know about Scientist until you brought him down here.
A lot of people knew about him, but a lot of artists around weren’t doing that, you know what I mean? Artists would record in Jamaica and come up here. But I started to record up here—and [a lot] of the music being done in America didn’t have the body, didn’t have the weight — they couldn’t get that authentic sound, no matter what I did. So I brought Scientist down from New York.
I love watching Scientist work and I can’t wait for the pandemic to end because I’ve been fortunate, every now and then—when the pandemic ends I hope he’ll invite me again — he’s invited me to the studio to watch him work. And no one has [sound quality] standards like him.
Man, he’s different.
He’s a different kind of guy — just a special guy. Now Mr. Malcolm we’ve talked for quite a while. And I only have a few last questions. I hope that someday in the future, maybe we can meet up again—there’s more questions, you have so many songs, such a catalogue —
And you know so much about reggae. And you’re such a nice guy. I’d love to come and talk to you one more time. But for today, just a few final questions. Mr. Malcolm, we talked a lot about some of your old, famous music. And of course I know that you’re still making music today —
Even recently I think people were saying you’ve kinda had a bit of a resurgence. In 2018, you released a track called “Life’s Sweet” which folks should go listen to. Beautiful song. Produced by Willie Lindo. And then as we were talking [about] before the interview started, just last year before the pandemic shut [everything] down, you performed at Rebel Salute in Jamaica. You said, as you told me, that you worked the whole time you were there.
And more recently, you released a melancholy, funny, and sad song. It’s called “Deeper Pocket.” Which folks should check out on YouTube — there’s an official video. It’s about a woman who is basically bleeding her man’s pockets dry —
And [it’s] about capitalism. Now are there any other new projects in 2021, Mr. Malcolm, and beyond that that the reggae world should be on the lookout for — from you?
Well I got a bunch of [tracks] out there. One’s called “Just See Them.” I did that for Willie Lindo—that’s out there. One called “Daddy,” that’s out there too, and [as you said] “Life’s Sweet,” and [then] “Deeper Pocket.” And I’ve got some more things I’m working on right now. Just recently, a brother I met in England, Papa Crook, he did over “No Jestering.”
Wow, I’ll have to google that; I’ll have to go find that one.
Yeah man, [there’s] a nice likkle video.
I’ll have to go check that out. And then finally Mr. Malcolm, [one] last question for you. Do you have a final message—you have so many fans. Like I said, you know, people in Jamaica, they find out I’m gonna be interviewing you, because you’ve been in the United States for so long, they wish they could have a little bit more Carl Malcolm in their lives. But what message do you have for all your many fans around the world who, you know, wish they could see you, wonder what you’re up to, and are thinking about you?
I’m still kicking. I’m doing well. They may not hear [from] me every day, but I’m doing good. When the time comes, they’ll see me. When the right time comes. Everything takes time, you know? As soon as [the pandemic] is over and then we can get to more —
Bring the music and the people back?
Well Mr. Malcolm, again, thank you so much. And I hope not only that I’ll interview you again, but that I’ll see you perform live.
Yeah man, one of these days.