Interview with Johnny Clarke
The 50s to the Early 70s (Part I)
03/16/2018 by Angus Taylor
Angus Taylor sat down one Sunday with Johnny in a beautiful garden near the singer’s home in Kingston, Jamaica. There he found a man more jovial and talkative – and far more pragmatic and business-like – than his stern Rasta image might suggest.
Where in Kingston where you born and where did you grow?
The same place I was born is where I grew. I was born in the Whitfield Town area which is Kingston 13. I attended Rousseau primary school as a kid and then I went on to Jamaica college just up the road here. When I left I was working with a company named Grace Kennedy just down by Harbour Street down in Kingston – because the manager of Grace was also the chairman for Jamaica College, most of the youths that left school ended up at Grace Kennedy.
I used to do billing. Not accounts but billing. Grace Kennedy did a lot of food production. They are the top productive company here and they’ve been around for years now. And they do supermarkets, farming, food stuff. They’re involved in a lot of things. Even in money transfer, like Western Union. They are really some top people here in this country.
You were awarded a scholarship to Jamaica College.
Yes, I went there on that basis. But, actually I didn’t make it to the top academically. Going to Jamaica College means that you would elevate yourself to getting through with O-levels, A-levels, university, doing degrees and so on. I left school, and Grace Kennedy was the company that was responsible for some of the kids who didn’t go on further. They left school but they still wouldn’t be out on the street because they would have a job straight after school. Grace Kennedy would fill that vacuum.
Your older brother was a Rastaman. Was that how Rasta came into your life?
Yes, yes. My big brother at home. And yet he was not a locks man. He didn’t carry locks. But he’d speak a lot about Rastafari. And as a kid I grew up hearing that. My big brother plus his friends that came to visit, they would always speak of Rastafari. So that’s how that was inside of me. He was so into it that he sometimes did have the volume come out loud! “Rastafari!” He would yell at times. “Rastafari!” “Selassie I!” Especially when there were rainy times and the thunder was rolling, lightning was flashing, to him that was the time he was ready for, he’d gather strength.
My mum now she was like a totally different on a different side. She was majorly focusing on Christianity. Going to the church with we, as kids, singing along with her on Sunday. She would never miss church. You’d go to school in the morning, you’d come home and then in the afternoon – church right back until the night.
My brother now he was the opposite. He was not into that. He was a Rastaman but then again he was a lot older than me. So as a kid I used to have to sit with mum. Because my bigger brother now he could stand on his own but although we would all live under the same roof but he was like the elder one who was working when I was more stuck in at home with mum. So when it was time for church I had to go and run along with mum. Because she was not leaving me.
I remember when I was a kid my mum will take me to church and I wanted to sleep, so she usually spread some things on the floor and I would be lying there sleeping while everybody else in the church was going on with praising God and spirituality and hallelujah! And I was just there, a kid under her feet, lying on the floor snoring. And then when everything was all done and over she took me up now ready to go home now.
And what mum used to do to on a Sunday was this… I liked fudge. You know the fudge man? On a Sunday, cream cakes and all that sort of thing. You know if you went to church with her you were going to get a fudge. On a stick. I used to like fudge and she knew that. But if I didn’t go I wouldn’t get any fudge. (Laughs)
Did you do any singing in the church?
Oh yes! That’s where it all started. Although to tell you the truth we did a lot more in school. It was a blessing going to Jamaica College because as a young kid just entering the first form, the elder boys, in the lunch period break time, they would search for the younger kids who are just starting school and they would have to sing for them. And that’s the only school in Jamaica that did that. There were other schools like KC, Woolmers and all of that, what they would do is they would hold your two hands and your two feet and bomb you. They called it bombing. One guy would hold your two hands and the next I would hold your feet and they would bomb you on the ground. But JC didn’t do any bombing – you would have to sing! (Laughs)
Ian Lewis from Inner Circle told me that at JC they had a tradition called candle-waxing where if you sang well you didn’t get candle-waxed. He said you were a good singer so that didn’t happen to you.
Oh? (Laughs) Yeah, he was a bigger boy. When I went to JC he was already there. He was two years ahead of me. I went there in ’67 and I saw Ian there so he was possibly there from ’65. Or ’66 roundabout there.
But you sang for the older boys and they liked what you did?
Yeah! I was like the top. I went to do an old boys event in Canada and I met people who are going to JC from 1934. Because I did something for the Old Boys Association in Toronto they flew me in. It was to raise funds for computers and so on. And the other guys who were there my time they were saying to me I was like a saviour for them because [the older boys] needed all the boys to sing but when they found out that I was the cream of the crop they started ignoring them! So all eyes focused on me now. When it was lunchtime they were looking for me! So they were like “Alright we’re not worried” because it’s me they were looking for. We were having that discussion in Toronto the other day.
So you were at school with the people who would become Inner Circle and Third World.
Yeah, Inner Circle and Third World. Because Ibo Cooper was there too. He was elder than even Ian because I think in those times he was even in the sixth form, like a prefect. And the son of Carlton Alexander, the manager for Grace Kennedy, Teddy Alexander he was in my time. And this other person who was running for politics the other day named Peter Blake. He was in my time also.
Can you tell me a bit about your other brother Eric who was a drummer – and went to Alpha Boys School?
Oh! Well he was also a motivator because he went to Alpha Boys School and he would come home on holidays because he was boarding there. First he was at Maxfield Park, he went on to Alpha and he’d usually come home at Christmas time to spend time with the family. At Alpha, they would do a lot of sport as well and he was a good goalkeeper. He could keep goal and play football. But he was mainly focusing on music so when he would come home he would usually come home with a musical vibes.
And then my other brother now, which was a bigger one than the one I told you about who was yelling out “Rastafari!”, he was connected to a group where it was him and two other guys. They would usually congregate around the house corner when I was young and you’d hear “Woo woo, aah aah”. They were just practising harmonising. They were more focusing on the group type of thing.
And my other one who was in Alpha he wasn’t really a drummer as such, at first he was doing singing. So I didn’t even know he could play the drums. It was after he left Alpha school that he was more focusing in the music territory. Because there was a certain area in those days where mostly musicians would congregate. Like Downtown Kingston. Orange Street, where you’d have Prince Buster up top, you had Bunny Lee down there, you had Joe Gibbs, you have Randy’s, you had Miss Pottinger.
Yeah, Idler’s Rest. So that’s where he mainly was focusing. Because a lot of his friends like Horsemouth Wallace, he was at Alpha, and a lot of other people who came into the music were at Alpha also. So they always tended to follow each other. Wherever one would go, they were all there. So I just found myself knowing how to sing but I needed to take it to a higher level. I knew that I could sing, so why not try just get myself recorded? It would be bad for me to be a good singer – I wouldn’t say great yet in those times – but to be a good singer sitting alone by myself – that’s selfish. I thought it should be known. It should be spread out there.
And one way, the route, the vehicle to take you there was to get yourself in the headquarters area downtown, mingle with the musicians and the producers, from one to the next. Because they were all in the same area: Clancy Eccles, Rupie Edwards up the road, Glenn Brown over the corner. Then you had Randy’s who had a studio, Joe Gibbs, so they’re all around in the same region. And then you had Downbeat Coxsone up the road and then you had Duke Reid again around the corner, so if it was not one it was the next. So I kept moving around until eventually I found Bunny Lee.
Is it true that you nearly recorded for Coxsone?
Yes, because Jacob Miller was like my sparring partner. We usually sparred together. He was the kind of person that you would have as a troublemaker! If you would spar with him you’d have to prepare to try and run! Because he would make worries. Throw things. Like if he would see a mango he would just take it up and throw it under a bus or throw it upon a man and then we would have to run because the man would come and check and look for you! But it was just like a joking thing to have a kind of fun.
Normally he could go to Downbeat on a regular basis because he wasn’t really attending school at the time in those days for your parents the music wasn’t a top priority. The music wasn’t on top of their list as far as success is concerned. They sent you to school to become a lawyer or a doctor or some high academic-al person educationally-wise. So I had to go to Studio One when I got the time after school. When I went there he found out that my voice was in the category of being recorded so he called to Bob Andy and he said “Bob, come over. I want you to see if you can write a tune for this youth here”.
But I couldn’t be there every other day because I had to go back to school and all of that. So it never went to anywhere. I didn’t really know their procedure because it was long after that I learned that Downbeat was a place where you have to be there. That’s why I say we came into the business when it was harder. The people in the days of rocksteady they had it easier. The reason why which turned out better for we now was because in those times most of the songs were given to them, adopted songs, overdone songs.
Right! So very few of them came with original stuff. But when I came into the business I didn’t have that luxury. Because what they were asking for, they didn’t want to hear a song that they had been hearing playing around the place. They wanted creative stuff. Original stuff. That’s what they said to you. All the producers would say “Make sure you’re coming with the song that we have never heard before”. Which is an original song. Which now pays off because…
Because of the publishing.
Right! So if you were doing over a song that was done in America those are the people who were going to be claiming. So it worked out good for me now and the producers were doing good for us.
Can you tell me about some of the talent contests that you entered during that early time?
In those days it wasn’t like recording time, those days were live shows, amateur, in those little small clubs. Those little clubs where artists who don’t have a name yet. And that’s why this guy named Tony Mack is so important in the thing because he would search for people who he would see had a talent, so he could groom you but you still didn’t reach the stage of being a recording artist. I started being a recording artist was when I went to Clancy Eccles. No… I went to Federal where I met a guy named Steer and he was an engineer at Federal. He did a song with me there but it wasn’t released or anything like that. I had my first experience going around microphone.
Do you know what the song was called?
Wow. It was just a little freestyle thing. In those days maybe those little things were good songs but the competition was so high. In those times Clancy Eccles and Rupie Edwards, Sunday evenings there would be auditions. You would go up to Halfway Tree and Rupie would sit there and he would have Flabba Holt playing the guitar and then Shorty the President would stand beside him. You would have a lot of people in the yard like upcoming artists like Barry Brown, Sugar Minott was there with a group named African brothers with Tony Tuff and another guy. And they had the Diamonds who I can remember, and you had Jah Woosh.
Every Sunday was an audition and the yard would pack up with the artists who wanted to become singers. One by one you would go before the producer and you would sing your song and let him hear it. And he’d listen to it and he would say “Bwoy, it sound like a song that I heard“ or he’d say “I think you need a chorus” or “I think you need some verses” and he would send you back and say “Come back in a month’s time but change that verse”. I was so lucky when I started with (sings) “Julie, don’t you know, every day you’re wondering”. “Oh bwoy! You go up there!” I was like chosen! To standby myself. Because each person they chose they would go in a separate corner and then they would listen to the next person.
Rupie Edwards was sitting on the stool as the producer, listening to the artists so he would know which songs sounded like he could really take it to the studio. Mainly he would need two songs because in those days usually you would have to turn over the record and you would have another song on the other side. Because I came into it before the version flip side. There was a time when you’d turn over the other side of the 45 and you would have another song that is not really as good as the A. So the producers would mainly be interested in two songs because you needed to have another song on the other side.
So that’s how we came into the thing with a great testing. It wasn’t just run in there, you know? You had to be doing the thing and you had judges who were listening to you and if you’re being chosen he would listen he would say “Yeah, you can get yourself ready for next week going to the studio”.
Can you tell me a bit more about the work you did for Clancy Eccles and Rupie Edwards?
Yeah, well Clancy now I would say is the man who decided to give me a break still. After moving around. Because Bunny Lee – that came after. Because in those days if you were living in the country it would be harder for you to come to Kingston to be involved and start doing recording. But I was at the headquarters day after day. When I left my home I was there. So I just got connections because through Clancy all of the people were right there.
Clancy he got to know me and he heard me sing a song God Made the Sea and Sun. He liked it so he said I should come up to Harry J that night. I went and he gave me a bly and we did that song. He gave me a break but it was just on a test press label. White label. He never had a label printed out or all of that. So I never knew if it was that serious and he just gave me a try but then again the competition was on a high.
Those days, the people who were singing were really professional. So if you were going to be coming with a little ordinary thing a man was going to ignore it. He might take you to studio but he was not going to have it as his top thing because of the heights that it was. On top, top, top. He was looking for the pass mark then that was above 50 or 60. So if you came with 50 or 60 you might get yourself in the studio but it won’t be recognised as far as releasing is concerned. So that’s where it got stuck on the white label.
Rupie Edwards also did that, but what saved me now with Rupie Edwards was a man named King Tubbys. Rupie Edwards was now linking with Tubbys, and Tubbys was a man who like to play the songs that were not so popular. He liked to play songs that were not being heard on the radio every day. Because if you’re going to leave your house and go to a dance and hear some songs that you’ve heard playing on the radio it’s not so much interest. The reason why Tubbys was so highly respected is because the songs that he played, you wouldn’t stay at home and hear them. He wanted to play songs that are not going to be released yet.
Dubplates and so on. So that’s how Wondering was the first tune that hit in the dancehall. Because in those days the radio was mainly focusing on R&B, American music. When you’d go on FM you’d get some real American Stylistics and Chi-Lites and the Supremes. But the reggae music, the reason you’d usually hear Studio One and Treasure Isle was because those programmes were being paid for. Like a special hour, like 9 to 10 you’re going to have the Treasure Isle or you’re going to have Studio One. So you’d have to be paid to have a programme on there.
When I was downtown at Idlers Rest I had brethren. Because I never lived downtown. All the way in Waltham Park, Kingston 13, Whitfield area. But downtown now was a lot of excitement because you had a place named Dragon Gym on the south side and when you’d go to a dance there, the dance was a crowd of people. Full up! They recognised in those days, they usually loved hearing the sound. King Tubbys was playing there one night but I did not attend that dance. So when I came to downtown the next morning some of the brethren who went to the dance came to me and said “Bwoy, you should’ve heard Tubbys last night – the man draw your tune and the whole place!” Every Day Wondering, he drew it, he played it at Dragon Gym and something developed.
Early 70s To The 80s (Part II)
03/23/2018 by Angus Taylor
In part 2 of our exclusive interview with Johnny Clarke he recalls his 70s heyday and shares some surprising insights about his career. He explains that his tendency to hang around studios – which earned him the nickname “studio idler” – was not lackadaisical but a business strategy that facilitated his big break. He also says, despite being a roots artist associated with the vinyl era, he was happy when records stopped pressing in Jamaica…
How did you leave Rupie Edwards and start working with Bunny Lee? Rupie went to England?
Yes, he went to England after he did this song that even went into the British charts. I got connected with Bunny Lee. I was with Rupie singing all those songs but he didn’t give me the promotion. He was not promoting me like putting my name on it. Rupie had his label Success but when you look on the record you didn’t see any name like Johnny Clarke. He never put my name on it. So I was still searching to move same way until there were better men around. Because as they say “good better best”. So I still had more to go. More to do.
So the song Wondering, Bunny went to England and heard it was having a bounce. People were talking about my name “This young youth Johnny Clarke” so he came back to Jamaica and decided to search for me. He came and saw me at Idlers Rest, him and this guy named Blackbeard. He said “Bwoy, Johnny Clarke, the people in England love you because they hear this tune on your riddim with Rupie Edwards”. Wondering is the tune where it showed them the potential in me. This youth could do more. So he was the man who was instrumental in following the instruction of what he was getting from England, so he carried me to do a tune by the name of My Desire.
So this was the session that became None Shall Escape the Judgment?
Yeah. Because finding yourself amongst a man like Bunny Lee is when you would be there and bleeching out for nights upon nights without even singing a song. Because they would have there Slim Smith, Delroy Wilson, you would sometimes have Stranger Cole, you would have a man like Derrick Morgan popping in. You would have people like Pat Kelly, then John Holt would’ve been on top. And then you even have a female singer like Hortense Ellis or Doreen Schaffer.
So you’d have a lot of people there who meant that you was a young youth, you would have to become very good. Because he would have trust in people who were more established than yourself. Who would have made a name, so the people would already know them. Because remember – it’s all about investing. It’s all about taking a chance. In those days it’s not like now when they’re already okay in life having money and all of that, so they’re just using it as an outside type of thing. In those days a man would be going to the studio because he would hope to have a house and a car. So he would try his best to make a good tune because he would look for what he can get out of it. And plus he would have to be spending too, studio time and musicians so you have to think about your profit, what can you get after what you spend?
So the people who were established would get first choice. Because he would feel he could have trust in those people there. So you have to do as a young youth coming into this, you have to be there every time. You never know when it’s your night – because it was mostly night-time – but a lot of the time when we went to studio you didn’t get a chance because there was some other artist there who he would figure they’d want to do a tune.
So how did you get to record?
The reason why I got a tune was because I went to this studio – Duke Reid Treasure Isle. There was no one. You had certain studios where a lot of artists would turn up. So if you found there were a lot of artists turning up there’d be a very slim chance you’re going to get a chance to do something. But if you go to a studio that a lot of artists don’t frequent then you don’t have a lot of competitors there. It’s just like you and a few. Duke Reid was like an experiment. Because Duke Reid was running out of fashion. Because with the rocksteady and the Melodians or the Paragons, the new studios were coming into the thing like Harry J, Channel One, Randy‘s and Federal and Dynamics who were West Indies Records before. Even Coxsone. Because Coxsone used to do his own thing. But Treasure Isle, Duke Reid, he never really had a lot of artists who stuck around with him. Coxsone did have more of that.
So Bunny Lee would usually get time from Duke Reid because he was also a distributor for Duke Reid. He used to take around records and Duke used to use him to carry and make him go deliver. So Bunny Lee could get time at the studio. Bunny Lee was the type of producer who likes to experiment, try different places, so Duke Reid was one of the places where he would try.
When I went that morning I was so desperate, Because I had been to a lot of the sessions and never got through. I went in, bleeched for the whole night and never got to do a song because other artists were there. So when he decided that he was going to be recording at Duke Reid I went early! I was the first person who went and opened the gate. Duke Reid studio is like on top, when you go up. I remember Errol Brown, he is the one who went to the Wailers after. But when I went there, I was there early in the morning so I went and sat on top of the stairs at the door. The entrance to the studio was where I was sitting waiting for it to open.
And you know what happened that morning? All the pigeons, the birds they came and they flew and they were around me. Lots of pigeons all around me picking up this and that! And you know what happened? Duke Reid came that morning and he pulled the gate and he looked up and he saw me and he came up on the step and said “Bwoy, I hope you’re not trying to thief none of my pigeons them, you know?” And I said to him “No Duke man, my boss, I couldn’t go do that. Me ah take care of them sir“. Yeah, I can remember. (Laughs)
Duke Reid studio was the studio where people never carried a sound anymore for the reggae. But we decided that we were still going to try. Go down there because they still have the studio there – it was just that most people were diverting to other places. But we went to studio to do that song My Desire and there was a group there who were with a guy named Earl Zero. With Chinna.
Yeah! They had designed the rhythm but they weren’t planning with this flying cymbal. They tried a thing because in those days when you were at studio you would flex your muscles just to work out before we’d start the real thing. When they hear red light it is recording time. So he was still playing and he wanted to change what he was practising. So we decided “No man, what you are playing before is what this tune needs!“ The hisss hisss. Because he was just opening up the high-hat like to free up the thing like hisss hisss. And that was what was recorded.
And it was such a blessing because Duke had some top musicians who were strictly bass players like a man like Familyman who was playing piano. Because if you notice he can play (sings piano part) on the tune None Shall Escape the Judgement.
Yeah, they can tell you. Errol Brown was the engineer and that was a new thing. Duke Reid heard it from downstairs and came up and said “Yes!” and started dancing down the whole place and he had a gun and he fired a shot! In the wall! Said “This one ah bad!” Pow! But it was just a joke he would make still. Through him feeling happy – he loved it. He loved to know that we got a tune from him because remember people weren’t going to his studio again. Everybody was like “Duke Reid studio? Cho!” And a little young youth came and got a hit tune from it. So long after all those Paragons and rocksteady, I think that was the first reggae hit tune made at Duke Reid studio since rocksteady, his time and Downbeat’s time, because all those Paragons, Alton, Ken Boothe were rocksteady. And from rocksteady days I wasn’t involved – I was like a school youth.
Ken Boothe and them, when I was a youth going to school I would punch all the tunes man, on the jukebox. A little young youth! But a lot of those songs I thought they were all mostly original, because I didn’t hear of the original. It’s only now that they’re playing some of them on the radio and they’re playing back some of the old Delfonics songs like (sings) “You were seen running round with him again” and some other tunes you heard that were done where we never knew it was a cover. But as it wasn’t popular a lot of people never knew, so we thought it was original. But you couldn’t get any publishing from it!
So it was like an experiment and PR, because None Shall Escape the Judgement was the first hit tune to come out of Duke Reid studio after years! And one of the tunes that came after was Love Is Overdue because GG was a producer who liked to record Gregory Isaacs. Because producers usually like to find out and they like to follow the producers who are gathering a hit sound. So GG found out that Duke Reid was having a thing and he came in a few weeks after with Gregory.
But then other people capitalised on that rhythm as well. In America Jonathan Richman made the song Egyptian Reggae and in more recently Stephen Marley used it for his Rockstone.
Yeah, yeah. They do a lot. Because even the same Wondering you spoke about with Rupie Edwards – because I never finished that. When I went to Bunny Lee, he was upset and he decided to go to the studio and take back that same rhythm Every Day Wondering and I don’t know if it was a joke but when you came out of the studio in the night people were laughing. Because he went up there in the studio and he was doing (sings) “Skeng-eh skeng-eh sprang sprang” I mean that’s no lyrics really. Even the other people when he came down into the street and some of the people who were up there were saying “Joker!” and laughing.
But it was a number one tune here in Jamaica, so I don’t know if he was upset and decided that he wanted to scrub out my voice but he used some of my lyrics because he said “Every day you’re wondering” and it went into the British charts as well! And I want to tell you, that was one of the first original songs that went to the British charts. Because you had other ones like Everything I Own but they were cover versions. That was one of the first originals and it was my rhythm. I would say it’s my rhythm because it was created from my song. He used the same rhythm because he used some of my words and he used some of Jackie Wilfred Edwards (sings) “Do you believe in love” which I think was a cover song also and then a part of it he said “Skeng-eh skeng-eh sprang sprang”.
I think it’s him that got the rights for all of that. I mean yes, he was the producer and he owned the recording but as far as publishing is concerned I should get the rights of the rhythm because that rhythm was built. Nowadays what they do is go to the studio and if they want me to do something they say “Bwoy, Johnny Clarke, I have two riddim – do you want to come voice upon them?”. In those days it wasn’t like that. You had to go with your song and they would listen to the song and build the rhythm around it. Build from the song. So that means the rhythm belongs to the song. But I think if somebody should do it now again I think I will get my reward now. Because it’s registered now.
So None Shall Escape the Judgment became a hit.
I have to respect this brethren by the name of Don Topping who was on RJR. He was the first man who let go this tune called None Shall Escape the Judgement after doing it at Duke Reid. As a youth I did the song but then again seeing what I went through with Clancy Eccles and Rupie Edwards, I was maybe thinking that it would be the same, you understand? None Shall Escape the Judgement had released just like Every Day Wondering but first it was released on an album. Various Artists. My two songs were on the album with other people like Heptones and so on.
So None Shall Escape The Judgement was released on a single but with me as a young youth from the ghetto, I never had any great connections with the radio disc jocks, so if they loved it and they decided to play it I just have to be sitting there hoping that some disc jockey would just find it lovable and grasp it. Don Topping didn’t know me but he liked the song and it was like a new song. And it was the new sound too because before then was you had this one drop type of slow-ish type of rocksteady like (sings) “What’s wrong, I can’t explain, cool operator” all those kinds of slow things like (Sings) “What about the half”. But that changed now with the up-tempo thing with None Shall Escape the Judgement. It was like a kind of calypso mix. Yes, with the flying cymbals.
Yes! So it was like a difference. So maybe that’s the reason that got him because it was a change from what he was used to – the ordinary. So I was just lucky to come into it as a new youth with a new sound.
So after None Shall Escape the Judgement – everybody wanted lots of tunes in this style.
Yeah! Bunny Lee decided what was the style. That was why GG came. If they see one producer have a hit that changes the thing and gets something going, everybody wants to ride on the wagon. So what Bunny Lee was doing now, him alone was capitalising on all of the fruits. He wasn’t letting in. So he used me not to let in anybody else. That’s why we came with True Believer In Love, Left With A Broken Heart, Jah Jah In Deh, with the full force so nobody else came. A good thing I had so much energy, to really fulfil that. We came with all of the up-tempo style. We mastered that. We never let in anybody.
Remember we were all ghetto people and struggling people coming into the thing looking for something. If you want to get something you have to put something on the table. Nothing for nothing. So we would feel that if you wanted your dream to come true – do what you’re supposed to do to get that. Because nobody is going to give you a house or give you a car. Who are you? You have to work for that. Singing songs. Really produce good songs. That’s why the songs in those times were so good. Some of the people who are into it now as producers – maybe they are comfortable already. But gone were the days when people were looking for something. So they have to work to make good songs. Because they were looking to make something out of it – profit.
You sang songs in exactly the same style like Joshua‘s Words, and Enter Into His Gates.
I was one of the first artists that sang two hit tunes on the same rhythm. Yeah! I love that one! Joshua‘s Words and None Shall Escape the Judgement. The both of them hit because we capitalised on that because in most times the politics was kind of flaring up. There was a prime minister named Michael Manley.
They called him Joshua.
Yeah! And he was saying that the bad boys were getting out of hand so we had to build a gun court, so he could put them there. And he was saying what would happen to you if you don’t stop the crime and you don’t give up the gun and stop shooting. And I was the man now who could take that and put it on record as a messenger. To distribute that to the people. In those times when he was on top people were grabbing onto it. Because he was telling the people what would happen to them if they don’t take heed and I was the man who was also telling them through the record. So it became a hit! Everybody was aware of what he said and I decided “You know what? I think I should go to the studio and set it again on the record and release it”. On the None Shall Escape the Judgement rhythm that was riding. So the best vehicle to distribute that message was the same up-tempo rhythm saying “None shall escape the gun court” instead of “None shall escape the judgement”. “These words were spoken by Joshua“.
You did a lot of original songs but also a lot of cover versions like Bob Marley Crazy Baldhead, Abyssinians Declaration of Rights, you did the Diamonds Poor Marcus in a totally different style…
Yeah, and Horace Andy Girl I Love You. Yeah man, a lot of them. And it was because of the love of them. Burning Spear Creation Rebel and Ites Green and Gold it’s the Rainbow. Peter Tosh Legalize It. Which of the original songs that you wrote were you the most proud of?
(Pauses) Oh, well the most successful is the one we already talked about, but the most proud of, that is loved right now…. songs that are being loved right now as original songs around the world. There are a lot more of them than that but those songs Roots Natty Congo, African Roots and Every Knee Shall Bow. Those songs, I went to Brazil and people would just want those songs on their list.
Even if you’re singing it in a different language – I mentioned America, England, Canada and Jamaica because I focused on English-speaking territories who are more quick to understand what I’m saying, because they were the first supporters of reggae music in those times there. But if it was now I would’ve maybe focused on more people like Italy, France – I do it on live shows. Put them in. In those days Britain was like the gateway for Europe. So we would go there first and if you were established in Britain and other people would accept you in France and you could go on the continent.
But that’s where it all started. Because as I told you when Bunny Lee came and contacted me, him and Roderick Blackbeard, it’s because they used to go to England every now and again so their ears were out like an antenna picking up what the people needed. If they knew what they wanted in England they could come back here to Jamaica and try to get those kinds of things there.You’re not going to pay for something you don’t want, so the main thing is to find out what the man want. And get it! And then now you’re in business. So that’s what he did.
Bunny Lee also used rivalries between different deejays like I Roy and Prince Jazzbo and different singers like you and Cornell Campbell.
Not even just me. Because at one time we even had a rivalry with Jacob Miller. It was when me and Dillinger did team up because that was in a time when crime again was on the programme and they were trying to make peace. There was a peace treaty type of combination with rivalries of who can make the better peace song. He did Peace Treaty and I did Peace And Love In The Ghetto. And it was all about Tubbys at that time with the dub because they were recording at Tubbys, seen? But what happened was they usually had like a man who tell you what the other man was doing, so you know what to put in your own. You had people who were there who would turn up at the studio when both artists were recording.
So you see that’s how he took my style. You see I have my style where I go “Eh heh heh” (sings vibrato) and then he would say (sings) “Tired fi lick weed in a bush – uh uh ih uh uh” (sings Jacob Miller vibrato). That was my thing. Because through me and him used to move he used to call me “Ju Ju Wa Wa” you know? You know I did that song one time where I said “Ju Ju Wa Wa”. Because he went to record before me because he went and sang a tune with Downbeat named Love Is A Message in the days before I even started but it never reached – it was just a one off song. But I was established before him on the hit market, on the household market. As far as making hits. He came now with Tenement Yard after I had established already.
So me and him used to move, so he used to hear me. We used to go by Tubbys because that’s why Tubbys was the champion sound – Tubbys was the first sound who was different and had more than one artist on one rhythm. In those days when sounds clashed you never had specials – dubs where a man would sing about your sound is the champion sound and bad up your sound’s name. So what he used to do was he had to be more sophisticated by having more artists in the theme thing upon a dubplate. And that was the luxury of having a studio because on a Sunday like this he could have Cornell Campbell, he could have Jacob Miller and the whole of them would sing for the sound.
So a clash would come up and he would ask us to sing something but it wasn’t about killing anybody or anything like that “We’re going to kill you tonight and we going to throw you on the ground” no. That is why you find in those days, as much as there was a clash, it was friendly. And there was no violence because sometimes violence will create when you start telling a man things. But if you keep it on a level where it is a clash about who can play the better music, nobody calls anybody your name or says they’re going to hurt them. Because if you’re going to step on their foot, they’re going to step on your foot.
The thing got out of hand in this country because there’s too much rivalry and we took it too far. In those times people were more loving with togetherness as much as even me and Jacob Miller had rivalry – we were good friends same way. It was just on the record. But we weren’t enemies. We’d sit down and talk same way. Have fun same way. So we have to know how to keep the love man – that’s why the thing is really getting out of hand. In the late 70s your music was released by Virgin Records – how was that experience?
Yes, yes! I want to tell you this is really a plus even right up until now. This is playing a great part now in my life right now as far as upliftment and being prosperous. Because even those same songs Roots Natty Congo and African Roots – everywhere I go people give me respect for those songs there. Every time I sing those songs on stage! That was when I started to see some kind of money. Financially where I could say “Bwoy I see a reward”. Where I could say “Bwoy I can think about a roof over my head“. In those days there was no money – just a hand to mouth little thing. You had it today and you spent it tomorrow and you needed money again. But when you can see something and you can say “Bwoy, I can live with this” you can be really satisfied and say “Bwoy at least that was really a positive – a plus“. A great plus.
And it works up to today. The good thing about it? The invention of the CD. Compact disc. That was very good. As much as people are crying out against it still – what it did was it stopped a lot of the distribution companies who were robbing us. Not giving us our just reward. Even here in Jamaica they would thief us. Because what happened with the vinyl records, when Christmas was just gone, they would press up a lot of vinyl, ship it all over the Caribbean, all over, and them alone would have the money. But when the CD was invented all of that shut down. Because we didn’t have a plant here.
So with my latest CD, Jamaica 50, I had to send the stamp all the way to a company named Rainbow in California for them to print it, federal express it and then send it back and I had to pay a duty to get 1,000 copies. I take it all over with me when I tour. Because it’s my production. A lot of people release CDs now and they burn it. But if you’re going to be shrink-wrapping it and having it in a shop for people to buy, you have to do it the right way.
How did you decide to start your own label?
I started my own label from long. You hear a song named Fancy Make Up? A label named Barbell label. That’s Robert Shakespeare. Because me and Robert Shakespeare first toured and went to England, you know? We were going to appear in a club named the Apollo in Willesden. I’ll tell you that was the first time I ever walked on top of people’s heads! To go on stage! It was the first time Robbie was going abroad on tour. It was him and Johnny Clarke.
It was a little place but the club was so packed up that when I reached there and reached the door I couldn’t pass through the crowd. And some man just lifted me up. The man was strong and he just lifted me up onto people’s heads so that they could carry me because I couldn’t walk through the crowd! Yeah! Believe me! And they dropped me off right on the stage.
A memorable experience!
In those days I used to sing for Chinna because Chinna was like family. An Elvis Presley song where I did (sings) “Every time I hear you’re still not certain” for Chinna Smith. And then I used to sing for Robbie. I sang a song for Robbie named (sings) “Take my hand I’m a stranger but I love you“ and then a next one named “Ju Ju Wa Wa” and the next one again named (sings) “Don’t watch those pretty dress“ on Barbell label. I eventually made a song named African People. So when I sang for them, in return when I had a session they would come and play for me. Because we would work for one another. You understand?
How I got to do all those productions was when I came back from England I’d usually get some sterling money. JoJo at the Channel One studio, if I would come and change out my money with him he’d usually give you studio time free. So I capitalised on that and I carried people like Roots Radics and so we did a song like Every Knee Shall Bow with U Roy and we did one or two tunes like African People and the same Babylon and Sweet Reggae Music. And even Firehouse Crew when they were youths I would bring them. The first experience was a tune named Rosie in that time they were young and I had to tell them how to play. I had to arrange it with my mouth. And they would listen to what my mouth said and play. Round by Tubbys.
So really and truly with all my experience I did all of those productions and they were my personal thing. And even with Tubbys I would get time because I’d sing tunes for Tubbys too so you would get time. Now studio time is important but if you do something for a person they can in return give you a bly. It’s like with Bunny Lee when he used to work for Duke Reid and Duke gave him a bly and let him use the studio. So with me and JoJo who owned Channel One, when I would come from England he would want some pounds so instead of me carrying it and going to certain other places I would carry it to him. He gave me a rate and on top of that he would give me free studio time so I could work in the studio.
If he’s going to give you a bly like five hours free, wow, that’s actually half a day – you’d better have some tunes to work on and capitalise on that. And then I could get the musicians and I didn’t have to pay them because we all worked with one another and I’d sing a tune for them as well. So Chinna would come and play for me. Because I would sing tunes for Chinna and Chinna would not really have anything to give me. Like give me a money. Even now I still sing tunes for him same way. Even now we have a tune with him, a herb tune about weed, Babylon A Follow which he has right now. If a man will come and work for me and I don’t have to pay him, it’s because in return I can do something for you also. That’s how the thing goes still. So that’s how I came in with the production part. How did you come up with the label name Hit Machine?
First I had a label after my tribe name Naphtali. Because through the 12 Tribes we have Naphtali the first month of the year so I decided to use that. With the Hit Machine thing, they have a series of shows out here that they call Heineken Star Time and when they advertised me they used to call me the Hit Machine. So I just decided to come with that label. The Hit Machine. And it is true because there were a lot of hits. And the reason for the hits was because I stuck with my tempo because I would create the change in the upbeat. So we capitalised on it with other songs. Left With A Broken Heart, True Believer In Love, None Shall Escape The Judgement, the same Gun Court one we were talking about. So there wasn’t the room space for any other artists really. Because I left and then after that they went back to the one drop.
But they kind of did decide to change the tempo a bit. It really a good thing because in those days the people did welcome changes. If you’re too much on the one thing, anybody can come with something fresh then they will grab onto it. And you might be the lucky one. The people were waiting for that change. Who is going to step up to the plate? A young man like I, a breath of fresh air, to arrive on the scene. I mean there are certain shows that like Heineken Star Time where not every artist is qualified to be on that show. Because if you don’t sing a certain amount of hits you’re not going to end up on that show. Those people choose artists to demonstrate class, to have a catalogue of songs.
Even on tour if you don’t have a catalogue that you can sing for one hour or an hour and a half the promoter might not be interested. It’s not like here in Jamaica where they have like 20, 30 or 40 acts and you can just go and sing for 15 minutes and then it’s somebody else. So you can be there for an hour and after you leave the people say they want more and you can still come with the next half an hour. So that is all because of what we had done in the past. Hits.
And give thanks for this moment because I can express myself and tell you the real thing. Because I try my best to keep it real and truthful. And if you go to other people and talk it who know it they going to tell you what I’m going to tell you.
Why did you stop recording for Bunny Lee and start to work other producers in the 80s?
What really happened with Bunny Lee and the vibes with Virgin was they created a thing and mashed up that. We had a nice thing going with Virgin but he went to them and took it back because they had some flaring up between them. So all of the royalties, the money that was being sent with each album, they wanted to stop that so we went right back to square one. So I had to go and scout again. There was a halt because of confusion between the producer and the distributor. They had differences. And the producer decided that he didn’t decide to continue. I don’t know why – some reason I can’t speculate.
And I had to look it because I am a human being and a grown-up and I have a family and I have kids and a place and I have bills. Because Jamaica is a place where you have to pay bills. I had a place. I’m not like a man on the street who can just go saying “I beg you, I beg you”. I was a man who had responsibilities and each month bills would come around. When you’d see the postman sometimes it could be the PRS but sometimes it’s bills you have to go pay. So I had to do things for other people like the Mad Professor and Fashion Records, Dub Vendor John and them and a couple of other people. Plus I was doing my own thing too – my own recording. So I had to scout because as I said nothing was happening here.
You were doing more things in England?
Yeah. Because survival is the thing and we were here and I’d gone so far already and nothing was going on on his side. Bunny Lee was not really doing anything. So when Virgin came on board and decided to link up that’s when something started happening. But maybe the thing flowed too sweet and the man just went in there and stopped the thing. I don’t know the reason why but it worked out bad for me because each time money was coming in and that’s how I could manage to do my thing.
So in the first part it still worked out because I could get a roof but remember getting a roof you have to maintain – it’s like having a car not maintaining it. I mean if you have your house and it’s in darkness or no water? You have it there but it’s still shabby. So I had to still try to keep those things up. And he was doing his thing but when the time comes when you’re really in need I had to go and find someone who’s going to pay me. Bunny Lee never paid me because he would get Virgin to fill that gap.
Alright I’ll tell you the truth now… I love these people because you know what these people did? The other person that he took it to put all the money into his hands and he could determine whether he was going to give me whatever. But these people at Virgin they decided to split it so they sent mine to me and his to him so everybody will get and it won’t go into his hand alone.
That’s how it goes my brethren. That’s what we went through because give thanks we are still here and we give thanks to the good people them. Because you must recognise the people who are good, don’t be stupid when you’re moving and know them too. And I’ll tell you Virgin were good people. And the good thing again about it, when the CD was invented they took the two albums and put it on a CD. I think I was the first person to come on a CD in 1991 when Virgin put out Authorised Rockers because they released two albums with me – one was Rockers Time Now and I think the other one was called Authorised Version because the CD could take more tracks so they just combined the two albums in one CD. That was like a next fresh release.
And the man says the quality of the record is better and more solid but on the productive side of it and benefit we were getting ripped off with the records. Because the pressing plant out here these people out here doing the distribution, they used to press up the thing and we didn’t get anything on them alone got the thing. So when the CD came that locked them off. That’s why they had to go send them out of business. They can’t do that anymore. They were thieves. They would give you nothing. We got nothing from it. So when CD came in it parked them. Put them up on halt. It’s stopped up and they had to stop thieving.
Tell me the story about your self-produced track Babylon and how Jah Shaka put it out on his label.
Babylon – that was my production now. I did that song because I had a group named Jah Minstrel. I went to studio and I did two songs for myself, one for a guy named Burley Brown and two songs with a group named Jah Minstrel. Babylon and a song called Sweet Reggae Music. In those days Shaka was a sound where when I’d do a song I’d usually take up the whole 2 inch tape to be mixed, in England. So we bleeched in a place called Saint Peters Square in London where Island records had a studio. And we usually used that studio to mix – that’s why he had so many different mixes and he would mash up sound system when he had that. He could play a lot of pieces of Babylon. When we mixed I took the 2 inch tape up there and he had an engineer and we worked all through the night. We were finishing work when the ladies were coming to clean up in the morning so we’d have to leave now! Because England is a raving place you know? When we are in England we don’t sleep you know? Most times we are working.
That’s why Mad Professor, I like his vibes. When you’re in England at the studio it’s his studio so you don’t have to worry yourself about studio time. You just go there and most of those songs, it’s me playing piano. I played half of the instruments because you’re just free. You just spend the night in the studio and just have food and weed with Mad Professor. The same thing we’d do usually do with Shaka because Shaka is a man who knows the brethren and it’s him who carried it down there. When he does this thing he has to mix thing different. So he’d want to mix with raw drum and bass, with pure bass and drum upon the rhythm. He’d want a next one with Akete you know? (Laughs) So the engineer would mix down.
Babylon was a song Shaka was playing up a lot. That’s why it’s him playing it in the Babylon film when Brinsley Forde comes in. Because a company named Chrysalis did the soundtrack and they released it as well. But Shaka did good things still because he linked me up with a woman name Nicky who is my booking agent. And he made me get to do this festival named the Essential Festival in Brighton over in England. So it still worked out with two plusses.
Because Shaka is a man who will give you things but he’s not a man where you can go and he’ll give you a lot of money. Promotion is good too because people used to complain about how he’d never usually want to release the songs – he’d just keep them to play on his sound. Just like how Tubbys used to do because when he’d release it, it wouldn’t be so strong on the sound any more. He’d want to keep it as pre-release every time because it’s not commercially out there playing around and other people can play it. Soundmen like to play tunes that are for him alone. If you come in the dance and go in the yard you want to hear tunes but you never heard play anywhere else. And you wouldn’t get that.
There are no more pre-release or no special types of songs that a man is going to come to hear now. Like most of the songs you hear – you will hear upon the radio also. So you come in there and everything is regular like commercial, not like years ago when a man would come in the dance and carry his tape because when he’d go home and leave the dance he’d have to come back to the next dance to hear those tunes there. So that time was so important and different.
It was a different experience with Shaka man. You’re there and you’d keep active. You’re not just there sitting down doing nothing. You’d have some kind of studio to go. Yeah we love that. Yeah man, good vibes right through the night and then when you’re done you can sleep and wake up again.
So that’s how we were able to create it so the movie people would get attracted and get involved and want him to play that song. The movie even became the name of the song. And then Shaka is in the movie also playing it. I wasn’t in the movie because I wasn’t there at the time. But the song was and I did get some kind of money from the company that was doing the soundtrack. Each time I go they always give me some royalties. Sometimes that can help because living in Jamaica you’re not growing up with any foreign currency. So you drop out there and you realise some people have royalties and you have some pounds that you can move around.
What are you working on at the moment?
Well, at the moment, I mostly just work on live performance. Most of those concerts, whether clubs or festivals. Because the songs are already made and done in the early 70s that they are saying are the good old days. The roots. They say it’s never going to die. I remember I was doing some video down by Half Moon in Montego Bay and I met a brethren named David Rodigan. He was there and I had a new album by the name of Rock With Me. And you know David Rodigan is a top radioman from the BBC, Capital radio and so on, but we’re friends so whenever we meet we have a good vibe you know?
So I had that CD there and I handed it to him as a compliment so that he can play it as a radio man and he took it and he said to me “Johnny Clarke, you don’t have to sing a next note because all those songs that you did already – it still stands out“. So you know, I always remember that. But that’s just to show that I’m still active. Because I do have a CD now that’s the latest one called Jamaica 50 Sing, Then Dub Them. I made it when there was the Jamaica 50th anniversary of independence when there was the difference between the Union Jack and the Black Gold and Green of independence. So 50 years after that they wanted to know what am I doing?
So I made that album to show that I’m still in action. I’m still working in the studio. If you get it you’ll notice after each track there is a version mix. Because in my time when you turned over you usually had the B-side the flipside was like the version, the dub. I put it all and laid it on one CD – sing, dub, sing, dub. On my own label Hit Machine. My production, yeah. If you go on iTunes and you want to support me, you can find Johnny Clarke Jamaica 50 Sing, Then Dub Them. And if you want the album itself it’s at Derrick Harriott and it is at Music Mart.
When you perform – how do you choose which of your many songs to sing?
Well, it depends on the area. Because the other day I was in Brazil and when I go to places like Italy and Brazil sometimes they send to me a show list and I find out that it works. Even when I go to California I find out that it works well because they are the ones that know what they like and Johnny Clarke sang so many songs – and most of those songs are not songs that you would sing here in Jamaica on a show. Yhey have some songs that you would figure as just an album track. Not a song for a 7 inch. But those are their favourites.
But if I’m here in Jamaica I normally find the right songs that the people would want to hear because these are songs that people have been listening from the days of the vinyl records. And to them it’s like a revival because they know them, they played them all along at home and now they are live and direct, you just have to know the songs that the people would want to hear. Some of their favourites are also some of my favourites. So the connection is sensitive because the sensitivity is important to the audience. And I find I always come over great, with that selection, good choices.
You’ve talked a bit about England. You’re performing at the London International Ska Festival this Easter.
Yeah. Nicky is my real agent there. So she told me about it that I’m doing all of that. And then I’ll be back here and then maybe in June or July onwards I will be doing other things in Europe. As soon as I drop in I will be very much adjusted and know what to do with whichever musicians. One thing with the musicians is they know to do their homework because every time when I arrive in England they have their thing well sat. All I need to do is just run it down and that’s how it always goes. So I don’t expect any different this time around.
So we are here waiting and that is on the 1st of April! Yeah man because it’s going to be great to and I really welcome it. I have heard of it and I’ve seen other people on it and I hoped that I will find my way there too and it eventually happened. So time is the master and there is no need to rush.
Ska music is up-tempo and as you said the kind of reggae that you broke out with is up-tempo.
Yeah! (Laughs) It’s true really. Love that. It’s too nice and let me tell you I’m ready for it. Because really and truly, a place that I really respect is England. England really is my place. It’s like when they say “Your mother and father forsake you, father will take you”. Enough times when nothing has been going on and we’re leaving the publishing thing and the songwriting thing there, sometimes nothing is there and then sometimes out of the blue something just appears and something is coming into good time you know? Well you can go and sort out something and say “Bwoy!”
You’ve kept on recording the UK over the years. You mentioned Shaka, Mad Professor and then a bit later you did Soothsayers and even Mungo’s Hi Fi in Scotland where you did something for Record Store Day.
Yeah Bad Boys! And yeah man good brethren, Mungo’s in Scotland. And don’t forget you have a guy named Jerry Dammers. He has some stuff there because he is a professional you know? He has his studio and he works and he is very knowledgeable and he does his thing professional. Yeah we work with Jerry and we put on harmonies and he believes in me. I respect him and he respects me too. And I love that, so through that now I feel like he’s someone to deal with proper. Solid.
You have a couple of other people who every now and again they might send through email you have people who send things from abroad and we sort it out for them. It was like they were here! So we take care of them so much that they don’t have to be right beside us. You can trust we. A man will send his money through Western Union and you have some people who rip off and take peoples things but we will do the proper thing and we send back the man’s thing and everybody is happy. Yes! We leave no red marks in your name. Bad vibes mash up for the future. I don’t care how much food you eat today, tomorrow you’re going to be hungry again. Tomorrow you’re going to need more food.
So you have to live for the future and no matter what we do today won’t be the last day. Every man wants to see tomorrow. Because the Father says if you just do your thing he’ll make you wait your turn. He knows when. We don’t fight. He runs the thing. So we don’t jump the line. Because maybe milk and honey is on the other side. Who can tell? But don’t rush it wait and you go and get your milk and honey.
Because I don’t know any man who is here for the last 500 years. All of those people are not around. So None Shall Escape The Judgement. Everybody has to face it. You will get that experience. I would love it if we could live for 300 years but boy that’s not going to work out. So just leave it to Jah Jah. What we have to do is try to live the right and proper way and try to keep healthy. But no matter how much health food you eat how you keep yourself there is going to come a time when, boy, it’s the departure lounge, you know what I mean? You tried to do everything to keep healthy, no meat, no fish, no salt, exercise every day, but age? Boy.
So that’s why we go on and do our works. That’s why the works are important. So don’t waste, don’t loaf around, do your work because we don’t have a whole heap of time to loaf around. The time that we have is for work to do it for the people. Who love you and respect you. The fans. That’s who we are there for. That’s why we don’t run competition and do better than who? We have to do what we do.
by Angus Taylor