SunPress Blog #5: Lee Perry at Studio One

SunPress Blog #5: Lee Perry at Studio One

By David Katz

 

            Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry is one of the most original artistic beings to ever emerge from Jamaica. Actively shaping every important shift of musical style on the island from the pre-ska days of Jamaican rhythm and blues to the psychedelic roots reggae of the late 1970s, Perry nurtured the careers of Bob Marley and the Wailers, Max Romeo and George Faith, turned dub into an art form and prefixed the remix cultures of hip-hop and disco. He forever changed the way we think about sound through the astounding sonic innovation pioneered at his tiny 4-track home studio, known as the Black Ark. Collaborating with everyone from Paul & Linda McCartney and the Clash and to Brian Eno and the Beastie Boys, Perry became a wandering nomad following a dramatic metamorphosis at the end of the 1970s, his artistic compulsions resulting in a range of outsider art and an ever-changing 3-D wardrobe. Yet, Perry’s entry-point came at Studio One, that hallowed music institution that gave rise to much of Jamaica’s most noteworthy talent.

            Raised in a remote country parish in Jamaica’s far northwest, Lee Perry helped to build roads when the Negril area was being developed for tourism in the late 1950s, until divine voices directed him to the capital city to seek his fortune in music. An approach to Duke Reid led to his lyrics being poached and a physical chastisement, leading future Studio One founder Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd to lure Perry into his rival camp. Recognising his uncommon ears, Dodd made use of Perry’s talents in various ways between 1961-66: first, Perry acted as a sound system spy, helping Dodd to locate the key records played by others, and later, Perry acted as a talent scout and auditions supervisor, helping to bring acts such as Toots and the Maytals to Dodd’s attention, and assisting with musical arrangements along with Jackie Mittoo. Perry also voiced over 30 songs for Dodd as a singer himself, including battle tunes like “Mad Head” and “Royalty,” aimed at Dodd’s competitors, and rude numbers such as “Doctor Dick” and “Pussy Galore,” the latter backed by the Wailers.

            Yet, a creative force like Perry could not remain under the wing of a boss for long. It was inevitable that he would break away to become an independent producer and the 1966 single “Give Me Justice” attested to that fact—the first of many in which Perry expressed his general frustrations with the unequitable arrangements of the Jamaican music industry.

SunPress Blog Issue #4 - Early Joe Gibbs

Sunpress Blog #4: Early Joe Gibbs

By David Katz

                 The record producer and pioneering reggae executive Joe Gibbs achieved an uncommon level of international success in the music industry. He brought acts like Dennis Brown, Culture, Prince Fari and Ruddy Thomas to the attention of the outside world during the 1970s and made dub music a part of punk consciousness through the African Dub album series, achieving maximum overseas market penetration through deals brokered with Warner Brothers and RCA. Servicing reggae’s widening audience in the USA was achieved through his command of a pressing plant in Opa-Locka, Florida—the very plant now run by SunPress Vinyl.

        Born Joel Gibson on the outskirts of Montego Bay in 1943, Gibbs trained as an electronics technician at the US military base in Guantanamo Bay. He returned to Jamaica in the mid-1960s to work at a local branch of Stone & Webster, but soon moved to Kingston, where he established a radio and television repair shop downtown at 32 Beeston Street, just a few blocks away from the centre of the bourgeoning Jamaican music scene. Selling records from the shop by 1966, he began producing music for a label he called Amalgamated, hitting instantly with the peculiar timing of Roy Shirley’s “Hold Them,” a landmark of the new rock steady style. Child star Errol Dunkley then came into the camp with popular adaptations of old rhythm and blues records, and harmony trio the Pioneers arrived in tandem with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, the latter having quit Studio One following disputes over payment and artistic credit. Perry’s presence helped Gibbs’ productions to reach an ascendency as rock steady shifted to the early reggae style, but similar disputes saw Perry break away to form his own Upsetter label, leaving salesman Niney the Observer to fill his shoes as an in-house arranger, as Gibbs moved his shop to 11 South Parade, facing a noteworthy public meeting place. Gibbs opened his first proper recording studio in the western outskirts of Kingston by 1969, allowing him to concentrate more fully on record production.

        Aspiring singer Nicky Thomas, who used to sweep the floor at Gibbs’ record shop, voiced a reggae rendition of Waylon Jennings’ country rock hit, ‘Love Of The Common People,’ which became a chart success in Britain in 1970, and after Gibbs moved to a larger and more permanent HQ at 20 North Parade, Niney introduced Dennis Brown to Gibbs in 1972, spawning one of the most significant reggae partnerships of all time.

SunPress Vinyl Presents David Katz' Studio One Blog Part 3 Of 3:

Studio One at the Birth of Roots Reggae

By David Katz

        The official opening of Studio One in late 1963 gave Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd a massive edge over the competition. Now that he had a recording studio of his own, he did not need to waste time and money booking recording sessions elsewhere, and could concentrate on discovering and auditioning new talent, and capturing the resultant fresh works on magnetic tape. The musicians of the Skatalites were key to the emerging sound, as was keyboardist and arranger Jackie Mittoo, as well as talent scouts and auditioning supervisors such as Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and BB Seaton of the Gaylads, all of whom performed important roles for Dodd at the new facility.

        Between 1963-66, Dodd enjoyed an incredible run of hits with Bob Marley and the Wailers, who burst onto the scene with “Simmer Down” in mid-1964, as well as Toots and the Maytals, visiting Barbadian soul star Jackie Opel, and Jamaica’s first child star, Delroy Wilson, among many others. In the instrumental plane, the Skatalites also continued to score numerous hits at Studio One, though their official formation did not occur until June 1964, and their reign would prove all too short, since the murder of the rumba dancer Anita Mahfood by trombonist Don Drummond brought about his permanent incarceration, bringing the group to a premature end.

        In the aftermath of the Skatalites’ terrible demise, saxophonist Tommy McCook defected to Duke Reid’s camp, becoming the bandleader and arranger of the Supersonics, the house band at Reid’s Treasure Isle studio, just as the new rock steady style supplanted ska’s popularity. Reid had been in Coxsone’s shadow during the ska phase, but McCook reversed his fortunes in rock steady; although Dodd enjoyed hits in the form by the Wailers, Ken Boothe and the Ethiopians, the era’s most popular rock steady was issued by Reid. And when reggae subsequently emerged in late 1968 as a fast-paced dance music based on a wild organ shuffle, the initial spoils were taken by Dodd’s former employees, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Clancy Eccles, and other upstart ghetto promoters, such as Bunny Lee.

        But Dodd was never one to linger in the shadows for long. In 1969, he began working with previously unknown acts, such as Burning Spear and the Abyssinians, who began directly addressing social issues from a Rastafari perspective, yearning for an African homeland and questioning the social inequalities of Jamaica and the wider Western Hemisphere, while making explicit their belief in the divinity of Haile Selassie for the very first time in recorded history. The new roots reggae sub-genre was thus spawned at Studio One, which would be central to the creation and dissemination of the form during the 1970s.

SunPress Vinyl Presents David Katz' Studio One Blog Part 2 Of 3:

Studio One and the Birth of Ska

By David Katz

From the late 1940s, American rhythm and blues held sway in Jamaica, brought back from the southern states of the USA by itinerant local farm workers, as well as the visiting sailors that frequented the downtown Kingston brothels. Jamaican sound system entrepreneurs began recording a local variant of US R&B from the mid-1950s, and Clement Dodd’s superior ears kept him at the top of the pack in the emerging record production sphere, which continued to be inextricably linked to sound system activity. And since sound systems always thrived on exclusivity, Dodd knew that he could not let his productions fall stagnant, nor simply copy the work of rivals such as Duke Reid, King Edwards, and former Downbeat ally, Prince Buster. Instead, he would need to find something that would differentiate his output, if he wanted to survive in Kingston’s resolutely cutthroat music scene.

           The answer came as Jamaica’s independence movement gathered steam during the early 1960s. Seeking a sound that was more identifiably Jamaican, Dodd was deeply moved by the late-night jazz jams he experienced at Count Ossie's Rastafarian encampment in the east Kingston hills, where wild jazz melodies melded with African beats that had survived the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Ska music was born with a distinct after-beat, becoming the soundtrack of Jamaican independence and Dodd the premier producer of it.

           The popularity of instrumentals by trombonist Don Drummond and saxophonist Roland Alphonso and Tommy McCook gave way to landmark ska vocal hits, such as Owen Gray’s “On The Beach” and the Maytals’ “Never Grown Old.” Although he maintained a strong working relationship with Federal recording studio’s founder, Ken Khouri, Clement Dodd recognised that having a studio of his own would allow him greater control of his output and alleviate unnecessary expenditure in the long run. Thus, in 1963, he acquired a defunct nightclub called The End at the top end of Brentford Road in the Cross Roads business district, and set about transforming it into the Jamaica Recording and Publishing Studio Ltd, the facility otherwise known as Studio One—a true landmark in the history of reggae

SunPress Vinyl Presents David Katz' Studio One blog part 1 of 3:

The Early Beginnings of Studio One

By David Katz

The name Studio One is synonymous with quality music and sonic innovation. SunPress Vinyl, which is housed in the former Studio One pressing plant in Florida, is proud to pay homage to the great Jamaican musical institution, whose legacy has set an example for the contemporary vinyl records industry.

Studio One holds a treasured place in the history of Jamaican popular music. As the recording studio and group of record labels that launched the career of countless reggae giants, including Bob Marley and the Wailers, Toots and the Maytals, the Skatalites, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Ken Boothe, Studio One is rightly regarded as reggae’s most hallowed ground, a space of perpetual innovation that reinvented the music several times over. Tales of the studio and its pivotal founder, Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd, form the core strata of reggae’s evolution.

From 1951, Dodd’s mother played rhythm and blues in her downtown Kingston restaurant, Nanny’s Corner, and young Clement’s start in the music business came a few years later, when he returned to Jamaica with a stack of rhythm and blues records picked up in the US, after a spell of seasonal farm work in Florida. Former policeman Duke Reid was a friend of his parents, so Clement briefly made guest appearances on Reid’s Trojan sound system, before starting his own Sir Coxsone’s Downbeat set, the moniker stemming from the surname of a popular British cricket batsman. Dodd’s ear for a hit and stream of hard-to-locate rhythm and blues scorchers soon gave him the edge over Reid, the rivalry drawing saboteurs that regularly tried to wreck Dodd’s equipment, leading him to recruit Prince Buster as a loyal defender, as well as a sound system spy.

By 1957, Dodd began recording local talent at Federal recording studio, initially for exclusive acetates to play on his sound system, but by 1959, demand for the songs became so widespread that he launched the Worldisc label to house his first few official record productions, recorded with the duo Bunny and Skitter, and the popular nightclub singers, Jackie Estick and Lascelles Perkins; the following year, subsidiaries such as Sensational, All Stars, Muzik City and Coxsone were also established, holding work by pivotal figures such as future Skatalites Roland Alphonso and Don Drummond, the esteemed Rasta percussionist Count Ossie, the singing duo of Alton Ellis and Eddie Parkins, plus Derrick Morgan, Millie Small, and Derrick Harriott and the Jiving Juniors, as well as Theophilus Beckford, whose “Easy Snappin” was a hugely influential ska prototype. Sir Coxsone was now an unstoppable force on the Jamaican music scene, starting off as he meant to continue.


 

David Katz is author of People Funny Boy: The Genius of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry; Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae, and Caribbean Lives: Jimmy Cliff.

Katz’s writing have appeared in Newsweek, Mojo, Q, the Guardian, the Telegraph, and many other publications. He also annotated over 100 album retrospectives. His Dub Me Always vinyl nights are regular features of London’s nightlife.

 

WHY YOU SHOULD PUT YOUR MUSIC ON VINYL

In late fall 2014, overlooking a cold Manhattan skyline, I decided that the time has come to release a record I made years earlier. After all, I was proud of the recordings I made with some very talented friends, and you never know, it may become a worldwide smash.

But what does it mean to release a record? Sure it can go live on any digital platform from Spotify to iTunes to Soundcloud, etc. with a single click. But so what? Where’s the evidence, the accomplishment, the tangible memento I would leave to my children? Where’s the art?

The art is on vinyl.

I called around vinyl factories and they all told me to get in cue. Late for the party, again.

So in the same way I studied recording and worked my way up professional studios in 1990’s NYC to learn how to produce great sounding music, I figured that if I want my music on vinyl, I’ll have to put it on vinyl myself. Because music is an experience on vinyl, it sells on vinyl, and besides, it sounds the best on a vinyl record.  

A bit later, in the winter of 2015, I met with Benji Rogers  founder of  PledgeMusic. When I asked if indie artists should bother with vinyl, his answer was “If you make music, put it out on vinyl”.

There are 25 years worth of music that never came out on vinyl. If you made music that never came out on vinyl, re-release it as a record now. You get to pick if it’s a 12” or a 7”, the color of the record, the art on the round labels and big jackets. You will make a piece of art worthy of a museum, and you will sell it at your shows and to your friends and fans.

Turns out that actually manufacturing the records is a very long and complex process. That makes it even more of an art piece, because making the actual record is an art. In spite of automation of the pressing itself, the entire process of cutting a master and making the metal mold that will press the record, requires expert humans. And the musicians can be a part of that - every band should sign their names on the lacquer master when it is being cut. I would, it will add to the ‘collector’s item’ appeal.

The renaissance of vinyl is a shining surprise of good taste in times of so much of the opposite. The great contribution of hipster culture and Urban Outfitters to our society. Those who love music love it even more on vinyl.

Hey, what are you getting your friends for the holidays?