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Interview: Ken Boothe in Kingston (Part 1)

Interview: Ken Boothe in Kingston (Part 1)

Interview: Ken Boothe in Kingston (Part 1)

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"I sang for Duke Reid and I went right upstairs"


I am a homely and humble person” says Ken Boothe in his soulful, sonorous tones. “I am not given to too much extravagance.”

We are sitting in the yard of his striking blue and white house – which, if not extravagant, is certainly impressive. Ken is wearing a blue Angry Birds Star Wars t-shirt that matches the walls. He introduces two younger artists he is recording – Smiley Don and Ricardo Suave (later they will be joined by Heptones legend Naggo Morris).

We discuss last weekend’s concert on Keesing Avenue with the Fab Five (“Superb. When you’re singing with Fab Five you don’t think about problems. They know everything about you”) and whether February’s Reggae Month events are spread too thin (“Everybody’s having a little thing here and there. The music should be the number one priority for the entire country. Reggae took Jamaica to heights.”)

It starts to rain so we remove our shoes and enter a museum of memorabilia from a glittering career in popular music’s golden age. We retire to the built in studio to conduct our interview. Ken sits with his two year old granddaughter on his knees. "I'll carry you outside" he chides tenderly when she shouts into the mic, buying a few minutes silence at a time until she forgets and begins talking again.

Over the years reggae music has come a long way” he says before we start. “People went through perilous times to make this music what it is today. A lot of suffering, perseverance, hope and faith”.

Yet Ken is the first to admit his glorious voice had a habit of easing his passage in those early years: across the intimidating threshold of Studio 1, Brentford Road, to the UK pop charts with a cover of Bread’s Everything I Own.

Ken Boothe

Let’s go back to the beginning. You grew up in Denham Town in colonial times.

In the colonial days. When we weren’t as fortunate as some other people were. But I think entertainers have a special job to do – to motivate people. To uplift the minds of people to show them that it’s not where you live but how you live and not where you’re going but where you’re coming from. I think artists set an example in that form.

Entertainers have a special job to do – to motivate people

When you were starting there weren’t as many singers coming out of Denham Town as neighbouring Trench Town.

Trench Town was like our Las Vegas! (laughs) Me and Stranger Cole were two chaps growing up in Denham Town so we automatically had to end up in Trench Town most of the time. You didn’t know where you could get to associate with other singers unless you could go into Trench Town. The first set of people that grew me were from Trench Town. People like Joe Higgs, Alton Ellis, these were the corner stones. Delroy Wilson – as the child star in those days. He actually gave Trench Town a big boost. Delroy came with such an impact on people. He was the first star where anywhere he was on the street people would gather ‘round him because of the songs that they were hearing.

Many singers came out of Trench Town, some from Rose Town but that is actually the same vicinity. Heptones, Maytals, the Richards brothers. It was a singing place where you had singers in every yard. These houses were government houses and most of us grew up singing in kitchens. (laughs)

Your older sister Hyacinth was a singer.

My mother is the one that inspired all of us because my sister heard her singing. When she was washing her clothes she’d sing a lot of gospel and my sister took it up and decided to take it to another point commercially where she started to go on stage shows - as the host. My sister I can never ever forget her. She was my gateway to this business. And then – to do it professionally now – Stranger Cole. Because you have many different gates you know? One opens at first and then that person that opened that gate for you is not there anymore so you have to find somebody to open another door – and that was Stranger Cole.

My mother is the one that inspired all of us

How did you first meet Stranger Cole?

I’ve spoken about it so many times that sometimes I try to explain it another way. (laughs) I didn’t know him but I used to pass by his house and he would be singing. I got curious and I’m a peculiar kind of person when I hear music. I loved music since I was young. Since I was a little boy going to primary school, attending Denham Town Primary. I had been singing from a young age. I used to do YMCA and any things kids were involved in my mother used to let me enter and I used to win most of those contests too. (laughs)

How did you and he start singing together?

I’d be outside listening and then gradually I found myself in the midst. That’s how music is. That’s why music is beautiful. Even a movie can’t do without a soundtrack. I found myself in the midst of Stranger Cole and brought in a little harmony and Stranger said “But you can sing!” He was a big star long before me. He was a genius. He sang with Patsy, he sang with another group where they didn’t pursue it as a business and then I met him and I fell in love with everything he was doing. There was a place we called the Bar Twenty – that was where he lived and when I met Stranger that place was like my next home away from home.

From that day, every day me and Stranger would end up around that corner. And every day, me and Stranger, all we would do is music. We didn’t work or labour. We’d sit down, write songs together, eat together, sometimes we didn’t even have anything to eat because we weren’t working for anybody. Stranger was already a big star but not that big that he was earning a lot of money, so a lot of times were broke. But the music kept us going and sometimes people would hear us singing and they would introduce us to a drink or say “You want two patties or a piece of bun and cheese?” These people were the people encouraged us to go forward. People who worked ordinarily, every Friday they got paid and they would give us money because they loved to hear us sing. So me and Stranger wrote Uno Dos.

Every day, me and Stranger, all we would do is music

You did a few tunes for independent producers before Uno Dos.

I did for Sir Mike, Sir Percy, a guy called Big Sevens and couple more. I can’t recall some of them. I remember before Mrs Pottinger we recorded for her husband.

But Uno Dos was your first big audition for Duke Reid.

Ken BootheStranger took me for an audition and I went down there. Everything was easy for me because Stranger was already a big star. He took me to Duke Reid and it was easy for him to listen to me because of Stranger. So we did the audition and at first he said “This little boy can sing?” because he’d never heard me before. So I sang for him and I went right upstairs because his studio was upstairs. He just sent me right away and said “Go and record”. There were people like Drumbago playing drums, bass I think was Brevett, Jah Jerry on guitar.

Were you intimated by Duke Reid’s reputation?

I wasn’t afraid of him but I wasn’t in love with that environment. When I went to Sir Coxsone I saw all these singers hanging out and writing songs. So me and Stranger wanted to break that barrier. After we did Uno Dos we decided to go to Sir Coxsone.

Was Uno Dos a hit?

Kind of. Not so much of a big hit but on jukeboxes and sound system and all of that.

How did you get introduced to Coxsone?

When me and Stranger went there it was easy for me again because Sir Coxsone wanted Stranger to record for him. But he didn’t go there as a solo singer, we went there as a duo and sang Artibella and World’s Fair. Coxsone released Artibella and it was a big seller. He released World’s Fair and that was a good seller too. I fell in love with being up there.

Was there a real person called Artibella who inspired that song?

I just came up with the idea. There was a song they used to have as a theme song for a programme out here. It was an Indian programme that they used to have every Sunday on the radio and the melody was like that (hums Artibella’s melody). I just said “Artibella”! I went to Stranger and the both of us sat down and oh boy that song was one of the biggest songs I’ve ever done. Anywhere in Europe, anywhere in the Western hemisphere, anywhere in the North when I sing Artibella! I was in Costa Rica just a couple of weeks ago and it was the song they were waiting to hear. You know Snoop Lion has it on his album?

Yes, the Phil Pratt reggae cut you did later in the early 70s.

Right. It caused a problem too but that’s another thing!

We’ll come back to that later. Artibella was a ska but for a while afterwards Coxsone thought your voice was best suited to US style soul tunes like Lonely Teardrops.

Yes he started me out on Lonely Teardrops and Oo Wee Baby. The way he looked at me told him that I was so good in vocal that he started me out with soul music. But then Jamaican people started to identify with the ska and the ska started to take over Jamaica. It took over Jamaica in a big way with the Skatalites.

So he sent me back into the studio but not with the Skatalites – with the Sharks, with Dwight Pinckney. I went back and I did You’re No Good and Come Running Back. The Skatalites were already the resident band for Sir Coxsone but Sharks were some young guys and he had that kind of taste and outlook to know when people have talent so he started to use them. Then after a while I started to record with Soul Vendors which was the same Skatalites and Jackie Mittoo as the head director of the band. I did songs like I Don’t Want To See You Cry, Come Tomorrow, Moving Away, Puppet On A String, The Train Is Coming.

Tell me about the recording of When I Fall In Love in England…

When I Fall In Love was done in 1967 when me and Alton went to England. Sir Coxsone decided to record us and took us to the studio. If you listen good you can hear that refined sound in When I Fall In Love because we didn’t have those kinds of tracks [machines] in Jamaica to get that kind of quality. Alton did So Much Love To Give. They were recorded somewhere in Harlesden.

Who had the idea of taking this major key Nat King Cole song and putting it onto a minor key rocksteady with a very different sound?

It was a friend of mine in England who came to me with it while we were there and decided to do it in a different way. I made a melody for it, a different melody and we knew that our kind of music, the rocksteady, was a more uptempo sound than the ballad sound of Nat King Cole’s song.

Do you remember how the ska turned into the rocksteady? Stranger Cole was one of the earlier singers to sing on the slower rhythm.

Well there are a lot of different explanations. What I get to understand is that with the ska the tempo was so fast that you could not dance five songs because you were tired when you finished doing one song. After five songs you would have to go and sit down because you were well tired. So they decided to slow it down. I don’t know who came with that idea but how the rocksteady started.

The ska tempo was so fast that you could not dance five songs because you were tired

What about the birth of the reggae beat in 1967-68?

The reggae now to me was the same thing. From fast tempo we went to slow then from slow to a little quicker but not as fast as the ska. They called it reggae – I guess from the guitar too because the guitar was going “check-eh, check-eh” so “reggae, reggae”. Musicians had a lot to do with the changes of all the different tempos. Everybody had a little input into it.

You clearly enjoyed recording for Coxsone but as the sixties became the seventies you became wiser to the business aspect of the music and gravitated to other producers like Leslie Kong and Mrs Pottinger.

All of us did. A lot of us left Sir Coxsone at the same time – Delroy Wilson, Wailers, Gaylads and myself. We all went to Beverleys because we guys had a musical aim to go internationally and Beverleys was that gateway. They had people like Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker and they were having international songs outside of Jamaica. We gravitated and went there and I did the Freedom Street album. Wailers, Gaylads, Delroy Wilson, they did an album. It was another experience that I enjoyed.

How did you link with Keith Hudson and do Old Fashioned Way in 1969?

Keith was an independent producer and he loved me so much. It was like Lloyd Charmers. These producers they had good taste. Neville Lee who was Byron Lee’s brother and had Sonic Sound, he came from England and started to do his own recording and Keith started to associate with him. He got me to do Old Fashioned Way. He wrote it and I sang it for Neville Lee. Also I moved to Mrs Pottinger where I did Say You, Lady With The Starlight. I did a whole album for her. Then we started to think about being independent in the business so we started to do things for our own selves. We’d join together with certain producers and record for them and we would get a certain percentage out of the song. We did that with a couple of producers until I found myself with Lloyd Charmers and he started to produce me. That’s how I got Everything I Own into the British charts. I did it at Federal. We were producing for Federal which is now Tuff Gong.

Ken Boothe

But before that you actually formed your own production unit called Links with Melodians, Delroy Wilson, Gaylads and Bumps Oakley.

Yes Links. I was the one who was putting in financially because I was the one who was on the road with hit songs. I used to sing with the Swinging King. I used to go to the country and get a certain amount of money. Then in town, in Kingston, I’d get a certain amount, and I used to put a certain amount of that money back into the business by pressing records. But after a while, I don’t want describe certain things, but too much rats never dig a good hole.

Links got a fight from the established producers at the time.

When we started our company we were singing for all the big producers and then we were not singing for them anymore. I don’t know if they all had a meeting and said “We have to get back these people” but the radio stations weren’t playing our music until they forced us to go back to being produced by other people.

One of the songs that was created by Links but came out under the banner of Lloyd Charmers was Black, Gold and Green.

Yes, we played it and we produced it and also Can’t You See.

Lloyd Charmers, he was a musicologist

Why did you adapt Red, Gold and Green to Black, Gold and Green – was it a black power thing?

A friend of mine said to me one day “Do a song about red, gold and green” – that’s the Ethiopian flag. Me and BB Seaton, when we sat down, we decided that because we had just got our independence in Jamaica, that we would change the colour of the flag and do it in black, gold and green just like our flag in Jamaica. But there is a good message in it.

Tell me about how you decided to cover Syl Johnson’s Is It Because I’m Black for Lloyd in 1973?

Lloyd Charmers, he was a musicologist. When he was going to record me he would get some songs from other people and he would sit down at his home and choose which songs would suit me as adapted songs – so he brought it to me and I sang it. I met with Syl Johnson too one night in New York City in the 80s. He is a great singer.

I don’t think the business has treated him very well.

No. That’s America. But this song, the version I did, made him popular, because all over the world this is a song that everybody is looking for me to perform. So both of us give thanks.

You often talk on stage and in interviews about what a revelation it was to come to England with the success of your cover of Bread’s Everything I Own and see how white English people gravitated to the music.

If we are going to talk of any country outside of Jamaica that made this music what it is today, it is England. The first place out of Jamaica that embraced our music. That is why I say music has no colour. How this came about was people migrated there from Jamaica to work, met a friend there who is white and said “Hear this”. When we went there, me and Alton, just imagine if I came to you as a friend and said “Some people from Jamaica are here. I want to show my culture and what we are like” and then took you as a white person, as a friend, to our show, so then the white people started to gravitate to the music.

England is the first one that put Jamaican music into the big international charts

So after a while you’d go to England and then dancehall basement has nothing but white folks who can speak patois. White folks have been talking patois since the 60s you know? In Brixton, Dalston, those places where they associate with a lot of Caribbean people. We have to give thanks for England. England is the first one that put Jamaican music into the charts – big international charts. From there, the whole entire Europe, it crossed the border and is what it is today.

Read part 2 of our interview with Ken Boothe where he opens up about some of the struggles he faced and overcame in the second half of his career… 

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