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Interview: Clinton Fearon (2016 - Part 1)

Interview: Clinton Fearon (2016 - Part 1)

Interview: Clinton Fearon (2016 - Part 1)

By on - Photos by Franck Blanquin - 1 comment

"I am still shy but I work on disguising it"

Sampler

Although he was a key part of the group the Gladiators from 1969 until 1987, Clinton Fearon’s temperament doesn't suit the name. He isn't a gladiator or a warrior - he's more of a mediator. His music, an unabashed continuation of the country style roots reggae the Gladiators purveyed, has a soothing, therapeutic quality, gently nudging people towards communality, love of nature and inner understanding.

To understand this music is to understand his life. A shy boy who grew up with only trees, birds and animals for company and was then thrust into the musical and social Wild West of Kingston. A gentle spirit, at first content to take direction from louder voices - who gradually realised he had a musical vision with its own quietly confident strength and determination. A benevolent leader, who gathered likeminded musicians and studio wizards around him in his new home of Seattle - not to reinvent his bucolic pastoral roots reggae but to subtly make it better with every try.

At times there have been breakthroughs that have taken the sound up a level: 2002's Give and Take (where he first enlisted engineer Mell Detmer) and 2010's triumphant Mi Deh Yah. But there is a consistency in his rural arrangements and critical-yet-never-judgemental messages (recalling the complexity-embracing writing of Trench Town teacher Joe Higgs). Every record is a step forwards, or a pause for reflection - never a step back.

In 2016 Clinton released 12th solo album This Morning. In its lyrics and rhythms are many truths you will find in this two part interview (conducted the night before his European tour). The use of dialogue between instruments while asking for mutual understanding from individuals and cultures. Comparisons between how animals are compelled to communicate and artists are driven to create. The need to accept that "life is bittersweet". The replacement of flat condemnation of unjust forces with the simple question "Why?" And the need to keep learning, always learning from pain.

Clinton Fearon

Can you tell me where you were born?

St Andrew. A little district called Essex Hall in St Andrew. The district is maybe about 5 miles from Kingston to the north. And then I grew up in Saint Catherine.

How much time did you spend in Kingston when you were little boy?

I moved from there when I was… My parents have different timetables that they told me about when I moved from Essex Hall to Saint Catherine. My dad claimed I wasn't even a year yet. And my mum said I was a year! So I moved to Saint Catherine and I remember once as a little youth - I can't remember what age that was, maybe about five or so - I visited my mum in Kingston for maybe a couple of days and went back to Saint Catherine. And then when I was about 15 I moved to Kingston to stay with my mum.

In your song Life Is A Journey from the Mi Deh Yah album, you say "I was taken from my life source". Is this referring to the separation?

Yes. And it's like almost like subconscious. I didn't get much of mum's milk! (Laughs) Because she is the life source as a baby. So that, coupled with my original past. If I was to check back on my origins I was not speaking the language that I am supposed to speak, ancestry-wise. So I coupled the two together! (Laughs)

I am going to come back to that later because I want to because I want to talk a bit more about the lyrics of the song … So you moved with your dad to Saint Catherine? And in Saint Catherine you started making music in church?

Yes, in Saint Catherine. When I was I think about 11, right in the period where I made my first little guitar, it's that same time that I did a duet with my dad in church. And then the choir mistress, Mrs Cole, asked my dad if I want to join the choir. So of course he said “Yes”. I spent about a year in the choir or something like that. It was something else! It scared me for a minute. The first time I went to rehearsal, I remember it was on Wednesday (laughing). And I went to rehearsal and she gave me a part to sing all by myself. I had cold sweats!

Do you remember what you had to sing?

No! That I don't remember! But then later on I realised that they were trying to get me out of my shell. Before that I also did a song by myself in a section of the church we call Young People's Meeting in the evening time. And everybody cheered and two ladies said to me "Clinton, you sounded so good up there but we could hardly hear you!" (Laughs) I thought I was pretty loud!

Were you a shy person growing up?

Yes. You know, funnily enough I am still shy but I work on disguising it... (Laughs)

So what did you make your first guitar out of?

A cedar. Cedar, because it was easy to work with. I didn't have tools so I had to make my own tools. I used my sharpened machete. I used 6 inch nails and flattened the corners and sharpened them and used that for a chisel. I used broken glass to shave it. I don't even remember if I had sandpaper. I used my dad’s utensils like the fork you eat with. I used the teeth of those for frets.

My dad and I moved into the woods. That's when I had some experiences!

And what did you use for strings?

Well the same lady who was the choir mistress, her husband they owned a little grocery store where everyone goes to town every two weeks. So I asked this husband to borrow, to buy the strings in Kingston. So I used real strings on it. (Laughs)

So your father was a church man?

He wasn't at first but later on he became. Both him and my stepmum. Then the stepmum moved away and it was just my dad alone. We were living in the main parochial street but then after they sold that piece of land and my stepmum went to Glengoffe Close to Saint Mary. And my dad and I we moved “far bush”! We go back in the woods. That's when I had some experiences! (Laughs)

Is that where you really got inspired by the countryside?

Clinton FearonYeah, yeah, mostly. I remember, I don't know if I told you this story, about me and harmony. How I got the knowledge of harmony. My dad left and went to a further bush for two weeks, and left me with a “friend” of his - we call her “friend”. And she and I didn't get on. So I go back round the bush, and stay round there by myself.

Of course, I was lonely and I'd sit on a stone just humming something, not singing any particular words and I was crying. And all of a sudden there was this voice. There was this voice along with the one I am singing, synchronised. You know, like when you see two or three birds flying and they are making the same moves? It was like that. And the sound - it was weird. The sound was like anti-clock. In my ear. You've heard of clockwise? This was anti-clock. It was weird but the sound was so sweet. So quick o'clock I stop crying and was really enjoying but in a way that was like freaking me out in a good way!

And I ran off to go and let my friends hear about a mile away and halfway there I tried it and it wasn't there anymore. I couldn't do it. But what I left with was the memory of how it made me feel and sound. So whenever somebody would be singing I would try to get that sound and sing with that person. To get that sound and to remember how it feels like. But that was my first template! (Laughs)

But I don't quite understand? Where did the sound come from? Technically.

Technically, I think the saliva of the throat split the tone. And so it happened and that is why it went away after I stopped crying. It never came back.

So it was a bit like Mongolian throat singing?

Something like that. I have no knowledge! (Laughs)

You said you did a song with your dad. So was there music in your family on both sides or one side?

As far as I know, my dad. My dad he used to play the mouth organ a little bit. And he used to sing and my stepmum used to sing too. They were Adventists at one time and on Friday evenings they would get together and sing. My mum, she sang too but it was more like washing the clothes and singing or to feel good. And I learned later on that she was the best dancer in the neighbourhood! (Laughs)

You must've been exposed to music in church but were you also listening to American music on the radio? Was that allowed when you were young?

It was allowed. The thing is we didn't have any radio. A few of my friends had little pocket radios here and there but I wasn't too exposed to it. I remember for example when they had boxing or cricket my friends who had little pocket radios we used to sit around and listen to those. And sometimes you’d hear music and go "Wow"! I remember the Skatalites were popular then.

Which boxing matches do you remember listening to?

There were some with the one before Cassius Clay - what’s his name again?

Sonny Liston.

Sonny Liston! Sonny Liston was popular then. And then Cassius Clay beat him. At this time I was in Kingston by this time.

All this talk of boxing and being separated from your African heritage made me think of another question. Where does the name Fearon come from? In England we had a boxer of Jamaican heritage called Spencer Fearon.

I don't know. I know that there are a lot of Fearons in England. I happened to meet a few of them maybe three or four years ago. They came to the hotel! (Laughs) You know, cousins get online and a few of them came to the hotel. And I have a brother over there who is in his 90s or something like that. Never met him. We were supposed to meet the same morning that we were supposed to catch back a train coming to France here. And I got a message from him saying that he had to go to a medical appointment so we had to postpone. And since then that was it - still don't meet him! (Laughs)

What about sound system? Were there sounds playing around Saint Catherine? Did you have any exposure?

Yes! Now, that's interesting you say that. There was this man called Green and Mr Green he had a sound system. So I had a lot of music from that too. I got myself into trouble by going out there dancing. Because you know they’d play something in the early light from 5 o'clock so the kids would dance around, play around, be around the vibe for a minute. But after 6, 7, 8 o'clock you had got to be going home. Unless you were considered a little rude boy! You know what I mean?

And one evening I went there and some of my friends were there and oh boy it was so much fun. Then the bigger ones come and then we realised "Oh man this is fun!" So I was there until 8.30 or 9 and I said "I've got to leave now". But then they played something else and I was like "Ah! All right! In 15 minutes I'm there. 9.30". I was there until it was like 11.30 or something like that. And I know I'm in big trouble. I went home and I didn't go inside of the house. I stayed down in the cellar. My dad came out - he heard me. There is a story there! (Laughs) We had an episode there! I wasn't going to get any beating you know? (Laughing)

Did you run away again?

Actually I ran away for a few days! The same place there. I am not going far because I have to eat too. So, okay, hear this story… He's in the house he heard me come and we used to have a donkey and goats and things like that so he had the donkey pad where you park the donkey. We have it in a little part we call the buttery underneath the house. Because it's on a hill so we had an underneath that we used to store different things.

So I went under there quietly and spread out the pad and lay on it. (Makes snoring noise) And all of a sudden it's like I'm dreaming and I feel like it's my dad holding on to me and taking me in the house. He took me in the house and went outside for a whip to come back and flog me. So I locked the door on him! (Laughs) So he was just there in his underwear and he kind of just cracked up and said "Boy, open the door". I said "You're going to beat me sir". "Boy, open the door" and he got really pissed so I realised now that this was really dangerous! I cannot let him in.

And there was another back door. There were some things packed up behind it so we didn't even use it. And then there was an overhanging window over one of the beds and I am looking at that one is my escape. He knows that so when can I crack the window and he was round there with a long stick jooking at me! (Laughs) So I played a little trick now. I went back and I kind of half opened the door. Because it had the side-lock so I opened that but it also had two wooden latches on the top.

So I opened one first just in case he decided to push it so it would take a little time for him to break off that one and come in which would give me my escape. So he figured that out and he's trying to open it from that side because he realised it was just a latch. So what I did was I opened the door like I opened the latch and the door took time in opening so by this time I'm on the bed planning the when he came inside I was just going to shoot out! But he behaves like he was going to come inside and then he rushed round there by the time I was on the ground. It was pretty high from the ground so I was in a squat. He came at me so I bounced up like a ball and ran away! And he was throwing stones at me and things like that. So I decided "He's going to kill me now but he's not gonna catch me".

So I had to hide for about three days. The kitchen was a little way from the house. It was not adjoined to the house. The kitchen was separate. So when he gone to the house for something like some seasoning or something I would come in and take a banana and take up dumpling quickly and go. One of the times I heard him shout "Boy I know you're out there! You're going to the pot!" But you know he ended up not beating me after all.

Because you wore him down after a while? Because it was so long ago that you couldn't remember what it was all about?

Yeah, yeah. And hear this one… When I was like 13 I started to behave like I am a big man and things like that. He said "You know what Clinton? I am not going to beat you again. You're on your own. So whatever you feel like doing, if you get yourself in trouble don't look for my help. You're on your own". That changed my life. Because the minute I thought about it, it was like "Oh" - the responsibility. He put it in my hands! It changed how I looked at things and how I did things. It was pretty clever of him because I was rebelling! Some funny stories.

So how come you decided to go back to Kingston?

What happened was, one time he said to me that he is going to go to Glengoffe for a while and do some things there and he thinks that it’s best that I go and spend some time with my mum. At this time it seemed to me like he was sick. He showed me his collarbone where they actually meet. He said the doctor had said that he worked too much and he needed to rest. So he's going to Glengoffe to go and chill for a minute. So I should go and stay with my mum.

I went to my mum and I got a message, a letter saying that he is sick and I need to come and check him. So I went to check him and that was the last time I saw him. Later on I got the telegram saying that he passed away. That was it. So I think because I was young and it was he and I alone, just looking back at it, he didn't want to put all the responsibility on me. So that's why he sent me to my mum and had his friends deal with the situation. I look back on it and I was upset. I was upset for a minute. I didn't cry until years later. I was about 25 when I first cried about my dad's death.

At the time it was too much.

I couldn't process it. It was hard to process. I didn't know why he didn't let me stay and deal with stuff because I thought I could handle it. But looking back on it I wasn't able to handle it! (Laughs) Plus, what he was doing, the reason why I cried too is because he used to tell me some things, words of wisdom that the kind of went over my head where I was saying to myself - because I wouldn't talk back to him - "Oh he's lived his life already and he doesn't want me to live mine". You know when you're growing up you feel like that.

But by the time I was 25 or even before 25 some of those things started to filter in. I left home when I was 19 and lived on my own. I think it was even 18. I lived on my own with responsibility and things chip in, me and my first girlfriend broke up and "Oh boy" things really started to filter in! The things he was saying. And then I was saying to myself "Man, if he was around I would give him a big hug and a kiss". And he was not here to really tell him thanks for the words of wisdom he was trying to impart to me at those times.

When you went to stay with your mother did she explain why they separated?

No she didn't explain why and I didn't ask questions then. It was just like… you know what I mean? …It's not my business?

So where were you living in Kingston?

Kingston 11. West Kingston. That is where I spent most of my time in Kingston.

So when you were hanging around with your teenage friends were there lots of other people who were or wanted to be musicians?

Yeah, there was Owen and Clanny. There were several of them. A guy named Dukey who knew Bob Andy and took me to Bob Andy's house once. In that time Bob and Marcia Griffiths were together. And then after a while Dukey got crazy. But even before that there was a couple of guys that I became friends with quick o'clock when I moved to Kingston - Vin and Neville. That was when we formed the group the Brothers which went on for a little while but we didn't get anywhere with it.

We went to Coxsone many times and it didn't happen

Who did the Brothers go and audition for?

We auditioned for a few people. One of them was Coxsone. We went to Coxsone too many times and it didn't happen. You spend almost the whole day there and nothing would happen. No one sees you. "Oh, he's busy right now". You can't meet him and when you're there and he’d drive up in his car and you try to get to him and he'd say “Later, I have I have to go do something. I will come back". We'd never see him.

And it was the same even for artists that recorded for him already. Because for a whole lot of people money would promise when people record this thing and they wanted money. So artists would hang out there all day and still don't get the money and would have to go back home in the evening without the money! (Laughs) It was tough back then.

And then we went to Treasure Isle a couple of times. Actually, the first time we went to Treasure Isle we got accepted. And funnily enough, it was Gladstone Anderson and… (pauses)

Gladdy doing the auditions with his piano?

Gladdy and Peter Tosh were doing the auditions!

Really?

And I had my little guitar from when I moved from the country. We were there at Treasure Isle then I was playing it and Peter said "Hold on, hold on, let me play it". And Gladdy said "No man, him do a good job man. Let him go on. Make him go on." So we played and sang and they accepted the song. We went to the studio the same day and the Gladiators were actually recording. I'm thinking that it was So Fine? But anyway, they took a long time and so the day finished and we didn't get to record.

So the Gladiators stopped you from getting your first break?

Clinton FearonYeah, so we went back the next Sunday because we had already got accepted. We went back and there was Duke Reid standing out of the front of a shop with a long gun in front of him on the ground and two short guns at his sides! (Laughs) So we were like "You know, we got accepted last week to come". He said "Well, you've got to do it all over again". So we got frustrated and also with the gun thing too. The two of them didn't go together in our heads!

And then it wasn't long after that that Errol Grandison who was a member of the Gladiators at the time was passing our gates and met up with me. He let me know that they lost a member which was David Webber, the guy was kind of going away there in the head so they weren't singing together and it was just Albert and Errol Grandison. So he went and told Albert, and me and Albert met up and the rest of it is history as you know -18 years! (Laughs)

So what happened? Errol was passing by and heard you singing?

Yeah, I had my little guitar and I was sitting on the veranda and was just strumming. He hollered over the gate and said "Hey man, nice" and told me who he was and asked if he could come in. I said "Yeah man" "come on in". So he came in and I am still continuing singing and so he would come sing along with me and things like that. That was when he let me know that they had lost a member and he thought that I would be perfect for the slot. So he went and told Albert and Albert came by a few days later, maybe a week or so. And like I said, I was a Gladiator since then for 18 years.

What was the first tune you recorded?

The first one with Gladiators was Rock A Man Soul in the Bosom of Abraham - that one and another one, Freedom Train. Freedom Train is coming soon. On the Matador label.

So Matador was the first producer you worked for in Gladiators?

Right. But before then they already did Hello Carol and I think they did So Fine.

Albert said to me "Boy, you would be a good bass man you know?"

So after Matador how did you end up going to Studio 1 and recording?

Well, we were still just hopping around trying to make it. After a while Hello Carol dropped off the charts and I don't think they made that much money from it in the first place. Just a little popularity in Jamaica and so forth but that was about it. So after me and Errol and Albert got together we did the things for Matador and then we went to check Coxsone and we said "This is our new song". But it still lingers. Still didn't get in to do something with Coxsone at that time. And then Errol Granderson left. He couldn't take the runnings. It was too tough. No money. So it was Albert Griffiths and myself alone. And then Coxsone actually accepted something with us and that was when we did Bongo Red. That was just the two of us. Then Gallimore Sutherland came in.

Is it right that it was at Coxsone 's studio that you started picking up instruments and playing?

Yes. He had some old instruments there that were just sitting in the side there. At this time we thought it would be nice to have some instruments that we could just play around with. So we checked Coxsone and he let us have those instruments and we were supposed to give him a little money for it so we figured if we recorded for him it would be like a pay. We'd record something for him, a song or two and we would have the instruments. But he wanted money for them! (Laughs) Just playing a game with us to you know what I mean? We didn't have any money to give him.

So we went away with the instruments and were inspired. I got stuck with the bass because when we were just playing with the acoustic, just one acoustic guitar and singing, between intervals I was humming the bass line. So Albert said to me "Boy, you would be a good bass man you know?" So when we got those instruments automatically I was appointed to do the bass. It was quite a trip learning to play the bass!

And I can remember going to the studio and the song was Selassie Bandsman. A friend of ours came to the house where we were practising for a long time, we had a little space with the set up and drums and things like that. Winston Carter on drums and I think Clinton Rufus, Albert Griffiths on guitar with him and Audley Taylor on keyboards. This guy I can't even remember his name - we called him according to the name of the song. The name of the song was Selassie Bandsman so we just called him Selassie Bandsman! (Laughs)

It was quite a trip learning to play the bass!

Was Selassie Bandsman a singer?

Yes he was a singer. We used him to practise to play but when we thought that we were ready and he was ready we brought him to Studio 1 endorsing him. And in turn we would get to play.

So we went to the studio and we started to record the song and when I reached 1/4 of the way through the song in my head I was like "Man, I am going down on record". That messed it up for me. I messed it up. I had to start all over again. It took almost 3 hours to do the one song and I was the main culprit. And at one time when I got through it and it was Sylvan Morris who was the sound engineer at the time. Sylvan Morris said "Bassie you're behind the beat you know?" "Oh yeah?" "Alright let's roll again". And then he repeated again saying "You're still behind the beat, man". "No, it's not. It is impossible, man".

So he said "Come here" and I went round by the mixing and recording room. And he played it for me and he was right. I was behind the beat. I was like "What going on?" I couldn't understand it. Because how I was hearing it I was with it. So I learned something there too. There is that millisecond if you're not careful. That millisecond – boom - and it shows up. (Laughs) So that was a trip for me. That was a trip. A learning experience.

You guys also did some stuff at Randy’s as Gladiators?

Yeah we did. I can't remember if it was a couple of songs.

The Race?

The Race! (Sings) "You’re already in the race". We were just searching. We were just searching for a way. It was in the same time when nothing was happening. So we tried this and it didn't work and we tried that and it didn't work. So when we went to Randy's and they accepted us so we were like "Yeah, we'll do it". We did the song and for the pay I remember they said "Boy, the song is not selling too much and we don't have any money to give but we can give you some records".

Randy's said "We don't have any money to give but we can give you some records"

So they gave us some records - I can't remember how many. Boxes of records. One box was 25 or something like that. They gave us maybe three or four boxes. So I was the one who went round from house to house up in Redhills Road and all those places and sold the records! (Laughs) Then I realised "Ah, people have mangoes on their mango trees even though the season is gone" so I used that moment to sell a few records and get a few mangoes to come back with! (Laughs)

Read part 2 of this interview where Clinton opens up about why his time in the Gladiators came to an end…

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Read comments (1)


Posted by Guillaume Bougard on 12.12.2016
Clinton tells stories with so much humanity and soul. Just like his songs.

Lovely

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