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Interview: Don Carlos

Interview: Don Carlos

Interview: Don Carlos

By on - Photos by iMMage - 4 comments

"I'm just trying to do my best to keep up the strength of consciousness"

Sampler

Don Carlos (born Euvin Spencer, 1952, Kingston, Jamaica) was an early member of the Waterhouse harmony group Black Uhuru along with Duckie Simpson and Garth Dennis. After the demise of that lineup he went solo as Don Carlos in partnership with his friend Gold. A flood of albums followed for Bunny Lee, Roy Cousins, Junjo Lawes and the Hookim brothers often backed by the Roots Radics band. Currently working out of California, Carlos recently released his latest solo album 'Changes' and visited London with his band Dub Vision to play a packed show at Brixton's Hootananny. Angus Taylor spoke with him the night before the show about his new record and his long and eventful career...

How does it feel to be in London and how are you enjoying your US and European tour?

It's nice because it's been quite a while since I've been to visit my fans in London. It's been about 15 years. The last time was '95. I'm going to be playing some old songs and some new songs as well. It's always the same. Lots of good vibes from the people and 'nuff happiness.

Tell us about your new album Changes.

Well the album is really maintaining its culture you know? What I did was: I wrote the songs and made a demo and then the musicians play back I played. For some of them the musicians found the arrangement. It's got some original songs and the title song is a tribute to Dennis Brown. A song Dennis sang when he was maybe about 15 or so. And I love that song so, so I did it over in memory of him. Changes is what I called it but its original name was Things In Life. Dennis Brown was a star for everyone in Jamaica. Everyone loves Dennis Brown since Dennis came out so he was a big influence to me. He was a good human being too. He was an artist that was full of love. He was very loving. Dennis and Gregory Isaacs are two artists that I well respect.

The artwork for this release is very striking. Tell me about how that portrait of you came to be.

It was done by a youth in Brazil by the name of Rafael Costa with Rangel Melkunas. I did a tour with them in Brazil and they came up with a poster. The poster they came up with was almost the same concept and I loved it so I told him I would love something like that for the album cover.

You grew up in the Waterhouse area of West Kingston. Where were you born?

I was born on Bread Lane in West Kingston, in the heart of Kingston, but moved to Waterhouse at age three in about 1955. At the time there were some houses for the hurricane sufferers that were built in the Waterhouse area and my parents got one of those houses so we moved there.

How did you first become interested in music?

From when I know myself I knew I could sing. My Dad used to sing. He was a tailor and he used to sew pants at night. I would wake up and see him working but he would singing as he worked and I would join in. It developed from there until I went to school and I would be singing because I just got to love singing. And then after a certain age I just wanted to be in the record business so I used to go to the studio and wherever a certain singer was. Like Delroy Wilson was one of my favourites and I used to try to follow him up. Also Clarendonions and Ken Boothe. I used to go around with Justin Hinds and the Dominoes and Desmond Dekker at Beverley's Studio, musicians like Lynn Tait and Val Bennett, and producers like Striker Lee - and at that time Bunny Lee was well young too - Joe Gibbs and ting. But my first song I did was with Errol Dunkley. A song named Please Stop Your Lying. Jimmy London wrote that song for me but Joe Gibbs and Errol Dunkley went behind my back and did over all unknown to me.

My Dad used to sing. He was a tailor and he used to sew pants at night. I would wake up and see him working but he would singing as he worked and I would join in.

The political violence in Jamaica started in West Kingston in the 60s and 70s. Did it affect you growing up?

Yeah it started in West Kingston in the Trench Town area. It didn't at first because West Kingston is kind of a distance from Waterhouse so it didn't affect me until the 80s when it moved to the Waterhouse area. But I never really had a problem still because I wasn't involved in all that so I was free to go about without anyone interfering with me.

Tell me about your solo career before you joined the harmony group Black Uhuru.

Well after my song with Errol Dunkley I cooled out for a while. Then I did a song called All My Life for Bunny Lee which was another song that Jimmy London wrote for me. He wrote three songs. Then I went on and did a version of The Drifters This Magic Moment. I did quite a few songs but they didn't really get that popular. So then in about 1972 or 73 I met Garth Dennis and Duckie Simpson. We lived in the same neighbourhood.

Which vocal groups were the biggest inspiration for your group at the time?

You had a group named the Jays who were from my area. Also Mighty Diamonds.

How did you leave Uhuru to go solo?

I didn't really leave it. The group just automatically split up in a way that I think was premature. If we were more mature we would have held it together more but at the time we were all young and ting. What really happened was the first time I went to the studio to record was Duckie couldn't carry his harmonies so Boris Gardner had to chip in and sing the harmony for him on our first Uhuru song - a song named Folk Song. So I think Duckie faded away and didn't take it seriously and wouldn't come to rehearsals. So then instead of letting us reason it out and rehearse and get it tighter, he stayed away and then left to look for a job and started working at a dry goods store. Then in the evenings, instead of coming to Waterhouse he would stop in Trench Town and hook up with Wailing Souls before they had that name. He would rehearse with them and I know they did a song together.

As Wailing Souls?

I don't know the name of the group that put out the song but it was named Liberty. So that was when the group split up. Garth Dennis was the one who really introduced Duckie Simpson to Trench Town because Garth used to take him to check Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh. Garth was friends with them from youth days. Pipe from Wailing Souls realised the group with Duckie and Garth mashed up because here is Duckie coming to sing with them and they really needed a third one. So when they realised that Garth and Duckie are not together they leave Duckie come and take up Garth to form the group Wailing Souls. So it wasn't me that left the group it was Duckie who left. I had to go back on my own, Garth was with Wailing Souls, and the name "Uhuru" was left vacant. Then Duckie went to Jammys to record something and Jammy told him he couldn't sing alone, he needed a group so that's how he came to Michael Rose. They went to Jammys to record [Love Crisis] and at the time Goldilocks was with them singing harmony but they claimed Goldilocks couldn't manage it so instead they used Errol from The Jays to sing the third harmony. They dropped out Goldilocks but maybe one or two songs with him got recorded.

How did you and Gold link up to work together on your records?

Gold was living in the neighbourhood too. Originally he was from a parish called Trelawny. But his sister was living in the neighbourhood so he would come in and spend holidays with his sisters and then we would link up and he'd leave the country permanently and come stay in town. So we started moving from that. I could see he loved the music and wherever I'd go he would be there with me. If I'd go to rehearsal he'd be there. If I was going to the studio he was there. If I'm going to the dance, he was there too. So we just linked together.

Now at first you recorded as Don McCarlos. How did you become Don Carlos?

Just one song came out with the name Don McCarlos which was Late Night Blues. That was a name I usually go by too but most people know me as Don Carlos. McCarlos is my middle name.

There were several Don Carlos combination albums released as well as solo albums. One of these featured Junior Reid, another Waterhouse singer who went on to sing in Black Uhuru.

Yeah man. Some of the combination albums were just put together [by the producers] because they had the material. It wasn't something I verified. I knew Junior Reid as a kid. In fact I was the first one who brought Junior Reid to England in 1983 or 84. At that time Junior Reid didn't even have a name but I used to take Junior Reid into the dancehall. I'd carry him with me to almost every dance I was going to - Sturgav, Studiomix, and some dances in the country. Are you familiar with a label called Negus Roots? They put out a tune by Junior Reid by the name of Sister Dawn. That was one of Junior Reid's earliest songs. I think it was maybe his third song (as his first song was one named Speak The Truth and Speak It Forever). But I was the one who produced that song. And even his album [with Voice Of Progress] Mini Bus Driver - I was the one who produced that. Also Lacksley Castel's album Morning Glory? I produced that too. If you listen to the production of those two albums and then listen back to my albums Harvest Time and Suffering you will hear the same quality [Sleeve notes credit all four albums to Robert Flako Palmer]. Most of the same musicians and the same studio - Tuff Gong - where we did most of the work. Errol Brown was engineer on all those albums.

You worked with Bunny Lee, Roy Cousins, Henry Junjo Lawes The Hookims, and others. Who was the best producer to work with and why?

I don't have a favourite producer because all of them are reducers. The whole of them are pirates. The whole of them are crooks. I just worked with them because I needed the opportunity to get the music out. At the time they had the tools and I knew it would benefit them more on a monetary level because I knew producers never really give artists their value. But at the time I really needed the music and the sound to be out there.

I don't have a favourite producer because all of them are reducers.

Many artists have complained they were over recorded. Do you think you released too many albums in that early 80s period?

I was happy that those albums exposed me but I think I did it a little bit too much. I wouldn't really put so many albums at one time again.

You also worked with the top flight engineers of the era, Crucial Bunny, Scientist, Errol Brown, Sylvan Morris. Which was your favourite experience?

Most of the engineers me and them had a good relationship and they knew what I should sound like. They knew what I wanted and knew how to get it. I think Errol Brown was most gentlest one still so far because he exercised a lot of patience with me at the time that we recorded the album Suffering. Soljie from Channel One is the next and Scientist as well. I give them all credit. Every engineer I worked with I felt good.

Let's talk about a few of the big tunes from that era. What's the story behind your tune Hog and Goat, cut for Bunny Lee, where you sing, "Me think a soldier man a come but a hog and goat?"

Well of course you know a hog is like a pig and a goat is like the opposite to a sheep. I was sitting on a corner around the time of election [1980] reasoning with my brethren and smoking a spliff when here comes a truck that looks like a soldier truck. But it wasn't really soldiers, it was an old soldier's truck carrying animals - hog and goat. So when we saw the truck we got nervous and wanted to run but when we realise we say, "we think it was a soldier truck but it was a hog and goat!"

What was the inspiration for Late Night Blues? It really captures the late night hour in the dance.

The inspiration was Jah gave it to I. What happened was Fatman came over to Jamaica and really wanted to do some songs. Bunny Lee gave him two rhythms but he couldn't find an artist to voice them. He was at the studio the Saturday and he had to leave on the Monday so he asked me if I could sing on it and I told him, "yes". He gave me the rhythm and told me to study and write a song so I took the rhythm knowing he was coming back on Sunday, the next day. So I took the rhythm home and was trying to find something but couldn't find anything until I got frustrated and just held down my head on the table. In my mind I was saying, "Jah, I am asking you for something for this riddim. Please give me something". So I hold my head down on the table and close my eyes and it was like I was in a dream. I saw the lyrics just come up to me, not even in a visual way, just come in my brain, in my mind. Then I just held up my head and pressed on my two tapes. In those days the tape used to be that long tape so I had two of those - one for the rhythm and one to record on. So I pressed the two tapes on to play and the next one to record and started to sing what Jah gave me. And that's what came out - Late Night Blues. I didn't even think of it and I didn't even write it. It just came to me. I pressed the tape and it felt like the rhythm finished and I still had more lyrics to say. Then the next morning I went in the studio and one cut - that was it. Jah was responsible for that not really me. Love.

Finally, tell me about your song Passing Glance, which I believed was inspired by Haile Selassie's 1966 visit to Jamaica?

Yes, the inspiration was when Selassie I came to Jamaica. The people were so excited to see him. It was like, in that time, everyone was free. No police could touch anyone. You could smoke your herb on the street and the police couldn't do anything. All the Rastaman were smoking their chalices on the plane and at the airport on the runway and no police could say anything - it was like freedom. It was a good vibes and that was where I had the passing glance.

When Selassie I came to Jamaica. The people were so excited to see him. It was like, in that time, everyone was free.

Much has been made of the "Waterhouse style" over the years. Who was the original "Waterhouse singer" ?

I think the group named the Jays. They were the first singers that really established Waterhouse.

Your voice has kept its quality over the years. How have you maintained it?

Well it's not even me. I've just asked Jah to keep me and Jah has helped me. Because I do so many things to stress out my voice but it still keeps it so it's just The Most High.

Where are you based these days? Where do you call home?

(laughs) Well I don't even know that you know? I'm all over the place and I don't stay in a spot for more than six months. I'm based between Jamaica - because Jamaica is always my home - and America. But I find myself in America more because I work there and have access to most things that I need there.

You've brought your own band, Dub Vision, to play with you in the UK instead of using local musicians. How important is it to have your own band to play your music live?

For me it's the key to giving a good performance every time. Because what happened that encouraged me to have my own band was in 1985-86 I was invited to open for Jimmy Cliff at a place called Central Park in Negril in Jamaica. I was supposed to use Jimmy Cliff's musicians and most of them were my friends. Ansell Collins, Ranchie, I grew with most of them. They were supposed to back me and they were supposed to rehearse my songs and ting but they claimed that they did it and they didn't. So when I went on stage it was like didn't even now or remember any of my songs then. And the show was for two nights. The first night they flopped me and when I came off stage they were like, "It alright man, everything alright. Two hours working and we skipped things and we never got time but tomorrow it will be better." And the next day it was worse. So that let me know that if I really needed to be in this business I had to have my own musicians.

Many foundation artists have complained about royalties. Are you being paid what you are owed?

No no no. I think I'm the most underpaid artist really. I've had songs that have sold millions and I didn't even get a penny from that. Right now, most of my songs, I'm fighting to get them back because up to the Negus Roots album Suffering and Harvest Time - they are claiming it like it's their own and they did it. And it's mine so it's very frustrating knowing that people can come and claim your things and feel like you don't have any rights. These things can make you want to hurt people but I don't even know what I'm talking about because I don't hurt people. A man's actions will take care of him because you get paid by your works and action brings reaction.

I think I'm the most underpaid artist really. I've had songs that have sold millions and I didn't even get a penny from that.

What would you do differently if you were starting out today?

The best thing is to do the thing on your own because technology has come out now and it has got easier to do your own things. Because of the internet right now, record companies get a blow! We have no more need for record companies so a youth can do his own thing.

What in your opinion was the most pivotal moment in reggae music?

I think when Bob was around. We have yet to see the next artist with both the positive vibes and the success.

And what do you think of the state of Jamaican music today?

I don't even know what to say now. Because Jamaican Music is supposed to be an inspirational music towards the people of the world but in these days it's not really throwing out the weight that it should. It's diverted. The message has diverted from the music. All I know is I'm just trying to do my best to keep up the strength of consciousness. I'm moving towards righteousness and trying to enlighten all the people that really need the message and the guidance.

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Read comments (4)


Posted by Jeffrey on 06.28.2010
Yeah man, pass me di laser beam, come mek me wipe out de wicked dem clean..big up Don Carlos.

Posted by Ishy on 07.09.2010
Don Carlos one of the greatest in the business. And I learn a lot from him. Don remind us every chance he gets to stay on the path of righteousness. Don Carlos forever one love.

Posted by The twin on 09.01.2010
I think Don Carlos is one of the greats, alongside the Cool Ruler and Steppin Razor, keep up the good work Don am still bumpin Sufferin in 2010.

Posted by SouthAfricanKingman on 10.08.2013
More fire we love u Don

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