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Interview: Junior Murvin

Interview: Junior Murvin

Interview: Junior Murvin

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - 6 comments

"I will always sing until my eyes are closed"

Sampler

In 1976 when Junior Murvin voiced Police and Thieves for Lee Scratch Perry over a rhythm laid by Boris Gardner, Sly Dunbar and Ernest Ranglin, he had no idea the song would resonate far beyond Jamaica. It became a hit in the UK following the unrest at the heavily policed 1976 Notting Hill Carnival, and was covered by the punk band The Clash. 35 years later, with a new album, 'On Stage', in the works, the man from Port Antonio with the alarming high falsetto returned to London to play a concert with fellow punk rock adoptee Willie Williams. At the time relations with the police were again strained in the wake of the death of Smiley Culture, and a month after riots would break out across the capital, resulting in calls for the Notting Hill Carnival to be cancelled. Angus Taylor spoke to Junior Murvin before the show and reminisced about his career and many legendary artists he met along the way...

Junior Murvin

You grew up in Port Antonio. What was your own childhood like there?

I grew up as a Christian and my grandmother was a Christian. I was always appointed to do something. I pumped the church organ and I rang the church bell! For most of my childhood I had to do things in time. My grandmother sent me to church in time, I had to go to school in time - so I was kind of restricted under good mannership from my grandmother Essie Smith, may God bless her soul.

Why did you make the move to Trench Town via Montego Bay?

While I was living in Port Anthony my grandmother died - she was my great grandmother so I went to Montego Bay to stay with my next grandmother when I was 12-13 years old. I went to basic school in Port Antonio and attended Montego Bay Technical High. Then I left and went to stay with my auntie in Trench Town.

This was in the rocksteady era. What music made an impact on you at the time?

Definitely. I didn't really have favourite singers, not even now. Just the ones that sent something smooth into my mind. The singers that really sent soothing things to my mind were Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye. Then in Jamaica you had Ken Boothe, Leroy Sibbles, Derrick Harriott.

How big an influence were Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions at the time?

He was the most influential roots singer. Roots that sing all different kind of music. Like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Dennis Brown.

Curtis Mayfield was the most influential roots singer

What was your first break into music?

My first break never went anywhere. It was actually my second break! When I was living in Glendevon there was a Rastaman named Mr Sunny who heard me singing. He called me and said "There's a Rastaman up on the hill in Green Pan. You ever hear of a man name Roland Alphonso? You can audition up there". So I went up the hill and sang to Roland who said, "Bwoy, youth sound good" so he told me I must come to Kingston the next week to audition. I went to Beverleys where I was auditioned by Derrick Morgan, Roland Alphonso and Desmond Dekker. But then my mother, I'm not sure whether she built up a story saying I had to go back to Montego Bay but I went back home and it never came through.

Then you got your real break voicing for Sonia Pottinger.

Yes the next one which came through was with Mrs Pottinger for the first song I ever recorded called Miss Cushie [sings] "I KNOW A WOMAN BY THE NAME OF MISS CUSHIE... SHE HAD A LITTLE PUSSY CAT... SHE GAVE THAT CAT EVERYTHING THAT SHE HAVE... ONE DAY THE CAT SAT IN THE ROAD... A BOY ON A BICYCLE HE RODE... AND KNOCKED THE PUSSY CAT TO THE GROUND... MISS CUSHIE SAID MI WAN MI PUSSY CAT!" (Laughs) That was my first song for Mrs Pottinger. But I didn't stay with her very long.

Why did you leave to start working as a singer/songwriter with Derrick Harriott?

I was young and I never meant any harm but I was moving around! Derrick Harriot was my mentor. He was a decent chap. He dressed well, was attired properly, so we usually liked to see him. He was a mentor who carried us through. He was a good personality. I wrote Solomon for Derrick and Tang Tang Festival Song and Yah Yabba Yah Festival Song by Keith and Tex. I was smoking when I wrote Solomon and I wrote in about five minutes. Right after I drew the weed a heard the song singing in my head.

Solomon was only beaten off the number one spot by Toots 54-46 Was My Number after he got out of jail right?

That year those two songs came out like two horses coming out of gate for a race. But I don't see the difference - they were just two great songs. The only difference was one song can't stay forever. Solomon was number one and then in came 54-46. It didn't take it down, it was just the time was right for him to come down! (laughs) I once did a show as a youth and Toots shook my hand. Years later I reminded him about it.

How did you get the name Junior Soul?

There was a friend of mine named Jackson who used to live in Jonestown who taught me to play the guitar. Then I met Eric Monty Morris and he taught me to sing harmonies. Monty would carry me to different singers yards and I would sing. One day I went to Stranger Cole's home and he said to Monty "Youth here have soul". So when I went back and told my friend Jackson he said "why not just call yourself Junior Soul?"

One day I went to Stranger Cole's home and he said to Monty Morris "Youth here have soul". So my friend Jackson he said "why not just call yourself Junior Soul?"

Which other singers did Monty link you with?

Monty Morris carried me to Alton's house when I was a little youth and Alton asked me to sing and gave me a spliff first. And when he gave me that spliff it was like a song came to me and just out of nowhere I  started to sing! The herb carried me now and started throwing my voice up and in the air and down on the ground! And Alton said "youth you wicked yunno". I met Alton round Coxsone's a couple of weeks before he died and he was talking about how Hugh Griffiths covered his song and said "I told Hugh Griffiths to cover your song because we are close and him love you". And I told him "remember years ago when you gave me a spliff?" and he said "Wha???" and finally it did bring a joy that we did a special for a sound together.

There was another Junior Soul in America wasn't there?

That other Junior Soul is a liar! Not a good personality. That next Junior Soul he used to trim me. He used to trim me, Busty Brown from the Chosen Few and Derrick Harriott in Jones Barber shop - one of the most popular barber shops in Kingston. His name was Junior too. But when they interviewed him a couple of years after he told them that he heard about the Jamaican Junior Soul. I thought "how can this guy hear about me when he used to trim me???" Crazy man!

What other memories do you have from the Derrick Harriott years?

Now this is one thing I don't remember all the time - The Diamonds. I used to audition for Derrick Harriott and these three guys came to me and it sounded good. So I went outside the shop and called Derrick and said "these three guy a wicked! Come listen to them!" I never knew it was the Diamonds! Whenever I see Tabby and those guys I get a welcome. They respect me to the max.

Is it true that you auditioned for Lee Scratch Perry at Coxsone's in 1967 long before you recorded for him in the 70s?

I auditioned for the Wailers. Peter, Bunny and Bob. But when I sang this song they said they wanted one more verse so I had to go and stand by a big tree at Coxsone's where Scratch would always be but when I went there he never came. Bob, he talked good things about me. Peter Tosh and Bunny too, I was amongst them when Derrick Harriott used to have a shop near Beeston Street. The Wailers and the Heptones and brother Toots.

You were also in bands with Max Romeo and Dennis Brown for a while.

Junior MurvinYes the first band I sang with was the Hippie Boys with Familyman and his brother. Me and Maxie Romeo were the vocalists in my first band. Then we had a band named Falcons. Me, Dennis Brown and Willow who plays trombone and is in America teaching music as well as Busty Brown from the Chosen Few and a good female singer. A lady called Miss Ivy. Then the band was defunct and the members went their ways.

You did just one song for Clive Hunt as Junior Soul, Curtis Mayfield's Super Love - that got reissued by Blood & Fire back in 2001.

Well this one is a joke! (laughs) Clive Hunt came from the army, he deserted the army. He is a great arranger but he deserted the army at a young age and came to Derrick Harriott when all of us used to go down to Derrick Harriott and play my guitar. He had some friends in America who were looking for someone who could sing close to Curtis Mayfield so Clive came to me and said "Gimme a love... we have to dweet yunno. I've made the riddim for you already." Clive knew how to do the vocal arrangement because he is a great arranger, he plays the trumpet and he did horn arrangements for big stars like Peter Tosh, Bob all those guys. And when I went to sing the song it was in my key because he was a smart musician and from playing the guitar with me he knew my key. His friend rolled a big spliff and blew the smoke in the room then kicked me in there and shut the door and said "sing!" (laughs) But it was a good gesture and a great experience because Clive Hunt is a great arranger.

So with such a lively scene going on in Kingston why did you go back to Port Antonio and join Young Experience?

It was just feelings - nothing outrageous and nothing bad. Just to kind of cool out. I joined my next band Young Experience and started singing in hotels. They were a bunch of talented guys from Port Antonio. A guy named Jerry Harris who usually played guitar and sang. I brought him into the band. Then there was a guy named Earl Jackson who has the Native Studio in Port Antonio who played the bass. Then there was Linford Richards who usually played with Burning Spear, a great guitarist who is now playing with the Jolly Boys. And then Fitzroy Frank on drums who played with Sonny Bradshaw for a little time. And then the vocalist was Carol Nelson who is now living in Canada and the next vocalist who came in when she went away was a young woman called Amanda Care. We went around playing the North Coast when they opened the big hotels there. We played in Cuba for the Prime Minister's wife Beverley Manley's birthday party and we played for Norman Manley.

Why did Young Experience split?

It went defunct again because the drummer had something with the bass player and he said he was going to sell his drum set! (laughs) So he sold the drum set and then this lady who liked we came to me and said "Murvin, we can't afford fi make this band mash up yunno. I know a bank manager where you can borrow some money and purchase a van." There was a rich Chiney who lived in Port Antonio called Lee who used to manage the band but Lee said he was not going to sign the loan. So the band split up.

Tell me about how you wrote the songs you would record with Lee Perry. You spent some time in solitude didn't you?

About three weeks after the band mashed up there comes the idea for Police and Thieves! I wrote that in Port Anthony after smoking little herbs at a place named Folly. It's an old building that a lady was trying to build but she used the salt water with the material and it fell apart. I used to go up there and cool out, write songs burn a little spliff and get a little vibes. Three weeks after I went to Scratch and he put in a couple of words. Chris Blackwell came in, listened to it, liked it, loved how I sing. He signed me for three albums but I only did one because Lee Perry and him had some disagreeable things.

You recorded a second album with Scratch that was never released.

Yes with the Apostles band that backed Burning Spear. I carried them there. I named the band and everything. They did the backing for me. The Bradshaw brothers from Norwich were the management.

Police and Thieves got big at Notting Hill Carnival 1976 when there were tensions between police and carnival goers. With police brutality still an issue in London is the message still relevant?

Yes they told me it mashed up the festival. It was the big song of the festival. The star tune.The message is still relevant. I never knew it would be relevant now. I never knew about that. I just sang songs and then it coincided. I was young at that time but there came this great musical vibes in my head where I can't really tell you what was going on! Natural.

How did you link with Joe Gibbs? Tell me about Cool Out Son.

After I left Scratch I went to him and did Cool Out Son and some other songs. We were rehearsing with the band and the guitarist got miserable. I said "Patient man ride donkey" and that was how the song Cool Out Son came up. Every time he heard that song the guitarist would look at me because it was his idea the song came out of! I owe him still I should give him something!

Tell me about your 1982 album Badman Posse for Mikey Dread.

Disastrous! That guy was disastrous man. I didn't get anything for the album. Nothing but a thousand dollars.

After Mikey Dread you worked with Junjo Lawes?

Junjo was a slick guy. Every day he'd change into yellow clothes, white clothes, yellow boots, blue boots, white boots, all form of things. He was kind of a hip guy. The album Muggers On the Street did well. Greensleeves took it and it sold well.

I wouldn't even say Police and Thieves is a song. I would say it has moved from a song to a proverb

Both you and Willie Williams had your tunes covered by the Clash. What did you think of the punk cover of your song? Did you listen to any punk music at the time?

(thinks) Lee Perry used to play one or two. I really liked the Police and Thieves version. It just crossed over to see it's friends so I'm happy! I'm happy for any band who sings it back. I wish them the best! When people are brutalised by a certain section of society they grasp for songs that teach them reality and good uplifting things to move with. I wouldn't even say Police and Thieves is a song. I would say it has moved from a song to a proverb. A proverb is greater than a song, I would put it that way. Music doesn't carry a grievance to nobody. It's just in the lyrical content. Music only talks to you when you play it. Music can't say "hey no play me"". Music can't do that! So as long as the man them sing the conscious things we can uplift the nation with it. But if you deal with violence, violent and downgrading lyrics that call the woman "Gyal" and that sort of thing there "Gyal yuh underwear" and "siddung pon it" I have no business with it.

Who is coming out with the right lyrics today?

You have Singing Melody. Singing Melody is special to me because he told me it was my voice that he used to practice. You have the group LUST - they are a great set of singers. I was supposed to sing with Beres Hammond in a group. He sent for me to sing but I didn't go because I heard that he rehearsed very hard! Beres is a favourite friend and a great singer like Dennis and Bob.

Let's talk about your own voice. You are known for your high falsetto but you can also sing in many different registers. How big a vocal range do you have?

I usually sing high but I started taking it down because the notes were getting too fine. A guitar has 22 frets (although some have 25). Usually when I practice my notes I take it to the 18th fret. Every morning I used to go to Folly house and there was an island across I and could make my voice echo over there. Then one morning I went to the 20th fret and I just left it and didn't go back. I hit a note once at a hotel and I blacked out after I hit the note. That note was near to the 22nd fret of the guitar so I decided to come down. Once I was with Lee Perry voicing a tune and when I hit the note his console got distorted. He said "Bloodclaat, Murvin wha you gwaan with man? The console ah disturb on mi four track!" Because in those times when I was singing if your material wasn't good my voice would make it look bad. It can't fit the voice because the voice was too strong for that. I once went to sing a dubplate at a little studio and when I hit certain notes there was a big problem - computer got mixed up! (laughs) But to train my voice I jog hard and don't smoke nor drink. But I took it down because the notes got too high. I like to sing cooler and more relax because I used to get hot you know bwoy!

I hit a high note once at a hotel and I blacked out

You're still based in Port Antonio. Why have you kept such strong links there all through your life?

Most of my songs come from my hometown but it's not that that really keeps me there. I love my hometown and I'm planning to do some things for the younger generation. I'm working on  the children thing - some basic schools for the children. I'm an educator in that section.

What advice would you have for young artists and your fans?

It pays to be good. In what you're doing just do it good. Live good, that's my saying. Because it will come back for you to enjoy it or it will come back to haunt you. Tell my fans I wish the best for them and love them and I will always sing until my eyes are closed.

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Read comments (6)


Posted by treacle on 10.21.2011
I was blessed to see/hear Junior sing LIVE at the Hootananny in Brixton, he is a truly amazing artist. Great interview Angus.

Posted by Strongtree on 10.21.2011
I wonder if the second album Junior Murvin recorded for Lee Perry will ever see the light of day???

Posted by Angus on 10.27.2011
Good question. I spoke with David Katz, Perry's biographer about this and he says that several singles (Bad Weed/Closer Together, Crossover/I'm In Love, the bootleg/dubplate Rasta Get Ready) have surfaced. However, these may have just been sessions Junior cut at the Black Ark after the first album rather than sessions for the second album, and may not have used Ax of Jahpostles band. The mastertapes for the album could have been lost, buried or distributed to a variety of different sources, so the mystery remains...

Posted by Singing Melody on 01.18.2012
WOW! Mr. Junior Murvin is my mentor and it is true that I practiced to his songs. He completely shaped who I am today as a singer. The business is changing but great voices like his will live forever.

It is so incredible to see this today on the heals of my album "They Call Me Mr. Melody" being released yesterday with critics saying the same thing.

May God bless Junior Murvin and those like hime who blazed this trail for me. I love you Junior!

Posted by Nikolay on 10.23.2013
Lee Perry will return to Jamaica soon and could record a new album with Junior Murvin! He said it in the interview to Freed Perry recently (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Enx-LY_da4c)

Posted by droid on 12.04.2013
Fantastic interview Angus. RIP.

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