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Interview: Dawn Penn (Part 1)

Interview: Dawn Penn (Part 1)

Interview: Dawn Penn (Part 1)

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"Coxsone was a very jovial person. I used to sit around just to get jokes"


Dawn Penn was the singing schoolgirl who had a runaway Jamaican hit with No No No (You Don't Love Me) for Coxsone Dodd in 1967. Just three years later after stints recording for Leslie Kong, Duke Reid, and Bunny Lee she left the business and Jamaica for Tortola in the British Virgin Islands and stayed there for almost two decades. Having returned to Jamaica in 1987 the same tune worked its magic again when she recut No No No in 1994 with Steely and Clevie and hit the US and UK charts. Sadly, neither incarnation of the song, a marriage of an original melody to some lyrics from Willie Cobbs' 1960 US side You Don't Love Me (itself inspired by Bo Diddley's She's Fine She's Mine) has ever given Penn lasting financial reward.

Now based in England, she has been busy with her label Da Beat, taking control of her music both old (she re-released her Vintage reissue compilation in January) and new (2004's poignantly named album 'Never Hustle The Music' and last year's single City Life - a foray into Garage). Dawn has also published an e-book autobiography 'The Story Of My Life' and again reconnected with her past by contributing to the 2008 movie 'Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae'. Angus Taylor and Dawn were eventually asked to leave a major high street coffee chain when it became clear they were more interested in talking than drinking! But not before they had recorded this two part interview where Dawn talks openly about "that song" as well as sharing many memories from a history steeped career.

Dawn Penn

You learned the piano when you were a child.

When I was going to school in Jamaica from about five there was this lady called Miss Campbell. She used to teach me to play Mary Had A Little Lamb and all these little crazy things. Then I stepped up to doing exams where the examiner used to come from Royal Schools of Music to Jamaica. Luckily for us we had a music teacher called Mrs Lena Robinson, she used to play for the Pentecostal church. She used to sit behind the door [of the exam room] and hear everything, and she'd be able to tell you whether you pass or you fail or you'd got a merit or a distinction when you come out the door. She used to have a concert at the church, I forget the name of it now, beside the Pentecostal church on Lockett Avenue, and give everyone a reward for passing the exam. She used to play for the Pentecostal church so we used to go to the Pentecostal church as well. She even entered me in the Independence Festival Celebration with a girl called Hazel Stewart, her dad was a minister. We played a duet and we came first in the duets.

You also learned the violin.

There was a man called Major Wilson, who taught us how to play the violin, from Salvation Army Church, that's where my father went. The man used to come every Saturday to teach all three of us, me and my two other sisters had our own violin. He also used to play the box guitar and the accordion. Then I was with this group called the Y Choral Group, we used to go from the hospital, to the church, to the prison to do concerts around Easter time. It ended up being a real training. You had to sight-sing to enter that group and they were backed by the Jamaica Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra.

You mentioned that you sang in church. How important has church been in your life.

I was brought up in a Christian home. We couldn't sit around the table unless the grace was said, we couldn't even pretend that we were going to eat something unless the grace was said. We could not go out of the house in the morning without a prayer was said. The helper used to go to a Moravian church, she lived in the house all the time. We went to Salvation Army because my dad was from there. We actually went to Coke Memorial Hall which was a church hall where all the churches used to meet to do something on a Saturday, an inter-denominational service. That was the norm on a Saturday night. So we literally lived between church and home and school. That was it.

We literally lived between church and home and school

How did you enter the music business?

I used to go to St Hughes, but when I was in about 4th form I went to Convent of Mercy Academy, for more reasons than one. First they were offering the subjects I wanted to do in GCE, O-Level, and there was a friend called Carol Evans, she got married to one of the Paragons, Tyrone Evans. She was my personal friend. I used to stay at her house, we used to go to the parties together too. Sometime around 1966 I used to like to follow my friends going to studio.

Your first tune was produced by Derrick Morgan - who you knew from Beverly's.

It was a song called When I'm Gonna Be Free. It sells for a lot of money on the net as a single because they call it a rare tune. PRS have it as unpublished music. It has three titles: When Am I Going To Be Free; I Want To Know When; it's also named I'm Always Round. I used to go up to Beverleys and play the piano. Desmond Dekker and the Clarendonians were over there, I know that Jimmy Cliff was there from time to time but I never saw him, I know Millie Small was there and Jackie Edwards. Those people were there before my time, by the time I started going there they had passed and gone somewhere else. I was just rehearsing on the piano. I lived at Luke Lane near North Street, and as you turn at North Street and come up this way there's Beverleys right at the corner there, then when you look down the street there's Coxsone, you look over the other side and it's Prince Buster, and when you look at the corner of that block you have Clancy Eccles as a tailor, when he was also a singer.

Then you started recording for Prince Buster before going to Coxsone.

My first new music was with Prince Buster. Blue Yes Blue, Long Days Short Nights, Are You There are the only songs I did for Prince Buster. Prince Buster was just living down the road from me, round the corner, then you had Coxsone on Brentford Road but across the road they have a Coxsone record shop. Coxsone and my sister were friends for a long, long, long time. Then my sister left and went to the States, that's the sister that followed me. I signed with Prince Buster first and then I went to Coxsone and I did No, No, No.

The pianist at Studio One, Richard Ace, also had classical training, so you and he have both brought the influence of classical music into Jamaican popular music.

The real person was Jackie Mittoo! Richard Ace used to play and sing. Jackie Mittoo was the musical director for Studio One. Anything that was going to happen recording-wise, Mr Dood would just listen to what he had to say, tell you how to sing it and he would say "Come to the studio tomorrow". Jackie Mittoo was the one that arranged how the song was going to sound. It wasn't even like he wrote sheet music. It was like the band would play according to the vibes. Like [sings the instrumental break from No, No, No] "Ta da, ta da da da, ta da da da da" , that's Johnny Moore that actually created that. This whole music thing, nobody knew the music was going to get this big. Put it this way, that was far from our agenda. We just sang what we had to do, according to what the vibe was, how you felt, to express yourself. It's really fantastic to know that it has turned, that the whole thing has been positive.

Nobody knew the music was going to get this big

Did you audition with Coxsone himself or did you audition with Jackie Mittoo?

Coxsone was the man. He had to be the man. He never made nobody audition anybody. He was the person who had to be there. You were either named Capo, Jackson or Skip and he would tell you if you have some little quirky thing. People used to come and sing all kinds of rubbish, just like you hear now on X Factor, it makes me laugh every time I watch the show. [sings] "I got a corn, corn, corn on the toe, call it corntoe. Cat, cat, cat caught a rabbit, call it crabbit". He'd say "You know what? I going to be here next week, you can't come back here that time". But he was going away next week, so you can't come back around. He was a funny man! He loved jazz a lot and he was a very jovial person. I think in his own mind he had to do things according to how his mind was set. We couldn't really try to change him but he was a quite jovial person. I used to sit around just to get jokes. We used to be afraid of him at some point, you see him talking to some police, his police friends. He was a quite learned person. He never played an instrument, but he knew what would be a hit.

Do you remember the actual session for No No No and what went down?

Yes, I remember the session, of course. A typical session, early in the morning. I start to sing, Jackie start to play and we start work out all the chords. The first, the third and the fifth chords, root of a chord, started putting in nines and sevens to make it fatter and Johnny came around and started playing his bit and the band started getting themselves involved. The recording was one take. Everything had to happen in sync, had to be correct, and if anybody made a mistake it had to be done over. It's a good thing because now when they have dub plates you can go in the studio and you do a dub in maybe two minutes or less. You're programmed to do this one take, one go scenario, so it was really a learning curve and I'm glad I went there as well and I'm glad of my involvement in it because now it has put me in 53 countries of the world plus I'm getting to go different places, see how people live, and tour for the joy of what I love the most, music.

The music is a lot more fun than the business.

My son keeps saying to me "You guys say you were doing it for fun" but I always had a job, so music, I used to be singing without even getting paid some of the times. You go and do a show, you get your clothes together, you go into the country, and maybe you'll get something to eat and you get to perform maybe three or four songs, and then come back. It was a day out somewhere. Eventually it became a business. I did a lot of songs for Coxsone that he never put out, He didn't put out an abum with me or anything. When they had a reunion in 2002 he said something about he went in his archives and he found two versions of You Don't Love Me No, No, No. He said "I bet you didn't know you sang it twice!"

Coxsone went in his archives and he found two versions of You Don't Love Me No, No, No. He said "I bet you didn't know you sang it twice!"

So when did you start registering your work with the PRS?

I joined the PRS around 1968. There was a PRS office on Duke Street in Jamaica. I in fact knew the man very well who used to run the office. It was registered in 1968, published by Penn Music with Chappell as some sort of administrator. Chappell is based here in London. By 1994 when I got the deal with Atlantic Records because of No, No, No's resurgence, making billboard charts and going all over the place, Warner had fused with Chappell and become Warner-Chappell and they just dropped No, No, No like a hot potato. Then I was hearing all kind of things like "Oh, you never wrote the song" - they never tire of saying it sounds like some other song. I saw actually on the net that some man turned up and said it was Willie Cobbs' thing, then they said something about Bo Diddley.

Yes some of the lyrics in Willie Cobbs' You Don't Love Me are similar to Bo Diddley's She's Fine She's Mine...

I don't know what it is! Willie Cobb is dead, so you can say anything, full stop. The Bo Diddley scenario is that they had an issue with Cher with a song named She's Mine, She's Fine, She's Fine [She's Fine, She's Mine]. That has nothing to do with You Don't Love Me, No, No, No, you understand? But how much time do they have that they are prepared to pull the wool over your eye. In this quirky world that we live in, you would say in a court of law you need evidence, so they'd be able to bring a CD or a vinyl that they could have pressed up last night or a month ago. It's 45 years that I'm singing it undisturbed, no-one has ever come to me and tried to take me to court, you understand what I'm saying? As for the Willie Cobbs thing, I never met the man, but I must admit, we put about two ideas of two different songs to make You Don't Love Me, No, No, No what it is, that is the truth of the matter. I knew nothing about permission, I never signed a paper with nobody, I never signed a contract, I never got an advance, I never had a copy, and I found out the song was playing on the radio and we were happy to hear our name on the radio and that was that. But it's good that over time, like 45 years, people like say Rihanna, Beyoncé, Lily Allen, Seal Paul, Jae Millz, Wu-Tang Clan, he was the one who really started it, nobody never object to nothing. It's a learning curve for me because I wasn't getting any royalties.

Then I was hearing all kind of things like "Oh, you never wrote the song" - they never tire of saying it sounds like some other song

What were the two song ideas that you put together?

That's what I'm telling you, the music was new, there was no music like that before that music and further to that you had people like I-Roy or U-Roy [Big Youth] singing their Screaming Target and all these different ones. When I went to Japan they were able to give me about 35 people who sang this song, even Prince Jazzbo, I was only aware of his version and I went to Garance festival last year.

And the KC White cut that the Big Youth rode on.

KC White was one of the eight people claiming that he wrote it! KC White was six years old when that song was recorded!

After Buster, Studio 1 and Beverleys you went and recorded for Duke Reid.

Around the time I went to Duke Reid he was working with Phyllis Dillon, she was from the country, and somehow he had taken an interest in her. She could really sing as well. I did Why Did You Lie? down there. He sold me the stamper and I thought that was it but it wasn't the two inch tape, which is the main thing for the track. So I left from there and I went to West Indies Records. From there I did tracks like It Must Be Him, and Don't Sleep in the Subway. I did it as Suzette. I was doing French in school and somebody told me that Suzette was the French for Dawn, but it was another name but I sang as Suzette anyway. Aurora is the French for Dawn, not Suzette, I just found that out recently [Suzette means Little Lily]. Up to when I entered the Independence Festival they were saying that Dawn Penn was not a good name for a singer, but that was my real name, from my father who was Mr Penn, so I switched back to my real name.

You also recorded for West Indies Records and Bunny Lee.

Bunny Lee was a guy I knew. I think there was this guy called Glen Adams, I think he was maybe from Tortola, some small island, and I ended up singing this track, they call it Let Me Go Boy but it was Slim Smith who sang Let Me Go Girl, and my own answer was Let Me Go Boy. Then I did a track called I'll Get You or That's Not The Answer but he called it some other quirky title.

Was it You Broke My Heart?

Dawn PennSome stupidness like this! That is the first line of the second verse he called the title. When I saw it I said "Oh my God!" When I sing these things a certain way I'm not supposed to track that song or something? I think he was friends with West Indies Records and they must have given him the tapes. That's why he has all these tunes like Don't Sleep In The Subway and To Sir With Love.

Music was never a full time occupation for you in the 60s. What jobs did you do through that time in the early days to support yourself?

In the late 60s I was going to school, my first recording on wax was in 1966. When I moved from Luke Lane to Church Street was when I was more or less embracing my teenage years and I had the scholarship and the family moved again to Kingston where I lived at the time. During that time I remember that every summer I'd get a job at Woolworths in the store, where I used to sell hats and the shell for making hats, so I embraced the idea of learning how to make hats. I used to buy the hat shell and I used to take the material for the dress I would wear and then buy the decoration and make the hat myself. I used to sew my own clothes as well. I used to measure it up, make the dress and then wear it in church on Sunday. After that I was doing my secretarial studies doing book-keeping, typing, Pitman shorthand, which is a hard one - you had to use hard and soft pencils. Later we learned how to do accounts, how to do the ledger, how to post and all these things. During high school I used to get jobs different places; one time I was working in the Salvation Army office serving tea, they were paying us something but it was pocket change.

How did you get into banking - which became your full time job when you left the business?

I graduated from school and then I was studying some kind of accounting thing, Lotus Database 1-2-3, Word Perfect, word processing. Then I used to work with an agency that puts you into jobs, I was a very highly professional secretary, I went into Accounts and then I started working in the bank. Temporary jobs put me into high profile jobs in Jamaica like Bank of Jamaica, National Import Export Bank of Jamaica, EXIM Bank of Jamaica that gets the money from the World Bank to disperse to businesses whose proprietors are under the age of 30, to the self employed kind of thing. Then I worked at the Bank of Commerce.

In 1970 you left Jamaica and the music business for Tortola in the Virgin Islands for almost two decades.

I went to Tortola to find my roots because my dad was from Tortola. We just barely glanced at the British passport that he had and discovered that he wasn't from Jamaica. He was always talking Spanish, he helped my sister with her Spanish, I was doing French at school and he helped me too because he knew French as well. This man used to work on a ship. I hear parents saying to the kids "You do this..." and they say "But why?" That was not an issue when we were growing up. We call it backchat, you couldn't ask a question, you couldn't have an enquiring mind about issues, you had to just go along with what you heard, that was it, and you couldn't look like you were upset neither.

How did you support yourself in Tortola? Did you do much music?

My first job was working for LIAT, Leeward Islands Air Transport, they call it really Leave the Island Any Time because they always leave! (laughs) They were coming out of Trinidad at the time but they're now based in Antigua, it's a nice airline that flies north and south in the Eastern Caribbean. Then I went to work for Pannell Fitzpatrick chartered accountants and that's where had another phase of learning - the government book-keeping. From there I went to Barclays Bank to see the other side of it. It was still general ledgers and the statements... I liked those days and I think things were a bit better when those things were in place. There couldn't be any fraud in terms of somebody printing somebody's signature automatically because you had to know the signatures signing on these cheques. Those are the sort of things I used to do. I did extra-curricular things like being the secretary to the Red Cross, all apart from singing and the odd shows because music became second place. Music was always basically second place.

Read part two of this interview here.

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