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Interview: The Congos’ Watty Burnett Looks Backwards and Forwards

Interview: The Congos’ Watty Burnett Looks Backwards and Forwards

Interview: The Congos’ Watty Burnett Looks Backwards and Forwards

By on - Photos by Matt Furman - Comment

"Heart of the Congos album... to be honest with you I wasn’t impressed with it"


They say you should never meet your heroes. I don’t agree. Whilst some may disappoint and others just about meet expectations, many far exceed even the media’s benign presentation.  And so to the grave will go my memory of meeting with the legendary roots reggae harmony group, the Congos. It was almost surreal and certainly sheer ecstasy to join them on tour trundling across Europe to Glastonbury’s maxi-festival. During the tour, the group’s verbose bass\baritone Watty Burnett took time to talk with United Reggae. This is what he had to say.

Watty Burnett

To start, want to get anything ‘off your chest?

I am one of the Congos – and there’s no question about that. On the other hand, before the Congos were around in the early 1970s I had my solo career with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry – from 1968 - when I produced a lot of singles, like ‘Rainy Night In Portland’, ‘I Man Free’, ‘Open The Gates’ and so on – 13 songs in total. Though I had a lot of tracks, I didn’t get an album from them, as all the tracks were released as 45 singles. They ended up on a lot of Lee Perry box sets with Trojan and so on. And one day somebody said to me ‘Watty, you have a lot of tracks, you could do an album’. But all the tracks were singles – but I hadn’t thought of the album. It’s very important to see all that I did with ‘Scratch’. The ‘45s’ were a step above what I was thinking, because if my music wasn’t good enough it couldn’t be a ‘45’ single. So in my head, it was good, because to have all your tracks released as singles, well not many people could do that. I didn’t think of that fact before, until an Australian interviewer said it to me.

I am one of the Congos – and there’s no question about that

Where do the names ‘King Burnett’ and ‘Watty’ come from?

‘King Burnett’ - ‘Scratch’ give me that name and I didn’t know why. Up to today, I still don’t know why. ‘Watty’ came from Junior Murvin of ‘Police and Thieves’ fame, when we grew up together in Port Antonio, capital of Portland, east of Negril – that’s where I was born. He was one of my first friends, from kindergarten. So we grew up together. The reason the name came was I was very stuttering. And with certain words, I just couldn’t get it out – Wha..Wha..Wha.. So everything I said, they said: ‘What? What? What?’ That’s how the name came.

What happened to the stutter?

The stutter? Well a friend of my family told my mother that she should let me speak a little faster, because that will get the stutter out. And that’s exactly what happened. But at the same time I could sing, no problem.

Greatest achievement in music?

Wow! That’s a hard one. My greatest achievement in music is to know Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and to be friends with Bob Marley and to work with him on vocals. And to be friends and work with Jimmy Cliff and to be friends with the whole reggae fraternity. I would give all the credit to Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry – it all began with him on June 11th, 1968 when I did my first single ‘Pound Get A Blow’.

My greatest achievement in music is to know Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and to be friends with Bob Marley and to work with him on vocals

Greatest disappointment in music?

It’s really important to understand, but in those past times we’d sing because we’d love to sing. Money wasn’t the issue in those days, the first love was the music. You’d want to hear your name on the radio instead of money. But when you grow up and have to take responsibility then it’s a holy shame – money becomes important. And a lot of us got taken because we didn’t have a lawyer, or got a criminal lawyer who doesn’t know the business. We got exploited.

Who has had the greatest musical influence on you?

I would say Brook Benton, Nat King Cole, Earl Grant and those artists from the 1950s. 

Any musical projects going on you’d like to tell us about?

I did a ska track a couple of years ago ‘Ska Music’, with a video, and it went crazy, and everyone was saying to me that I was meant to do the ska. I had done ska before, but now they started to call me ‘the grandfather of ska’! But I won’t take that credit, I can’t, because people like Derrick Morgan and Stranger Cole are still alive and they’re the daddies of the ska. But I will take the credit for the revival of ska, because I’m the only one now who’s doing that. There’s white bands around the world doing ska and they’re doing a great job – respect. But the music was discovered by black people in Jamaica. Ska is really jazz, with our spin, style, taste and horns – horns are the backbone of ska.

Money wasn’t the issue in those days, the first love was the music. You'd want to hear your name on the radio instead of money. We got exploited

Your return to ska prompted the new album ‘The Lost Book Of Ska Part 1’ album, with a stellar cast?

Yes, lots of different musicians, there’s Ernest Ranglin, Derrick Morgan, Stranger Cole, Daddy U-Roy and the only living legend from the Skatalites, Lester Sterling. And Dean Fraser is the youngest man on it! And the reason we have Part 1 is because we’re making Parts 2 and 3! And we have an instrumental melody version of Part 1, so it could be ‘The Lost Book Of Ska – Instrumental - Part 1’. But  ‘The Lost Book Of Ska Part 1’ is done and I have an attorney who’s doing the exclusive marketing. All we need is good distribution and to use i-tunes. It’s the first authentic, organic ska recording since the Skatalites, Prince Buster, Jimmy Cliff, Derrick Morgan, Stranger Cole, the Wailers, Toots and The Maytals, Desmond Dekker and Eric “Monty” Morris were on the go. Produced by Rafeal Allen and myself for Skaville music, it will also be available as a double vinyl issue on the Skaville Music label – the release date will be announced shortly.

Favourite reggae artist?

Wow! That’s a very hard one again, my friend. I have so many that I respect. That’s a very very hard one. I’m pleading the 5th Amendment on that one. To be honest with you, I’m not dodging from the question, but it’s very hard for me to figure that out.

I understand you did some backing vocals on Marley’s ‘Exodus’?

Watty BurnettYes, I did work on ‘Punky Reggae Party’ – but I didn’t get my credit! But it’s okay, because the world now knows that I worked on that. And I did vocals on ‘Bongo Man’ for Jimmy Cliff – and I was paid great, because Jimmy felt a little weird because there was some mix up that my name didn’t appear on the credits. But Jimmy apologised and we’re still friends.

Any Marley memories to share with us?

Oh yes – there’s so many. I’m going to tell you one. One night Junior Murvin, Junior Byles and I were in the studio after recording – because we lived there! At 2.30 in the morning we hear ‘knock, knock, knock’ and Bob come in. He says: ‘Wha deh? Wake up ‘Scratch’. I want to sleep but can’t. I got a vibe and I gotta put it down’. So I wake up ‘Scratch’ and we go in the studio where I’m playing percussion and Bob’s on the chair playing guitar on ‘There’s a natural mystic blowing …’.   That night we did 2 tracks and it’s my favourite Marley story. Bob couldn’t go back to bed. He said: ‘I can’t sleep man, I got to get this down’. So we put it down and it stayed.

I read that Tosh was a friend of yours?

Oh God, Peter is like my brother man. What happened is that the first song I did, the Jamaicans were saying it was Peter Tosh. He became one of my best friends. Every morning we’d come into town from Red Hills in the green BMW with a big spliff – best friend.

Any view on his murder?

Wow wow wow – when I heard it that morning my wife told me and I thought it was a joke. And when I heard who did it …. I happened to know some of those people, and that freaks me out. In the case of 2 people – Peter Tosh and King Tubby - it’s hard for me to absorb. If you can hurt people like that, well I don’t know, I don’t trust people any more after that. Because those 2 guys were like saints.

Peter Tosh and King Tubby .. If you can hurt people like that .. I don’t trust people any more .. those 2 guys were like saints

Speaking of ‘saints’, Tosh was presented as militant and aggressive, Marley was presented as peaceful and loving. But some claim Marley was physically aggressive. What about Tosh?

Well I heard that too – but being around Bob and all those people I’ve never seen a trace of that kind of behaviour from either. When recording we used to go with Lee and Bob and play soccer or whatever and then leave and go to Jimmy Cliff. But I’ve never seen that behaviour.

Who is your favourite musician?

Wow wow – a hard one again! Well, I could give so much respect to Ernest Ranglin, because most of my music tracks are from the Lee Perry days and the Congos and everything and he plays on it. There’s Boris Gardiner, Keith Sterling, Winston Wright, Tommy McCook, Bobby Ellis and all of those Skatalite guys, But the only one guy that I really missed and didn’t get to know him personally is Don Drummond. I saw him one Christmas morning when I was a kid, but that was it. He just got wasted away. I’m still trying to figure out how I didn’t get to know this guy to meet and talk to him. Because to me those guys are still alive.

On previous meetings I was struck by your reverence toward Mr. Perry?

Well for the past 4 years Perry and the Congos have been sharing the stage together around the world, through our French agents Mediacom. ‘Scratch’ is great man. When I see ‘Scratch’ I just light up, I’m all right. And guess what? He feels the same way too. Whenever he sees me he just lights up and says ‘Wow’. We never had a bad day, it never existed. And he has kept himself well.

‘Scratch’ is great man. When I see ‘Scratch’ I just light up, I’m all right

When the ‘Heart of the Congos’ album was completed, did you realise what you were dealing with?

No. Because to be honest with you I wasn’t impressed with it. But I never ‘toot my own horn’, that is, I don’t ‘big up’ myself. In the music thing, what a lot of these young artists should realise is that it doesn’t matter whether I’m getting paid or not, whenever my voice or expertise is going on any recording I give 110 per cent. I never cut it short, because the record is for ever – so I’ll do the best that I can at that time.

What was the best part of the Congos reunion for you in 2006?

The best part is to forget what happened before we broke up. I put it behind me. Let’s forget that crap and start anew. That’s the best part, because my soul, my heart was able to understand and forgive. Whatever happened, whosoever was wrong, whatever it is, let’s start over again, fresh.

The hardest part?

Watty BurnettOkay. The hardest part is that my wife couldn’t believe that it would happen, because we went down to Jamaica just to do one show for ‘Rebel Salute’. So when I was leaving home she said: ‘Okay Watty, go do your show and come back safely, because it’s not going anywhere from here’. Then when she called Jamaica and asked them to put Watty on the phone, she was told, ‘Oh, Watty’s gone to Europe’. The reason that she didn’t hear that I was in Europe is because she was pissed at me and teasing me and I wanted to show her that after 30 years ‘Scratch’ and I were going to  work and be on stage again with the Congos. She thought it would never happen again. But she realised then that it did and she said: ‘I’m never going to say anything weird to you again! The Congos are a great group’. And another hard part was adjusting myself again musically and to accept the road again as a choice. Because up to that I was a father to my kids living in New York. The re-adjusting was the hardest part – to be young again.

Favourite politician?

Oh boy! Those guys! I could say, in the Manley era, Michael Manley and Norman Manley – those two I could actually understand and respect.

Least favourite politician?

Ninety-eight per cent of them! But no names. Politics is a very dirty job, messed up. The people are good and they accept. But when politics comes around it destroys a lot of friendships, with a lot of crap.

Any view on Zimbabwe today?

Wow! Well, Zimbabwe and the Congo and that area, it’s a problem. And I think that music is the only thing that can solve it. If these people can listen to the reggae songs, what Bob, the Congos, Culture, Burning Spear sing they might get some sense! It should be what we sing about.

I regret that I didn’t have a business manager from early to take care of my things

Any view on homophobia?

No. Because I have family members who are different. When I was growing up I had a problem with it. And then I said ‘who am I to judge?’. I did have a very strong view on it, but I  had to change. I learned and at this point I know who I am and these people are people and it’s not a choice that these people made. It’s just what happened. I would never hurt or say anything bad about those people, because I have friends who are like that.

Outside music, any interests?

Interests outside music – no, not really. The only interest I have outside music is to see the world coming together. Yes, I have family – a lot of nephews and nieces, but I come from a musical family. My father was a great singer and guitarist and we played in church, my brother was a great singer. When the Ethiopians started, my brother was one of the singers. But he didn’t get to record because he left for England. And Eileen and I have 2 children, Cory and Jesse. And I’m missing 2 shows soon for Cory’s wedding in Hawaii. And I have an interest in all sports, even my wife asks: ‘How are you watching golf on the t.v.?’ But I just love it. Even games I can’t play are very interesting to watch – they’re very good for your head, to watch and learn.


Well, like I told you before, I regret that I didn’t have a business manager from early to take care of my things. Because, I’m going to tell you now, there’s a lot of money out there still which is owed to me and I have a good lawyer on the case and everything and I’ll get it. If I don’t get it, my son and daughter will get it, or their kids. I’ve worked for it and it’s there and no one can take it. It might not be in my pocket at this point, but some day, somehow, some way someone’s gotta pay.

I would like to see the musical youth in all areas clean up their lyrics and make it make sense

You’ve lived 30 years on Long Island. Will you stay in the U.S.?

Yes, I will, in New York. I’ve spent more than half of my life in the U.S. I can’t and don’t want to get rid of my Jamaican accent, but I’ve more ties to the U.S. now than Jamaica. My family are in the U.S. so I spend more time there than in Jamaica.

You don’t work as an electrician anymore?

No. What I do for money is sell used cars. I go out and buy crashed cars or whatever from the insurance company. If I can see that it can make 200 or 300 dollars I buy it from the insurance company and get it fixed and sell it. I’ve been doing that for about 20 years. I started with the Mustangs, to Toyota and then to Cadillacs. – so I buy anything that I can make money from. 

Remaining ambitions?

It’s still music. Yes, what I would like to do is to make my family and my friends respect me and understand that I’m happy. They might not know now. My kids – when they see me dancing on stage, well they don’t want to see that. I can understand that. Daddy is embarrassing them. That’s the way they are. They don’t listen to my music, it’s hip-hop for them. But already they’re starting to see that what I’ve done is good. My wife is an English teacher at High School and she’s Jewish – from whose people I’ve learned a lot about business -  and in some places they call me the Mayor! My neighbours are all different kinds of people -  Indian, Italian, Jewish, Chinese etc. But I am the only one who everyone talks to! So I’ve learned from the different cultures. And I would like to see the musical youth in all areas clean up their lyrics and make it make sense. Every song I write I recite it – it’s a poem. Every song is a poem. If it doesn’t make sense, don’t do it.

I know what I have to do – keep working and never let anything get me down

Are you happy?

Yes. I’m very happy. But I would be happier if I got the right treatment sometimes. Because touring might look like a bed of roses, but it’s not. The only time I feel very happy is when I’m on stage with the people and the fans.  Otherwise, though I may look bored, I’m not, because I’m always doing work, writing, communicating with the band, dealing with my attorney etc. I’m always busy, and that keeps me very good. There’s never a dull moment in my life. Tomorrow morning I know what I have to do – keep working and never let anything get me down.


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