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Interview: Earl 16 (2014 - Part 1)

Interview: Earl 16 (2014 - Part 1)

Interview: Earl 16 (2014 - Part 1)

By on - Photos by Denis Cherim - 2 comments

"In Jamaica music is just every single way – in the churches, in the dances, in all things"


London may no longer be reggae’s capital outside Jamaica – but it has many of Jamaica’s reggae legends living in its midst. One often to be seen enjoying concerts and events by his peers is Earl Daley, better known as the singer Earl Sixteen.

A seemingly ageless presence with an unblemished voice, Sixteen has been active since his teens. In the 1970s and early 80s he sang for a procession of crucial Jamaican producers including Joe Gibbs, Herman Chin-Loy, Derrick Harriott, Boris Gardner, Lee Scratch Perry, Augustus Pablo, Linval Thompson and Coxsone Dodd. Following his relocation to England in the late 80s he has been no less prolific – happily voicing for global sounds and labels spanning all sub genres of cultural reggae (and pushing past those the boundaries with guest appearances for pop and dance acts like Damon Albarn and Leftfield).

This year the four-decade veteran has output two eminent albums – and counting. The first was Natty Farming with Spain’s numero uno re-creator of vintage eras Roberto Sanchez. The second: Gold Dust – with long-time UK collaborators Nick Manasseh and Roots Garden Records.

As well as being a hugely important singer Sixteen is also one of the nicest people in the business. He was happy to invite United Reggae into his London home - where gold discs hang on the wall - and take us on a journey from his roots to the present time. Angus Taylor spoke to this living lightning rod of reggae history for this in-depth two part interview - part one of which deals with his early days.

Earl 16

You grew up around Waltham Park Road, Kingston. What was it like back then?

Waltham Park has always been one of the hot points of Kingston, because it’s not too far from Trenchtown, Half Way Tree and Waterhouse. It’s kind of in the middle of a big quagmire of ghettos, but with an uptown kind of vibe. So some avenues on Waltham Park Road have some really magnificent houses and then some avenues have a lot of zinc fences. You go down one avenue and you’re like “Crap! I just came across the road from Triston Palmer’s house and it’s just pure zinc fences”. The thing is back in the 60s and the 70s everyone kind of had that family touchy feeling because some people couldn’t afford to feed the kids, like my aunty used to look after some of the kids in the area. And the next thing about Waltham Park was they had one of the biggest dancehall kind of venues, I can’t remember the name of it but some of those big gangsters used to come to party and stuff.

Was it a lawn?

It was a lawn, where loads of the sound systems like Coxsone, Duke Reid and Tubbys used to pass through, so that area was one of the places where they started shooting up the dances. Not shooting up people, but shooting up in the air because there was an abundance of artists that came from the whole Kingston 11 as well. There was Sugar Minott, Ken Boothe originated from down there, Ranking Joe used to live down there, Dillinger still lives there – you had people like Roman Stewart, Tinga Stewart’s brother, I mean there was a truck load of artists, man! Triston Palmer, Jah Thomas, Linval Thompson, Junjo Lawes from Volcano sound. So you know it was kind of an area that’s got its bads and its goods, its ups and its downs but it’s one of those places that’s kind of the middle of the road kind of thing.

Describe your childhood.

When I was younger it was cool. In that area there’s a lot of Catholic schools – you know Jamaica’s full of Catholic churches, and I used to go to Catholic school. I used to have to like walk the plank because if you come from one street you’re probably not allowed to come to another street because there were a lot of politics involved and some guys were PNP, some streets were Labour. So if you come from a street that they think “This street has got pure Labour” then you can’t go on the next street, it’s just like 50 metres apart. So for me to just go to school during the day back in the days it was a problem for me. I used to have to run straight to school, I can’t walk slowly across Thirty Three Lane or Thirty Five Lane because there was some guy who was like “Hey! Where are you going? Where d’you come from? Wah-wah-wah…” you know what I mean? It was kind of really tense as well.

Growing up in Jamaica is kind of a family thing, it’s a very traditional family motivated kind of culture

It sounds like you were probably quite glad to get to school!

In 1966 when Selassie came, he wanted to donate some land and a school - and that was one of the areas that he donated a school. His Majesty Junior Secondary school was built there off of Waltham Park Road, so we used to go there. We had a centre, the Haile Selassie Community Centre, where all of us used to gather. Because around that time the whole Rasta movement started to get into society and people were still hanging out. Jamaica used to fight against the whole Rasta and dreadlocks thing a lot. So for us that kind of brought most of the gangsters or the dons to one kind of vibe, to one level because when you come to Selassie I Centre it was like a community centre where you just go to relax and take it easy. So we used to have PNP, Labourite, everybody used to come together. It was one of the good things that happened for that area because a lot of people didn’t have to pay to get their kids into school, it was a proper Junior Secondary school. It was rough but because I was there I even had a chance to see when Selassie came off the helicopter and stepped onto the platform. I was one of the kids that helped build a platform, so I was there to witness that. But even then even going to Tivoli Gardens was like a big problem, and it was just up the road from where we lived. But it was cool.

How did music help you growing up in that stressful time?

Like I said, growing up in Jamaica is kind of a family thing, it’s a very traditional family motivated kind of culture that we have. Everybody had to go to church. Every week we had to go to Sunday school and evenings, all week you had to be in school and church. So in the churches I used to like hanging around with the choir, the people that played the keyboards, the musical instruments. Then, because my dad was a guy that used to build guitars, banjos, strange instruments and play all the time and I think I kind of got the music vibe from him. He was always tuning up his strings, tuning up guitars, handing them out to people round the area. But the churches were where I got into the vibe of all music because they have this attitude in Jamaican churches where when they start singing and clapping and the guys would start dancing, jumping around and they’re saying they get the Holy Spirit or whatever. I thought “Wow man! It’s like a dance!” because these people are jumping around, praising the Lord but doing some crazy dances and stuff.

How about secular music?

I suppose also one of the things as well in Jamaica is the radio used to play a lot of American soul and English really nice pop music, but in the 70s it was really laid back. My dad used to be into a lot of groups, like the American groups. We used to listen to a lot of Chi-lites, Jerry Butler, really old school music. Jamaica’s such a musical place. You’d go into the bars in those days and you had jukeboxes where you could put a ten penny or whatever and just play music. Every bar there was always music playing, so every corner you go in Jamaica there was always some form of vibe.

Every bar there was always music playing, every corner you go in Jamaica there was always some form of vibe

I’m sure you’ve been asked this before but just to cross this off the list - are you any relation to Matador Daley, the producer?

I wish man! But I know Lloyd Daley very well. I’ve been to his shop, he had a record shop, a bar. He had one of the most prettiest girls, his wife Kitty Daley was the prettiest woman in the whole of Waltham Park Road. Anyway, Matador was one of the founders. He used to build speakers and amps and stuff, it was the same kind of King Tubbys kind of attitude. But I’ve never had the opportunity to record for him because I was too young at the time.

How did you start singing outside church?

A friend of mine who was in the choir in the church started to teach me how to sing falsetto because my voice was pretty and young. I always wanted to sing like Michael Jackson, I wanted to have that reach. I was just about 13 or 14 at the time, I didn’t really know that you had people like Ken Boothe living in the area, Sugar Minott, all these guys. I used to have a friend who was a music teacher who used to live on Chilsholm Avenue, just off Sugar Minott’s yard, and I used to go straight to his house all the time and he tried to show me how to read and write music and stuff. It was kind of strange. The way he used to do it, he would write a song and it would be like a whole book, just lyrics after lyrics - verse, chorus, verse, chorus, then a mid. It was too complicated for me. I just wanted to jump on the rhythm (laughs). But I spent some time with him and he showed me writing a song, putting together lyrics, putting together the whole thing. And at that age 14 or 15, I was going to school with people like Michael Rose, who was in the same class, Winston McAnuff, the next brethren called Teddy Brown, Franklyn ‘Bubbler’ Waul who was always really into playing keyboards. So it was always that kind of musical upbringing. If you have that kind of vibe, in Jamaica music is just every single way – in the churches, in the dances, in all things.

I always wanted to sing like Michael Jackson, I wanted to have that reach

You did your first tune with Alphonso Bailey Leggo Offa That.

That was my first tune as a solo artist. I was about 14 or something. Phonso was living on Waltham Park Road. I was practising all the time, going in and out of dances because there were so much dances, every night of the week there was a dance along that road. Then I started to go a bit astray. I didn’t want to go to church. I had to go to church Sundays but that was it. I stopped going to Sunday School. But this guy Phonso he used to come in all the time to my parents’ restaurant. He had a record shop and I used to go to the shop and hang out in the evenings. Then I saw Freddie McGregor come in there when he was young, they were organising to do a session at Harry J’s and I was like “Can I come to studio with you guys?” and he said “Yeah, yeah, sure, but make sure you go to school before”. So that tune I did Leggo Off Of That, or Leggo Girl, that was one of the tunes that my music teacher wrote for me (laughs). That’s where I tested it out.

How did you start to enter talent contests?

That’s one of the things that we used to do a lot in the late 60s and 70s. The talent contest was just something to do because we didn’t really know how to get a record contract or record deal. You didn’t really get those things in Jamaica, you haven’t got record companies. So I wanted to get into the music business. I’d already done some recording with Globe International with Phonso. Then also the whole attitude of getting into the proper music business, to get into a good recording contract, to get dynamics to recognise you, to get good recognition in Jamaica, you had to enter one of those talent contests. The ones that I wanted to enter, I was too young. I was always too young because it was for, you know, big people, like Junior Tamlin used to be there, all these bigger, older guys were always in charge of everything.

What was the first contest you won?

It wasn’t Vere Johns, Vere Johns was before. The one they were doing was the Bohemia talent contest. Bohemia was a club.

Yeah, where Michael Rose and Rod Taylor were discovered.

Exactly. Bohemia was one of those clubs where they had that kind of atmosphere every month, end of the month they’d have a talent contest. All artists young and upcoming would go there and compete against each other to see who could see the best and stuff. I used to hang out there. The talent shows in Jamaica are like what we have now in X-Factor and The Voice and that kind of vibe. For me, to be able to win the contest at one point meant from there I started meeting some of the top musicians that were playing there, people like Boris Gardener, Ernest Ranglin, Hux Brown on guitar, you had like Mikey Boo playing drums, Michael Richards was there. It was just some of the top musicians. From meeting those guys and they were really impressed with me for being such a young kid and my voice, I was really into the falsetto thing, I was trying to be the next Michael Jackson or something, but for me it was a good opportunity to meet the proper musicians and to get a kind of headway into how the whole thing was set up, how the business was set up and the production. So doing that at that age, at that time, was one of the best things that I’ve done.

How old were you when you won the contest?

I was about 16 or 17.

How did you form your group the Flaming Phonics?

Flaming Phonics started a little bit after the talent contest. The guys that were a part of that group, one of them used to go to the same school as us, Tarrant Junior Secondary, which was Paul Blake I think. Paul was always into singing. I think to be honest the three of us were going to the same school and Winston McAnuff and those other guys were more into learning the guitars, playing the drums, playing keyboards, and we wanted to do a singing thing. The three of us formed up this group and then we had a guy called Polak who lived close to Paul. Polak was tall, ‘Big Bird’ we used to call him, and he had the most amazing falsetto voice, so we said “Right, that’s it now, we’re going to put a group together”, so we did that and then we wanted to put out some records and things like that so we eventually went round to Duke Reid to try some auditions.

Yes, that’s right – and you had a strange experience…

We tried doing an audition there and we were not really uptown guys but two of the guys lived in Havendale, which was a little bit out of the ghetto kind of area (laughs). So me and Paul we were kind of used to hearing gunshots every night, you know, people fighting and stuff like that, but not the other two guys. So the four of us we were there and we did the audition on top of the building, on the rooftop overlooking town. The guy that was doing it said “Listen, I like the tune, come back next week and I’m going to talk to the Duke and arrange a session”.

They got the musicians in, we went in to do the voicing and Duke came in and just opened up his gun because he said he didn’t like the rhythm track, something wasn’t right with the bass or whatever and it was too fast for him or something. He just started firing some shots and we were like “Fucking hell man! I wonder if he’s upset with us”. We thought it was our singing or something (laughs) and we couldn’t wait for the session to finish. We were like “Bwoy, I don’t think we’re going back there!” Duke Reid’s studio was in a very rough area near to Coronation Market, near to Tivoli Gardens. It was really a cool area still though. I was used to going to the market with my mum and all that, so I was used to the area but the guys, once they heard a couple of gunshots said “Look, we’re not going back. We’re not going back”, so I was like “Bwoy, there’s nothing I can do!”

So we ended up going to Herman Chin Loy who had a studio called Aquarius and we recorded a song there called “Hey Baby”, which was released as a Flaming Phonics, but that was the only venture that we did as a group because immediately after that I met a guy called Mikey Campbell and he introduced me to Scratch. We used to go round to Scratch and try to get the little group thing going but Scratch was not interested. We were like a kind of soul group with big afros, all of us dressed the same, you know? It wasn’t really the right thing but it was just kids.

Meanwhile your schoolfriend Winston was writing songs for Joe Gibbs and Derrick Harriott – which meant you ended up singing his Malcolm X for both.

Winston was literally one of the brightest kids out of the secondary school we used to go to. Winston passed all his exams and got accepted into a school called Excelsior. Him and Franklyn, and I’m not sure maybe Michael Rose as well, myself and a couple more of us, we ended up going to a school called Saint Andrew’s Tech, which was further down, closer to Tivoli Gardens. But Winston was always a very bright guy and he’s always writing, writing, writing, writing songs. He didn’t have the best voice but his charisma, his attitude and everything, we loved him and we’d go everywhere together. Winston ended up writing, I think, Malcolm X. Yeah, he tried to record it for Gibbs and Gibbs didn’t like his vocal or whatever. Then he came and got me and I voiced it for Gibbs and after about six months we didn’t hear no release, it didn’t come out…

Earl 16

So then you went to Derrick.

We went to Derrick Harriot, we voiced it. Derrick loved Winston immediately. Winston called himself the Electric Dread because he recorded a song called Mule Train, which was a Count Prince Miller tune, and he did a cover of it for Derrick Harriot and it started picking up on the radio and everything because Count Prince had come to England. Winston was fantabulous, man. He was really great. Then he wrote tunes like Ugly Days and he started doing some serious writing with Derrick and Derrick was really impressed with him, because at this point Winston was still in high school. Because Jamaica is not such a big place we could go around the island and still go back to school in the afternoon (laughs). I think Winston got into that before graduating from school, he got really, really popular and ended up on television and all that in Jamaica.

How did you meet Boris Gardner and become part of the Boris Gardner happening?

Me and Flaming Phonics, after we did that song Hey Baby we used to do a lot of concerts. We used to do concerts in the school barbeques and school fetes, we used to get shows in the Carib Theatre and stuff like that. Boris saw me singing with the group and he said “Hey, I really need a lead singer for my band and I really would like to talk to you about getting some training” because the bands at that time they used to sing covers. At that point the group kind of split up because Boris literally poached me from them, took me from the group. But me and the guys used to still hang out.

Was the Boris Gardener thing happening at the same time that you were voicing for Joe Gibbs?

Round about the same time. Because I was in training with Boris, I didn’t go straight into working with Boris. I used to go to his house from time to time, every weekend. These guys were all dressed in the same way because it’s the hotels circuit, they were playing the hotels for foreigners or they’d play at like the nurses’ balls or the policeman ball or something, some fancy dos. They were always rehearsing to keep tight. So that was happening but I really wasn’t in the band as yet, so still freelancing, doing my own little thing, you know?

I used to go to Joe Gibbs a lot because that’s where people like D Brown would just turn up, just come and hang out, have a cigarette and reason people. I was like “Wow!” It was something that we really liked doing. He had a shop as well in Kingston, downtown, close to Randy’s and Randy’s was the next place where a lot of artists used to hang out. Gregory Issac had a shop around the corner, and African Museum. It was a really crazy time growing up, absorbing all that energy, all that vibe. During that time the vibe was really, really claustrophobic. There was so much going on. The whole starting of the dub scene, King Tubbys was coming out with some dub albums, Bunny Lee kind of helped to make dub famous because he used to make a dub and say “This dub is made especially for Lee Perry” and then he’d put Lee Perry’s name on it and Lee Perry would go mad and would go “OK, this dub is going straight to the bwoy Striker Lee’s head”, so the music would become more challenging and more interesting.

I used to go to Joe Gibbs a lot because that’s where people like D Brown would just turn up. It was a really crazy time growing up, absorbing all that energy, all that vibe

What was Boris Gardener actually like as a band leader? Your predecessor in the Happening Tinga Stewart told me that when Tinga sang a note wrong he hit him on the head with the bass.

(Laughs) Nah, Boris was kind of radical because he was a perfectionist. That was the thing about Boris. He eats, he breathes, he lives music. You go to Boris’ house at six o’clock in the morning and he’s on the keyboard practising, doing something. So we had to be really sharp. Boris suffered from a heart problem, he had a hole in the heart, so he wasn’t a very physical guy who could chase you down. So once he gets close to you, you’d better make sure you shape up because he could punch you straight because he’s a big guy (laughs). I always used to like hanging out around Boris. The thing about him is he’s always teaching you something, he’s always involving you, showing you something. He has one of the best horn sections.

At the time when Boris Gardener was around you had like Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, you had Lloyd Parks and We The People, and those bands were hot! You had Now Generation, Freddie McGregor used to sing in the next band called Generation Gap, you had Zap Pow and Beres Hammond was in Zap Pow. You had these bands that were top form, everybody was at top peak. Boris was like that, he was always practising. We used to do a lot of gigs as well, the hotel circuits, so sometimes if you don’t turn up to rehearsals and stuff, you get people irritated because there’s like 12 people and they’re waiting on you or waiting on the keyboard player or something. But Boris was really a nice guy too. I was too young, Tinga was older than me. Tinga became one of the big Festival Song winners. He became a big pop star. I was like really shy and scared, you know? To fill his shoes, I was not sure I could do it because those guys were out there, they were flamboyant and stuff, so for me it was a lot of work.

Isn’t this where you got the name Sixteen as well?

Yeah, because I was around that age. Thrown in at the deep end, man! Straight in there “Right we’re going to do three months at the hotels on the north coast”, I was like “Ah, I don’t think I can come because my mum’s not going to let me. I have to go to school” and this and that. It was really rough, man. I spent about a year just practising with Boris because he had another guy Errol Walker, who was one of the singers, but he was always drinking, drinking so Boris was desperate to get a nice, young, fresh guy in. The thing about Boris as well, the thing I used to like about him, all these people used to come, like Lee Perry, used to come visit him because he and his brother wrote a song called The Marijuana Affair, they wrote the score for the film by Calvin Lockhart, and I think one of the main soundtrack was Every Nigger is a Star. That tune was really popular, was big in Jamaica because Big Youth sang it. Boris sang it as well but Big Youth took it and gave it a more hardcore, kind of roughneck style. There were always some interesting people passing through, so it was really cool. I think it was the same street that Hugh Mundell lived on, so Winston used to come and check me and then we used to go and check Mundell’s sister because he had some nice sisters! So that’s how we met Mundell. We used to go knocking on the gate every day, asking for his sisters and he’d come and run us away.

Through your connection to Boris you started voicing for Scratch.

Boris used to go and work for Lee Perry a lot. Boris doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t drink – that was one of the strangest combinations I’ve ever seen. Perry would come for Boris and would be like “Boris, I want you to work for the whole week. I want you to build some rhythms. You’re the man” and Perry would just go crazy smoking, drinking and stuff and Boris would just be licking out rhythms. You know what I mean? They were just dropping tunes, like “Wow, this is amazing!” After the Phonics, some of the guys from that group, two of them which was Kenneth Hamilton - the brother of a guy called Arthur ‘Boom Boom’ which is a wicked little drummer - so Kenneth, myself and a guy called Dalton Brownie, we went to Scratch and that’s where we recorded a track called Freedom, which was one of the first tunes that Steely played on. I think we brought Albert Malawi to play the drums on that track. We did two tracks: Cheating and Freedom, which was really good. Perry was very impressed with our little Rasta band (laughs), so he helped us release the songs.

How did Rasta come to you?

During going to school and stuff the whole 12 Tribe stuff started to get really popular in Jamaica, the whole Rasta movement escalated in the early 70s, because then you had people like Bob Marley, people like Toots and the Maytals but Toots was working then with a thing called the Coptic movement which was an American church kind of thing. There was red, green and gold everywhere. Not really Rasta but a step towards it. There was smoking a lot and it was like a religious thing to smoke. So the whole Rasta thing was evolving. So I started following around 12 Tribes of Israel, going around meetings with Winston. We met people like Hugh Mundell. There used to be a headquarters, a place we used to go to listen to a sound called Jah Love when they were just practising in the evenings. The owner used to live in that yard and we used to go to that yard because it was close to Boris Gardener who was one of the musicians who used to play at the Bohemia.

Hugh Mundell became too successful at too young an age

People do really want to know more about Hugh Mundell because he was taken from the music so young. As someone who knew him, what was he like?

Mundell was really, really cool. I mean the thing about Mundell was, he was too cute. He was sweet, good-looking, and nice. He was fresh. He used to go to a school called Ardenne High School which was one of the top high schools in Kingston. He was very, very bright, educational-wise and his dad was like a judge or something like that. But because of the whole involvement with Rastas and stuff along the street that he lived he kind of broke out of school at a quick age, early. Augustus Pablo also lived at the top of that road. He had a flat there. So we got involved in the whole movement, the whole 12 Tribe thing. Mundell used to come and check me up at Boris’ because Boris was always rehearsing and there were a lot of people who used to just come and hang out. It’s a bit like Soul Syndicate used to have that same vibe in the yard with Chinna Smith. They used to rehearse, lots of people used to just hang out. Kind of that vibe.

Mundell was, oh man, we loved him so much. I loved him a lot. But the more he grew up, the more he became more spoilt because people kind of looked up to him in a certain way. But he was a kind, gentle guy. Him and Pablo used to get on like a house on fire. Pablo just loved him. Pablo literally adopted him like his long, lost son or something like that. He was always at Pablo’s house. You’d be like “Come on man, let’s go to a dance” and he’d be like “Nah. Going to do some work with Pablo”. He was one of those kids. It was tragic what happened, him getting killed.

Yeah man, I miss Mundell a lot. I think one of the things that happened for Mundell as well, he became too successful at too young an age. He was making money, driving a Mercedes when he was 17. One of the first reggae artists I know to drive a Mercedes. He became so successful overnight. He didn’t know how to handle it, because we were still wanting to go to the river, ride our bicycles and he was driving a Mercedes and be like “Shit Sixteen, you need to come with me. Come on guys, I don’t know what to do with it!” I think success really got the better of him. A guy called Tenor Saw, the same thing happened. Little John, luckily Little John is still with us, but Little John and those kids were so young when they got really big, massive hits in Jamaica.

I used to help bring Addis Pablo from school when he was just a little kid

You and Mad Professor are playing with Pablo’s son Addis on Friday.

Yes! Strangely enough. I used to help bring Addis from school and stuff when he was just a little kid, man. From when he was born I was around Pablo and Karen, his mum. I’m really impressed and interested to see that. It’s something that Pablo would have like because Pablo was someone who used to look over us, as an elder. So it’s just normal for me to be able to look over Addis as his dad is not here. Addis, they called me up from time to time, they asked me some things. They still keep in touch with us. Like I said, Jamaica’s kind of like that. I haven’t really seen that in England. It’s a very family-orientated thing. If we’re not literal kin, blood, flesh – it’s like you, if you go to Jamaica you always have someone going “Brethren, come in!” Maybe they’re going to ask you for a little change, but they’ve got that… it’s genuine.

Read part 2 of this interview.

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Read comments (2)

Posted by Joey on 08.16.2014
Mikey Dread?

Posted by Camille on 08.18.2014
Mikey Dread is in PART 2 of the interview. Coming soon !

Comments actually desactivated due to too much spams

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