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Interview: Carl Dawkins

Interview: Carl Dawkins

Interview: Carl Dawkins

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"Satisfaction was the heartbeat – boom boom boom"


Instilled with the rawness, hurt and sincerity of tone of an Otis Redding or Ben E King, Carl Dawkins was - and is - one of the finest Jamaican voices of his generation. The son of a big band drummer, raised in Allman Town, East Kingston, Carl was in the thick of the capital’s music scene during the late 60s and early 70s among friends Slim Smith, Ken Boothe and the Wailers.

He is best known for 1969’s rocksteady smash Satisfaction, produced by JJ Johnson, and said to have sold a remarkable 80,000 copies. Although he is traditionally associated with the pre roots “Jamaican soul” style, his tendency towards Rasta inspired social commentary led to not one, but two tunes –This Land and Dr Rodney – being banned by the government. Prior to the release of Satisfaction, he also served prison time for ganja possession alongside Bunny Wailer, Lord Creator and Toots Hibbert.

Unlike some of his brethren, his talent did not translate into an international career after the 1970s. Today his recordings are the preserve of the obsessive enthusiast and those who grew up in his era. However, Carl’s music showed its staying power when last year Satisfaction was sampled by US dance portal Major Lazer for their track Jessica. Dawkins currently has a new album out, Hard Times, containing covers of his favourite soul artists and is preparing for a mini European tour of Belgium and France starting this Sunday August 31st.

Angus Taylor dialled Mr Dawkins in Jamaica to get his take on his crucial part in the island’s cultural history. He found a man whose voice remains a thing of beauty: a man who, while more inclined to singing than talking throughout the interview, was able to share a few fascinating memories and opinions about the calling he clearly still loves.

Carl Dawkins

You were born in Spanish Town, St Catherine, but you moved with your mother and father to Allman Town. Your father was the drummer Joseph Dawkins who played in a big band orchestra.

Yes, my father started playing music and he started to branch out with the band so he just had to move. My father was playing jazz music and I used to move around with him aged about three or four years old. He was playing in hotels and night clubs like Club Havana and Glass Bucket.

Which musicians did you grow up around?

The Sterlings – Lester Sterling, Roy Sterling and Keith Sterling; Roland Alphonso; Little G; Earl Kinnear and people like that. I was a kid then.

Did you pick up an instrument in your youth?

As a youth, no. When I got older I picked up a little guitar. But as a youth I was more into soccer. I really liked soccer.

You attended Allman Town Junior School and then Kingston Senior School where you grew up with Slim Smith, Jimmy Riley and Alton Ellis. The Techniques were formed while you were still at school.

(laughs) Yeah I was at senior school with the great Slim Smith and Marcia Griffiths and all those people. Slim Smith always used to sing in the choir. Jimmy Riley used to run, he was afraid of the headmaster. They’d always sing. The Techniques. Winston Riley, Slim Smith, Frederick Waite - the one who sang the high tenor [the father of Junior and Patrick Waite from Musical Youth]. Derrick Morgan was around but he was much older than us. It was nice going to school with them.

Which singers from the USA did you admire growing up? I guess the Impressions were pretty big at the time?

Yeah Curtis Mayfield was my idol because Slim Smith could sound like him. Also Jackie Wilson.

Curtis Mayfield was my idol because Slim Smith could sound like him

You cover his Lonely Teardrops on the new album – Hard Times.

(Laughs) Yeah, that man can sing! Sam Cooke as well.

Who was your main vocal influence?

Between Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and Ben E King.

At what age did you sight Rastafari?

Woah… I would say… from a youth. From being kids I would grow up around Rastaman them. They called them Blackheart Man but it was them we loved because they taught me justice and humility and all the nice things about people. The good things and the bad things about people that none of us are aware of. Good thoughts like that. The rootsman they show we justice no deh bout. Because when you look at how much suffering is around it really couldn’t be so it shouldn’t be so. We grew up like that, until Bob Marley really run with the flag and it got serious and they began to check Rasta and see the earth’s rightful ruler. Since we’ve been kids man, we’d learn to behave ourselves and be nice around people and as Rastafari we just had to do it. You know Conroy Cooper, a big man he would tell us how to honour in the street the elders them. It was only Rastaman who had that kind of time then because they refused to join the system and go to work nine to five and all these things.

You were friends with Milton Henry. I interviewed him and he said he helped you arrange Satisfaction. Is that right?

Yes! Medious! Yeah man! He taught me most of the guitar. Medious was a good guitar player. Milton, Tony Russell, myself, we used to be up in the bush. We used to sit together in this place called Cavaliers – Milton, myself and a couple of other people and smoke a little weed and thing, put our songs down and enough things. Milton was the one who said “Play the guitar man”.

You got an audition with JJ Johnson - the jukebox distributor who recorded the Ethiopians, the Rulers and the Kingstonians on his sir JJ label.

We all came from the sea one day. We all went to the sea, down by Greenwich Farm, Techniques, myself, Ken Boothe, all of us. We’d go up to Tivoli and check friends. So we go up one evening and myself, Slim and Winston we saw this audition going on and we stopped. Slim said “Come, go sing some of the songs me hear you sing there”. So I just went inside and sang a couple of my songs and they told me to come back to Orange Street to JJ’s. So I stayed there and sang some songs which worked out to be Baby I Love You, Running Shoes and Hard Time. Hard Time in that time would turn out to be the number one side but Baby I Love was a love song where people gravitated to that.

When you did the audition – were those the songs you sang? You had them already?

Carl DawkinsYeah I had them already. Because I used to just play the guitar, any time the man would take a break, and smoke the chalice with Slim Smith, the songs were just written like that in the in between times.

Milton told me you took him to JJ and he did his first song but it was never released.

(laughs) Better ask him about that song. I sing it all the time. It was nice (sings) “Welcome and give a listening in. Free from all time and we hear again. Things are happening they seem so mighty strange. Oh dear God. When there will be some change?”. Milton wrote it. I think I shall lick it over! (laughs)

One of the groups JJ was recording at the same time as you was the harmony group the Rulers – who sang the early roots rocksteady song Let My People Go. Who were the Rulers?

(Sings) “Everything Crash”

The Ethiopians?

They were the same people.

They were the same people?

Yeah (laughing)

The band that JJ was using was the Caribbeats – that was Laurel Aitken’s brother wasn’t it?

Yeah. Bobby Aitken.

Who were the other musicians you remember recording with?

Mainly Conroy Cooper. Conroy was Grub Cooper’s brother.

He went on to do Fabulous Five after.

That’s right.

Your first song Baby I Love You was released in 1967 – this was just before rocksteady? Almost like one of the first rocksteady songs?

One of the first rocksteady, yeah.

The B side was Hard Time – which had more reality lyrics.

Hard Time was the hit side of the song that I wanted to hit. Because from school a long time things kind of tough in Jamaica you know? Because from young when I see Rastafari I shine like the sun and say “Africa fi free, we must go home”. (laughs) Because some big Rastaman showed we you know? Jeremiah. Jerry Small. He’s up on the radio now you see. Those are some of the Rasta people we grew up around. Even going to school my mind wasn’t really developed about equality and justice and freedom. So Hard Time is about how the times were hard and you want to free your mind. Because the pace is getting harder and it is getting much harder now. I think it’s the right time! (Laughs)

When I see Rastafari I shine like the sun and say “Africa fi free, we must go home”

Then you spent some time in jail for possession of marijuana – just after Baby I Love You but before Satisfaction?

Right after Baby I Love You. I was holding some good herb. I was by the park when the police came and locked I up. A whole heap of us they locked up too. Lord Creator, Bunny Wailer – but Bunny Wailer dashed his away! They came down hard for the herb boy.

So you and Lord Creator both got arrested and jailed at the same time?

No, he was a week later.

And they got Toots around that time as well?

(Laughs) They got Toots later!

So how long were you in jail?

Eight months.

How did you survive?

I came in there to survive. You have to survive. Myself and Toots Maytal worked in a baker shop for some rich man. Then we saw Lord Creator come in.

You were all in prison together?

Yeah! We had good company in there. (laughs)

So when Creator got out he sang Such Is Life, when Toots got out he did 54-46, what was your song when you got out?

My song was Satisfaction. (sings) “He who tries to hold us back!”

By the time you did Satisfaction the beat had changed again to reggae.

Yes. Well, things were going fast like the ska, then we came and slowed it down and changed the feel. For 26 weeks it was still a long time in the chart. Was one of the longest things in the chart.

How did you create Satisfaction?

I started singing and I said to Milton “I need something nice, play this, play this” I showed him and he played it perfectly – 3-2-1-5 – and the feeling came along like that. Because in those times when you’d smoke some weed and run up and down, Satisfaction was the heartbeat – boom boom boom. The feeling would come and you’d slide around and the chords were beautiful. It came about one night at about 8 o’clock and the feeling came and words and everything came. And the reason why it is so short on the first record is because it was so hard for them to step up. We had a step up. A modulation we call it. When the music itself would modulate and go up an octave higher than the norm.

A modal key change?

Yeah. JJ said “No, that’s too hard!” So I said “Alright, cut it off” so he cut it off and it got short. (laughs)

Dr Rodney came to Jamaica and created a storm at the university. I was behind him 100%

That’s very similar to the story of Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay and how the whistling part was a guide vocal for an unfinished third verse.

Yes. Then we sang Get Together (sings) “Give me the right love, make me see the right love, they might try to hold us back” the bassline drops – beautiful. So I continued in that vein and that feel until they banned the song This Land. I found that feeling and I stayed in that vein for a while.

Why did they ban This Land? Was it the government or the radio?

The government – for coming too harsh at them. Because they said I was abusing the country. Singing (sings) “I don’t know if it the national tradition, but I guess if it is, damn bad situation, Oh God, what has come on this land, dear God, we need a revolution”.

Why didn’t they ban Hard Time three years before?

Oh, I don’t know. I was talking some serious things on this one also. Listen brothers and sisters this is why my heart bleeds. My heart bleeds brothers and sisters to see the people living in this whole damn misery. People living in worse than shacks and… dear God. No clothes upon their backs. Things like this the government should never tolerate it at all.

You did two tunes in 1969 for Leslie Kong. How did you start recording with him?

Yeah, Don’t Get Weary. Leslie Kong was on the other side of North Street and his money was Chiney money so it was a little better than the black man money. (Laughs) So I went over there and talked to him and he said “Yes man, we have a song here” and that was what I did with him. But because he saw I was still going down the road I just took his money and sang and gone. I never really planted any roots. Toots he stayed!

That song was licensed to Trojan in England – did you see any money for that?

No no. I saw no money. No star. (laughs)

We use hang around Peter’s yard. Peter would have his guitar

But at the same time you did a couple of tunes for Clancy Eccles – and one of them got banned. Dr Rodney, about the academic and activist Walter Rodney.

Yes, they banned the Clancy tune Dr Rodney. They jumped up for that! Dr Rodney came to Jamaica and created a storm at the university. I was behind him 100% for justice for the people. I started singing that and then everywhere there was a meeting I would just go there and sing. Dr Rodney created history man. He left Jamaica and they wouldn’t let him come back. They were glad when he left. The university has to teach the people the right thing, tell people what is going on, the writing on the wall so they see it to get rid of certain poverty and certain behaviour. He was talking righteousness. He was talking about upliftment and education for the people. For a long time education was very expensive. Even today. I saw they were having this march and discussion on the TV about what to do with the books so the kids can afford them. He was talking about that.

The next phase of your career involved the Wailers and Lee Scratch Perry. How did you meet Scratch?

The Wailers and myself were on Charles Street.

So you knew the Wailers first?

We use hang around Peter’s yard. Myself and Richard, brother of Slim Smith. Peter would have his guitar. We’d meet up and walk down to the beach and get some fish and sit all day and eat. But the Wailers ended up going to Downbeat and he was a little too creative with the business so I stayed wide from Downbeat. But I met Perry Scratch because he used to sell the records for Downbeat.

OK, so how did you start to record with Scratch and the Wailers?

I just went down there and sang and Perry gave me some money to keep a two or three day session at Randy Chin or Federal Records with Khouri. We stayed for two or three days and recorded songs. Scratch was like that. When he did a session it was two or three days straight – live injection in those songs there. That’s how those songs came about – I just sang and Perry gave the money. Not big money but at least we got something.

When Scratch did a session it was two or three days straight – live injection in those songs there

You did Picture on the Wall in 1971 – which Freddie McKay had done first.

Yes he did. It was written in Canada by me and him. Freddie’s girlfriend pushed up his head. His old lady on his wall whole heap of pictures about. He’d come into his room crying. Love is a funny thing. Love is very dangerous. Him fool fool and I’d say “Freddie she bad for you.” He looked up from his bed and saw all the pictures on the wall. But we made a nice song. That was written in Canada – most of it. We both went to Canada together.

When did you go to Canada?

In the 1970s. I can’t remember dates so well.

As well as Picture On the Wall you also did some cover songs of Temptations and Otis Redding.

Quite a few songs with Lee Perry Scratch and the Wailers.

Why did you leave Scratch?

Scratch left we! Scratch left we when the Wailers started to grow. The band was made from the Hippy Boys. They used to be my group you know?

The Barrett Brothers.

Carl DawkinsYes, they used to be my group as the Hippy Boys. I used to bring them down to Scratch and they became the Wailers and Lee Perry Scratch started using them properly.

First they became the Upsetters and then they became the Wailers band.

That’s right.

So what happened next? Did you go to Bunny Lee?

I went to Bunny Lee but not to record. I went with Slim Smith because Slim was my friend so everywhere we’d be, we’d be together. Bunny Lee was my friend too. How you know so much about this business?

(laughs) So how long did you stay with Bunny? Just a little while?

Just a little while and then leave. Bunny used to drive up to the school and pick us up and carry us to Greenwich Farm. Bunny was a friend but I never recorded. Sometimes Slim would ball for money. He would cry out “No money”. Most of the time it was hard to get paid man. Most of the time it was so hard. So he turned so violent and stupid and thing.

He died in 1973. It was tragic what happened to him.

What happened just licked up my head. He got frustrated. He’d go home and talk to himself. He’d go and talk to himself in front of the mirror and start smashing it and cut his arm. Everybody got afraid of him. Even his uncle got afraid of him. That was sad. Very.

During the same period were also in the Youth Professionals with Family Man, and Tyrone Downie – who would also go on to play with Bob Marley.

That was short lived because I just sang here and there did a trial thing for a while. Everybody’s thing got big so I just decided to go find some work for me which never lasted long. (laughs) I was kind of hard to keep going without regular money. Quite of a few of them went on to be in Wailers. Tyrone Downie, they wanted a keyboard player so I carried him over to Scratch and from there he jumped off to Bob’s band. Tyrone is a genius. Touter too.

Yes, Touter Harvey. He went on to Inner Circle.

Yes, Inner Circle.

In 1976 you did some songs for Geoffrey Chung.

Yes, Geoffrey arranged them. Geoffrey was the arranger. Pluggy Brown was one.

And No Happiness Here.

(sings) “No happiness here” – I’d like to get a copy of that! Then the record company fell down. Everybody bolted. What was the name?

Black World?

Something like that. Somebody just grabbed everything and gone.

Chris Blackwell came and signed everybody and parked them so Bob could go through

In the same year you did one of my favourite tunes, Fire Is Burning, which came out on Brad Osbourne’s Clock Tower label in New York.

(sings) “Fire is burning”

Did you record that in New York?


Who did you do that for?

Coptic. Nya Keith. He had big money for one tune.

In 1977 you recorded the Bumpity Road album for Harry J – who had a deal with Island Records.

One time Chris Blackwell came into the Bohemia Club. That was when I was with JJ. When Chris Blackwell came I did the album Bumpity Road at Harry J. Chris Blackwell came and signed everybody and parked them so Bob could go through.

So what happened to the music in the late 70s and early 1980s – why did you slow down?

The 80s – gunshot all over the place and everything hard times. I had to go to the country to live. Politics took over the music man. This time enough guns really fired so it was like man never too interested. No money to make from the record company.

The 80s – gunshot all over the place and everything hard times. Politics took over the music man

So in the 80s how did you survive?

I just did some shows. Are you from England? Because I don’t know French people who speak so proper!

(laughing) Yes. Did you do anything outside of music to survive?

No sir. Just sell some herb. A little herb I’d sell in my yard. (laughs)

In the 80s you became involved in the long-running show Heineken Startime.

Actually I started Heineken Startime. I used to live down near the Oceana. The very first set of Heineken Startime it wasn’t Heineken then. It was just Michael Barnet putting on some things. It started in the piano room. Over time it grew until it started packing out that little room. So we said “Let’s move it up the road” and then we started using a band with Lloyd Parks and it grew big and moved.

Now you said you avoided Coxsone Dodd back when you moved with the Wailers in the 60s. But in 1991 a song came out for Studio 1 called Rhythm of My Heart – how did that happen?

It was a Rod Stewart cover. He has a whole heap of songs with me. He has a bag of songs. Before he died I was the last vintage that joined Downbeat. When everything quietened down and he locked up his place and acted like he was not recording anything.

So there’s a whole load of stuff that hasn’t been released on Studio 1?

Lot of stuff. I used to go to Downbeat and just sing. He had some nice songs too. Songs that are written near the microphone are the nicest ones. But Downbeat is dead and I don’t know if his daughter does it now.

Around the time you were recording for Coxsone your son Carl Junior became a singer. He’s also a TV presenter.

Junior’s alright man. He has some nice songs out. He doesn’t have a million dollars but you have to take it a step at a time. He needs some airplay but he has some real nice songs. I never knew he wanted to sing.

When did you find out he could sing?

Later on up the road. One time I saw him and he came and said he’d recorded this song and that song and I said “You a sing man?” That’s how life goes. He just sprang up some songs upon me! Some nice songs. He can go in and sing.

How did you discover that Satisfaction was sampled and used by Major Lazer for their song Jessica?

My publicist Marie found out and she told me. The sales are supposed to be alright. We are supposed to negotiate some stuff on that. Monetary from recycled paper. We need to talk business with them now.

Did you register your songs with the PRS back in the 60s?

Yes, we were first because of the Wailers.

Because Joe Higgs taught the Wailers to do it.

Yes. Everything.

You have a new album Hard Times where you sing some covers of Jackie Wilson Stevie Wonder and the one man we didn’t mention from your early days, Jackie Opel.

Yeah man we used to walk behind him for Downbeat. He used to live directly in front across the street in Allman Town. He lived at 26 and I lived at 2½ across the street from him. I used to just come to the bar and sing and he would go Downbeat and I’d just walk with him. He had some serious songs.

Every young person must learn to play an instrument. Learn to play some chords

Tell me about your upcoming musical projects.

Marie has set up some shows to come over to you guys in France and Belgium. I look forward to that. I’ve got some more stuff coming out with myself and Danny Braithwaite from Upstairs Music and VPAL distribution – he is the one in control of this [Hard Times] album.

Finally – what advice would you give to young artists that want to be singers today?

Sing – don’t singjay. That’s the advice I’d tell them. The music industry needs to shape up, categorise the thing as deejay. I don’t want to hear the thing mix up. And abide by the singers and players of instruments. Every young person must learn to play an instrument. Learn to play some chords. Sing melody because the man said “singers and players of instruments”. I don’t like deejay, they talk themselves to prison – straight. Anything they talk up on the record they end up in jail. The singers they sing some redemption songs. Songs of freedom. Sing more love songs. More girls and let go cock up batty business thing there. Let go the gun talk. We just want them sing about righteousness and upliftment. And young man learn to play an instrument – don’t buy a cheap Casio. Learn to play.

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