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Interview: Fil Callender (Part 3)

Interview: Fil Callender (Part 3)

Interview: Fil Callender (Part 3)

By on - 3 comments

"In Jamaica a lot of great musicians are overlooked"

Read part 2 of this interview.

In part 3 of our interview with Fill Callender, OD, he discusses the recordings of his group the In Crowd, his hiatus from music and how the In Crowd have a new album and EP in the works…

Fil Callender

So it sounds like the In Crowd started as your church band, and over time when you were freelancing you were building them up and bringing them more into the forefront. So the period when you could concentrate on In Crowd, was that a fulfilling moment for you doing your own thing?

It was as far as the music was concerned because shortly after when I left Coxsone and I started to concentrate more on the In Crowd we were doing a lot of dance playing and building up a name for ourselves as a dance band. A lot of In Crowd recording fans don’t know In Crowd’s whole history as one of the best dance bands in Jamaica. Nothing was recorded at that time but we received three major awards, three years in a row, as the best dance band distributed by the Red Stripe Awards which Byron Lee was instrumental in organising. Bryon Lee himself, his band received some awards, after a while he used us as a second band to do a lot of his gigs because he used to travel a lot. In that regard we were able to get more exposed, so later on we got those awards that he used to get. It’s amazing. A lot of people, old fans of In Crowd, not necessarily recording fans – they loved us as a dance band.

I need to give you some bit of information about the lead singer. I wasn’t the lead singer for In Crowd, there was a guy called Sonny Wong, he’s a China guy. He was the most amazing singer, in my opinion, up to now. I think he’s one of Jamaica’s greatest singers but unknown! He used to be the lead singer for the Vikings which was one of the top bands during the period.

The same band that you used to listen to when you were young?

Yes, I used to listen to the Vikings a lot. He eventually went on to be with the Virtues which wasn’t as big as the Vikings. Eric Frater used to play with the Vikings and Byron Lee. But anyway, not to dwell on that too long but Sonny Wong was the lead singer for the Vikings when they were one of the top bands, and when the Vikings folded it was just right during the period where In Crowd were beginning to build a name as a dance band and growing and getting jobs because of that Byron Lee link I told you about. So he was a brilliant singer and he wanted to be currently in a popular band and his band folded so In Crowd was the most likely band at the time. We were really getting big. I mean really big, over even $500 groups in terms of a dance aspect. He eventually came and joined with us, and I was like second singer. There was another singer who died early but it was basically Sonny Wong and myself doing most of the singing, and Sonny was the lead singer.

Sonny Wong was one of the greatest singers in Jamaica

Now Sonny could handle any song, any ballad. He could sing from reggae right back to a Stylistics sound, a Brook Benton deep voice, to a Nat King Cole smooth ballad, and sound just like any one of them. His voice was so amazing and he had such a brilliant range, the quality of his voice, you know? So he was one of the greatest singers in Jamaica in terms of a dance band aspect, but not in recording – it’s so sad, you know? At the time, when he sung with In Crowd I think Sonny reached his greatest fame, even though he did well with Vikings. At that period we were not into a lot of recordings because I was experimenting with writing. I wanted to utilise this brilliant voice, you know? It was just being wasted in dance bands and I was really thinking the real future was recording, so I eventually wrote some songs to fit his voice. I wrote His Majesty Is Coming.

Yes, I was just going to ask you about that one.

Born In Ethiopia, and We Play Reggae. I wrote those three songs for Sonny Wong’s voice. Let me explain, if you were to go to an In Crowd dance session during the period and hear Sonny Wong belt out some Stylistics songs you would think he was Russell Thompson Jr himself singing it, he was that great, the range and the brilliance of the voice. I would say “I need to capture this sound on record” so if you listen to We Play Reggae, it was Sonny Wong singing the lead, he was singing the lead on His Majesty Is Coming, and he was singing the lead on Born In Ethiopia. I was singing second lead but he was singing the first lead, and I never considered myself in this category at all.

The history speaks for itself, because it was the sheer brilliance of Sonny’s voice, the song was a good song, and I think it was the sound of the group that made those songs popular when they first came out in England. I was the producer for those three songs and when they came to England the sheer brilliance of Sonny’s lead voice and the harmonies behind it, which contributed to our sound in terms of not just the songwriting but the presentation of the song. I attribute it to Sonny’s voice.

His Majesty Is Coming, was that a completely original piece of songwriting?

Yes it was, but because I was influenced by Coxsone a lot. I borrowed some of the horn section parts and rearranged it, I think it was a song I played on, I don’t remember the name of it now. The song itself was an original song, but influenced a lot by the Heptones, you know?

Yes, it’s got that feel. My other question was the song Mango Walk, who sang the lead on that?

Mango Walk. Very good question. I’m excited about this one because this is a bit of history that nobody knows about. If you will bear with me I need to explain this one a little. Remember I mentioned to you that In Crowd were involved in some other aspects of recording before my songwriting for Sonny Wong?

I saw the music moving into another era where groups were trying to do original songwriting and producing, to become stars in their own right


While being a dance band I didn’t think that the band cared much about doing recordings, they were more caught up in the hype of the dance thing. But also I told you, that I saw the music was moving into another era where groups were trying to do original songwriting and producing, to become stars in their own right. Bands like Third World, Inner Circle, Zap Pow, all of us was around the same period, and In Crowd too. Chalice and some other groups came about later on. The bands were really experimenting and trying to come up with their own original music. I was writing, trying to come up with the same kind of thing, but the band itself didn’t have a vision at that period to say “Come up with original music”.

There was this guy I knew in the band, Clive Hunt, brilliant musician, one of the greatest musicians I know. I’m very much influenced by him also. Clive Hunt was a brilliant trumpeter, arranger, songwriter, singer, vocalist, he could play various instruments; a brilliant, absolutely amazing musician. For a period he was in In Crowd, I am proud to say. While he was there, we were doing tours to North America mainly. We went to Canada, all over various places, except England, as a dance band. We were one of the first bands that backed up Dennis Brown and toured. But Clive now, he was into recording at the time, experimenting and writing his own songs. He wrote a song while in In Crowd called Milk And Honey.

I was just going to ask you about that as well!

This is history that nobody knows. You’re one of the first to write about this. A lot of people are amazed anyway with this story and they wonder if it’s true. Clive Hunt was so great a musician. I rate him a lot. He was trying to prompt the band to do recordings. At the time they weren’t so interested because there was a cost to it and we never had that budget and that sort of thing. He went down to Joe Gibbs, wrote the song Milk And Honey, he recorded all the instruments on it except the drums. I think the drummer… at one time I thought it was Mikey Boo, but Mikey Boo corrected me and said it was a guy called Fish played the drums.

However, that Milk And Honey, the first initial one that came out, it was Clive Hunt himself on all instruments including the vocals, including the backup vocals. Clive overdubbed and did all of those things. He was that great. He was doing those things during a period where sequencing wasn’t in yet. Doing those things live in the studio, which was an amazing feat. Anyway, Milk And Honey came out and now he wanted a name to push because him himself wasn’t known yet at the time, so he put out Milk And Honey as In Crowd. We never played on it!

Clive Hunt put out Milk And Honey as In Crowd. We never played on it!

That clears that up then, because people on internet message boards have been asking this question for years.

Right. But let me explain some more stuff about that. He put out the song as In Crowd and the song was an instant hit because of the In Crowd name in Jamaica which is why he knew he wanted to use the name, right? And it worked. So nobody questioned it and we were glad. We didn’t play on it but at least In Crowd were getting some recognition and it felt good. Milk And Honey was a minor hit. Later on Dennis Brown took it up and took it further.

That’s right. And I think Max Romeo does it now as well.

It became a major international hit in that regard, so pushing our name even further – but we never played a note on that song. Clive did it out of frustration, trying to urge the group into recording. He presented the song to us and nobody paid him any mind, so he went and did it himself and used the band name. We weren’t upset, we were glad. Eventually, while he was still in the band, there was another guitarist and musician called Michael Murray, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of him, he’s now dead I’m sad to say. One of the most brilliant lead guitarists I’ve known, I would say, in that period. He was mostly playing with dance bands and he was a part of us. He and Clive, they used to move together, so they collaborated to coerce the band to do our first recording because Clive failed with Milk And Honey in terms of doing that.

So what about Mango Walk?

So Mikey Murray got this song from a group called Mandrill, called Mango Meat. If you go on the internet and you listen to Mango Meat you’ll hear some similarities to Mango Walk. He took Mango Meat and rearranged it, and created a new song around the Mango Meat idea. He took out the bridge from Mango Meat and he used the first part with the guitar - that was actually Mandrill. He put that into a reggae beat, it was brilliant! Clive also collaborated with the arrangements, both of them, put in some new lyrics and renamed the song Mango Walk.

That was the beginning and they put in some other little parts that weren’t in Mandrill’s song – so the main thing about the Mandrill is the riff. The vibes were so outstanding, it came over as Mango Walk and that calibrated to that massive rhythm. That was how Mango Walk came to life. At the same time In Crowd still wasn’t interested… they’d got no budget and they’d got no idea who was going to produce the song. So they got Geoffrey Chung, the producer from Antrim Records. Geoffrey Chung from Now Generation produced the song, and well, I’m glad to say In Crowd did play on that one. We went to Dynamics studio and reluctantly we played, have to say it was like a joke you know? (laughs)

And who sang on it?

It was Clive and Mikey Murray. They sang (sings) “Let’s go down”, they sing that. The funny thing – Clive sounds like me, Clive’s voice, he’s got a voice like me. Even in Milk And Honey, right? He made it sound like my voice, you know? But funny enough, when Mango Walk came out it didn’t do anything, it was a flop, contrary to Milk And Honey. When Milk And Honey came out it was an instant hit, Mango Walk sat on the shelves for years and years and years, nobody listened, nobody wanted to know. It was too far out.

Mango Walk sat on the shelves for years - nobody wanted to know. It was too far out

It was too progressive.

Right, and nobody listened to it. Even though Geoffrey Chung was a good producer, he wasn’t able to get the song to reach far, but he released the song on an album – I’m trying to remember the name of the album, a compilation thing, and I think that as a result of that compilation with other artists it got some exposure.

Blood And Fire put it out on their 2001 collection Darker Than Blue, that’s where I heard it for the first time.

Right. It got some exposure from then. And that’s years after, you know? Because Mango Walk was recorded in 1975. I’m proud to be associated with Mango Walk because I actually played rhythm guitar. I didn’t do any arranging or singing but I’m glad that I was on the rhythm because the song is a massive cult hit now, and also featured in the TV series Breaking Bad. Yes, it was one of the songs selected for one of the episodes. So Mango Walk is a massive cult hit now and we are very popular because of it. I’m getting a lot of praises for that and I didn’t have anything to do with it, I was just in the band (laughs).

The lineup for In Crowd changed after those initial songs.

The second group that became In Crowd after the band members left. Sonny Wong, the reason that he left the group was that he had migrated and went to United States with his family right as those recordings were coming up because as I told you, there was never enough faith in the recordings. Even though I was struggling at Channel One getting those songs out, it was right at that period that the band first broke up came. Mikey Boo and Robbie Lyn left and went with Now Generation, then Sonny went abroad, and the rest of us just left hanging and didn’t know what to do.

The songs were already playing in England and I was wondering “What am I going to do now?” I was writing songs like Back A Yard and didn’t have a band. I recruited some other musicians - well I have to attribute this to God because I was blessed with some equally great musicians. Cleveland Browne became the drummer, as you know he’s a legend now. He was originally with us. I didn’t think that there was a drummer alive that could match Mikey Boo or fit in his shoes at the time, the things he was doing. Then Cleveland Browne proved me wrong. Not only that but a bonus with him is that he’s a brilliant singer, a lot of people don’t know that – one of the best voices out there. I’ll tell you a bit of history, it’s not me singing on Getting Cozy, it is Cleveland.

Clevie's a brilliant singer, a lot of people don't know that – one of the best voices out there

Really? That’s amazing.

Yeah. On my arrangements. I was doing some stuff with Sonny Wong at the time when Sonny left and when Cleveland joined I recognised his voice and I was doing some stuff with my voice but also with him, interacting with him. He sang Getting Cozy. I sang a little but he was the main lead. So there were some surprises in the group but the band is a brilliant group of musicians.

I get a lot of big-up “Fil Callender and the In Crowd” which is nice but to some extent I feel a little sad that I think that they undermine the other musicians in the group because they put all the praises on me. I was certainly instrumental in writing the songs and so on, but if it wasn’t for the brilliance of those musicians those songs could never have sounded the way they sound. Including the first group, because Mikey Chung was also in the first group, which was amazing. He played on those songs too.

And then when they left Clevie Browne and the last singer called Errol Walker, who is virtually unknown, he’s a brilliant singer, and we recruited some other keyboard players and one of the best guitarists, a guy called Wigmore Williams who played the solo on Getting Cozy and so forth, absolutely amazing. So we had some great musicians, and those guys were a part of that sound that you hear, starting at Back A Yard coming right down to Baby My Love, all of them were a part, that was the band and to this day we’re still together.

Tell me about your solo work that came out of In Crowd.

Phil Mathias, the producer for In Crowd, are you familiar with him? OK, I’ll give you a bit of history before. When I recorded the three first hit songs, His Majesty Is Coming, We Play Reggae and Born In Ethiopia, they went to England and enjoyed some success, just by distribution. I never really had a producer. I was the producer but I never really had the clout to really carry them far. I wanted to complete an album but I never had the budget.

Eventually a guy from England, a producer called Phil Mathias came and he was like an In Crowd fan and he was telling me “Oh, the song’s brilliant” and he wanted to be a part of what we were doing. To cut a long story, he became the producer and manager and publisher for In Crowd at the time. He found the money and got us to go into the studio and finish the album, the first initial In Crowd album. So both of us, myself and Phil, worked together as producer and artist. I was executive producer and he was producer, and I think we were a good team in that regard. Monetary-wise alas didn’t come forward from those business arrangements but it contributed to the success of the In Crowd name. He did a lot of initial work in terms of marketing to get the songs played in certain places, so the name got bigger. Both of us, we used to collaborate and exchange ideas. At one period he said to me, while we were still recording Back A Yard and those songs, he suggested to me that maybe it would be a good thing that I could do some solo songs.

Had you wanted to go solo?

I never had any intention to leave the group at all, period, not to be setting myself up to be a solo singer, that never entered my mind. I was so glad that finally the band was getting a little recognition as a group. Even though I took over from Sonny Wong – because after Sonny Wong left with We Play Reggae I was forced to sing lead and some of those songs like Back A Yard were written for Sonny Wong and I ended up singing the lead myself because he wasn’t there. I got a lot of accolades and praises for being the great Fil Callender singing all those songs, but that wasn’t true.

Sonny Wong is, in my opinion, still the greatest In Crowd singer. I’m just saying that’s my opinion, according to the fans they may not agree - they don’t even know he exists, but I’m trying to put things right now because we didn’t get any of the proper credits. I suffered that same thing with Coxsone and I couldn’t believe that I would live to suffer it a second time with Phil Mathias. I’m never getting the right credits, including Sonny never getting his proper credits. We submitted all the names for the album sleeves and so on. His name never came out as a lead singer. That was really, really bad. So a lot of people think it’s me singing those songs. I sing on some of them but not on the first three. Just to mention that.

No problem.

So Phil suggested to me that maybe with the success of Back A Yard I should do some lead singing of my own, aside from the group. I was kind of reluctant at first but he said maybe as a business, maybe he could use my name to go further with songs and I would still be in the band. It wasn’t as if I was leaving the group and being a solo singer but I was just trying an experimental thing. So when I wrote Baby My Love, it was written for In Crowd but Phil released it as Fil Callender. It was he who did it. And to put the icing on the cake he put Jah Stitch on it and that became a major hit, the collaboration between me and Jah Stitch, and it came out as Fil Callender. I did some other songs because I was always writing various different songs, different styles and so forth. He did the producing.

He took the liberty of doing some things that some of the time I wasn’t even aware of it, even though I did consent initially, are you following me? And he put out some songs. I think I thought he went too far with that and it created the impression that I left the group, coming out as a solo singer. That wasn’t the case at all. I’m still with the band. I’ve never left In Crowd. Even those recordings that were considered solo, it was the In Crowd who backed it. So just to answer your question. I’m not proud of it, to tell you the truth, I’m not glad about that because it puts the band in a funny position and people were saying this and saying that.

You’ve said that you never left In Crowd but did In Crowd disband at a certain point.

It did disband, yes.

What happened there? You’ve been involved in the church from a young age and the band started in the church. Why did you decide to put the secular music aside?

Good question. First of all the band broke up, not necessarily because of my religious convictions but you know, that played a little part. The main reason for the band’s demise shortly after the last album Man From New Guinea with Island, I need to be careful about this but there were some mismanagement taking place with the whole situation between manager and producer. We weren’t receiving the rewards that we were supposed to be receiving even though the songs were considered hits to this day. We became very disillusioned.

Not only that, during that period groups like Third World and Inner Circle were enjoying some good success, not just because the success of their songs but because they had a budget and they had a support that kept them together, because for bands in those days and even right now it’s very hard to exist in Jamaica, it’s very hard. If you don’t have somebody to keep you going, if you are successful with a recording or touring or whatever then that’s good but if you’re going through a lean period if you don’t have a support you will fall apart. That’s what happened to us. We never gained our support, neither from the companies: Creole that we initially signed with at first and they released a song and then eventually it went to Trojan and then eventually it’s now with Universal Records; and during all those three transitions we didn’t receive a dime.

The band became disillusioned. It wasn’t that we wanted to fall apart but we just never had the support. We were supposed to get tour support from Island for the Island album but it never happened. We did go to England once during 1978, it was a fairly good tour but there was never a follow-up. We never received the royalties that we were supposed to receive and some of the band members went different days in different ways, including the bass player and the sax player went to the United States and are now living there. Other musicians joined other bands because they had to survive somehow, but as far as In Crowd was concerned it never happened for us. We were looking forward to more tours and more support. Even though the songs looked in some aspects very successful, none of that money came our way. The producers and the companies and all of the various deals that went down – we don’t know what went on. That was the main reason why we fell apart.

So you went back to church.

I myself now, I was so upset with the whole thing that I just went back into the church. It wasn’t initially because I became religious, that was a part of it but the main reason was as I just mentioned. So I came out of secular music and was writing some other things, really adjusting. I wrote a lot of religious songs and even produced a small gospel album which didn’t reach anywhere. I was always still involved in writing and arranging and so forth. The band remained together as a group, not in terms of actually playing out or recording, but to this day – and it’s been more than 35 years now.

So what happened? The band became dormant?

We disbanded as a group in terms of actually recording and playing out because we never had the budget nor the support, but we remained as friends and we jammed together. Over the years, even though it’s 35 years and we’re basically getting old now (laughs) we still remain together in spirit as a band and we’re now recording our third album. I think maybe by next year it will come out and we might release a single or two before Christmas. So I have to give a lot of credit to these guys - brilliant, brilliant musicians. If you listen to songs like Man From New Guinea you hear some of the musicianship involved in it, saxophone and flute playing and all of that. So I get a lot of praises but I give credit – if I didn’t have those guys I couldn’t sound like that.

We're now recording our third album

You’ve received the Order of Distinction, I believe Clevie was involved in helping you get that?

OK, a very good question. Not just Clevie, but I have to give a lot of thanks to a lot of musicians who were instrumental in recommending me. Sly Dunbar, I have to big him up a lot – Leroy Sibbles, Robbie Lyn, Mikey Chung, Boris Gardiner, all of these great musicians in their own right, including Cleveland Browne. The way that you’re selected for the Order is that you have to be submitted. I thought initially that the selection was done in terms of your work, that they look at your work whatever it is, music or whatever and say “OK, this person, contributed a lot so he’s worthy of an award” but that’s not the way it’s done. I think that is very unfair because I find a lot of people, not just in music, are not recognised for the great work that they did in Jamaica. And even in terms of music, a lot of great musicians are overlooked.

Robbie Lyn got the Order of Distinction three years now, which was well deserved, actually a fantastic musician. He alerted me to the fact that you have to be submitted, so persons have to submit your name and then you are selected. You can be the greatest musician in the world but if somebody else doesn’t submit you, it’s not going to happen. So it was on the strength of those guys that they submitted my name and I thank them. It wouldn’t have worked without them because those guys, their names have clout.

I thank God for it, I have to attribute all of my blessings to God but he works in mysterious ways. It was submitted two years ago and nothing happened and it was resubmitted. I was surprised that then it came about this year because I wasn’t really looking for it to happen. Robbie had told me initially that his thing had to be submitted three to four years before it actually came about, so I was a little disturbed by it and thought “I can’t be bothered with that. It was submitted and it didn’t happen, just leave it alone” you know? But the guys persisted and it came true so I cannot thank them enough for what they did. But I think that a lot of musicians are overlooked, even in the same group: Eric Frater and Patrick McDonald, my opinion is this… sorry I’m keeping you long…

Musicians were instrumental in making these rhythms and these hits and singers

Please continue…

All of us contributed down at Studio One. We were a group down at Studio One as the Soul Brothers and Coxsone distributed the songs in various venues and a basic set of musicians were instrumental in making these rhythms and these hits and singers. I think that the band should be awarded, and I’m not just talking about Studio One. I’m talking about great work that other musicians like did in other studios, guys like the Hippy Boys and some other musicians that were transitioning music in Jamaica also – lots of other musicians. I think the groups that played in the studios at the time contributed to the sound. Guys like those who backed up Toots & The Maytals, guys like Hux Brown and Jackie Jackson and those guys were instrumental in that sound. And there were many other musicians that contributed in other areas.

I think that we all contributed for our cause and it contributed to the development of the music eventually. In my opinion we should recognise the groups. I was disappointed to know that over a period of 20 years now, only a few musicians were selected individually like me or Boris Gardiner. Not that he didn’t deserve it - he’s a brilliant musician, but what I’m saying is he and Jackie Mittoo were selected and the rest of us were overlooked. Some people are selected and others not selected and we all contributed to the band, it doesn’t sound fair to me.

I think the research in Jamaica is very poor. Jamaica is very, very backward in terms of their musicologists aspects and history. People abroad know their history more than them. This is a criticism I have, and many musicians agree – David Madden and many other great musicians agree with that. I think that groups should be selected for the work that they did and recognised for the work that they did. If they think that one individual musician did so great, he didn’t play by himself did he? He didn’t sit down and play bass on the recording and the recording came out with just the bass sound. It was a collaboration of all the musicians and all the various different instruments that became a basic ingredient for that sound that contributed to that hit.

Research in Jamaica is very poor. People abroad know their history more

So I think we should look back on our history and redo what we have done to try to recognise who actually contributed as groups and give them recognition. After 40 years since the Studio One thing only two musicians or maybe three were selected, randomly. Nobody still knows the real history of Studio One – how music was made, what we did, which musicians, you know? We should be honoured for that, all musicians, and not just individually. I myself have received my award and I’m glad for it but I’m not happy because of the way it’s done. Just to give you my opinion.

Thanks very much for the interview. I’ve learned a lot and my understanding of the music has increased a great deal over the course of these hours.

I thank you too for having me and for having patience for listening. I think that what you and many people like you are doing is doing a lot for the music in opening our ground, opening our avenue so that people can hear the real history and understand and get to know the culture more.

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Read comments (3)

Posted by Beve on 12.17.2014
A great interview that brings back wonderful memories

Posted by Dre on 04.22.2015
This is a great interview. And yes, Mikey Murray was a brilliant guitarist. I should know. He was my brother. Terribly overlooked along with the other musicians mentioned in this interview. Some whose names are familiar because Michael spoke of them. I was young but I remember. That's the 2nd record with Mike distributed by Blood and Fire.

Posted by Dre on 04.22.2015
My question tho, why does "Wilson/Wilson/Wilson" get song writing credit on Mango Walk when it was Clive and Michael wrote lyrics music although a rearranged version of Mango Walk? It's an entirely new song from Mango Walk. Plus, Mike and Clive are singing on the newly discovered "cult classic". I hear my brother all over this song - guitar and all with the wah wah going on. He lived and loved that wah wah. Drove my father crazy with that thing.

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