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Interview: Derrick Harriott (Part 1)

Interview: Derrick Harriott (Part 1)

Interview: Derrick Harriott (Part 1)

By on - Photos by Steve James - Comment

"Music is like medicine"


No individual encapsulates the fascinating on-going musical conversation between Jamaica and America like Derrick Harriott. Born in Kingston with family links in New York the singer producer and record store owner created his uniquely sophisticated style of music across his island’s prevailing forms - that had an ear in both places.

Ska is traditionally positioned at the beginning of Jamaican music. But when the ska was born Derrick Harriott already had a successful recording career. As a member of Kingston rhythm & blues duo Sang and Harriott and harmony group the Jiving Juniors he was the toast of the talent shows and sound systems of the late 50s.

By the ska era he had launched his Crystal label as Jamaica’s pioneering artist producer. And when the beat slowed to rocksteady he established his first record shop and family of imprints - putting out his own highly soul influenced songs as well as sides for Keith and Tex, the Ethiopians, Rudy Mills and others.

While Harriott's dapper funky sound was giving way to a roots Rasta vibration by the reggae age of the 70s, as a producer he continued working with some of that period’s greats. He was crucial in the discovery of Dennis Brown, and cut classics with Earl 16, Winston McAnuff, Augustus Pablo, King Tubby and Big Youth. Even in the dancehall dominated 80s and 90s he sang combination hits with deejays Yellowman and Papa San.

Today Derrick still divides his time between his store on Constant Spring Road and New York - where Angus Taylor caught up with him by phone. In his eighth decade he keeps doing stage shows - and on April 3rd he performs at the London International Ska Festival Thames cruise. Part one of this two part interview reminisces on his R&B and ska days…

Derrick Harriott

Where and when were you born?

I was born in Kingston in 1939. My family is five. I am the last one of the family. It was really six but the one before me – the girl Marylyn at a very young age died. My father was a teacher, my mother was a housewife. My father was a commercial school teacher like shorthand, typewriting and bookkeeping and so forth. People still come up to me and say “Hey, your father used to teach me, you know, Derrick!” (laughs) It’s still surprising to me!

You attended Excelsior High School but which primary school did you go to?

I didn’t go to a primary school – I was like a veranda school man. You had teachers who had their little veranda with maybe five or ten people or so. But I went to Excelsior in the early stages.

You got inspired from those early days just by listening to the radio

Your future singing partner Claudie Sang Junior was at Excelsior with you. Were there any other musicians there at the time?

Yes Claudie was an Excelsior man. Maurice Wynter who was a member of my group the Jiving Juniors. The other members were from other places. You also had my good friends the Folkes Brothers who did Oh Carolina. The present minister of foreign affairs in Jamaica, Nicholson. He was an Excelsior man. He used to sing at school concerts with us. A lot of talent came from Excelsior. The great cricketer Courtney Walsh was an Excelsior man. Incidentally the founder and headmaster Wesley Powell was my uncle. My mother’s brother.

So did you start singing at school?

Well, yes, but my older brothers, where we used to live, always had the radio on with some music or something. So by listening to them and how they used to go on over certain songs and hearing certain songs over and over you got inspired from those early days just by listening to the radio. Radio Jamaica was then called ZQI and they played a lot of nice music from the earlies that I used to love.

This was American music.

American music. People like Billy Eckstine who was one of my favourite singers, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, the Four Freshmen, I used to love that group. Then it changed a little bit after that. I started to listen to some real blues tunes. Louis Jordan was one of my favourites and then after that it was Louis Prima. We were inspired by what we would call the boogie songs. Boogie meant uptempo. You had to be a good dancer to dance to those songs – and we had the dancers!

We were inspired by what we would call the boogie songs

What was your first experience of sound system?

OK! In certain communities you always had some sound systems. And on weekends especially they used to play at a popular venue. Because of our love of music you couldn’t pass a venue unless you stopped and listened because the music hooked you. So we used to stop and listen to all the different songs. Plus, at that time too we used to tune into radio stations from abroad and listen to the different songs. But the sound systems – the venues man – were the places to go and on certain holidays you had certain sounds that played at certain places.

I can tell you there was a certain venue that used to draw the crowds more than some. We used to go to a popular place that has a park with a zoo now. Within the vicinity of Hope Gardens on the outskirts of Hope Road they had a place called Shady Grove where they used to have the different sounds playing. Holidays, everybody headed for Shady Grove.

What were your favourite sounds when you were a kid?

V Rocket was one. And I had a special one that I used to love. One of my favourite sounds - and the man who used to run it is still around and lives somewhere in Miami – was called Admiral Cosmic. He was the main man that played at Shady Grove on the holidays. I always remember when Johnny Ace the big blues singer died by unfortunate circumstances playing Russian Roulette – Admiral Cosmic gave a tribute to Johnny Ace and I saw a lot of grown men cry the living eye water! He played songs that became such big hits. Because the sound systems were so rated that if they played a song, it became a hit. There was this song called You’re Mine All Mine which the oldsters remember as (sings) “oo-bee-yoo-bee-yoo… oo-bee-yoo-ba” it had that beat and the lyrics which made that one a big hit up there.

The sound systems were so rated that if they played a song, it became a hit

Again it was American music being played on the sounds. Was it the same kind of stuff you were listening to on the radio – like Louis Jordan?

It was American music. Before the Jamaican music crept in. Yes, and more of the blues stuff like a Jimmy Reed (sings) “Got me running… got me hiding…” Smiley Lewis, Fats Domino and those people. And some real gone blues guys. Like this song that was very big in the early days Bloodshot Eyes “Don’t roll those bloodshot eyes at me”. But it was mostly the Fats Domino stuff and all that which really came through big.

How did you first decide to enter talent contests in 1957?

OK! Here am I now at Excelsior High School and there is Palace Theatre on Victoria Avenue. They used to have this attraction of two movies and a talent show. This talent contest which the great man Vere John’s used to put on was called Opportunity Hour. There’s a whole story on Vere John but I think he was one of the greatest persons who discovered some of the greatest artists Jamaica has ever seen. Anyone you can read of that was real big was on Vere John’s Opportunity Hour. That was a big night – full house. So I decided to attend one or two of them and sitting there in the audience I thought “Hey, I think I could do better than a couple of these people that I see come out”. So I got the courage and entered one of the contests. I entered and qualified to appear and I can remember the song was When You Dance by the Turbans. Didn’t win, didn’t come second or anything but I wasn’t booed! (laughs) I got a real good reception. That was when I started.

How did you join up with your schoolmate Claudie as the duo Sang and Harriott?

So the next time I decided to go with my partner Claudie Sang Junior. We started to win. The lowest we’d come is second and we’d go to the finals and we’d win the finals. A very big name we got from that – we were Sang and Harriott. We got a big reception from the Palace crowd. Because those crowds didn’t joke around you know! (laughs) Any little thing they’d start throwing things or booing you! So we graduated from there and then Claudie Sang had to go away. He was in the cable and wireless thing and he had to go away to Barbados to study.

This was when you formed the group the Jiving Juniors…

So while he went away I formed the Jiving Juniors. Maurice Wynter, Eugene Dwyer and Claudie Sang Junior’s brother called Herman Sang. He was a piano man. So you had the accompanist and then you had three singers. So then hell broke loose after that. We tore down everything everywhere we went. We became so hot that Vere Johns put us as the main featured artist on the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour. This time was when all the finalists appeared as one big show at the Carib theatre and we were the headliners. We were so big that Vere Johns invited us to his home after. Normally things like that don’t happen. Especially dinner guests! (laughs) And he paid us £25. In those days that was a big money! We were still in the pound days. And he said (imitates) “Hey, fellas, you know that’s the biggest money I’ve ever paid out!” (laughs)

When did you first start travelling to New York?

The first time I came to New York was in 1959. My mother lived here and after a while she sent for me. Everybody was looking for greener pastures I guess and I guess she just wanted to do something to help her family. It was a difference of movement. Doris Victoria Harriott. A good old lady. You’d always remember her as we’d always remember our parents especially for the great cooking. The macaroni and cheese and when it was turkey time Thanksgiving all those nice trimmings! (laughs) But she was a real hard worker. She used to go to work every day, boy I tell you. Early in the morning and then she’d come back about three o’ clock – a very hard worker. An inspiration.

My mother was a very hard worker. An inspiration

Before you and Claudie left you cut your 1958 dubplate of Lollipop Girl – which caused a bit of a skirmish between Duke Reid and Coxsone’s sounds.

Lollipop Girl, in the earlies, was before the group even started. It was the same Sang and Harriott initially. We decided to go to Stanley Motta on Harbour Street, they had this little studio where you could go and put your voice on like if you wanted to make a demonstration disc. We went down there to record this song. I couldn’t play an instrument at that time but Claudie he was a good piano player because his father was big in the church and he learned to play. So we were making this demonstration disc which consisted of us singing this song Lollipop Girl, an original. He was playing piano, we were both singing and there were handclaps! I tell you the handclaps were very essential in the song when we first recorded it as a demonstration disc.

Derrick HarriottSo we decided to carry it to this sound system, Thunderbird, whose operator was Carlyle Ho Yun, a Chinese man. Thunderbird Sound played on Maxfield Avenue like a Friday evening session. To this day in Jamaica we have quite a few Friday sessions after work when you want to unwind. We carried it to him and he played it twenty odd times before he could take it off! The crowd demanded it over and over so we said “Yes, that is a nice reception. Maybe this is headed for a big hit.”

From there, there was a whole episode which I don’t know if I can take in. I heard a little news – I was in America at the time hearing about what was happening with Lollipop Girl and how big a hit it was with people demanding it so much that even the biggest sounds tried to get it. The sound systems heard that it was happening – Duke Reid and Sir Coxsone Downbeat. A foreign record was swapped for that Lollipop Girl because it was making it so big. I heard the person that swapped it for a foreign record was Sir Coxsone Downbeat. Quite a few little wranglings as I heard it. There was a sound system operator at the time – or the keeper of records for Sir Coxsone – he got that and made another copy and it ended up in Duke Reid’s box.

So one of Coxsone’s selectors took it to Duke Reid?

Yes. I wasn’t there at the time but getting reports from different people who attended sound system clashes they said the two sounds drew guns at each other. Because one man was saying “How the hell this guy is playing it? This sound is playing it when I am the only man who is supposed to have it!”

What happened next was I was coming back home for my regular Christmas concert. I always liked to appear at those big shows. Duke Reid was already about to send for me but he didn’t have to because I came home. So he grabbed me immediately and bargained with me to do it over in the studio now. So we did a studio recording.

Was this the Jiving Juniors that recorded the Duke Reid cut?

Well actually Sang and Harriott but Sang now became a member of the Jiving Juniors too, so for this song so we just said the Jiving Juniors. But the lead singers were really me and him. It’s a song that I hope to do when I come to England on April the 3rd. I’d better not leave that off!

Duke Reid later had something of a reputation – being an ex-policeman and all. Were you nervous? You didn’t hear any guns popping off in the studio?

No no no! We were Excelsior guys and we were very… well not really smarter than another man… but we knew what was happening with these people. Because when we did the song and Duke Reid paid us £30 he gave it to us in five shilling pieces. You had a five shilling note you know? £30 in five shilling notes looked very fat like we were getting a lot of money. But we knew the whole gimmick of everything and we were young guys and just wanted to put our voices on record and be in the big time. We knew but we were just doing it for the fun of it. Even though it helped us to be very big. It was like an opening shot. Duke held that official recording of Lollipop Girl for nearly a year – about 11 months before he released it.

We were young guys and just wanted to put our voices on record

That must have built it up into a hit.

Yes, that was a very special thing. Because I remember when they launched it at Forrester’s Hall - one of the halls that very popular sounds played at. When they released that one they were going to open it up now big to the sound system world to hear that Duke Reid had that song. I remember they had me on their shoulders round the dance at Forrester’s Hall and where I sat they had piles of crates of beer to celebrate! (laughs) That was a really momentous occasion.

So when Duke had that as a sound system exclusive did Coxsone try to get a copy?

No, well, I don’t know what he did but he lost the battle somehow by default! (laughs) But that’s how it goes – music. Music is like medicine you know? I tell people this. I think if someone is sick and they hear certain music they immediately start getting better – believe me. I saw a documentary about this recently. About the music thing and how it makes people react. People that could hardly move because of the illness they had and when they started hearing it they started moving. But it’s great. It makes me feel good too.

How did you start doing your own production in 1960?

The first production I did was in Jamaica at Ken Khouri’s Federal Records studio in 1960 and one of the songs from that session was What Can I Do (The Wedding Song). One or two others but that was the one that stood out. A slow song I did which to this date has been one of my biggest hits. It was a cover but it was made different because I put a whole complete story to the song. I only sang a part of the song and then I had a story about losing the girl that I loved to my best friend.

You had a sound I used to love called Lord Koos who had this famous – what you people in England would call a toaster – this guy named Icky Man. Icky Man I remember him always because when I had a dubplate of What Can I Do he took the dubplate and he was wondering if they would like it or whatever. So he went to this place in the country part of St Thomas and when he decided to play it, his report back to me – because I wasn’t there – was that when he put it on he couldn’t take it off. He played it a couple of times well. So we came to the conclusion that this song is destined to be a big song. And so it did.

Coxsone got his revenge on Duke Reid when the Juniors recorded the number one hit Over The River for him in 1961.

Over The River. I’m going to do that one in the show too! I will keep the rest as a surprise! (laughs) At that time there was a little movement where people started doing quite a few religious songs and I was one of the first of them. At that time you had one called the Meadow Larks - We’re Going To Pray, Clancy Eccles - Roll River Jordan Roll, things like that. Mine was Over The River and this was for Sir Coxsone Downbeat, Mr Dodd, in 1961. Lollipop was released officially in 1960 so Coxsone got this one. It consisted of us having about three musicians from Australia that came down and played on that. Dennis Sindry on guitar and I think the drummer and bass man were Australian too. Then you had the great trombone man who played a solo on it – Rico Rodriguez. There was just a religious feel - at that moment there was just a religious thing going on so it had the form of a religious song, not so much the words, but it had that feel. It wasn’t in a ska mode.

Were you in New York when independence was declared in 1962?

I was in Jamaica. My memories of that night I would have to say was the music and the float parade. You had a lot of music on the float parade. The country was just elated that Jamaica had become independent. It was such a great feeling so you as a musician now decided to do a song and many other people did songs. You had a lot of independence songs. I had one at that time but there was no independence song contest yet. Lord Creator who is from Trinidad did a song. One of the great songs for Independence.

Independent Jamaica for Randy’s.

He did that for Randy’s. There was also a fellow that sounded like Fats Domino. He did one that was very nice. And quite a few others. Derrick Morgan had one too – Forward March. It was one of the killers in those days. When certain bands came up to play for independence dances I was up front in those dances with Carlos Malcolm and his Afro-Jamaican rhythms.

The whole thing was just the feeling you get from your nation becoming independent and at that moment you would hope for great things that would happen. The music was involved in it so much that you would just know that the music was just going to thrive – the music that you loved so much. And it did happen after in other years when they had the festival songs.

You went to New York again shortly after independence. How did the music scene in New York in the early 60s compare to Jamaica?

Not much difference. You were still hooked on to the music scene. That was where we had the New York Jiving Juniors with different members. The New York Jiving Juniors did a lot of parties and functions. The tenor man was Valman Burke the son of the great cricket umpire Perry Burke and Winston Service who was in another group at the time.

The Downbeats with Count Prince Miller?

Yes, he came up to New York to join us. He was the bass man. The New York Jiving Juniors recorded at a studio called Mirasound where Paul Anka who did Oh Diana and all those songs used to make records there. I was the one who was in charge of it. We did four songs and the arranger was a man named Teacher Wilshire who used to arrange for people like Chuck Jackson and this great group who did the song This Is Dedicated To The One I Love [The Shirelles].

Now the big song we did in New York was Sugar Dandy and there was a saxophone man called Buddy Lucas and in the way back days we remember him doing a song named 7–11 that was a big blues instrumental song. He was the one that did that great solo in Sugar Dandy where everyone was shocked when they heard it. They wanted to know where the hell I got that man from! That was one of the highlights of the song. There was Don’t Treat Me Bad and some others. As a matter of fact the one that we did which was a cover – Valerie – was done by Valman Burke. There was a part in it where he sings where he cried the living eye water. That was a unique thing.

Drumbago had that special beat where the ska started in the earlies

So what happened to the Jiving Juniors – why did they split?

Well I guess after a while they went on and everybody went their merry way after that. I was here and there until I decided I may as well go solo.

Were you in New York during the birth of ska?

No man, I was in Jamaica too! (laughs) I used to move you know?

What are your memories of the birth of ska?

The birth of ska. Well well well. As I told you, you had the Louis Jordan and the Louis Prima and a couple of other people. You had guys like Roscoe Gordon – No More Doggin’. He was a man that inspired musicians to play - in other words to come up with the idea of - ska. You had the Skatalites right? But you had some guys before that you know? Who used to play that R&B type of thing but they made into their thing. They played it in such a way that it was still a little different from the R&B. That is where the ska started from. You heard about a drummer named Drumbago? Drumbago had that special beat where the ska started from in the earlies, I would say. There was a guitarist named Ken. Ken Richards or something like that. He also had that ska beat. That ska riff coming in.

Someone may tell you ska is the Skatalites. No, it wasn’t the Skatalites! The Skatalites came in very early though – after Drumbago and those guys. It continued happening from there. When the Skatalites came in they brought it to the higher heights. From there the ska started and the singers them they had certain songs. I doubt if they had the ska in mind but the people they went to, to back them up at Coxsone and Duke Reid’s studios, those musicians started playing the ska and the singers would come right into it. Like the guys that did Carry Go Bring Come?

In every era I had something to do with it

Justin Hinds and the Dominos.

Yes. Those guys started doing their things. Neville Esson who did Wicked and Dreadful. All those guys from Studio 1 were just wicked.

So what about yourself? You had a lot of hits before the ska and you had a lot of hits in rocksteady. And while you did have some notable songs like Monkey Ska there weren’t so many hits in ska. That’s why I asked if you were in New York at the time?

In every era I had something to do with it. Even the ska days. When we did Over The River the ska was just beginning to gel. It was just starting. And through those early days I did one called Monkey Ska with Carlos Malcolm and his Afro Jamaican rhythms – it’s really members of that band that gave me a backing. And you had Bobby Ellis – Bobby was one of my main arrangers – and he played a lot of ska. I have a lot of ska instrumentals with Bobby Ellis. I did a lot of ska but it didn’t come to the forefront at the time. I did a nice song with Don Drummond which was never released because it was burnt up in a fire in Spanish Town. King Stitt who was one of the sound operators he told me “What happened to that song? It never was released”. It was such a good song called Good News Man and it never was released. I had planned to do it over quite a few times but it wouldn’t have had that knack Don Drummond gave it, so I decided to lay it to rest!” (laughs)

Read part two of our interview with Derrick Harriott here.

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