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Interview: Inner Circle (2015 - Part 1)

Interview: Inner Circle (2015 - Part 1)

Interview: Inner Circle (2015 - Part 1)

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"We are the roots and we are part of the trunk"


United Reggae’s interview with legendary reggae band Inner Circle begins in a somewhat curious fashion. We connect via Skype to a laptop which is carried inside their Circle House studios in Miami and placed on a table while they jam on their theme to the 1978 movie Rockers - in preparation for their upcoming US and European tour.

When they’ve proved themselves suitably well-rehearsed, they stay at their stations and the laptop is turned to face whichever member is speaking. Bassist Ian Lewis and keyboardist Touter Harvey handle the lion’s share of the answers, drummer Lancelot Hall interjects from time to time. Guitarist Roger Lewis is having his dinner during much of the discussion and only really asserts his considerable personality towards the end.

In part one of their chat with Angus Taylor they discuss their genesis from the same collective that formed Third World, and the culmination of their search to find the perfect singer in the late great Jacob Miller. Most crucially, they recall how some of their finest work was done in sessions for other artists and producers: with plenty of segues into the musical history of Jamaica – as you can read below…

Inner Circle

How did you first pick up your respective instruments?

Roger: When you’re young you start to look for something you like musically. If I had taken piano lessons I might have played the piano. But because we are self-taught I started to learn guitar because that was the easiest thing – I didn’t have to lug a piano around or go find a piano. I could just find a little guitar and just ping ping ping. It started from there.

Lancelot: I was watching TV and saw Buddy Rich. I went out and saw some live music and was contemplating the beats. I thought “I can do that”.

Roger and Ian, you went to Jamaica College?

Roger: Boss!

Ian: How you know that man? You’re investigating me?

One of your school mates at JC was Johnny Clarke?

Ian: Johnny Clarke was in my class. We used to call him “the singer”. There was a ritual at JC called “candle waxing” where if you were a new student in first form the bigger boys would make you walk down the gauntlet and put candle wax on your head. When Johnny Clarke was coming up close he started to sing. So for that twenty minutes nobody got candle waxed because he was singing. Back then he was a pretty good singer.

Ibo Cooper and Cat Coore were part of the band in the early stages. Was Johnny ever a part of the band?

Ian: Johnny was just a guy that everybody knew was a singer – he’d just sing. Cat didn’t go to JC. Cat went to a more affluent high school. (laughs) You had Michael Ibo Cooper who was a more senior person but the problem was that the school organ everybody used to gather round was in the chapel. So Cooper would go in there faking like he’s playing religious things and hitting out some Jackie Mittoo (sings a shuffle) and everybody would be at the window cheering him on! (laughs) He would play a little song and then Johnny would sing outside and then another guy would sing. And we’d have lookouts in case the teachers would be coming and then everybody would run.

When we started we were just playing dance-band music

How did the band start to get serious?

Ian: I mean, when we started we were just playing dance-band music, it wasn’t like we were trying to write any songs. It was just “Let’s try play this guy’s song”. We were young kids so anything you heard on the radio you were going to try to play it. It wasn’t like no serious thing. So we were “Bwoy, we ago lick some tunes”. The band didn’t really get together until we started to get some little weekend gigs. There was a club called Tunnel.

Tell me about Tunnel Club.

Ian: You go way back iyah! (laughs) Tunnel was just a dance club that this guy had and he used to play all different kinds of music. He said “Let’s try you guys for one night and see what happens”. Back in those days you had Byron Lee, you had Vikings who would play calypso and different things but we were just trying to play what we heard on the radio. That’s what got the people up on us because they said “Damn, you can play Barry White!”

Your first recording was for Derrick Harriott in 1970. How did you link Derrick?

Ian: Yeah, we played back a tune called Jamrock Style . Well you know how it goes – every man had a session. Talk to Touter because Touter was a bigger session player than all of us. Because we were just a band morphing into playing sessions. We played Cherry Oh Baby for Bunny Lee, it was every man’s tunes, Tommy Cowan, Dynamics, every man tune.

Touter, before you joined the band you were in the Hippy Boys.


Touter: Yeah kind of. What you’d call the last formation of the Hippy Boys. Reggie had moved on by then, Tyrone was there for a little bit.

Ian: Rad Bryan! Dougie!

Touter: Dougie was there. That was Reggie’s gig. I don’t know if you remember Reggie Lewis who played percussive guitar!

Ian: If you know your history, the song Monkey Spanner was originally a Hippy Boys song. Return of Django…

Touter: That’s what it was.

Ian: To show you how great reggae is – all those songs made the British charts as instrumentals. Like Liquidator. It is still alive today.

Touter: That was Winston Wright.

Ian: You have to understand how Liquidator came in right? It was a youth named Paul who did a tune called What Am I To Do Now?

I have that tune – It was credited to Tony Scott.

Ian: Right. Winston and Paul made that tune and when they carried it to Harry J now, Harry J was trying to write a tune but it never worked. So it ended up that Winston played the instrumental and it became a big tune all over the world.

Touter: I think it’s the theme song for Chelsea.

It also had some impact in the US through the melody getting absorbed into the Staples Singers’ I’ll Take You There.

Ian: Well, the drummer came to Jamaica – what’s his name? Al Jackson? [producer Al Bell] And he heard it on the radio and he liked the groove. The guy was playing a flatstick. So then on the 23th or 25th bar he tried to change it.

Touter: Change it so he could claim it! (laughs)

Touter, you also played on some of Dennis Brown’s greatest works with Niney the Observer.

Touter: Yeah, that was me and Earl Smith, Fully Fullwood played bass on most of those songs. That was basically Soul Syndicate.

Were you ever a part of Soul Syndicate?

Touter: I was never a part of Soul Syndicate. I grew up with those guys. We lived fairly close to one another. I knew those guys very well and they were like brothers to me also. Chinna was down the street from me in Greenwich Farm. The same thing with Channel One studios. I actually grew up very close to the Hoo Kim brothers. It was all one family.

Our roots run deep

You mentioned Eric Donaldson’s Cherry Oh Baby. Tell me how you linked with Bunny Lee and played on that.

Roger: What I know and remember is that we were the band that did Festival that year so we had to back all the performers right down to when the final was picked at the State Theatre. I remember we first encountered Mr Eric Donaldson at the Sombrero Club where we got to rehearse him along with 30 other people. When he came that song stood out to us. He was playing a little box guitar and he wanted the song to go straight reggae. He didn’t want the [sings the unusual Cherry Oh Baby rhythm]. When we reached the State now for the final and we rolled in [imitates Cherry Oh Baby] he kind of went “Huh?” but when he heard the crowd roar from then that was the staple of the song. Wicked. But I remember that night the two people that came up and grabbed onto Cherry Oh Baby and Mr Donaldson and escorted him to Dynamic Sounds – they were Tommy Cowan and the infamous Claudius Massop.


Roger: I am telling you the truth. That’s what I remember. Somewhere along the line after that Bunny came in and I remember even my friend Lloydie Charmers was trying to make another version, a kinda more slack version, Lloydie and the Lowbites. Lloydie was my brethren. I really miss him dearly. Lloydie was a good soul. Good joke and a good vibe man in the studio. So was Niney. Niney’s in Jamaica. Niney the great. I remember when we used to go down to Scratch. Everybody always thinks the name Inner Circle doesn’t conjure up roots and reggae to them. Our roots run deep.

Ian and Roger - You experimented with various singers before you enlisted Jacob Miller. Bunny Rugs, Bruce Ruffin, Prilly Hamilton, Funky Brown…

Ian: What you need to understand is – you have it in an organised way but Jamaica thing it never organised like that! It’s every man upon a corner or a house and a man will just come in and sing. So it’s not like we said “Bwoy, we’ll get Prilly fi sing” – the singer he’s there! How do you think we met Jakes? Jakes saw us perform and he came right up behind the backstage and said “Yo, I’m the greatest singer in the world. The singer you have is a joke singer!” (laughs) Jakes ran in and started singing some Stylistics.

Jamaica, if you understand, is a freeform place. It’s not like “This is the singer for the band”. It’s which man fits in. It’s how the thing runs. Just like in sessions where a man would play and Horsey would come in and say “Yow, we don’t want no uptown drummer today. It’s pure downtown man who have to play, so you have to get up off the drum”. Horsey would play drums, percussion, keyboard. I want somebody to write the right reggae book man – everybody just organise the thing from a history perspective. It doesn’t work like that. It’s the same thing with R&B and soul music. Most of the greatest soul musicians was in jams. People just went in and the chemistry – you can’t stop that.

I want somebody to write the right reggae book man – everybody just organise the thing from a history perspective

Touter: People ask me about session days and this was not something that come from organising or someone saying “We’re going to go and do this”. It was a vibe. The singer would start singing and we’d pick up a vibe.

Ian: That’s how it goes. One of the greatest things I can tell you about that I saw for myself was I was at Dynamics one day when a man named Tony Ashfield came from England with a bag of music charts underneath his arms to come produce 1000 Volts of Holt with John Holt. Tony Ashfield put out all the music paper and… one two three! No sound! The man them said “Tony Ashfield, ease off a second… John come in…” That’s how it had to go. The music sheet restricted the man them. (laughs)

Who was playing on that 1000 Volts of Holt session?

Touter: That was…

Ian: Gladdy Anderson… Sticky? No, Denzil Laing upon percussion, Hux Brown. And then, the whole thing that would change up the vibes, was a lot of singers back in the day couldn’t overdub – you understand? Like Toots. Toots had to record with the live band. He couldn’t play back the track and then overdub. But John Holt was the master of that. John could sing the song in his head and literally know where everything is going.

A lot of things I say have not really been exposed. Because John Holt is UB40 voice. Tide is High by Blondie. Those were the great spontaneous things that created worldwide hits from Jamaica where people never understand how these things came about. But these guys were great singers – that’s what they were. The greatness of the musicians came through ad-libbing a five sixteen progression song into a two chord with a wicked bass line that even sounded better than the original. But it was the vibe that was created in the studio. Because nobody was tense. It wasn’t tension. It was vibes.

Tell me how you linked with Tommy Cowan and later became the Fatman Riddim Section.

Touter: (laughs)

Ian: Fatman Riddim Section was another travesty. That just came after we made the song and finished the album and a man just said “Yow, dub out this thing man. Just freeform dub it out”.

Touter: It was several albums. Each Jacob Miller album had a Fatman Riddim section dub album behind it plus other tracks that we did came up as Fatman Riddim Section.

Ian: And a man said “What we call it? Big man? No, Fatman Riddim Section”. That’s the mystique of Inner Circle. They talk about roots business and they don’t know how much roots things we did. My thing is a man will say “I heard about this and that” and I will say “Sir, I was there when it happened you know? You give me a history lesson but we were there when it happened so we know what it go from”. The first time I met Gregory Isaacs Gregory sang a song named Since I Lost My Baby. When Gregory sat down and Gregory started to sing some tunes – pure foreign tunes – I said “Bwoy, this bredda going to mek it”. Because if you look on Gregory and Gregory history, Gregory didn’t sing a gunman tune. Pure peace and love. It was the greatness of how these guys learned their craft, crafted these sounds with their voices and made reggae music internationally around the world. That is the greatness that is not expressed in the world media to emphasise how great these guys were and the limited resources they had to work with.

Jacob said "I'm the greatest singer in the world. The singer you have is a joke singer!"

Did you play on the song Jerusalem by Devon Irons?

Ian: Yeah. Jerusalem. We played on one or two for him. That was a Tommy Cowan artist.

That’s a pretty serious roots rhythm.

Ian: You get back to the same scenario where the singer comes and he is not really versed to that level so you have to kind of pull it up with the experience you have musically to make it. A lot of times that’s why the musicians in Jamaica, you had different signs. That’s why you had Aggravators, you had Upsetters, and every sign sounded different. Because Hux and Jackie was the more refined cleaner kind of reggae sound like Jimmy Cliff The Harder They Come. But then you had a drummer named Johnny Pretty who a whole heap of man don’t know who came with the One Drop.

And then it was Carlie.

Touter: Even better than Carlie, because today I was driving here and heard Delroy Wilson, Better Must Come – which was another drummer that Jamaicans don’t know about – Tin Legs. Lloyd Adams. He did Riding For A Fall.

What tune did Johnny Pretty play on?

Ian: It was a Freddie McKay Tune – Picture…

Picture On The Wall.

Ian: Yeah.

Touter: I don’t remember Johnny Pretty’s real name.

Ian: You know why they called him Johnny Pretty? He was one of the first man in Jamaica to have a clear drum set that you could see through. He used to play with Lloyd Parks – he was one of Lloyd Parks’ original drummers.

It was the vibe that was created in the studio. It wasn't tension. It was vibes

Are you saying he came with the One Drop first?

Ian: No. One Drop was really invented by…

Touter: Lloyd Knibbs.

Ian: But Lloyd Knibbs was in a ska so it was when they slowed it down.

You also played on I Kong’s first singles for Tommy Cowan.


Touter: Yeah but those were all sessions that we did with Tommy. It’s kind of funny because Tommy would bring the artist and we’d end up doing all the recording and then Tommy would get credit for producing us and everything. You know, one of the main breakout albums for Israel Vibration.

Ian: The Same Song.

Touter: People don’t understand that was us.

Ian: That’s why a lot of times when I talk to people – especially the roots people – and they say “Well, Inner Circle is not a roots band”. That’s why I laugh because “You’re telling me something, when I was there”. Like Roger Steffens, when he says about Bob Marley this and that – we were there. We were there and we used to sit down and see Bob. Bob Marley used to come and pick we up at 17 Chelsea Avenue in a white Oldsmobile with Peter Tosh driving and Bob sitting down and we went and played Stir It Up to Bob Marley on the Catch A Fire album and nowhere is our name on that album.

Not credited – same as the Israel Vibration album. Robbie Shakespeare is credited on bass, for example.

Ian: No credit. Robbie or Rasta Robbie as we called him played Concrete Jungle and there’s no Robbie name on Concrete Jungle.

He’s been credited in Wailers documentaries since though.

Inner CircleTouter: Well, yes because I know there are people trying to do the proper credits on that album because of the way the structure is right now they are more into it so that they can actually pay people accordingly.

Ian: Yeah because America doesn’t pay performing royalties but Europe pays. Because everybody that plays on a recording is supposed to get x amount of money for the works that he performed. PPR royalties – if you have an American passport they won’t pay you but if you have a Jamaican passport [they will]. So a lot of money is tied up in France and all over the world for that.

Touter: But it’s getting better because people are starting to realise the credit. Take for example, Rastaman Vibration. That’s an album I did with Bob Marley. My name is nowhere on the album. I’m on all the songs. Every single song on the album I am on it. Yet still somehow PPL actually got the information correct because I’m actually getting paid on it. And other songs and material like that which I didn’t get credit for upfront. It’s getting better.

So at what stage did you start registering with these organisations?

Ian: It was no stage. Because every man used PRS in England. Until BMI and ASCAP came in America nobody really knew. Because you must remember one big problem that we had in the industry was that a lot of the songs – like for instance, Delroy Wilson had a song named Rain From The Skies – that was a Chuck Jackson song. One of the biggest songs when I was about 17 that played in a party was a Beatles song, not by the Beatles but by the Heptones (sings) “When I call you up your line’s engaged”. That used to take the party down. I never knew it was a Beatles song.

Do you mean You Won’t See Me covered by the Clarendonians? Did Heptones do it as well?

Ian: Heptones and the Clarendonians?

Touter: No.

Ian: You’re right it was the Clarendonians. Ok, that’s what I’m trying to show you. One of Inner Circle’s worldwide hits Games People Play is not a Bob Andy song.

No, it’s a country song.

Ian: It’s Joe South. Bob Andy covered it in the parties in Jamaica. Mr Dodd, God rest his soul, great producer, used to get the 78 records, not 45 but 78. He used to listen and say “No, Jackson, not that one” until he found the one that he lirked. But he had singers like Delroy and Alton, these guys were such great singers that they could emulate whatever was on the on the thing.

Touter: They could actually take the record and make it into their own.

Ian: Alton [You Made Me So Very Happy] Blood Sweat and Tears.

John Holt, A Love I Can Feel – The Temptations. Dawn Penn, No No No – Bo Diddley and Willie Cobb.

Ian: Yeah, look how the wicked bassline [of No No No] if that guy had heard his song he couldn’t believe! That’s the great thing about reggae music and I think the world has not understood that we were so versatile we could do anything with the music because we feel it a different way. So when people say Inner Circle is not a roots band I laugh – because how much roots do they want? A tree trunk they want? (laughs)

Touter: To be honest with you we are the roots and we are part of the trunk. Because we were there at the start of the thing. Technically speaking, realistically, I came in the late 60s, early 70s. That’s when I really came into the scene. But we helped to change the music coming out of the rocksteady and change it into the present reggae. You have to think about it now – the best time for reggae music was in the 70s and we were right there with all the developments that happened right then.

Read part two of our interview with Inner Circle here

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Read comments (1)

Posted by Dan Franck on 07.11.2015
This was extremely informative. You cant' get much deeper into roots history than Cherry O Baby. This was a great interview. You must do an enormous amount of research before you interview.

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