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Interview: Carlton Manning in Kingston (Part 1)

Interview: Carlton Manning in Kingston (Part 1)

Interview: Carlton Manning in Kingston (Part 1)

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"I will pay any amount of money for a good pair of shoes"


Some of the most beautiful music of the 1960s was cut by Carlton and his Shoes.

Recorded at Studio 1 Records, with rocksteady on the cusp of reggae, Carlton Manning’s songs melded the celestial harmonies of his brother Lynford and Alexander Henry to lyrics of pure love and utopia.

Their Love Me Forever LP, compiled by Studio 1 in 1978, is considered a collectors’ prize. By the time it came out, however, Carlton had become dissatisfied with working for the major producers and begun recording himself.

Beyond connoisseurs’ circles, he’s noted as the progenitor of younger brother Donald's group the Abyssinians - specifically their roots anthem Satta Amassagana. Yet today Carlton is far from forgotten. He still tours the USA and Japan, and on March 25th will appear at the London International Ska Festival’s now-famous river cruise.

Carlton Manning

Mr Manning currently lives alone in a big self-built bachelor pad, off a slightly rough-looking stretch of Kingston’s Mountain View Avenue. “This is a man’s house” he says, gesturing to the enormous pool table in the recreation area where we sit for this two part interview. His wife is in New York but he prefers not to join her because he doesn’t like US foreign policy.

He plays tracks recorded on his computer, his “music station” – and the meticulousness of the harmonising is as shocking as anything by the Abyssinians (who he joined for a while). With the same precision he anticipates almost every question, moving through confident-sounding memories of topic after topic. His blue-tinged eyes transfix you when he talks. His enthusiasm and occasional anger at injustice fill the room, despite his tiny frame.

His commonly repeated phrase is “This is where I’m at”. It’s the motto of a man firm in his convictions yet content with his life and legacy. Carlton Manning is sharp but comfortable, like the Clarks shoes he wears.

WARNING: This interview contains some upsetting revelations at the start.

How did you start singing?

I used to be singing from when I was about seven or eight years old in Sunday school. But then up to age 12-14 I was still singing in Sunday school – the Pentecostal church. When it gets to be Christmas or Easter time if I am singing in the concert they’d have me so I’d got to be there. But then I got turned off. I got turned off so that I just stopped going to church. I couldn’t tell my mom why.

One Sunday night I was at the concert that was on Easter Sunday singing out my throat and the place was covered in money at my feet all around and I couldn’t take up one cent because they told me I’m singing for Jesus. Then I was supposed to go back to church – to the church offices on the very same premises that was the next morning which was Monday when they were to take me down to the stores to buy me some raiments.

When I got there on Monday morning I didn’t see anyone so I went inside the church hall and got the worst experience I ever did get in my life. Because there was the elder Fletcher who came all the way from America for that convention and there was he in that little room at the back, flat on his back with a little boy about 12 years old on top of him, his mouth on the guy’s mouth. I couldn’t move. I was dumbstruck right there and then. I was there standing for about two minutes or more, just staring at it. Then my foot went back and hit against the board and immediately they knew somebody was there. I went out of that door and I never went back in another church.

I went out of that door and never went back in another church

Which harmony groups inspired you?

I used to be listening to songs with harmonies but I wouldn’t say they inspired me. What really got me into harmonies was instruments. I play guitar and I do a little on keyboard. Now guitar chords are real harmonies. And it all depends on where you place your harmonies. Harmony enhances lead if it is done properly in the right place. I don’t like singing without my harmonies.

What happened was that in my younger days we used to be listening to the radio sometimes and not all the time could we pick up outside. We had one radio station in Jamaica but we could only pick up WINZ or New Orleans in the US. We would hear Roscoe Gordon, Shirley & Lee, Smiley Lewis and some Nat King Cole sometimes. Those were the guys. Shirley & Lee were a harmonious couple. You had Gene and Eunice – they used to sing together as well – and a couple of groups.

At that time black people… when they put out an album for coloureds at that time they didn’t put their picture on it. They would put a flower or something. So people wouldn’t know it was done by black people. That’s why Motown was formed. Motown was formed to showcase black artists. So we didn’t know who was doing the songs – black or white. I didn’t care really. We just liked the songs. Whoever was doing the songs it didn’t matter to me one way or another. We were just listening to songs. We couldn’t pick up music from England or Europe. We could only pick up WINZ, New Orleans, about three or four American stations. So that’s the kind of music we were listening to outside of what we were doing in Jamaica. Mainly calypso and mento before ska came along. Ska wasn’t around at that time. So those were fresh to us.

That's where I’m at with the musical stuff. I didn’t really adapt from them. I just loved it. I started singing the Shirley & Lee thing and some Gene and Eunice. They had some nice songs. We started singing those songs. If we could have picked up England then maybe we could have been singing some British songs as well. So we worked with what we had. In those times you had the old Echo Radio and the Pie Radio. I’m telling you those radios were really good. You could pick up a lot of stuff with them. Pick up the Bahamas with them. So it wasn’t a matter of saying I adapted that stuff. We just liked what was happening because it was new to us. We only had what we had in Jamaica so anything coming from outside was new stuff to us and was attractive. So I got all this harmony stuff.

What really got me into harmonies was instruments

I was always singing when I started working with my dad. He was in construction because I was an A Grade Mason. I built this place. I built this place with my own two hands. This was the last thing I did. And you see all those tiles? I put those tiles down. That’s what I used to do. But I shied away from it and just got into the music and that was the best thing that happened to me. Because the dust from the cement and the sand, you have a cold all the time. I was getting away from that. I went into the music and I really loved that music.

How did you start writing your own music?

I saw a friend with a guitar and he showed me about three chords and I started practising and then I started making songs. I started writing songs. That was about 1958, ‘59 or ‘60. I’ve got a song called I Promise that I just put on my latest CD that was written in 1959 and was never released until that CD about two years ago. It’s a song for a wedding or an anniversary. That was one of the first songs I wrote. That time I was in my early teens.

I was writing songs but I didn’t record until 1968. I did one song for Lee Scratch Perry. He gave me £5 and then I didn’t hear anything more about it. Then I went down to Mrs Pottinger, did one song for her named Live and Love on the Gay Feet label. It was played on the radio for a couple of days and it wasn’t going anywhere really because she had some good artists down there at the time and they did some songs that were doing well, so my song wasn’t getting much promotion and it wasn’t being played. I think I heard it twice on the radio and then I didn’t hear it anymore.

So about two or three weeks after I went back down there and I said “Miss P, we got some different songs now”. She said “OK, I’m coming to you” and every time she came in she just did her stuff and went back out. Then Ken Boothe had this song Say You that was doing quite well on the radio which he did that for Mrs Pottinger, and there was Stranger Cole and Patsy – she had some artists down there doing well. So I went back to her and said “Miss P, we have some nice songs” and she said “OK” but she wasn’t paying any attention.

I went back the same day and got the same treatment so I went up to Studio 1. I went up to Studio 1, I got my guitar and we did one song and Coxsone said “You got any more?” and we did another one, “You got any more?” and we did about seven songs. Me and my guitar and two guys – my smaller brother Lynford and Alexander Henry.

I did one song for Lee Scratch Perry. He gave me £5

Did you audition for Coxsone himself or one of his key musicians?

No, Coxsone did his audition himself on Sundays. He said “OK, come to studio tomorrow”. We didn’t do any recording that week but the week after that we did two songs and then he went to Canada, took some music, and went overseas with it. When he went away, Jackie Mittoo was left in charge of whatever was to be done. I did two more songs while he was gone – Love Me Forever and Happy Land. When he got back the following week I was noticing that every time that Buick passed I heard Love Me Forever being played in it. I said “Whoa… what’s happening here?”

Then Ken Boothe came in the studios and he said “Leroy! I heard a song played and them say “Carlton and his Shoes” and it’s a Studio 1 song but I don’t know him”. Leroy said “That likkle man up there” and he said “Where?” and he said “That likkle man up there” and they were pointing and I wasn’t paying any attention to him but I heard. When they had finished playing the rhythm that they were making everyone was going out to the console room to listen. Every time we were doing a rhythm they would go out to the console room to listen and if anything was to be done they’d repair it. When I was coming out Ken Boothe stopped me and said “Carlton!” I said “Yeah” and he was giving me a good handshake and he said “Listen, I heard a song playing. That’s gonna come number one yunno. It going to come number one. But when it get to number one try to stay up there because when you come down it’s hard to go back up”. About two weeks after the song was number one. Love Me Forever was number one.

Carlton Manning

How did your original name Carlton and the Shades become Carlton and the Shoes?

Let me see. I have a problem with shoes. I have a disease when it comes to shoes. The most expensive things, raiments I wear, are my shoes. I will pay any amount of money for a good pair of shoes if I like it. I’m going to tell you something – Clarks Shoes are the most comfortable shoes you will ever find. You look at the bottom of that there and you see “Wallabee Clarks” right there. I love Clarks. I like to be comfortable. When I was in the studios working, every time the song is finished and everybody has gone to the console room, I get my guitar case and get my duster and I am dusting off my shoes. I like to see them nice and shiny.

That’s what Coxsone noticed. I told him Carlton and the Shades. Well, at that time there was a singing group named the Shades. To be truthful I wasn’t penetrating that. But because of that fussiness about the shoes Coxsone put “Carlton and his Shoes!” I was mad about it for a while but it caused one thing where everybody wanted to know who was Carlton and the Shoes. I just resigned to it. Everybody was calling me Mr Shoes, Daddy Shoe, Uncle Shoe, Fada Shoe. That’s what they called me since then. I kind of got used to it.

Anywhere you go on Mountain View Avenue ask “Where Shoe live?” Just say “Shoe” and they’ll tell you “Jus down the round there”. If you say “Shoe” you’re going to find me. A lot of people might not know who you’re talking about if you ask for Carlton Manning but if you say “Carlton Shoe”? Everybody knows where Shoe is!

Why did you leave Studio 1?

With Coxsone, I wasn’t getting any money. I signed a contract for 12 months but I wasn’t getting any money. We were supposed to get paid like every 90 days. You get royalties every 90 days. One of the Heptones was in the factory because he had a studio round the front and a factory round the back where he makes his records. Earl Morgan was pressing Love Me Forever. Now, I was in the studios playing my guitar. I used to play lead guitar. When Ranglin wasn’t there I used to play sometimes.

Every morning Earl would look at the pressing chart and see how much he had to do and he would write it down on a piece of paper and bring it to me in the studios. So I’d take that little piece of paper home and I’d write down in my exercise book. At the end of six weeks Earl had made 18,000 copies of that record and at the end of 12 weeks when I went for royalties, Coxsone was telling me that he had made just a little under 4,000 copies. How did he get that? At six weeks my tally was showing over 18,000 and at 12 weeks he’s telling me he sold nearly 4,000. So I said “Uh-uh, no more singing. I ain’t singing no more” and because of that I got penalised.

I said "I ain’t singing no more" and because of that I got penalised

He had released Love Me Forever with Happy Land on the flipside and then, realising that he had two hit songs, he took off Happy Land after that and put something else on the back of that song. Then he released This Feeling and Me and You. He didn’t release anything much more from me – not in Jamaica, that is. He released everything overseas. I never did know what was happening in England until Dennis Brown took me to London in 1981. My name was big in England and I didn’t know that. Because I had never been out of Jamaica.

Dennis Brown started travelling. He married an English woman so he was a resident there. He took me to London in February 1981 and when I got there and David Rodigan found out I was there he sent a limousine for me and said he wanted an interview at Capital Radio station. The only reggae programme in England at the time was David Rodigan on Capital radio station every Saturday night from 11 until 12. That Saturday night was my chance for an interview and I got an extra half hour that night. Rodigan was telling me that I did this little song named Sweet Feeling and Rodigan was saying he had a newsstand before he got to Capital Records. He had a newsstand on the side of the road where he used to sell news and records with his little changer and he had never sold another song like how he sold Sweet Feeling. That is the song he took to Capital when he applied for the job. Of all the people that applied, he got the job and he played that song every time. I got to find out that I had a good standing in London and in England.

Read part 2 of this exclusive interview here.


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