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Interview: Stranger Cole in Kingston

Interview: Stranger Cole in Kingston

Interview: Stranger Cole in Kingston

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"My proudest musical moment was ska"


Throughout his long career, Stranger Cole has offered one piece of advice to other artists: “If you think you can do it, try. Music is very unpredictable – so go ahead”.

It’s particularly apt given the circumstances of our interview. It has arisen from a chance encounter at Mixing Lab studios on Dumbarton Avenue in Kingston. Stranger is there to voice a song for an upcoming album project by the Kingston All Stars – a Buena Vista Social Club style reunion of a group of elite musicians including Sly Dunbar, Mikey Boo Richards, Mikey Chung, Jackie Jackson and Robbie Lyn. It’s the perfect opportunity to talk to the legendary ska, rocksteady and reggae singer about his life, the new venture and his forthcoming appearance opening the London International Ska Festival at Easter. Unfortunately, there are no questions pre-prepared – so we’ll just have to jump in and hope for the best.

Stranger Cole

Stranger is dressed casually in a black shirt, a white t-shirt and a baseball cap. He is small and slender with a wide grin. Like his friend and colleague Ken Boothe, who he discovered and recorded in the sixties, Cole’s speaking voice is as spell-binding as his singing – the deep gravelly gravitas of a man many times his size.

Wilburn Theodore Cole was born and raised in West Kingston. “I was originally born in Jones Town but I grew in Trench Town” he recalls “I did grow all over the west because I attended about three different schools – Trench Town, Boys Town and Denham Town. All the western schools. They are all very close to each other.”

Trench Town was a deep place for music

Both his father and uncle played the guitar. His uncle Gilbert Cole used to jam with Ernest Ranglin and Aubrey Adams. “In those days you didn’t have so much recording. You didn’t have any recording. These people used to jam in little clubs. The early days.”

In an interview with United Reggae, Ken Boothe explained that Trench Town was a hot spot for aspiring singers. Stranger agrees. “Oh yeah! Trench Town was a deep place for music. A lot of singers and musicians came out of Trench Town in the early days – Alton and Eddie and Higgs and Wilson, Count Prince Miller, The Heptones, Theophilus Beckford and Hopeton Lewis. I can call quite a few more names. Most of the singers who came from the country – they always ended up in Trench Town because that’s where the music used to be.”

Trench Town is known worldwide as the community where Bob Marley lived when he came to the city. Stranger knew him very well. “I knew Bob before he sang one song. Jimmy Cliff too. They were my friends. They are still my friends.”

I knew Bob before he sang one song

In the 2009 film Rocksteady the Roots of Reggae, (a precursor of the Kingston All Stars sessions) Cole described how he got the nickname Stranger. It’s worth retelling to give a sense of Jamaica’s “take no prisoners” humour. “When I was born I was told by my parents that I didn’t resemble anyone in the family so they said “this is a stranger”. So when I grew up and got into the music business it flashed back to me “That’s a good name to use for my recording work”.”

Stranger started singing with his friends at Denham Town Comprehensive School. “I was learning some kind of pharmaceutical thing. To sell in the pharmacy and things like that. At the end of the terms they had a regular school break. My friends used to hear me singing so they put my name up to sing – unknown to me! I heard them say “Wilburn Cole is gonna sing” but they had more than one Cole in the class so I looked around and they said “Yeah, it’s you man!” I went up and I sang Jackie Edwards’ song Tell Me Darling and my group clapped because it was me, their singer. They said it was good and they said “Sing another one!” and I sang another Jackie Edwards because he was one of my favourite artists then. I sang I Know and Tell Me Darling and I got two ice creams! So I think that is where I “bust”!”

Soon his schoolmates began to encourage him to see the producer and sound man Arthur “Duke” Reid. “Because at that time my brother Leroy Cuttings Cole was the number one disc jockey for Duke Reid. My friends told me “You should go Duke Reid. He’ll listen to you because your brother work with him”. And so it did happen. I went to Duke Reid and he called me and said “Bring me little Cuttings – let me hear what he have to say”.”

Duke Reid said “I love this song but you can’t sing”

Despite the family connection, his first audition was something of a blow to his confidence. “I went in and sang about five songs. I sang this song called In And Out The Window. When I sang it for him he said “I love this song but you can’t sing man. I have some great singers like Derrick Morgan and Monty Morris. I’ll tell you what. I’m going to let Monty Morris sing this song and put your name on it as the writer”. I said “OK, Mr Reid”.” And Out The Window, recorded in 1961 in the pre ska boogie woogie style, went to number one. “So then he said “Since you can write these songs I suppose you can sing them too!””

Stranger ColeBy 1962, the ska began thundering out of the gate as the island’s signature music. Stranger remembers the transition from Jamaican R&B to ska well. “My memories of the birth of ska are that it was really coming from Clue J and the Blues Blasters. Those guys, I used to listen to them long before I made a record. Then the Skatalites and Count Ossie and the African guys. In that time and space was the birth of ska.”

Duke’s initial lack of faith in Stranger’s voice might explain why he generally chose to sing as part of various duos – an arrangement that continued even once he was famous. His first partner was Patsy Todd – cutting a series of ska hits as Stranger and Patsy. “Mr Reid said “The next session you gonna sing one song and go and look for the lady that’s named Patsy, teach her a song and tell her “Mr Reid said you must sing with me””. I did and we went to the studio and did Rough and Tough and When You Call My Name - so I got three number one hits straight! And that was the beginning of everything.”

Reid, a formidable ex-policeman, was not one to formally apologise for having doubted Stranger’s abilities, but he quickly embraced the young star. “He lifted me up and threw wine on me and all these things like that! Like I was his idol.”

Along with another of his duet partners, the pianist Gladstone Anderson, Stranger became the gatekeeper to Reid’s Treasure Isle studios – discovering some of Jamaican music’s future greats. “I used to be the guy who you had to sing to before you had to go up to Gladdy to do piano. I was the talent scout. I took Ken Boothe to the studio for the first time. I took the Techniques, singing Little Did You Know. I also recorded the Diamonds the first time. I introduced a lot more artists in between.”

Ken Boothe has spoken of how touched he was that Stranger, an established name – reached out to help him when he was unknown. In a competitive industry it would have been easy to look out for oneself – especially given Ken’s extraordinary tone. Yet Stranger never hesitated.

I think each one should help one

“I tried to reach out for other people whether I am in a better capacity for them or whatever. I think each one should help one. He was living in the same area where I lived and he would always come around and hear me rehearsing and he’d come and join in. When I heard the value that he had, I thought “I’m going to tell him I am going to sing with him and take him to the studio”.”

The duo Stranger and Ken got going at Duke Reid with Uno Dos Tres. Then they had a big hit via Artibella, whose melody apparently derived from an Indian TV series, recorded for Reid’s rival Coxsone Dodd. As ska decelerated into the golden age of rocksteady, Ken would become a solo star at Coxsone’s Studio 1 Records.

Stranger didn’t quite manage to voice the first rocksteady song – generally thought to be Take It Easy by Hopeton Lewis. “But I was early with everything. Because if you listen to my ska that I sang like Rough and Tough it’s kind of a little slower ska than the regular upbeat ska so it was like I was entering into the rocksteady without knowing it.”

He did, however, cut one of the contenders for the first reggae tune – 1968’s Bangarang produced by Bunny Lee and featuring the saxophone of founder Skatalite Lester Sterling. “I was coming from Denham Town and I usually walked the way from Bond Street and down to Orange Street. While I was passing Mr Reid’s place someone told me Bunny Lee had a session upstairs. He is a good friend of mine. We went to the same school. So I went up there and saw Mr Lee and he told me “Oh, Stranger Cole. You are the person I am looking for. I have a song here called Bongo Chant. It’s an instrumental but I would like a little song to go in front of it”. He hummed it for me and I said “Mumma no want bangarang” and he said “Yes, that’s it”. It was a hit right away. They said it was the first reggae music. I don’t think I get any recognition for that. I don’t think the world has known about that.”

By the time of reggae, Duke Reid and Treasure Isle had ceased to dominate as they did in ska and rocksteady. Coxsone Dodd would last longer - having success in the early reggae period. “Well the music does change and people do change” says Cole “I think Duke Reid had done his time within ska and rocksteady and it was like a new generation of Jamaican music.”

Stranger feels the post rocksteady shift was as much lyrical as rhythmical. “Because in the early days of ska and rocksteady we had to sing like “proper English”. You couldn’t sing patois in ska and rocksteady. But when we reached into the reggae era it all started breaking down to patois and this is where the reggae came.”

Stranger went on to record many big tunes in the 1970s. But he feels most connected to the 60s music that made his name. “My proudest musical moment was ska really. Because this is where I came out of.”

Today his son Wilburn Anthony “Squidly” Cole is one of Jamaica’s top drummers – playing with the Marley family. “Squidly has played with the Marleys for such a long time,” he explains “He started out playing with Jimmy Cliff when he was 14 years old. He went on tour with Mutabaruka and Jimmy Cliff at a very early age. I am very proud of him.”

I’ve never been working this much all through my life

Stranger came to the current Kingston All Stars project at Mixing Lab through its devisor – Moss “Mossman” Raxlen from Canada. “He is producing some rhythms with all these musicians here and he wanted me to come and do a song. He is a good friend of mine and that is the reason why I am here.”

Stranger ColeHe has lots of his own projects on the go but wants to see if the comeback of vinyl can take the music out of its moribund sales climate. “I have a lot of stuff that I produce for myself and then I have some stuff I am doing with some foreign groups in Germany and all of these things. I have a vast amount of records to release but there is a problem now with the CDs. When you put out a record on CD, later on, in another day, it’s all over the world selling on the sidewalks. The sales of records are broken down so they are trying now to bring back the vinyl. If you notice, most of the sound men are playing vinyl. I’m waiting for the vinyl to come up a little bit before I release some stuff.”

On the flipside, he is very busy performing live shows such as the London International Ska Festival. In his eight decade he is reaping the rewards of what he sees as a ska revival all around the world. “I just came from Australia and Germany. My next show is in London and then I think I am going back to Japan and some other places. I’m just looking forward to it and the people are looking forward to hearing me sing my songs.”

“Since the past five or six years. I’ve never been working this much all through my life. The whole reason for this is the revival of the ska music. I’m working all over Europe and the ska thing is very strong around there. What I think about it is that on the whole Jamaican people don’t stay on one thing for a long time. We were in ska, a little later down the road they get out and say “rocksteady”, a little later down the road they get out and say “reggae” and a little later down the road they say “dancehall”. So they reach a position now where they don’t have anywhere to go – so they are going back!”

Jamaican people don’t stay on one thing for a long time

“But I’m very happy for that. I thought the ska was dead at one time. All the old time artists, it used to be that one and few of us were going out like Derrick Morgan, Toots and Jimmy Cliff and Justin Hinds and these people. But right now, everybody is coming out. Keith and Tex are doing all these interviews. Big Youth, U Roy and all these people are working all over the world.”

The only place where Stranger believes that ska’s history needs more attention is his home island of Jamaica: “The music on the whole is great because it has covered the world now but I think it needs some more organisation – especially here in Jamaica. They have quite a few places that protect the artists but I think it needs a little more protection and [to be] a little more Jamaicanised. I think people like me shouldn’t have to travel too much to make some money. I think this tourism in Jamaica is very big and that people like me and others who have made the music, we should have work in Jamaica where we can show the world that we were the people who began this thing and that some of us are still alive.”

He thinks the Jamaican government should be more willing to fund the music. In the 60s when he was recording songs like Down The Trainline with Count Ossie and the early Rastafarian musicians, the establishment didn’t value the culture – until its success worldwide. “I think they should help the music more and make it a more Jamaican commodity. Defend it more.”

People like me shouldn’t have to travel too much to make some mone

He laughs: “I’m sad to say that we never look at things in that way until it reaches! Because even in Bob Marley’s early days they were not looking at him or anything. It was just Bob Marley. And then when things broke out big it was “Oh! Bob Marley!” That is how it happens here. They say a king never gets honoured in his own country!”

Looking back on his days at Treasure Isle, Stranger says it was a formative experience. “It gave me a sense of being progressive, and if you think you can do something then all you have to do is try. Then I passed it on to every artist. That is what I came out of Treasure Isle with.” 

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