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Interview: Dennis Walks in Kingston

Interview: Dennis Walks in Kingston

Interview: Dennis Walks in Kingston

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"Harry Mudie was so unique in his music"


It is midnight, backstage at Errol Dunkley’s birthday, Ranny Williams Centre, Kingston Jamaica. There are no foreign media and veteran artists all around. Lone Ranger politely offers his chair. Big Youth is wearing a leopard spotted hat. Errol Dunkley, surrounded by entourage, is decked out in red. Frankie Paul, his foot recently amputated, looks painfully frail - yet will later electrify the capacity crowd from his wheelchair during the performance of the night.

But the first “name” artist to make an impact is Dennis Walks. He’s dressed in a suit as white as his beard and locks. The people go wild for his 1969 Harry Mudie produced song The Drifter - which spawned one of the most inexhaustible rhythms of all time.

The original cut, played furiously by loaned out Studio 1 musicians, is the quintessential expression of love and poverty from a music steeped in both. It’s been sung-over by Dennis Brown, Reggae George and Cornell Campbell – each recut maintaining the same quality control.

After the show Dennis bounds up smiling and introduces himself. Two chairs are found on the darkened lawn behind the backstage to conduct an interview. It's another unplanned Kingston meeting where no questions are prepared and only memory will suffice. But this is too good an opportunity to miss.

It’s a chance to hear the history behind one of Jamaica’s greatest recordings (and to highlight how talented vintage artists can struggle without management or the skills to navigate the digital age…).

Dennis Walks

Where were you born?

I was born in Spanish Town, St Catherine. Just a small family. Very small family. I’ve got three sisters and five brothers. But most of my brothers they passed off away.

Did you come from a musical family?

Yeah because my father (laughs) he used to sing a lot! My father, he’d drink, so when he was drunk and he’d come he’d always say (sings) “Baby… No Tell Me No Lie… Baby… No Tell Me No Lie… Baby… No Tell Me No Lie… When Me Gone… How A You Mama Did Do You?... Dis You Mama Beat You? (laughs) Or She Did Flog You?... Tell Me The Truth… Don't Tell Me No Lie…” (laughs) He’d always sing that song for me!

Dennis Walks is not your real name…?

No, my stage name is Dennis Walks. My real name is Vassell, Dennis Vassell.

How did you start singing?

I started singing from way back when I was 7 years old. I used to sing for this white lady. Her name was Mrs Stephenson. He husband was a JP and he had got a lot of places and we did live on his place. All the time she’d call me and give me this half crown – which was a two and sixpence piece – or a florin – which was a two shilling. She’d always call me and say “Sing Brown Girl for me” and I’d say (sings) “Brown Girl… Stay Home And Mind Your Baby…” I didn’t know the words so much but the melody I did have. It’s a folk song from way back.

What was your first break into the business?

I did my first recording in 1963 for Duke Reid at Treasure Isle. I just went there because I used to walk around and sing and people would always say “Come on, man”. They called me Canal Bank Artist, Kitchen Side Artist and all kinds of different things because I never got the limelight! (laughs) So my brother told me that I must go to town. I went to town and then I found this man Duke Reid. The first time I went to him he said “Fire!” and I didn’t know what “fire” meant. So the wife said “He mean you must sing!” (laughs) So I sang and he said “Better luck next time man”. I waited for a while and then in three or four months I came back with some different songs. When I did the first one he said “Another one. Sing another one” and while I was singing another one, the wife said to him “Mr Reid, let him sing back the first song”. So when I sang back the first song he said “OK, go upstairs, you passed the test”. The tune was Dreamboat (sings) “On My Dreamboat… I Keep There Waiting… A Long Long Time For You… Why I'm Waiting?... It’s Because I Love You…” Yeah, it was a ska rhythm. A slow ska.

How did Duke react to the finished tune?

(Laughs) Oh God, Duke Reid and another sound were playing at Forrester’s Hall and then Duke Reid played my song and won the clash. So these guys, around four guys, had me up in the air like this! (raises arms) Were walking up and down with me in the air like that! Saying “Oh my God man, what a guy!” Because at that time I was around 14 or 15.

How did you get the stage name Dennis Walks?

My stage name came by Roy Shirley. Roy Shirley gave me that name. I was going to Joe Gibbs recording studio and he met me down town and he was riding a bicycle and I was walking but I reached the studio before him. He said “How you reach so quick?” and I said “I walk mi walk”. He said “Now, bwoy, a Dennis Walks you fi name!” (laughs) So from that time till now it sticks on.

They called me Canal Bank Artist and Kitchen Side Artist because I never got the limelight!

How did you start recording at Joe Gibbs? Was this rocksteady time?

I did some songs for Joe Gibbs. Ska songs, very ska. I did a song named Benedict for Joe Gibbs. Yeah, it was a ska but early on changing to rocksteady. It had that ska tempo. They never be a big hit anyhow. Then I did another one named Having A Party and that one was on the flipside of the Pioneers sing Longshot Bust Me Bet.

So how did you meet Harry Mudie?

One evening when I was coming home to Spanish Town I met Mudie because Mudie lived in Spanish Town. Mudie was at the record shop buying records. I asked him if he could drop me over and he said yes. So we were driving coming over and he said he was going to have a session so I said “Alright”. I rehearsed the song and I went to him with The Drifter. (laughs)

What inspired the lyrics for The Drifter?

Well you see, from way back when I was small, my mum used to take me from country to town and from town to country. Because my mother’s father lived in the country but my mother lived in the town with me and my father. So she’d always go to look for her father and to take care of this father because her father was very ill. So, though I was the smallest one she’d always have me with her – to and fro! (laughs) So that’s why I’m a drifter man! I keep drifting here and drifting there! So, that’s just how it came up and I put things and things together.

Is it right that Mudie did his recordings at Studio 1? Who were the musicians that played on Drifter rhythm?

Yeah, that’s right. At Studio 1 – that’s where I did the Drifter and Heart Don’t Leap. We did Heart Don’t Leap and Drifter at Studio 1. Leroy Sibbles played the bass. (laughs because Leroy is backstage) Gladstone Anderson and Winston Wright.

On piano and organ?

Yeah, those guys. Hux on guitar and… (pauses) That drummer… I haven’t seen that drummer again from that time. No way. No, I haven’t seen that drummer.

So when you heard the rhythm did you think it would be as popular years later?

No, because Mudie was never really interested in that music, you know? He had an interest in a song named Run Run Run Girl with a guy named George Grossett. So he spent his money on that song but that song didn’t go anywhere!

He didn’t think Drifter would be a strong seller?

Dennis WalksNo, because the Drifter, he made it be a flipside for Heart Don’t Leap. I said “Governor, don’t do it. Put the Drifter and the riddim together and the Heart Don’t Leap and the riddim together” but he said “No, two good song. Put them together. This one sell. That one sell”. Wrong thing. So Drifter became a flipside. Heart Don’t Leap reached 11 on the chart so that meant Drifter wasn’t playing too much like Heart Don’t Leap. All of a sudden Drifter said “What you doing with me? I’m getting up!” (laughs) Drifter started to [take off] and when he saw that he said there was no money to push the song because he spent all the money upon the Run Girl!

So Drifter wasn’t as big as hit as it should have been?

No, so we stuck around until ’74 when we did Margaret for Mudie and Margaret took off from there. Margaret took off man. So in ’75 Mudie took me to England because this guy pirated my song Margaret – Shelly.

Count Shelly?

Yeah, Count Shelly. He pirated the song in England and sold thousands of copies.

But did you get to do some shows in England?

Yeah. They were very good man. Very, very good man. I did a show with [Mac &] Katie Kissoon – Dream Of Me When You’re Lonely – those guys – and Arthur Conley. When I finished my show those guys came into my dressing room and said “Man, where you get your stuff from, man?” (laughs) I said “No stuff, natural! No stuff, man!” They can’t believe it man. Because Katie Kissoon, when she came she got 21 chains, 14 links. I said “Boss, these are the guys you’re going to put me to sing against? No way!” (laughs) My boss took off one of his rings and put it upon my finger! (laughs) Then [Mac &] Katie Kissoon came in and said “I don’t want this changing room! I don’t want this changing room!” and showing off and boasting. So the little sufferer came and dropped some tunes upon them and they turned idiot boys! (laughs) Katie Kissoon turned idiot boy – you can’t believe! Poor little guy!

So what was Harry Mudie like to work with? What kind of man was he?

He’s a guy like this: he’s so unique in his music, he’s trying to build the best. So whenever it’s time he’s going to use a musician he’d find the best of the best to put together. Because he was always looking for a big hit song. So he’d put out all those interests. He’d do the rhythm here and we’d voice here and then he would take it to England and put a lot of strings in and flutes and all those things.

He made a lot of cuts of Drifter – including strings and horn cuts.

Oh yeah! Over 24,000!

And a lot of people have sung over that song – like Reggae George, Cornell Campbell and Dennis Brown. So tell me which is your favourite cover of the song?

You mean local singers? I liked how Dennis Brown sang it. But I’d check for Ken Boothe really – he’s got a feel in his songs.

A lot of deejays and upcoming artists tried to do my song over

Ken who is here with us tonight? Did he sing Drifter as well?

No, no, but Dennis Brown did my song and there were a lot of deejays and upcoming artists who tried to do my song over.

So is Dennis’ the best apart from your own?

Dennis. Dennis is close to me. Dennis was very close to me. He didn’t stop singing my song. Every stage he went on he’d sing my song.

Who are your favourite singers of all time?

Locally, Ken Boothe, Alton, Dennis and John Holt. I just like the vibes of those guys and how they deal with things. Far overseas artists like Chuck Jackson, Sam Cooke, those guys kind of inspired me a lot. David Ruffin – oh man, that’s my best! (laughs) That’s my boss – David Ruffin, man! I like that guy.

So how does it feel to see that the song is so loved after all these years?

I feel so good and yet – you know – I didn’t get that great limelight that I’m supposed to. Every time I do a performance, my performance was so good that everybody goes for it. And I keep wondering “How comes I am so good and yet I’m still at the back?” Because I don’t have a manager to take care of my career. I don’t have anyone to go and seek shows for me or do anything for me. So I just keep doing and trying for myself.

I keep wondering “How comes I am so good and yet I’m still at the back?”

So if there are any foreign promoters or producers that want to work with you – how can they get in touch with you?

Well that’s what I’m saying. They would have to get in touch with me. Because there is no booking agent. There is no manager. I would just have to put my number out.

Don’t you have an email address or a website or a Facebook page?

I have a friend in England who tried to get me on the internet. Like “This is Dennis Walks, Meet Dennis Walks” – you know – on the internet? I have a Facebook page. He told he has me on the YouTube – so if you put in Dennis Walks you would see me come up. Things like that.

Which projects are you working on right now?

I’m doing some songs. The other day I was in New York and this guy, you know, we were just in the basement, they’ve got all the instruments down there. And I started to play – because sometimes I play the piano – not that great but some cheap chords! – and we built something. Right now, I’ve got at least 15 songs.

I have a friend in England who tried to get me on the internet

When did you learn the piano?

Well, I started to learn from Duke Reid through Joe Gibbs because they had those things – so I’d always go and try a thing you know?

Who is this guy in New York?

(pauses for a long time) Howie? Howie? His name is Howie? Howie Robinson? He’s supposed to have a label but he doesn’t work on that as yet so I don’t want to say that and it’s not the right thing. We didn’t complete that album yet so I’m supposed to go back by April to finish the thing.

If you would like to contact Dennis Walks about work please get in touch with us and we will try to get a message to him.

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