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Interview: Jackie Jackson talks Treasure Isle

Interview: Jackie Jackson talks Treasure Isle

Interview: Jackie Jackson talks Treasure Isle

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"Robbie and Familyman kind of see me as a mentor"


Just as each era of pre-digital Jamaican music can be defined by its prevailing drummer, at any given time the island’s hits were being anchored by a predominant bassist. From 1966 until the early 70s that man was Clifton “Jackie” Jackson, principle plucker at Duke Reid’s Bond Street “Treasure Isle” Studio.

Inspired to pick up the four string by the SkatalitesLloyd Brevett, Jackson’s playing grounded some of the greatest slow-ska and rocksteady singles of the 60s. By reggae’s infancy, Jackie’s services were in demand at rival studios such as Beverley’s. There he met Frederick “Toots” Hibbert of the Maytals, with whom he tours to this day.

As well as a cornerstone of the music, Mr Jackson is one of its most humble, genial and gentlemanly characters. United Reggae happened to encounter him in the lobby of Kingston’s Pegasus Hotel. An interview was arranged for a few days hence at Mixing Lab Studios. Jackie was booked in for veterans’ ensemble project the Kingston All Stars (with Sly Dunbar, Mikey Boo, Robbie Lyn, Ansell Collins and Mikey Chung).

A big bald-headed man with a comparatively high voice for his frame, Jackie is not one to get too bogged down in details. Like a true bassie he is more concerned with the fundamentals. Yet he talked for almost an hour about his residence at Treasure Isle and Toots’ - then embargoed - plans to resume touring. When the conversation was done he insisted that he call us a cab and stood in the street until we were on our way.

Jackie Jackson

You were born in 1947.

I think so! (laughs) March 1947. I am only 69!

Where did you grow up?

Central Kingston. Orange Street, Charles Street, Luke Lane. From me saying central Kingston, everybody knows where central Kingston is.

Your uncle was a professional piano player.

Yes. My family on my mother's side are all musicians. So I was next in line. My uncle was Luther Williams. I probably was about 5 or 6 or 7, 8, 9 when he was famous. He had some of the biggest bands on the north coast. The Luther Williams Orchestra. Ernie Ranglin and everybody used to play with him.

My family on my mother's side are all musicians

Then when I decided I wanted to do music, this was probably when I was 12, 13, 14, I went every weekend to Spanish Town. This is another city 15 or 20 minutes away. I used to spend the weekend with his sister Mavis Williams. She was a piano teacher. I don't know how I took up the piano. I think the reason is because everybody on my mother's side, they are all pianists. For what I don't know? Everybody just liked the piano. So I had to go play the piano!

Did you enjoy the piano?

No! (laughs) I was sent to music school and I went, I was doing all right, I have heard worse! But there was this tutor book, I will never forget that book, it is called Smallwoods Piano Tutor. It probably has about 100 pages. But in the middle of that book there is a song called Silver Thread Among The Gold. I'll never forget that song. Because of that song I tore up four of those piano tutor books! Ripped them to pieces! Because if you can get past that song when you're going to the music school you become the greatest pianist in the world.

And for the love of me, I could not get past that damn piece! So when I couldn't get past that piece I just tore up the book and threw it away! My mother bought me another one. I went to the piano school and at the recital everybody had played it already. "Play, Jackson". Couldn't get past it! Tore it up! After I tore up the fourth book, I was going home one evening from class and Skatalites were rehearsing. I stopped. I was drawn to the music. I stopped and I went inside.

Where were they rehearsing?

At Success Club on Wildman Street. Jesus, that's 100 years ago you know! And I was drawn to Brevett, the bass. Brevett was there pumping away on his upright and I just walked right up to him until our noses were touching. I stayed there for about two or three hours. I was mesmerised. At the end of the rehearsal I said "You know what? I want to play the bass. This is what I want to play".

I was drawn to Lloyd Brevett, the bass

So the next day when I went back to music lesson I went to the teacher and said "Listen, I want to play the bass". He said "But Jackson, you are doing so well on the piano!" "No” I said to him right in front of the class "You know what I discovered yesterday? The piano has 88 keys and I only have 10 fingers!" And everybody in the class turned upside down! Everybody was dying with laughter! So he said "What do you want?" I said "I want to play the bass".

And, the perfect teacher that he was, he knew: don't fight your student. Some teachers would have said "No! No! This is what you're going to do!" He said "All right, you're sure?" I said "Yes" because all I could think about was Brevettt and that upright. I started that same evening and he said "Alright, come". He took out his bass tutor, set it up and showed me the dos and don'ts of the upright. When I had it in my hands it was love at first sight. We were inseparable from that day.

And what about sound system? Will you interested in that?

Yes! I was a great follower. I had been following sound system since I was about 12. My sound system was Coxsone's. Just love Coxsone. For what I don't know! Everywhere Coxsone was playing, I was there. But then, I listened to everybody. I listened to Lord Koos Universe, Duke Reid the Trojan, Prince Buster Voice Of The People, all of them. But my favourite sound system was Coxsone.

What was your favourite American music that was playing at the time?

Okay, when I was growing up it was what we call rhythm and blues, bebop. You know, blues and Motown. The great and wonderful Motown. I was a Motown fan. I had transitioned from the upright to the bass guitar. Because there is no way on God’s earth that you can walk with that upright bass! By that time bass guitar was coming into its own so my favourite guy was the Motown bass player, James Johnson. Love him! I had every Motown song in those days. Every album. Stevie Wonder, Supremes, Four Tops, everybody. And I used to sit every day after school, after music lessons, and play every one of those songs. Note for note. I was a James Johnson fan.

Do you remember the birth of the ska?

Was I too young to remember? Yes and no. Because of the music I can safely say I can remember some things. I used to listen to a lot of ska. A whole heap. Plenty. Because I grew up on ska. I used to listen, at that time I wasn't recording yet and ska was the in thing. Everywhere the Skatalites played I was there. Everywhere, as a little teenager of 15 or 16 and I would go right there in stand out right in front of Brevett. Probably one inch. Everywhere he'd keep seeing this little fellow. He was probably saying "Who's that?" And I knew every one of their songs. And when I say “every” I mean every. And for me, my two greatest eras of Jamaican music are ska and rocksteady. And why I say rocksteady is not because I was involved, but some of the greatest songs and lyrics and rhythms came out of rocksteady to this day.

Some of the greatest songs, lyrics and rhythms came out of rocksteady

How did you join your first two bands: Ty and the Titans and the Cavaliers?

During my music lessons I started in my first band Ty and the Titans. I spent about two years in there. How I got into that band was the drummer and I were friends and I used to go into the rehearsals. I was following him into the rehearsal one night and Bumps Jackson who used to play with Byron Lee was the bass player. I don't know what happened with him and the Titans that night but they got into one hell of a fight! He packed up his bass guitar and left. So everybody said "Shit, we are in trouble now" because they were playing the next night. Everybody said "What are we going to do now? We are in trouble!" Then the drummer turned to them and said "My friend can play bass now".

And that night, Angus, I learned 60 songs! 60 songs right there! I couldn't even sleep. And then that was it for me and Ty and the Titans. I spent about two years there and then I moved onto the Cavaliers. At that time the Cavaliers were led by Lester Sterling. By then Lester Sterling had left Roland Alphonso and he was the Cavaliers bandleader. I spent another year to year and a half with Cavaliers and played, played, played. Then one day I was at home and that was when Tommy McCook came.

How did you meet Tommy McCook?

Oh! We met under unusual circumstances. When Skatalites broke up Tommy McCook went one way and Roland Alphonso went the other. So Brevett and Jackie Mittoo went with Roland Alphonso and formed the Soul Brothers and they stuck with Coxsone. Tommy McCook when his separate way and he went with Lloyd Knibbs, Johnny Moore, and formed Tommy McCook and the Supersonics.

Well, I was at home one day with my mother, sitting down. And there was a knocking on the gate. My mother went out to see who is knocking. She came back and said "A gentleman is at the gate by the name of Tommy McCook. He would like to see you". So I said "Tommy McCook?" Because I could not believe this was the same Tommy McCook. So I went out and he said "Hello, I am Tommy McCook. I am forming a band. I am putting a band together and I would like you to be the bass player".

Tommy McCook said "I am putting a band together and I would like you to be the bass player"

And he must have known about you through the Cavaliers?

Yes, because the word was, at that time, there was only one other bass player around, Lloyd Spence, who used to play with Lynn Taitt. He was doing all the recordings after Brevett. Brevett was incarcerated I think, so Lloyd Spence was doing all of the recordings for Duke, Coxsone, everybody. So my time was coming up, because I was right behind them without even knowing! So fortunately, by this time the Cavaliers broke up, Ty and the Titans had broken up, and that was when Tommy came along. And I spent five years with that band. It was a university! Jesus!

So it was Tommy who took you to Duke Reid?

Yes! After being in Tommy McCook’s band for about three months, there was a big club named Club Havana where we were playing every weekend. So one Saturday night after we had finished playing, he said to me "Clifton, there is going to be a recording session at Treasure Isle". Not for hell would he call me Jackie! He called me Clifton and I hate that name so much! Clifton sounds like an old man with one tooth and glasses! By this time I knew of Treasure Isle. He said "12 o'clock tomorrow, Sunday". Angus, I was there from nine in the morning! And my first recording on that day was Girl I've Got A Date.

I spent five years with the Supersonics. It was a university!

Which has got a pretty big bass line!

Oh Jesus! History. My national anthem. You see Jamaican producers, they are traditionalists. If there is a song that hits, everybody wants to know "Who played on this?" They say "Who played the bass?" "Jackie Jackson". And from there, after that song, pow pow! Tip Top, Beverley's, Prince Buster. That was the birth of Jackie Jackson.

So I've got to ask: did Duke start firing off his guns in the studio when you were playing?

Of course! Every week. It was good, in a sense. When we were doing a song, he had a studio upstairs and his liquor store downstairs and he was feeling the music. He had a set up where the music could reach him downstairs. Mr Reid was at all times hearing what was happening upstairs musically.

Girl I've Got A Date, it was a strange session. Lynn Taitt, Lloyd Knibbs and everybody was there. And this was my first session, and I wasn't being brash or boastful, but when Alton started the song, what I heard was what I wanted to play. And I heard myself playing the introduction. (Sings bassline) Tommy said "No! The bass can't play the introduction! When do you have a bass playing the introduction? No, no, no! The horns have to blow". And thank the Lord for Lynn Taitt. Lynn Taitt said "No, no, no. Wait.” And he, has never for the love of me call me Jackie, only Bassie. He said "No, Bassie, let me play the introduction with you." And that is how it was born. Both of us locked and played (sings bassline).

Tommy said "The bass can't play the introduction!" Lynn Taitt said "No, no, no. Wait."

At this time Tommy was still fighting it and Duke Reid was downstairs and heard when Lynn Taitt and myself started. And he came upstairs. And when you see Duke, when the song is sweet he'd start to dance. And when the song is going to be a hit and he takes out his 38 "Pow!" Into the ceiling! And when the song is going to be a monster, he could feel all of these things, he’d take out his shot gun “Blaggo!” Into the ceiling! If you go to Bond Street today, there is no ceiling! (Laughs) So that was how Girl I've Got A Date was born and that sent me on my way.

As your name got big, there was a core of musicians that you used to play with. Hux Brown, Lynn Taitt, Gladdy Anderson, Winston Wright, Winston Grennan…

Well, in those days Hux was primarily with Coxsone. I knew him, he knew me but we are never played on a session. Then, one day we had a session with Tip Top. Sonia Pottinger had a session with the Melodians and Ken Boothe. By this time the Gaylads, Ken Boothe and the Melodians had formed something where they were writing songs and producing themselves - but for some strange reason that day, Miss P was the producer. I was the bass player, I can't remember who the drummer was, I think Winston Grennan was the drummer. In walked Lynn Taitt, this was after we had met at Treasure Isle, and then in walked Hux. We introduced ourselves because we had admired each other's playing before we met. And then we went on to do the session for Tip Top records. That is how we did our first session and from that - pow!

It was always the same core of people. But we kept changing drummers!

I’d met Gladdy at Treasure Isle. Tommy McCook was the musical director there, but Gladdy, he was sort of an arranger on a lower scale. Because when you’d go there to do a session the singers would go over to the piano and sing the song and Gladdy would be responsible for getting the progression and how many times this was going to play during the introduction and so on. So I met Gladdy right there. Winston Wright was on organ and Gladdy was piano. And then sometimes it will be “Snappin’” on piano also. Then, over the years, it was always the same core of people. But we kept changing drummers for one reason or another! So at one point it was Grennan, then Lloyd Knibbs, then Tin Legs, then Duckie, and then Fergie and then Paul Douglas. And then Hugh Malcolm was also in there.

Tell me about the birth of rocksteady. What was the first rocksteady tune?

Jackie JacksonJesus Angus! To this day there is controversy! Controversy among about which song was the first rocksteady and which producer produced it. It is hard to say which song is the first rocksteady song. At one point, Take It Easy, Hopeton Lewis, somebody is claiming that that was the first rocksteady song. Then there is also Get In The Groove [by Roy Shirley]. That song was also classified as the first rocksteady. Then there was Melodians with Little Nut Tree, there were so many of them. But it's hard to say and I'm not going to get up and say it because it's not fair on all of the songs. It is not fair to say "This particular one is the first ever rocksteady song." When you have musicologists and you have DJs, there is constant war over this. So I try to keep myself out of it!

But if you had to guess - which would you say is the first?

I probably have to say Take It Easy by Hopeton Lewis. And I know you're going to ask this question so might as well answer! The first time I heard the term rocksteady, we were recording You Have Caught Me Baby with the Melodians. Because everybody is also claiming that they made the term rocksteady, just like everybody’s saying they made the term reggae.

Duke Reid had one of his deejays named Cuttings [relative of Stranger Cole], who deejayed on the sound. When we played that rhythm, You Have Caught Me, and when it was recorded, Cuttings came into the studio and said "Bwoy the tune steady like a rock". And then after that he said "Man, it rocksteady you know?" He wasn't coining the phrase. He was just saying the song is steady as a rock! Because you can't move a rock. So it was rock steady. That was the first time I heard the term rocksteady. Then after that everybody started saying rocksteady. But I don't bother to get into that conversation. Because everybody wants to be Christopher Columbus!

So how did you start freelancing out for other producers? Who did you go to first?

Well I was with Duke Reid where I was the resident bass player for Treasure Isle. The hits came out, and, like I said, Jamaican producers are traditional. They hear a song hit and the first thing they try to figure out is "Who played on this?" When they keep a session, they want the same guy. Treasure Isle, Tip Top, Beverley's and all the little independent guys.

And every one of them had their own individual sound. But it was us, the same guys who were doing the recording. It's strange! But the good thing about us is we took each producer and each session seriously. We didn't just go in there and say "Alright, make we just do it so so". No, we put everything into it. So that was how everybody has their own identity as producers. If you hear a song produced by Leslie Kong or if you heard a song by Tip Top or if you heard a song by Lloyd the Matador. And of course Treasure Isle and Coxsone had their own distinct sounds - you can't beat that. So everybody had their own sound. But it was us, the same core. It is funny, nobody believes that! They think it's different people.

Cuttings said "Bwoy the tune steady like a rock. Man, it rocksteady"

How did Duke react to you doing all these other sessions?

It got to a stage where Duke Reid and I had a falling out. Because he wanted me to play only for Treasure Isle. Me - only the bass player! Everybody else could go and play. But I couldn't do that because there was a core of us - me, Gladdy, Winston, Hux Brown, Grennan, all of us! So, I not being there and it being a different bass it wasn't the same. It would not sound the same. So, unfortunately, I had to go to Duke and say "I am sorry but I can't” - and he felt bad. And we had a falling out.

For about six months I didn't go to Treasure Isle and no session was kept. Well, sessions were kept but he was using different bass players and it wasn't the same. By this time I was at sessions morning and night, Beverley’s for Leslie Kong, Tip Top, Joe Gibbs, Lloyd the Matador, Randy's - and the hits came. By this time, Duke Reid wasn't producing anything, no hits. He was producing songs but they were not hits.

The last song that made him swallow his pride was Take It Easy. I was at home one evening and I heard “pam pam pam” at the gate and when I looked out it was him sitting out there in his car! So I went out and he said "Bassie". This damn Bassie! He kept calling me that over and over again! He did not beat around the bush and say "Boy, how can you work like this?" Because both of us knew what was the situation. So he said "Alright, tomorrow, Sunday, we're having a session at Treasure Isle - want to come?" Of course! I was happy to go!

And this was right around festival time and the first song I did when I went back in there was Ba Ba Boom Festival! And it won! And from that - back in there again! And then the next year Hopeton Lewis did another Festival song and it won. That was the rebirth of Duke and myself. After that, Melodians came on, and there were a ton of hits for the Melodians. After the Melodians, Hopeton did some more things, then Phyllis Dillon, then Ken Parker, then the Jamaicans, then the Sensations, then the hits were just worse than before!

What happened to Treasure Isle when the beat changed to reggae? Why did they not continue to dominate?

What happened was, by this time, when rocksteady was on its way out, and reggae or one drop came in, Duke became very, very, very sick. Cancer. He hardly ever came to the studio and he didn't have a son or someone who could continue. His wife wasn't interested. So at that point, Mrs Pottinger bought Treasure Isle. And that was the end of the Treasure Isle regime.

So what was your memory of the birth of the reggae beat? Ernest Ranglin said it was some sessions for Clancy Eccles using Hugh Malcolm.

Well after rocksteady, a new set of artists came along, and some of the old ones were still there and it was Clancy Eccles, Scratch and some more guys. How I see it is that it was the type of song being done that determines the rhythm. Because when it was rocksteady days, the artists used to come and how they structured the song, they sang it very slow. So it being that slow, we had to go along with it, so it can either be that it was too slow or it’s not fast enough.

The type of song being done determines the rhythm

Angus, the reason I don't get into interviews with other people, when there is a group of us is because like I said everybody wants to be Christopher Columbus! I am not taking any sides! Because it is neither here nor there! So what? It is music and the music belongs to the country. What is the point of me saying "I was the one who invented rocksteady"? So what?

So for reggae, the earliest I can remember is Clancy Eccles did a session for Feel The Rhythm. And that right about there, I guess that is where, if you get a chance to listen to it, that is real reggae. And then after that to Toots did a song called Do The Reggay. And that also is real reggae. I don't know who coined the name and I'm not going to go into that. Because Clancy says it was him…

Bunny Lee says it was him…

Yes. Toots says it was him that coined the phrase. But my interpretation is that he was the first one to put the word “reggae” on record. He wasn't the first want to come up with reggae or the word reggae. But he was the first one to put the word reggae in a song. But then everybody else is claiming that they came up with the word reggae. When that argument starts Angus, I try to be one mile away!

Let's talk about Toots. How did you first meet Toots? At Beverley's?

By this time we were recording for everybody, the four of us and we had done some sessions for Leslie Kong. One of the biggest hits out of Beverley's records was Desmond Dekker… Israelites! So that put us on the map. Everyone wondered "Who did this?" And what also put us on the map was Mother And Child Reunion. Paul Simon! He came in to do just one song. And he could not believe how, when they brought music sheets and charts in, we just said to him "Sing the song". Because in Jamaican music, you have what is known as an arranger and a producer. The arranger puts on a chart what he is feeling or what he would like.

Some songs it works. But this is Jamaican music! (Pumps heart with fist) It is here! The arranger producer will come with the charts and it will be great and wicked. But when we say to the singer "Sing" we are feeling something ten times different to what is on the chart. And nine times out of ten, it is nicer than what's on the paper. Guys came with charts and we ran it down and then, we’d just say to them "Listen to this". And we’d just throw the damn charts to one side and play from here. (Pumps heart with fist) And he'd say "Oh! Okay, no more charts!"

So we did sessions for Leslie Kong and Beverley's, every week. We were doing songs with Nicky Thomas, and all the other guys. And at one point even Bob Marley was with Leslie Kong. We did an album.

The Best of the Wailers.

Right. We did that also. I didn't know Toots, but by this time we knew of Toots. We knew of 54-46, but that was like a year before my time. And then on this particular day, by this particular session he had just met Leslie Kong. And then he was signed to Beverley's at this time. So it was his turn this week to do that session. And the first song he did was (sings) "it is you... Oh yeah..." Pressure Drop. That was the first song.

Another big bass line.

And from there every album. All of the songs. Pressure Drop, Funky Kingston and more stuff. Then, by this time Island Records, Chris Blackwell had got interested in Toots and Marley. And he couldn't decide which one he wanted so he took both of them.

So we were called to a meeting one day by Chris and he said "Listen, we want to put you guys on the road". Because all along it was just Toots, Raleigh and Jerry - that was Toots and the Maytals. By this time we were kind of like the backing band. Because by this time rocksteady had gone its way, reggae was still there, not that it was fading but it was becoming international so the sound in the mood, in the feel was kind of changing slightly. And then Chris Blackwell decided to use us, the session musicians, as the touring band and put everything under one entity as to Toots and the Maytals.

Chris Blackwell said "Listen, we want to put you guys on the road"

But we sat down and we said "Listen" because tying ourselves down would mean we have to stop recording with everybody. So we kept a meeting and we said "Gentlemen? What do you think?" And everybody said "We have nothing to lose!" (Laughs) Then again by this time recording was becoming less and less because the computer shift was coming.

And the smart bands started going on tour?

Yeah. And then touring became a big thing. So there was less recording. So we said "Okay" and we went on our first tour. We were the opening act for Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles. And so from there until this day we are on the road. We've been on the road for 41 years. Jesus! Long time.

Both Familyman Barrett and Robbie Shakespeare have spoken about how your playing influenced them.

Well, Robbie and Familyman kind of see me as a mentor. I can distinctly remember when Familyman hadn’t started playing yet. He used to come to the sessions with one of the guitarists, Ronald Williams. We call him Ranny Bop. He and Ranny Bop were good friends until one day they even formed a band and called it... Something or other boys... Man I'm getting old…

Hippy Boys?

Hippy Boys! Familyman was the bass man. His brother was the drummer and Ranny was the guitarist. So when Ranny Bop came to the studios with us to record, Familyman would come with him. I remember one day we were doing a session. I can't remember who the session was for. I played a particular line and when I was finished we all went into the engineering room to listen back.

And when we were listening I heard the bass playing and the line still being played! And I said "Who the set the hell is that?" I went back inside and there was Familyman playing the line. And I said "Nice. That's a good feel. You're going to become good one day". He just laughed and said "Oh man!"

Then, after Robbie Shakespeare came on board and then he listened, and he was listening to a lot of Familyman and Family said to him "No, no, no, the person you must listen to is Jackie Jackson". And then we met and it went on and it went on and they both listened and they both listened until today, Familyman and Robbie are on their own.

How is Toots doing since he was hit by a bottle on tour in Virginia in 2013?

He is doing fine! He's getting fatter and fatter but apart from that he's doing fine. The reason is we are all just sitting here waiting for closure of the case. I have now heard that there is another hearing this month, February which could be the final hearing. It's going to be do or die, yes or no. Whether he is going to be compensated or not.

Because you see court cases, he could go to court in February and it could be put off until August. And then you go in August of this it could be put off until next year in January. And then next year in January becomes December 2018. And then December becomes January 2019. Because the three years now we haven't toured. He has sued for loss of earnings.

So there is nothing going on. We are all just here doing our own individual things. Each of us have our own empire to run. I would just waiting to see the outcome of what is going to happen first. [Case settled in March 2016].

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