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Interview: Robbie Lyn in Kingston (Part 1)

Interview: Robbie Lyn in Kingston (Part 1)

Interview: Robbie Lyn in Kingston (Part 1)

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"Full Up was just one of those days when there was no singer to record"


Talk with anyone who knows Jamaican music on a structural level and the name Robbie Lyn is going to keep coming up in conversation. As regular keyboardist for Coxsone Dodd and Lee Scratch Perry, the In Crowd and Peter Tosh’s Word Sound and Power band, Robbie is uniquely placed to apprise and appraise reggae history.

Today he is still working, albeit less so than in the 70s and 80s. Shortly after this interview was conducted he commenced recording Canadian producer Moss Raxlen’s Kingston All Stars project (alongside Sly Dunbar, Ansel Collins, Mikey Chung, Hux Brown, Jackie Jackson, and Everton & Everald Gayle). A few weeks before its publication he re-joined his Word Sound and Power colleagues for the opening of the Peter Tosh museum in Kingston.

United Reggae met Robbie in February at an uptown shopping mall cafe. It was Bob Marley's birthday so naturally we covered, among other things, his uncredited recordings with Bob and his credited ones for Peter.

A polite, reserved individual, Robbie nevertheless has forthright opinions about music. He spares none of this honesty when it comes to his own abilities and perceived limitations. It's refreshing in a scene where veteran musicians feel rightly underappreciated and are keen to broadcast their contributions. But if anything he was too modest, for he has served reggae extremely well.

The first half of this 2 part discussion recalls his days at Studio 1, with In Crowd and Now Generation.

Robbie Lyn

Your mother was a pianist?

Yes. She played jazz. Cocktail piano mainly. She mainly played with trios at hotels in her career. Not straight-ahead jazz but the standards.

But she didn't actually teach you… She arranged lessons for you with Lenny Hibbert of Alpha Boys’ school?

Yes, she did because she had also played in his band for a while. They were very good friends. She saw, when I was going to high school, that music was not in the curriculum and that I started to have an interest in music and I wasn't getting any sort of guidance. There were times when she wasn’t at home, because she would go to town and work for a few days and then come back, and that was the way she tried to assist me.

Unfortunately those lessons weren’t long lasting. It was more chalk on blackboard sort of thing with groups of people. It wasn't like hands-on or an individual thing. I would have gone over to Alpha Boys School after my school. I could just walk over - it was that close. And on weekends he had similar types of things - different types of congregations at a regular meeting place. But it never lasted too long and there weren’t really that many sessions.

We looked up to Fil Callender as a kind of big brother

Do you remember what you learned?

To be honest I didn't really learn much! Because I was just sitting down and it was him talking. We didn't have any instruments. When you talk about Alpha you think of horn players and a guy would probably walk away with his trumpet in the corner. It was just sitting down in a classroom. Probably there were some practical and theoretical things that I didn't know about before but in terms of technique or the approach to playing there wasn't really anything there.

Did you meet any of the Alpha boys?

To be honest, I don't remember anybody there. They were all young guys like myself and I don't know if anyone I was in with ever turned out to be somebody. I never really interacted with them.

What about your own friends in the neighbourhood? Were you friends with anybody who grew up to be a musician?

Fil Callender. Mikey Boo the drummer. He actually moved into our neighbourhood after the band In Crowd started. When the band started it was a community or neighbourhood type of band with an affiliation to a particular church with the youth club movement. That is pretty much where the interest in music with some of the other guys started. Fil was already establishing himself as a professional musician, mainly playing drums at Studio 1 and in a band called the Virtues. And there were other little groups that he would just go and jam along with. Fil also had a brother who was musically inclined and he was the bass player for the band eventually. And there were other good friends but not everybody came out to be a full-time musician. We had guys who would come and just start learning to play guitar. So Fil was probably like the leader of our little group. Well, leader musically but he was kind of senior to us and we looked up to him as a kind of big brother.

Just jumping back to your family home, was there a piano in the house?

Yes, there was a piano. That is why I became the keyboard player because I really wanted to play the guitar! Sometimes we'd meet by Fil's home but everybody would be strumming on a guitar and then they'd say "Let's go over by Robbie because there's a piano we can make some more noise!" You know, not just guitars! So I ended up doing as I was expected to do.

I really wanted to play the guitar!

You said in previous interviews that you pretty much taught yourself to play.

Yes, we all did. After we started out just learning how to play chords and what is a major what is a minor we strummed along with the popular songs. We called them Top 40 at the time. Some people were almost rhythmic when playing guitars and they didn't solo or anything that - we were all self-taught. We’d listen to the pop songs and then we got a little more diverse. I was hoping with the Lenny Hibbert classes to become a little bit more adept at playing the music scores and sheet music. But as I said, it never panned out the way I wanted it to. Even in my later years I said "Well, I have enough knowledge to know that all I have to do is take some simple music charts and progressively teach yourself. If you have a problem there's always somebody who can understand". A lot of times I started and then put it down. I guess I was lazy in some sort of way.

But can you read sheet music now if you need to?

I follow more like chord charts, that basic thing. But up until this morning I was looking back on a beginners book! And every day I say I'm going to start but I wouldn't say I'm a great reader. If I have time to prepare and somebody send me a chart I kind of have to analyse it first. And as I said, I'm just being complacent and negligent because I know I can do it. And then I say "Maybe you're getting too old to start!" (Laughs)

What kind of stuff were you playing along to? Were you listening to American music on the radio?

Yes, mostly American R&B music. We used to listen to not just the rhythm and blues or soul singers. We used to use to listen to a lot of groups. We would listen to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Association, which you could consider mid-sized pop American and British bands. Mostly bands accompanied themselves back then. When we were practising as musicians we would learn a couple of those songs. We didn't get more into Jazz. Jazz was more for me as a listening thing. Broadening my respect and admiration for other forms of music.

You mentioned in an interview you did at Penthouse that your two biggest influences on playing keyboards were Booker T Jones and Jackie Mittoo.

Yes. In that order. Booker T was the organist. For most bands in Jamaica, young bands, the organ was the primary keyboard instrument. I started my record collection, and I used to like the Stax label with Otis Redding and subsequently the musicians that worked along with him in the studio. Booker T and the MGs. A lot of the young bands had a liking for Booker T and I was a very great admirer of his because the organ was the instrument of choice at the time, although it's really a piano that I had at home.

And then Jackie Mittoo, he did so much to mould the reggae at the transition from rocksteady. The fact that Fil, my very good friend, was actually working with him, I would get wind of what was happening at the studio. Sometimes we meet up and Fil would say "What a great recording session today. Jackie brought this great song or this great rhythm track". So I am an admirer in terms of the Jamaican music. There are certain producers who kind of have their own style of production and their sound. But Studio 1 was it at the time and Jackie was one of the few keyboard players who had stepped out into being an upfront performer. He did a lot of instrumental work and it impacted on the bands in Jamaica because a lot of those songs would've been part of the catalogue. You had to learn a couple of Jackie Mittoo songs.

Jackie Mittoo was one of the few keyboard players who had stepped out into being an upfront performer

So Fil Callender brought you to Studio 1 to play?

You can say that. How it started was Fil and I would've been in a group that I have mentioned before with Mikey Boo on drums and Fil's brother Tony on bass and some other people. There weren't any horn players or anything like that until later. We eventually started doing some little small type gigs mostly within our community and we did some little small clubs. So I would've been along with Fil a lot while he was also doing Studio 1.

The year after I left high school I started a job and a few months into that job Fil and Eric Frater, the guitarist from Studio 1, came to my workplace coming to get me because there was this promotion for a brand of cigarette that was going to be introduced to the country and they were going to put a band together with Ken Boothe to promote it.

This was about the time when Jackie Mittoo had migrated to Canada and Studio 1 had pretty much closed down production and recording. I presume they had contacted Coxsone at Studio 1 to use his band. But there was no keyboard player so I am of the opinion that Fil recommended me! (Laughs) I kind of knew Eric Frater the guitarist because apart from them working on Studio 1 they were also in a professional band called the Virtues at the time. They came and they asked for if I could come and do that promotion. My boss was gracious enough to give me leave of absence that I could return! (Laughs)

What were you doing?

I was working at an auto place, selling auto parts! Ford products, for Ford motor vehicles. I had just about finished what you could call apprenticeship. I think just the week before my boss came and gave me an official tie and said "Okay I think you're now worthy of being on staff!" (Laughs) I wasn't making much money, it was enough to get me to and from and probably get lunch. I guess a pay raise was coming and then here comes the music industry calling! My boss said "Okay, go ahead. The job is here if you come back".

I never really made it back because what happened was we went straight to rehearsal at Studio 1 with the musicians who were involved, Fil and Eric. It was just supposed to be a four piece and Ken Boothe was supposed to be the front man. That was the Swinging Kings. And after we had rehearsed we were supposed to do two months around Jamaica playing at concerts, promoting the brand of cigarettes. At the end of this Coxsone decided that he was going to put his production back in stream so I was asked to stay part of the Sound Dimensions band.

What was your first tune? Was it a Ken Boothe tune?

Well that was the first recording I played on but it was not for Coxsone. It was the promoters of the cigarettes. They said "Ken has his hit songs, that is the reason why we got him but we would like to have a song that we can say is our song". And Ken came up with Without Love and it was recorded and it actually came out on the label that was named Embassy after the cigarette brand Embassy Kings which didn't last very long. So we just played around the island and there I think we got free cigarettes. We never really smoked after that. Unfortunately the brand never really took off. So after the two months Coxsone said "We're going back into the studio", so I became a member of the Sound Dimensions.

And what was the first tune you did for Coxsone?

Well I don't remember the first song! I remember the first number one song!

Hello Carol.

Hello Carol. That much I can remember. Well, as you know it was with the Gladiators and I play the piano on it because by this time Studio 1, as opposed to the time when Jackie was there, he was the only keyboard player for the most part, and he plays on some songs both piano and organ simultaneously. There was not a lot of overdubbing. This chapter of Studio 1 there was myself and Richard Ace. So he primarily played the organ because he was a senior guy to me.

He was classically trained as well.

Robbie LynI don't know his actual formative training, he did a variety of different styles and he was also a singer and played other instruments. So he was the senior keyboard player, the organ being the most dominant keyboard at the time, he played that. There were a couple of sessions where I actually played the organ when he was not in the studio that day or he was a little late.

But to answer your question about Gladiators, it was just another day at the studio, with Gladiators who were already in Studio 1 recording. There were guys in groups where you to have one member of the group who is always around because, as was the case with say the Heptones, where there were a couple of guys who actually worked in the record pressing plant. There were other people who have gone on to bigger things who were on the property working and in the recording studio.

So when you recorded that song did you lay the rhythm and then they came in voiced it later or were you all recording together?

No, all of those songs were made specifically for the vocals. What would've been the norm in those days and it still is the case to a certain extent is that groups or singers would come into the recording studio with their songs. Mostly it was a solo singer and if he didn't play the guitar, he would probably bring a guy where they had worked out the progression or the two chords to just give them the feel. Most groups, trios, they always had somebody play the guitar and sang harmonies. So they came and they work the song out in the same, usually the keyboard or the guitarist would give them the key of the song. So the track was done for the song. They laid all of the rhythm track and then some other time they would come in and do the vocals.

Do you remember finding out that it was a number one hit?

I remember where I was! (Laughs) I had gone up on a hike to the mountain peak and I had my transistor radio! I had a transistor radio and I was listening to the top 10 or top 20 charts. I knew it was doing well and that's where I was when they announced "This week number one…"

Another big moment at Studio 1 was when you played on Full Up...

Well, that wasn't necessarily a big moment at the time. That was just one of those days when there was no singer or no songs to record. A lot of times we would just put the basic track down. Full Up was not meant to be anything… When it came out on a 45 it was probably just a flip side of some other stuff… I don't remember what it was. It wasn't until years after that with the advent of Channel One and Joe Gibbs studio primarily, you had a lot of producers, regular producers who were recording over all the Studio 1 rhythms. So they’d recycle the bass-lines and all because that's how some producers stayed in the business. They weren’t creating. They were more like business people. Well, in any case, the basic idea was recorded over so many times in so many different ways. But of course when the Mighty Diamonds did Pass The Kutchie which headed onto other things which had negatives and positives!

When I interviewed Gussie Clarke he said that song made him start thinking about royalties and publishing. Because they had this big tune and the credits were a bit of a mess.

Right. Yeah. Because when the whole excitement started about who did what, who is creditable for whatever, I remembered Gussie said that he has nothing to do with it. Because apparently he's more into publishing and he's just the owner of the recording. But apart from that he didn't have any stake in whatever. I know, because I just recorded with Gussie this week. The first recording I've done with him for quite a while. Every now and then he comes up with an idea where he wants to try something but I was very much a part of a lot of his production work from the 80s into the 90s. After that he pretty much took a back seat. And during all of that time I don't recall him recording over anybody's songs. (Laughs) He has his songwriters, he has his publishing.

Carlton Hines, Mikey Bennett…

Hopeton Lindo. He had quite a few of them. Others came along after. But in those days with Gregory and Dennis Brown and the collaborations albums he had a team of people providing the songs and I guess they all signed with his publishing.

So while you were working at Studio 1, how did the community band that you were also in solidify into In Crowd?

What happened was, In Crowd was more like a hobby and some of the guys actually had jobs. Studio 1 wasn't every day of the week as a job. It was like three days for the week. We didn't really have any real management at the time so we kind of sourced a few little small jobs until we ended up at a club called the Fox Club. The funny thing about that is that was pretty much when the name of the band changed.

We had this mutual friend who played bass and he was the guy who actually got the job for that club. He only played the first gig there because he had his other thing but he was the one who brought the name In Crowd. But he couldn't honour the dates so right away Fil's brother stepped in. And by that time we had the other regular guys and we started to get a lead singer to do the full-time thing. We started to get a bit of a following. People started hearing about the band and we started seeing all of the musicians coming by, the Merritone Blakes, guys like that, would listen, and give us their approval and it kind of grew from there.

What is there any particular bit of playing that you did the In Crowd that you are particularly proud of?

I can't really isolate anything because every day was a good day when we were just getting out there and we started to get a kind of following, a fan base. A lot of the guys who lived in our area they really supported us and brought their friends along and we got other people interested in the band. But we weren't inclined at the time to go into the studio. But by that time we had got a full-time manager, he never knew much about the recording business although he did support us in a couple of ventures that we did. He didn't know how to market or anything. We just went into the studio because we said "it's about time".

By this time Fil had started to get other people interested. Because he had started to put his song writing skills into play and said "I need to make these songs". So he got a couple of people to come on board and he would bring the songs and we would go into the studio, it was Channel 1 or Joe Gibbs. That is where the catalogue of In Crowd songs as we know it started. It was all Fil’s doing. I don't know who he had marketing but we had a couple of songs that started to go.

But the band wasn't advancing much. By that time other bands who came on the scene about the same time had aspirations to become bigger. And we were kind of stuck with what we were doing in all this time. That is when we realised that our then manager was limited in what he could do. So we started looking elsewhere. And by that time I decided that "The band isn't really keeping pace with what is happening out there now and the music is growing". I made the decision to step aside.

About that time other people who were in the band decided to leave also. One of them was leaving to go and live in the States - the lead singer, Sonny Wong. And Mikey Boo was sharing the same sentiments that I did. Because with all of this, while we were now In Crowd, myself and Mikey Boo were recording with Now Gen band. So we had something else to do apart from playing weekends and clubs and that scene. That was the scope of what we were doing. We did a couple of little trips to go and back up an artist at a Jamaican type event in New York or Toronto but we weren’t looking much beyond that. So I decided to move on. I left the band at the end of 1974 or ’75.

How did you get involved with Now Generation?

I always knew the guys in the band. Primarily because when In Crowd was playing, Now Gen’s keyboard player, Earl Wire Lindo, who became Bob Marley's keyboard player, would just come by. There were the mutual friendships with the management. The manager of Now Gen band was a school mate of mine and I also went to the same school with Mikey and Geoffrey Chung and Val Douglas. It was St George's school - we weren’t necessarily friends so to speak but we all knew each other. Mikey and Geoffrey were more into the music and I found Geoffrey was already recording a little vocal group by that time.

Because of our closeness together I actually played with Now Gen for a few months when In Crowded being restructured. When we got a new manager and we decided "Okay, we were going to going to get some equipment" because we just had some borrowed stuff. When we were setting up the table for the In Crowd to move on I would go and play along with Now Gen.

Geoffrey was aspiring to be a producer in his own right and he started to get calls for the band to come and record with certain producers. Of course, as you know, at the time all of the instruments were played simultaneously – guitars, bass, drums and two keyboards. Piano and organ was very important so Wire would be playing the organ and they asked me to come along. I became almost like full time Now Gen but in the studio. They were still a band playing out like In Crowd in the clubs hotels and functions and I would not be playing with them in that aspect. But when it became studio time it was myself and Mikey Boo who was in In Crowd with me. Mikey became their full-time drummer because the guy who played the drums for Now Gen, who we used to call Largie, didn't want to risk losing his job to come to studio in the daytime. He felt insecure so he played a few of the recordings but he passed up on the regular.

By that time Now Gen was getting a lot of calls and they were becoming the house band for Federal Recordings - recording Pluto and Ernie Smith and those people. So the whole Now Gen thing was a mutual thing among friends. It wasn't like anybody was recommended or somebody was out looking for anybody. It just fell into place.

Now Gen had a sound. You can identify a Now Gen rhythm track

Both In Crowd and Now Generation are now seen as being quite progressive in terms of what they were both doing with the music. Would you agree with that?

Yes, because Now Gen had a sound. You can identify a Now Gen rhythm track. There were some pretty good bands at the time, not necessarily bands that would play all together, but regulars in the studio working on as a group. But Now Gen took time to analyse and work out certain things within a song, the arrangements, they kind of took pride in it. The sound was pretty identifiable at the time. In Crowd got off to a slow start but when Fil started to write his songs and record them that in itself was another identifiable sound. Maybe you would have had more of a problem to say "Who is that?" But Fil doing a lead, he had an identifiable voice, his style. Maybe not everybody could put a finger on it and say "This is them" but being part of both I can say the things that stood out to me.

The song Milk And Honey credited to In Crowd but it was Clive Hunt who was doing most of it.

Yes, Clive Hunt asked permission to put it out as In Crowd because he at that time was a part of the band as a trumpeter. I saw Clive recently and he reminded us how that song was made. He said it was actually Mikey Boo who saw the potential in Clive and told him to go and do a session and use who he wanted - don't necessarily use anybody from the band. I don't know if it was exactly that way, but he said Mikey Boo gave him some funds and said "Go and do your thing".

So he did Milk And Honey. He sang it, he played the instruments, I don't know which other musicians he used. He felt a part of the family and he asked permission to put it out. Because nobody would have known who Clive Hunt was at that time! He got permission to release it as In Crowd band. But then he also went and had Dennis Brown voice it over and put it out. (Laughs) He was just trying to do some business there!

And there was also the Mango Walk which was a kind of cover version of Mandrill?

Mandrill, yeah. I don't remember much about that song until it came back into the limelight a couple of years ago.

It was on the soundtrack to the TV series Breaking Bad.

Yeah, right, I didn't recall it much. But since it came back into the limelight I kind of went back on YouTube to hear what it was. It was mostly, I understand, done production-wise with the then guitarist along with Clive. I heard the guitarist Michael Murray was one of the main people behind that. Unfortunately I don't remember much about the recording! (Laughs)

One more obscure questions! I have a record called Peacemaker and it's got a very unusual synthesiser part. It’s credited to Jam Now Generation - did Now Gen ever get called Jam Now Generation?

Not that I know of. Do you know who released it?

A lot of producers took stuff to England. We would not know what was happening

I have got it on the Horse label from the UK which means anyone could have given it to a UK distributor.

I just found out last year, speaking to Mikey Chung, that you used to have a lot of producers, still do, who took stuff to England. We would not know what was happening. A French producer who I work with on and off, sent me by email a song which was credited to the Now Generation or Mikey Chung. Mikey would have done a few little instrumentals for various people, and they would put it on some sort of compilation that we knew nothing about. I forwarded the email to Mikey because the guy who sent me the email was kind of complimenting the keyboard track. I couldn’t recognise it at all. In any case that is not me! But it was credited to Now Gen or Mikey Chung because he was pretty much the bandleader for Now Gen.

Mikey told me the keyboard player was actually a guy called Ralph Holding who is the older brother of the cricketer Michael Holding. He was a musician but is semi-retired. He had lived in Germany for quite a few years and then he subsequently relocated to Jamaica some years ago. So I am sure there are products that got out into the market by way of English-based companies and they would put your name to it and we would hear nothing about it.

Read Part 2 of our interview with Robbie Lyn here

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