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Interview: Clive Hunt in Kingston (Part 1)

Interview: Clive Hunt in Kingston (Part 1)

Interview: Clive Hunt in Kingston (Part 1)

By on - Photos by Franck Blanquin - Comment

"I wanted to be an orchestra conductor"


Even by the standards of a Jamaican reggae musician, Clive Hunt has lived an eventful life. A prodigious talent and a mischievous disposition have seen him bounce around: between reform school and studying music in England; army desertion and being one of the 1970s most in demand freelance producer-arranger-musicians; drug addiction and recovery - landing as the go-to maestro for the VP Records empire today. 

Clive has spent 44 years around studios and it is the studio where United Reggae finds him. He's leasing Jimmy Cliff’s Sun Power recording complex in New Kingston, surrounded by musicians, young and old. Jimmy is not there but Clive’s friend Tyrone Downie, keyboardist for Bob Marley, is present. Later Iba Mahr, Queen Ifrica and Capleton, rumoured to be working on his next album with Hunt, will appear. Clive, who plays multiple instruments, horns a speciality, is demonstrating a phrase with the bass. Someone asks the name of the singer they are voicing. "He nah name yet" laughs Clive "we just call him Fyah - he's special"

One of Clive's many gifts, alongside playing, producing and arranging, is story-telling. He's tickled that anyone wants to interview him, rather than the artists, and for an hour and forty five minutes he gives a garrulous, scandalous potted history of his adventures. There is a sense of not even scratching the surface (he doesn't explain, for example, how he only has one eye – he jokes that he shouldn't be allowed to pose for photos). "Wha gwaan" asks Tyrone as he emerges from the hallway to listen. "I’m telling my life story" laughs Clive. "Start over," Tyrone retorts “In case he misses anything"“I tell you,” says Clive “I could continue for a year talking like this!” Part 1 (of three) recalls his childhood and path to music.

Clive Hunt

So you're from Linstead - like the song? Did you go to Linstead Market much?

(Laughs) Yeah, like the song! That market! For a moment I was a part of it. Because my grandmother used to sell in the market sometimes. Once or twice a week. She used to sell simple things. Would you believe she used to make the bags? Nowadays you get them free. When you buy little bag of the supermarket for groceries and stuff. To carry your stuff in. That's what she used to feed the family. Make little paper bags of different sizes. Small, bigger, bigger, people would buy and put the stuff in it.

She used to have me help but she didn't have me help to sell bags. She used to have me selling live chickens! (Laughs) Nobody ever did this before! I did that once or twice a week but my father was very much against that because he was a Rastaman and as a Rastaman my father didn't want a chicken on his farm. Let alone his son selling a chicken in the market! (Laughs)

Tell me a bit more about your mother and father…

Well my mother is a pastor. She is a Christian. My father was a Rastaman. There were a lot of Rasta where he lived. He had a church, a Binghi Church, Ras Michael resided there, Joseph Hill when he first went and discovered Rasta. Harry T - all of those Rastas back in the day. In Jamaica there were maybe three or four places that they had where they had this Nyabinghi thing, like seasonal. In that place I am building a studio right there on that spot right now. For maybe 11 years but things happened that I stopped. But he was a Rastaman and he resided in the bush. He just lived like that.

It must have been a rough time for Rasta in those days…

It was very rough. But I didn't even know. I was young but now I realise how tough it must have been for them to decide to live like that. That life style - the belief. But anyway, I grew up in it and it stays in me because a lot of the ways and the principles I still live with it. I have a feel like that's the way - seen?

And you had a lot of brothers and sisters?

I have 18 brothers and sisters. And I'm the oldest one.

So you had to go through everything first? Were you the one who had to keep control?

Actually, in my early years I didn't because I left aged 12. I was apparently a rudeboy so I ended up in reform school. It was in Stony Hill.

I had no aspirations of being a musician. I was just a bad rude little boy

How did you end up in reform school?

Little rudeboy things. Maybe not coming in and getting locked out the house. I used to go and watch stage shows. With the Skatalites and Jimmy Cliff and all those artists like Delroy Wilson. I was not old enough to go into the theatre but in Linstead there was a big theatre where in Jamaica they used to have people going on tour? You used to have seasonal tours in Jamaica where the bands on the musicians would go to different cities and play. Linstead was a major stop.

So I would stay outside with my little friends and we would watch through the cracks what was going on. And then at the end of the day my grandmother would lock me out of the house. So I would sleep in the kitchen or on the veranda. And I had no aspirations of being a musician. I was just a bad rude little boy.

So it just accumulated and my mother just held me by my ears one day and took me to the police station and they took me to a family court and they said "Are you going to be a good boy and go home or do you want to send you someplace?" And I said "Could you send me some place?" So I ended up in Stony Hill. But at that time Stony Hill and Alpha where the two main institutions that taught music. Actually, when I went to Stony Hill, they had stopped the music programme. But in the 50s and 60s all of the musicians came from either Stony Hill or Alpha. But when I went there they restarted the programme after I was there a few months. I was one of the first students.

Is it correct that you used to watch the music class through the window?

Oh you heard about that! (Laughs) I was a little boy. I was twelve and a half and I was kind of popular. I don't remember how. I wasn't popular at first. I was just a quiet little youth who didn't talk but then I was placed in what they call something like a squad. There were two major dormitories in this big property. So the boys stayed in either A or B. They had names Saint George’s and Saint Patrick. I was in Saint George’s and I was in a squad of youths. You know like in jail or prison you get a count off like soldiers? I'd say "one, two, three…"

The school of youths that I was in - I didn't know - but they were like real rude boys. Real bad men. And because I was kind of shy because I was a country boy I would always stand at the head of the line. I was always like that in school. With the teachers I'd set so I didn't have to talk loud. Not like now! (Laughs) So I was at the head of the line and there were hundreds of us so I would count off the squad I'd say "One" and nobody would talk.

The man who was the principal of the school said "Tell you what… You guys need a prefect". Every squad had a prefect in charge, so he is responsible to let the squad know who should do chores and so on. So he tells them that they need a prefect and they should choose somebody to be the prefect. Someone who they listen to. They chose me and I was like "Eh?" You leave school at 16 and I was twelve and a half and they said "Him. Him is the prefect". I said "Me?" And they said "Yeah". And that the big man said to me "Listen. You are responsible for anything they do from now on".

So whenever they wanted them to count off I'd say "One" and they'd say "Two, three…" And from that day the squad started to be cooperative. They cooperated with what was going on. And if they gave them chores like "You guys should go clean the grass up there or sweet this area" they would not do it unless I told them to do it. So because these were the baddest boys in the school, the biggest boys and I was in charge. Within a few weeks I ended up being the head prefect in the school. Because if I speak to somebody else they have to do what I say otherwise my bad boys were dangerous. Dangerous people - trust me.

Alpha was mainly for boys who are homeless. Stony Hill was actually for boys who did wrong!

Alpha was mainly for boys who are homeless. They would leave maybe from Maxfield when they were babies and they didn't have any parents or anybody take care of them. But the Stony Hill was actually for boys who did wrong! Like rob, shoot, kill - anything. So because I was the one who was ordering around the bad guys the whole school made me within a few months the head prefect. So I became the head boy before I reach 13. So what happened was I became very popular.

The music class was right beside the ball ground. Where they play all the games. Football, cricket, everything. So I would always standing there watching when they were teaching the music. But before I did music I was a tailor. Because in that school you had to learn a trade. I was the top tailor and I was a Boy Scout. I guess I was a bright young man. I could make a jacket. I could take a piece of cloth and make it. Fast. I knew everything about that.

Can you still do that now? It would save on the expense of buying clothes!

(Laughs) I don't think so! I can't do that anymore. But I've never tried it, trust me! Anyway, I was really good at it and the tailor instructor was also the scoutmaster. And he used to be an athlete who ran for Jamaica with Herb McKenley and Arthur Wint back in the Olympics back in the day. So anyway, I went to my scoutmaster and said "Has any young boy ever left the school and been number one into different trades?" He said "No" so I decided to join the music class because I knew that I stayed outside and knew more music than all of the boys in the class.

I learnt the basic theory of music - lines and spaces, the bass clef, the treble clef. I knew the trumpet fingering for each note and I knew the trombone, I knew all the positions. So I went to the music class the next day and asked the music teacher if I could join and he told me that he was very happy that I volunteered because I was very popular in the school and if I was in the class then obviously a lot of guys would come. So he told me "Oh yes, me glad but come next year". And I said "I have to come today otherwise I won't join".

He said "You can't – we’re taking exams". So I said "I want to take the exam". He said "What do you mean you want to take the exam?" I said "I know more music than them". He said "How?" I said "I stayed outside" and I started telling him all of these things literally - C, D, E, F, F Sharp, G. He said "Where you learn that?" I said "Outside of the window. Where's that horn man?" I went into the class and took the test and came first by a far distance. My life changed on that day. He said "Youth, what's your name?" I said "Clive Hunt". He said "From now on do nothing but music" and from now until today I did this thing! (Laughs)

Why did you pick up the trumpet?

When I started they only had a trumpet and a trombone at the school. The trumpet was the instrument that the music teacher played. So naturally I started on that. But very soon after I started learning I was at Jamaica House, where the Prime Minister lived, playing on the lawn in the evening time. It was me alone they're playing and the ministers and their family would come and say "Who is this little boy?" "He is from Stony Hill" And then they were donating instruments or something. So through my efforts in this they started and they ended up with a band. Because the government gave us food and shelter and clothes but no instruments.

Did you inherit music from anyone in your family or did it just start with you?

Well, since I have become a big man I have discovered that there was a famous musician, everybody knew him, and we never worked together, and we never got along. He was the head of the union and I was always against him because of his principles. His name is Sonny Bradshaw. My grandmother told me that we are cousins.

Jackie Jackson played in his band. I am going to interview him later on today…

Clive HuntI never told Jackie that! Tell Jackie that! (Laughs) But for me, it took me over 30 years just start to accept that maybe there's a little gift in what I do. But I don't think there's any gift in it. I just learned music like a man who doesn’t learn anything else. I learnt it, I studied every book, I read about every instrument. Serious. I did the theory and practical studies on every instrument because I wanted to be an orchestra conductor. So that was my thing! (Laughs) Every day till the army started to romance me.

Why did you decide you wanted to join the army?

I didn't decide. They came for me. When I left Stony Hill I went back home and I was a tailor. And the army would come and look for me, and keep speaking to my mother and my grandmother mainly. Because I lived with my grandmother. They were saying they had plans for me so they wanted to make sure that I wasn't being bad or running off with the boys. I was just working up the street from my grandmother’s house as a tailor.

My music teacher was a military man and he had just left the Army. One of his roles was to have boys coming from the approved school to the army to turn them into better men for society I guess. Plus good musicians because the army always wants them. I firstly visited the army band to listen and I was impressed as a little boy. So it was a process for a young boy. You either go to Studio One or somewhere and start to work but I was a classical musician and my music teacher did not want me to ever do anything like that. In fact, the first reggae session that I ever did, he never talked to me until he died. He stopped instantly. I am serious. He never talked to me again.

So the army was naturally the next thing for boys like me. And they took me into the army even before I was old enough. I went training and I came back and I was doing things and then they sent me to England to Kneller Hall. Do you know Kneller Hall? Military School of Music. I did quite well. I wish I had known to take it seriously because even though I didn't take it seriously I was in the top two. Which is like a special thing. Every top two graduates name is there and I was best overseas pupil. I did an interview for the BBC when I graduated. They came to the school and they interviewed me. When I came back to Jamaica there was a big article in the newspaper on me. I didn't even realise it was a big thing. I didn't take it seriously. Because remember I was a Rastaman so I was like (kisses teeth) "Babylon thing".

I am a Rastaman pickney and I couldn't work with the system

Eventually you went AWOL from the army? Why?

As I said, I am a Rastaman pickney and I couldn't work with the system. I was good, I was very obedient and I was one of the most disciplined student soldiers. When they sent me to England and I did so well they had big plans for me. They wanted me to be the youngest bandmaster in the British Empire ever. They wanted me to set a record. Because I have the knowledge and I have the aptitude and I was a quiet youth but I was really a rebel inside.

When I went to Kneller Hall and came back... That is the reason why I went AWOL because I started to go into jail. I was conducting the band on something and the man who is the musical director was an Englishman. He told me that in order for me to look like I am doing well I should always be correcting the band. This was like pre-training to go back to England to study as a bandmaster.

So I was correcting a musician in the band and he was a big man. He was a sergeant major. A warrant officer, which was a big thing in the British Army. So apparently I was correcting him over and over on a matter in which he was not doing well and he was offended. This was how I became a rebel now. He was from the Third. Jamaica Military band. They are reserves. But I am from the Jamaica Regiment band. A full soldier. I lived as a soldier 24 hours a day.

So we went to lunch and we came back and when I went to the bathroom and brush my teeth to be fresh again for the next session. Apparently my belt wasn't fully tucked and my shoes and he was passing the bathroom and saying "Hunt! Fix your lace!" So I said "Yes, boss!" And he said "Now!" Now, I know a little about army rules. There was no war going on and every soldier when there is no war going on he can go in the shit house and do whatever he wants to do. Literally. So I just said to him "Yo, boss! I will, as soon as I finish". He said "Do it now!" And I said "There is no war going on. I'm in the bomboclaat bathroom. Fuck off!" But I didn't know that you cannot tell an officer that! I didn't know in the British Army system you cannot tell an officer to F off! So I ended up in jail! (Laughs)

So they gave me 48 days in the brig. Real prison now. When Michael Manley locked up all of the ministers - we call it Red Fence. You heard of Red Fence? The only thing I could do is come up and walk and do a little exercise. So my chest started to get big! (Laughs) When I came out to the commanding officer, he is telling me "Hunt, we are disappointed in you. We spent so much money" Because the Governor General had to send me to England . "We want you to go back into the barracks with the other soldiers and be a good soldier". And I just said "Man, fuck off". So they sent me in for 48 more days.

And I kept doing 48 days, 48 days, every other soldier was afraid of jail - I didn't care. Until I came out one day, I was out for one day and one of the head police, all the police know me now, military police, he came and said "Clive, they're gonna lock you up again tomorrow you know?" I said "Why?" And he told me about something I had done, a violation. I said "What must I do?" He said "Go to your yard". So I just walked out of the gate and just carried my suitcase and went straight over the fence. And from that day I was on the run. So I ran to a studio! (Laughs)

Which studio?

In those days, Federal, which is Tuff Gong. Every day I was at Federal or Harry J or Treasure Isle. Mainly Treasure Isle.

What were you doing there?

Well, I am a trumpeter but I do everything. I play a little keyboards, not like keyboards now but I play some organ and some piano, bass, some percussion, I'd play some flute, like on Dennis Brown (sings) "At the foot of the Mountain…"

So that’s you playing the flute on Dennis Brown’s Foot Of The Mountain?

Yeah, that's me playing the flute. Plus, even if I wasn't on the session people I’d be there still. Just to be there at that time in case something goes wrong. Or in case the guitar wasn't tuned or something. Every session I was hired on. From then until coming up now.

I stole out from the army and went to Harry J

So it's not correct that you went straight from the army to your first session which was Breakfast In Bed at Harry J?

Yeah, that was my first session. (Laughs) OK! That was my first session. That is what broke me out. Because Geoffrey Chung, the great Geoffrey Chung who was my brother, he invited me through Bunny Brown. Bunny Brown was the one who took me into a band and then took me to do gigs and then took me into the session. So when I went AWOL I was in the army when he asked me to do this session. So I stole out from the army and went to Harry J.

It was my lunchtime so I was allowed out for one hour. So when I was waiting there they were taking very long to do this session. It was Wire Lindo, Robbie Lynn, Mikey Boo, Val Douglas, Geoffrey John, Mikey Chung - I didn't know at the time but it was the star musicians of the day. The best in reggae, working at Harry J studio with Sylvan Morris as engineer. But it was not Breakfast In Bed. Breakfast In Bed was in the British Top 10 but now they were trying to do an album with Lorna. So they just needed to put horns on this one song.

I didn't know the song but I was a little boy still. I was reading a comic book. But I was going (kisses teeth) because they were making mistake upon mistake and so Wire said to me "Souljie" because I had on my soldier’s uniform "Do you know the song?" I said "No, I don't know it. But something is wrong with the bridge" and I went there in showed him. I went and borrowed the piano from Robbie Lynn and I was helping to show what I think should've gone that way. And Wire said "Yeah".

So after I did my horn part which took five minutes and my pay was the same as my two weeks’ pay in the army. Now, I didn't worry about the money but to me it was very encouraging and it was entertaining because when I was leaving the studio to jump the fence because Harry J was right beside the military barracks, when I was leaving the studio Geoffrey Chung asked me if I could come back the next day. And my life spoiled! I decided to go! (Laughs) And then he would always accommodate me when I was hiding, put me somewhere or give me a taxi fare - we were brothers.

You teamed up with him doing a lot of work on that period.

Yeah! Him and Mikey Chung lived in the same house - they were brothers but Mikey never knew what was the next session - I knew! He'd asked me "When is the next session?" "Where you guys working today?" Geoffrey Chung always made sure that I was on almost every single session he was on from that day. Until he died basically.

So how did you become so good at arranging?

Because remember I studied instruments, instruments, instruments. I wanted to be a conductor. I wasn't interested in playing music but my music teacher told me that I had to play an instrument. So I just decided to learn and then and I read every book about music written theoretically. And I decided to learn as many instruments as possible because he told me that to arrange for an instrument it is best that you know the instrument. So I spent some time on the flute, I spent some time on the trombone, I spent some time on the French horn, I did a little violin - it was horrible! In my ears! But I learned enough of each thing and remember I learned the range and register of every instrument that I could.

I am always reading about it every day. I mean, I would sit down, I would go into the camp and I spent six months not come on the street. So all of the musicians who passed through, you might see them and they will tell you, they would tease me to say that "All taxis in Jamaica are now red and all of the public buses are green" and I would be like "Yeah?" And everybody laughed! They were tricking me because I was just into books. Book here, book there, book here, book there! I was interested in being an arranger and a composer and a conductor.

So when I went to a session I watched a few things going on it was natural for me. And remember I studied theory of music, harmony and composition in England. And it was easy for me. And in reggae – the real reggae - you have only a few people educated musically. A few people on one hand you can count them. And if they're educated it is only about their instrument. They're not educated about music. So once I turn that people would always call me to help do this and help do that.

So how I arrange is I don't arrange with a "Me, me, me". You can hear me talking about me now but the musicians will tell you that I listen to people's ideas. When I go to the studio, if I approach a session I have to hear the song before. I don't produce rhythms. I produce a song. If I hear the song he has, I called the musicians which I think are best for the song and I booked the studio engineer which I think is best for the song. I want to go to the studio from when the musicians hear the song and start play I wouldn't stop them. I would never stop them. If they're playing and they're going off track I will say "Hey, hold up".

I have a way of recording. I call it democratic production

I have a way of recording. I call it democratic production. I make everybody come and give their own vibe. And then I just say "Hey, okay" because everybody is a producer now in Jamaica. Everybody. Even the kids if you buy the computer and they go in the closet with it then they are a producer. So when I'm in the studio I tell everybody "Listen guys. We are all captains in here but I am the one for this ship now. For this song, for this session, I am going to captain the plane right now" and then I take over. Nowadays I'm lucky more than a lot of people because I have 43 years of experience in the studio so I just use all type of things to make sure every song that I do attracts a certain amount of attention. That's my only edge over people basically.

Read part 2 of our exclusive interview with Clive Hunt here

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