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Interview: Ansel Collins in Kingston

Interview: Ansel Collins in Kingston

Interview: Ansel Collins in Kingston

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"I played for everybody"


Ansel Collins is best known for two things. He is half of a duo with Dave Barker whose Double Barrel topped the British charts in 1971. He also played piano and organ with leading session bands including Skin Flesh & Bones, Soul Syndicate, the Upsetters, and the Revolutionaries – the latter powering the mid-70s ascendancy of Channel One studio.

But these two roles don’t tell the whole story. For Ansel is a gifted singer - his original vocation. He’s an ex-drummer who gave Sly Dunbar his first break. He’s a hit-making freelance producer who created Double Barrel, its top ten follow-up, Monkey Spanner and the heavily versioned Stalag rhythm. He’s also an infectiously upbeat man.

United Reggae finds Mr Collins at Mixing Lab studio, where he and drummer Albert Malawi, guitarist Dalton Browne and bassist Spread Bedasse are recording for visiting Swiss producer Mathias Liengme of Najavibes. When Ansel walks in, the room ignites at his beaming, jovial presence. Once the instrumental is laid he sits at the piano and talks about his long career.

His reminiscences span from the 60s to his recent work in Moss Raxlen's Kingston All Stars and April 15th’s Dave and Ansel reunion at the London International Ska Festival. It transpires that plenty of history published in secondary sources is not correct. But he accepts this with his usual good humour: even if, behind the laughter, more recognition for his achievements wouldn't go amiss…

Ansel Collins

So you were born in Kingston?

Kingston, Jamaica. Maxfield Avenue. Kingston 13.

Maxfield Avenue had a reputation for being a bit rough in Channel One days.

Before Channel One days it was very cool. (Laughs) I was a little boy then.

What did your parents do for a living?

My father was a barber. At the corner of Maxfield Avenue and Alexandra Road he had a barbershop. My mother was a dressmaker.

My mother always tried to get me doing music

Was there music on either side of your family?

My mother man! Straight up! (Laughs) When she was very small she said she used to go to piano lessons but the teacher was very rough so she didn't bother with it! So I got it! Growing up, as a little boy, my mother always tried to get me doing the music because she loved it. She is also my songwriter. She used to follow me to auditions with Prince Buster and all the producers to sing.

Because you were a singer first, right? What was the first occasion you sang?

Yeah man! I still love it. Still love it going to bed! (Laughs) The Carib Theatre. I think it was The Star is Born with Sonny Bradshaw backing band. Then I left from there and did Vere Johns Opportunity Hour. I sang (sings) "There was an old lady who lived in a shoe".

What kind of music were you listening to on the radio back then? Did you follow sound system much when you were young?

Fats Domino, Shirley & Lee, and all the great guys. To tell you the truth when I tried to follow sound system I got lost. Because sometimes the wind would blow it and you’d try to walk and when I’d reach there they’d say “it’s probably down by Waterhouse” - and when I’d go down there I’d hear the sound on the next side! (Laughs) I was lost!

Is it true that the first tune you recorded was with Bobby Aitken?

Yes. A tune called I Have Tried. I was singing with a girl in Waterhouse and she knew Bobby Aitken. So she took me to Bobby Aitken and that's where I got in touch. As a boy I was there all day every day. But it's so funny… I don't think she ever sang a tune! She just came there and left me and so we never really sang together again after that. I give thanks and praise to her, man - trust me.

And you tried the drums when hanging around Bobby Aitken and the Carib Beats?

Yeah, because on a couple of Delroy Wilson songs I played the drums. This Heart Of Mine. (Sings) "Oh this heart of mine" for Bunny Lee. And I did a song for Mrs Pottinger dubbing over some drums for Ken Boothe. (Sings) "Hey lady, lady, lady with the Starlight, that lovely starlight". When the flyers came in they just switched over and I did the flyers thing.

Who taught you drums?

No one. When I was a little boy I just sat down in the chair, like this, because it had two handles and I just went off!

So who suggested you take up the piano?

There was a guy named Conroy Cooper. Grub Cooper’s brother. We were never getting much work so he was going on the club scene. So they just said "Ansel man, practise and learn to play the piano and thing". So I went down to Music Mart down by Orange Street and I bought a book. I just went into an old bathroom we didn’t use and I just practised until I was ready to go straight into Bunny Lee studio.

That was the session when Slim Smith did Never Let Me Go?

Yes! Never Let Me Go, the Russians Are Coming with Val Bennett and all those tunes. All those songs were my first songs. I remember as a little boy playing “Wow beautiful!” I also played on Ain’t Too Proud To Beg.

I took Sly to the studio for the first time in his life

How did you record Night Doctor for Lee Perry?

Night Doctor was my first instrumental. I did it in 1967. Federal Recordings. And that is my production. I am the producer for that song. When I did Night Doctor with Sly, I took Sly to the studio for the first time in his life. After I did the song I didn't really have any more money to bring it out - because you know you have to cut the stamper and all those things. So I had it as a dubplate and I took it to Scratch, Lee Perry but somebody stole it. They took the dub from Scratch and we couldn't find it. You know dubs man? When you have a bad song, a really nice song, they just say "Cho!" (Laughs) They went to a dance one night and couldn't find the dub so they came to check me and I gave them the tape.

Why did you decide to link Scratch?

Scratch would do a lot of instrumentals so I just went to Scratch. I did four songs. I did two instrumentals, Night Doctor and another one, Lloyd Parks recorded one for me and Sly sang one also. I gave Coxsone one of them, an instrumental. And Lee Perry had one. The one that Sly did for me I released and it was called Diplomat. But the guy who gave me a break with my name first - it was Beverley’s you know? I did the song Night Of Love and I took it to Beverley's. That is my production. Beverley’s treated me nice. Scratch treated me alright too. Scratch gave me some money and when Night Doctor sold well he called me up and gave me money again. Some people get the good with Scratch or the bad!

How did you discover Sly? Where did you find him?

Sly found me! I was doing some rehearsals and I just saw a little man come and say "Hey sir, I can play drum you know?" I said "Let's hear you" and trust me when the guy sat down he just sounded cool and refreshing. I said "Yes! I am going to do Double Barrel and I am going to use him". I was using Winston Grennan. Winston Grennan was in the band and I used Grennan for two songs and Sly for two songs. Sly did Double Barrel and a next tune, a song called The Boy I Love - Blossom Johnson, she sang it. Winston Grennan did a song, a longtime song (sings) "Oh I wish I had someone to love me" and a next one.

Double Barrel belongs to me

So Double Barrel - you and Sly built that rhythm.

Yeah! What are you going to ask me now? There is pure misinformation you know! This song belongs to me. Double Barrel belongs to me. Trust me. I am the full owner of Double Barrel. The full owner is me.

So how did Winston Riley get involved?

It was an engineer you know? An engineer, Linford Anderson, told him about the song. Because Linford Anderson was the engineer down by Dynamics. I saw a man come to my gate one morning who said I have a bad tune and I gave it to him. That is when he put Dave on it.

Some people have noticed a resemblance between Ramsey Lewis’ Party Time and Double Barrel - was there any influence?

No! No, no, no, no, no! It's probably that sometimes songs sound similar. But Ramsey Lewis? Ramsey Lewis is a piano player right? No man!

There is a resemblance in the piano part.

Yes, but it could just as well be (sings horn riff from Musical Occupation/Ring Of Fire) so it could just as well be the same as that - but I don't know.

I would play two songs for Lloyd Parks. Lloyd Parks would play two songs for me

In the late 60s and early 70s you were playing in several different club bands, with similar line-ups. Rainbow Healing Temple Bakery Invincibles band, Skin Flesh and Bones…

Invincibles? I was the bandleader. Lloyd Parks came after. Yes, the same little band went up on Red Hills Road. I played with Sly in Skin Flesh And Bones. And there was another band called the Thoroughbreds. The Thoroughbreds, they were at Stables. I was working at Stables nightclub on Red Hills Road and Tit-For-Tat was next door. That is how Monkey Spanner came up. Monkey Spanner was with Lloyd Parks on bass. (Sings bassline) Rad Bryan on guitar. And the drummer was a guy named Neville Brown. I would play two songs for Lloyd Parks. Lloyd Parks would play two songs for me. That is how we used to do it. We would share it. All the songs people would put out the thing and say that they did it but it was we who did it.

Double Barrel and Monkey Spanner were big hits in England. Winston Riley and Trojan took you to England to tour them.

I did a couple of things. I was there for a little while doing some shows. But in that time I didn't go out [beyond England] - I went and got a few like Belgium and I did some TV shows but not to perform on stage. Because it was causing a little fuss with the writing of the song. When I reached England everything was written by somebody else! It went into the American chart and some kind of things started to go on so and they had to scrap it off from the charts or something. Something went on.

What happened?

Ansel CollinsIt's just honesty man. People must learn to be honest. I am a very honest man. Trust me. I feel that a man must get his due. Because I can remember Errol Scorcher did a song for me named Roach In The Corner. And when the three months came in I’d go to look for Scorcher, I didn't make Scorcher come and look for me. I’d go look for Scorcher and I’d pay him the royalties and when the next three months came I would look for him and make him buy his fridge and all those little things. But in Jamaica now every little thing you have to look for a man. And that is wrong. Because remember it’s me making him eat his food. It’s the singing why we eat food. So if I'm producing a man and the song comes big we should share it. Just sharing. Because we can't go anywhere with it.

So you didn't enjoy the UK experience? You didn't feel you got what you deserved?

No sir. The UK was a nice place and they were nice people. The skinheads. We enjoyed that. We just never enjoyed the rest of things in those times. But I got over it. I was in Skamouth Festival the other day and trust me I enjoyed it. They love me the same. All of them love me still. Just now I was playing on this piano and the producer, Mathias, he plays the keyboard you know? And he says to me after I finish "Boy, I have to go thief your style, you know?" (Laughs) It’s just how it goes. Because of how I play people love me. Other keyboard players listen to me because I played on so many songs.

I feel that a man must get his due

You mentioned the flyers drumbeat earlier. When you were in Skin Flesh And Bones Sly did over the flyers in reggae with Double Barrel and Here I Am Come And Take Me, the Al Green cover. Of course the pattern was much older than reggae - it had been used in Moonlight Lover.

Yes, Moonlight Lover! And it was a little bit different. Because Santa used to play it but Santa’s one was coarse! (Makes swishing sound of Santa’s hi-hat with the King Tubby's high pass filter) Like it was cutting into your neck or something! But Sly was more like… (imitates softer flying cymbals). Just nice and easy. So it was a different kind of flyers.

Can you tell me about the creation of another piece of music associated with Winston Riley? The Stalag.

Oh it was me that created that man! That was 1974. His brother Buster Riley called me and said he wanted to do seven tunes with Earl Chinna Smith, Soul Syndicate. So I was going to do these seven songs. That was all Buster because I didn't see Winston there. Because I said I was not going to do anything for Winston again because of too much going on. And when we did it I said "Boy, I have a tune you know?" And he said "Go on". So I just told the bass man, Fully, and the drummer and Chinna that I wanted this style. And we just did this big, big, big, big tune man. Trust me now! The biggest tune that! But I didn't get anything.

You didn't get anything from all those versions?

All those versions.

You also played on the melodica cut.

Yeah man. I played that.

And you also played some melodica for Scratch as well? Is that you on Herb Vendor?

I don't remember, you know? There are thousands of songs. I can remember one with Scratch. A Dangerous Man from MI5. That's me. I remember working for Scratch on Police And Thieves with Junior Murvin. I played the organ. I did it in 1976 or somewhere along the line there. I was living on the same road so he just had to come round and call me "Ansel come on!" And it was wicked, trust me!

When Skin Flesh And Bones became the Revolutionaries you played on a lot of material at Channel One.

Everything! (Laughs) Everything Channel One. It was a Sunday session for Channel One. All their sessions happened on a Sunday and that's where all the hits came from. So many songs. Woman Is Like Shadow. I remember I arranged the intro (sings intro). Different ones with Gregory Isaacs like Soon Forward.

Roy Francis - who owns the studio we are sitting in - you played on the very first session for his Phase One Records.

Yeah man! I played for everybody. I played for the majority of everybody in Jamaica. (Laughs) Even Byron Lee even though he had his own band. But they would still call me to do different things with their artists. Joe Gibbs. I played on that one with Jacob Miller and Inner Circle. (Sings) "Forward ever and backward never". I played keyboards on those.

And you played on some classic Sly & Robbie Black Uhuru material. You and Sly also played on Serge Gainsborough’s 1979 Aux Armes et cætera album.

The biggest Black Uhuru album. Yes, man. The Youths of Eglington, Shine Eye Girl. The biggest Black Uhuru tunes, it was me on that. It's just like with Gregory Isaacs. The biggest Gregory Isaacs apart from Night Nurse. Love Is Overdue. I did a version of it called Atlantic One. I played on one album and went on tour with Serge. That was great man, trust me man. After the session we went to a restaurant and the place was full of food. Trust me! Nice, nice vibes.

In the 80s you worked for Sugar Minott as well.

Yeah, Good Thing Going and enough other Sugar Minott. A whole heap of Sugar Minott.
Good Thing Going man. I love that track.

Did you see any royalties from Good Thing Going when it got picked up by CBS and became a hit?

(Laughs) Straight pay. Straight pay. I remember it was for Hawkeye, the guy in England. I remember the producer. Dennis [Forbes]. I played for Prince Lincoln and the Royal Rasses. I went to England with the Royal Rasses.

I want to go on tour

When the music turned digital lots of musicians joined touring bands. But as a keyboardist you were still needed for sessions, right?

Yeah man! Because after it turned I did a thing with Beenie Man with Sly. Foundation. (Sings) "Selassie I send them". It is me that did it. At first I did a lot of sessions until I joined Jimmy Cliff’s band in the 80s and then I started touring with Jimmy Cliff. 20 years. Touring is sweet man! I would say right now that I would really like to go on tour. Trust me, I love it man. If I could just go on the road I would feel much better. Sometimes you get a little bit tired but it's nice. Because right now I know I work with Dave but I do my own thing also. I never really got the chance to go out and do my thing in that kind of way. I would like to.

Ansel Collins

But you do enjoy reuniting with Dave to play those hits?

Yeah man! It’s nice man. I never knew Dave before. The closest I get to Dave in the past four years is when we go and do the London Ska Festival! Dave knows I can sing - trust me! Dave was always doing his own thing but I can deejay. I am a bad deejay and he is a bad singer. Seen! Yes Rasta!

Tell me about your family connection to the singer I Wayne.

Yes, that's my wife's nephew. I grew him. He was born in my yard. I bought a little bicycle and the little tyres and things like that. He would ride from town and go to Saint Thomas to go to a dance. I heard one time he went and rode the bicycle, left it about the place and someone just stole it and it was gone! (Laughs)

You’re still working these days. You recently recorded the Kingston All-Stars project with Sly, Jackie Jackson, Hux Brown, Mikey Chung, Mikey Boo and Robbie Lyn at this very studio.

In Mixing Lab here, same way. Oh! That was great man. We did a couple of things. The producer, he wanted me to sing on the album. I am on a tune called Just When (sings) "Just when I thought I had it all". The fourth track on the album. It was very nice.

As mentioned, you and Dave play with the Pioneers and Owen Gray at the London International Ska Festival on April 15th. How do you feel about ska having its own festival?

It’s nice you know? Ska is bad, man! The first ska I heard was in 1962. Before that I used to listen to Laurel Aitken, the boogie, (sings) "Well I feel so good I've got a boogie in my bones". Those are the songs I grew up on. Ska is lively. Ska is an up-tempo party kind of feel and it keeps you happy. Give thanks to the Englishman and the American white people and all those people who support us. Believe me, they support us until this moment. I have a new single coming out named Sunday Monday - the old Derrick Morgan song. I licked it over. I produced that. I have always produced. I always produce and get people to put it out!

Last November Jamaica's had its own One World Ska and Rocksteady festival.

Yeah I was in England at the time so I wasn't there. They should do more here but they go a different way. (Laughs) They've gone the wrong way man, trust me. As a radio disc jockey, you're supposed to love everything, instrumentals, ska, rocksteady. You're supposed to play everything on the radio. A variety of things they must play. What happened to the old DJs like Merritone? Merritone played everything. But the man now just play one beat. I can't hear just one beat. The one beat thing doesn't work out. Dancehall is nice you know? I love dancehall but I want some nice lyrics. Because when the guys do the dancehall abroad they sell gold. And when we do the dancehall here we sell coal. (Laughs)

Is there anything else you'd like to say?

I just take it one day at a time. But I would like to do some tours you know? I want to go on tour. Because nobody saw Dave and Ansel Collins yet. It is only England. We need to go out and spread the word and make the world see us. Because I am a very good singer. I can also sing when play my keyboards. That would be a good line-up. All we need is a good booking agency and we are gone to play! Trust me.

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