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Interview: The Silvertones at Rototom Sunsplash

Interview: The Silvertones at Rototom Sunsplash

Interview: The Silvertones at Rototom Sunsplash

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"We started in the backyard and it was history"


Harmony trio The Silvertones formed in 1964 during the latter half of the ska era. Keith Coley, Delroy Denton and Gilmore “Smoker” Grant had their first success at Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle records with a cover of Brook Benton’s True Confession, followed by a thunderous rocksteady cut to Wilson Pickett’s Midnight Hour

As reggae took over, the group moved on to voice for Sonia Pottinger, Clancy Eccles, Coxsone Dodd and Lee Scratch Perry. Besides The Silvertones, they recorded as The Valentines, The Admirals and The Three Musketeers, depending on their producer of choice. When Denton migrated to America, Joel “Kush” Brown completed the line-up. 

The trio continued to sing for Coxsone at Studio 1 Records until the producer’s death. With the passing of Grant in 2016, Anthony Feurtado was recruited and, under new management, The Silvertones began touring once more. A comeback album, Wonderland Of Green, is in the works.

The Silvertones-1

Angus Taylor met The Silvertones after a triumphant performance on the Main Stage at Rototom Sunsplash 2017 in Spain. A festival backstage isn’t the ideal place for a historical interview and there were no pre-prepared questions. But The Silvertones and Rototom were accommodating enough to provide time and space for this brief overview of the group’s career – taking in most of the major highlights.

How and where in Kingston did the original line-up form?

Keith: Well the Silvertones formed in 1964 at Wildman Street and Beeston Street - downtown. The first song was True Confession at Duke Reid, Treasure Isle. 

Before you went to a studio, where did you used to sing - on street corners?

Keith: On Wildman Street corner. We would always sit and read some comics. Buy some comics and read - but we'd always hear some songs and we’d start to sing. Then people would hear and some brother said "You should form a group man! You sound good".

How did you get the name Silvertones?

Keith: Oh this is a nice question. It was on Beeston Street. On the corner. We were rehearsing one night and the Chinaman had a business place right on the corner, a bakery. So while they were baking in the night we would come and they would stand and listen to our singing. When the rain would fall or not, we wouldn’t move. So he would hear us sing and he said "You should record that song! You should record that song!"

We didn't have a guitar. We made a guitar out of a bamboo joint and plastic line. One night he said "I'm going to give you all a present" and he flung the guitar over the fence and said "You hold that!" And the guitar gave us our name the Silvertones. And that name stuck. And that name sticks all over the world. That name is a marvellous name.

Where did you go and audition first?

Keith: 1964. Treasure Isle. Duke Reid.

So you scored with the first shot?

Keith: Yes, but Duke didn't have a studio at that time. So he rented Coxsone’s studio. And it's 12 songs that were made that night. Techniques, Melodians, John Holt and the Paragons. Alton and the Flames, Justin Hinds - and that song was the only number one song on that session.

If Duke didn't die we would have been massive

Did you audition for Duke himself?

Keith: Duke himself auditioned me because Snappin’ - Theophilus Beckford - he used to live in Trench Town, he had a piano so we would go in the night and practise that song. So the next day of the session he played that song. He went to Mr Reid and said "Mr Reid, if you don't play this song you won't have a hit tune on this session". And Mr Reid said "What is this tune?" and locked up is his liquor store and came upstairs and said "Play that song Snappin’". And Snappin’ played the song the first time and he said "Play it again Snappin’". And he played it a second time and he said "Play it again Snappin’". He played it a third time and he said "Alright, we're going to call the Skatalites tomorrow". 

And we recorded that song at Coxsone Studio One. And that song is one from the time when it was two track. So that song, it just ran down one time with Jackie Mittoo and them. And they said "Alright, cut it now". One cut with Tommy McCook and everybody. That song was voiced in one cut too. That song ran down one time, cut the first time, and voiced one cut. And that song came out around two days after and it went on the street and for three weeks it went to number one. True Confession. That song is a cover version of Brook Benton.

Kush: Then there was It’s Real.

Keith: It’s Real was the next big song again. When we were with Duke, Duke said to me Coxsone had this song named Put It On - the Wailers (sings) "I’m going to put it on". Duke called me and said "Come here Silvertones - listen this song and see if we can do a counteraction for this song because the boy say they going to put it on in the morning, put it on in the evening”. So we listened to the song and we took the guitar and we started running down the song. We called him so he could listen to the song and he said "I like it" and he called everybody again and we licked that song and that song flew away again. So that and Put It On were neck and neck and Bob called me and said "Unnu no easy you know. Silvertones no easy". Counteraction that. It was a joy in those days I tell you man.

What was your next big hit?

Keith: Midnight Hour.

The Silvertones-2

Your cover of Midnight Hour is a great example of how Jamaican music can take a cover version and add something so that it is as good if not better than the original. It has real power when it comes in. It's rocksteady but it’s heavy.

Kush: True! 

Keith: Midnight Hour now, Duke had a studio. He didn't use Coxsone studio after that. He had a studio upstairs. Midnight Hour now was coming onto Christmas. And Duke wanted a hit tune. He said "Sporty, which one of the groups can I get a hit tune from?" And he said "Silvertones - because they are fresh". So he said “Alright” and went upstairs and we started running down Midnight Hour on the guitar. Ernest Ranglin said "Duke - this tune bad man". Tommy said "A next hit this Duke". So Duke called Tommy, Lynn Tait, Ernie Ranglin, Marquis the baritone, the trombone was Vin Gordon, and the organ was Wire Lindo, and we licked that song and he put it out and it was too fast. So he drew it back in and called them again and they played it the rocksteady way.

Who played drums on that?

Keith: Malcolm.

Hugh Malcolm.

Keith: Yeah! Malcolm said "Duke, this one a hit again!" And Midnight Hour sold gold, you know? Duke told me before he died "This song sold gold". I am sorry that Duke died because if Duke didn't die we would have been massive. He called Fats Domino so that we could tour with him. But Duke died after, so everything just went just went down with him.

Duke had a reputation.

Keith: He was a policeman. 

He would react in a particular way if he liked a song.

Keith: He carried three guns so the artists were scared of him. Because we were small and he was big. He had two short guns and one shot gun. And he would lean on the long gun and he would go and take the audition and the artist would be afraid that there was a gunman looking at them and they would cower. So they would tremble all the way because they were afraid of the guns.

Kush: He fired some shots for the Silvertones!

Keith: Yes, the Midnight Hour made him fire two shots in the ceiling. And the next day rain fell [through the holes] and flooded at the studio! (Laughs) It was a joy! I liked him still.

The old school producers weren't so into royalties.

Keith: Well he didn't give me any royalties, but every evening when we were going home he gave me an envelope, he gave me something. And his wife Miss Reid gave me a bottle of wine and he gave me the envelope so I did like him. I did like him for that.

Every producer we sang for, they wanted to change our name!

Can you remember how the rocksteady beat was created?

Keith: Yes. The ska was first and then Lyn Taitt joined Tommy McCook and the Super Sonics - it was them that brought in that rocksteady beat. Because it was ska first with the Skatalites. True Confession was ska, you know? The Skatalites played on True Confession. After that you know that Don Drummond died so Tommy brought a new band called Super Sonics. Lyn Taitt joined with Tommy so they started playing a different kind of beat. A slower beat.

Joe Isaacs the drummer - he slowed the beat down?

Keith: Yes it's true.

Kush: You know your history man.

While you were recording for Duke Reid you started recording for Mrs Pottinger.

Keith: Mrs Pottinger, now when we were singing for Mrs Pottinger we were never named the Silvertones. We were named the Valentines Brothers. They changed the name.

Why did they change the name?

Keith: I don't know. Every producer we sang for, they want to change your name! Four names the Silvertones had you know? The Admirals, the Valentines Brothers, the Silvertones, and the Three Musketeers. The Three Musketeers was Scratch. Scratch Perry. Mrs Pottinger called me and said "I want you to go solo for me". I said "No Mrs Pottinger, you cannot mash up my group. I don't want you to mash up my group" because she wanted me to go solo. So that's how come we got the name the Valentines and sang Guns Fever, Stop The Violence, Sufferers Child and those songs for Mrs Pottinger.

Those songs were talking about some harsh realities of the time. What was happening? Were things getting too hot with politics?

Keith: Well at that time you had rude boys and things. Pure rude boys going on and you had to sing about it. Guns Fever. Desmond Decker sang 007. Pure rude songs did sing. Bob Marley Rude Boy Come From Jail. In those times it was pure rude boy songs! (Laughs) Because the place did get hot with rude boys. The other day I saw them writing in the Gleaner about the groups all singing rude boy songs and we were mentioned. So it was a joy in those days still.

Kush: Pure rude boy time!

Keith: In those times we didn't love money. We saw the music in front of us - the love of the music. So that's why this music stands until now because we never loved the money, we just had a love between each and every one and we’d sit down and do the right music. We got some inspiration, we don't know how we got the inspiration to do those songs. Not just the Silvertones alone. A whole heap of groups too. The Heptones, John Holt and the Paragons, Alton, Melodians, Techniques. We got some inspiration that these youth nowadays never get. I don't know why. We never got any money in those days and when the boss gave us a little money we never said "No boss! We don't want this" and thing. We’d sit down and take it but the inspiration was there and the love was there for the music.

We saw the music in front of us - the love of the music

So how did rocksteady change to the reggae beat?

Keith: The reggae beat - that's when Coxsone made a song on a rhythm named Nanny Goat. And they say it’s the first reggae. Larry Marshall.

Others say differently…

Keith: And after that people started making that same kind of beat.

Kush: Toots.

Bunny Lee did Bangarang with Stranger Cole and Clancy Eccles did Say What You're Saying with…

Anthony: Yeah, Monty Morris!

How did you start singing for Clancy Eccles in the early 70s?

Keith: Well Clancy now, when Clancy saw we were a hit he called me and said “Boy I want you in my school”. So we went to Dynamic and did a tune called Teardrops Will Fall. And when we did the tune called Teardrops, at Randy’s on North Parade in that time you could see songs on the chart. And Teardrops Will Fall went four times the pick of the week number one. But because Clancy was a politician at that time! (laughs) You know what I'm talking about?

He was involved with Michael Manley.

That's right. And the Labourites won at that time when the tune was number one so they took it off. (Laughs) They took it off the chart. Anyway, they put it back on the chart and the tune went back to number one. And they took it off again and they said “No sir”. And they put it on the third time and they never took it off again. So it was a joy.

And what name did you record as for Clancy – the Admirals?

Keith: The Admirals!

How did Denton leave and how did Kush join?

Keith: Denton, he migrated. He got married to a girl and the girl was in the States, so the girl took him up and he was saying he would get we up too, but it didn't happen. And I heard he was playing with a band and I heard he was on coke or something like that. And he died.

So how did you join?

 Kush: Well me and them they were in Trench Town and they were rehearsing there.

Keith: In the yard.

Kush: They were singing a song. Smoker and Keith were singing a song and they heard my voice and they spun around and said “Wow! No, man! Bad bad bad!” Because my voice made it sound like the record was playing and they greeted me and they asked their manager and he said “Come Kush - Silvertones want you right now!” And I could hear in the background “Yes, yes Kush, come, come!”

So how did you meet Lee Scratch Perry?

The Silvertones-3Keith: Well, Scratch was at Studio One. We were often at Studio One. So Scratch says to me one evening "Silvertones, want to come by me?" He lived at Weymouth Drive.

Kush: Washington Gardens.

Keith: And we would sing and all those things and play guitar.

Kush: But his type of music was different.

Keith: It was different. It was an up-tempo beat. He was a good arranger still.

Kush: A little thing he had with his music - a little sound he would make. He'd make music with the sound.

Keith: So we have a song called You Make Me Feel Alright. We went to him and we played the guitar. And he listened to the song but we never knew that he taped the song. We sang the song and he must have taken the song and released it abroad. And we didn't know. Then one day a man came, a soundman and said he wanted a dubplate of You Make Me Feel Alright. We said "No, that song hasn't been recorded yet". He said listen to this and when I heard the song, eye water came out of my eye. I didn't know that that that song was recorded and released in foreign. We didn't know that Lee Scratch Perry recorded that song and carried it abroad! (Laughs)

Like he did to the Wailers.

Keith: Yeah! Everybody came and said it was a big song in foreign. So we plan now to go back in the studio to record this song live with Lloyd Parks. And the Wonderland Of Green we sang on stage - that song hasn't been recorded yet either. We plan to go in the studio and record an album with Lloyd Parks and that album will be named Wonderland Of Green - coming soon.

There is a tune produced by Scratch credited to Silvertones called When Knotty Came. There has been some debate online as to who sang on it. Was that actually you?

Keith: When Knotty Came - well that night Scratch said "Alright". He had a studio named Black Ark so we were there one night and he said he wanted some songs from us. So that night we sang When Knotty Came, Rejoice Jah Jah Children, Early In The Morning, Souvenir Of Mexico.

You know the album name Silver Bullets? You know we did that album at Tubbys? And Tubbys had one little studio - no air-conditioning! One little studio where after every song we had to come outside. And 12 songs were made that night. That album was made that night.

But some people have said that it was not you singing on When Knotty Came. They've said that Scratch recorded some other singers and credited you?

Keith: Yes, yes he put our name on the track.

So did you or didn't you sing on it?

Keith: Some parts of it. Some parts of it we did.

So who sang the other parts?

Keith: Someone else. He took it away and put someone else on it.

So why did you leave Scratch?

Keith: Well at the time the group was hot you know? So everybody wanted a piece. Everybody just had to lick a piece there and lick a piece there so we had to just ride around. Just like Wailers because when they were hot - Scratch had them and we were around them. Scratch and the same with Studio 1 too. Everybody is hot so you'd want a piece, everybody would want a piece.

Whenever you saw Coxsone dance you knew this was a hit

You already mentioned Coxsone a couple of times in passing. How did you start singing for Coxsone Dodd at Studio 1 in the mid-70s? A relationship that continued for years. 

Keith: Alright! Before Duke died he said to Coxsone he was going to give him one group and he must take Silvertones. When we were down rehearsing in the night we saw a blue Buick drive down. That was Coxsone. And he said "Silvertones, Mr Reid said I must take you. Come by the studio tomorrow". And we went by Coxsone the next day and we recorded Young At Heart and that was the first song we sang for Studio One. He took us around and he took pictures and he took us right round the whole of Jamaica. We were with Coxsone for 30-odd years. Because Studio One never did nothing at the time and we sang Smile and bust the place again. Young At Heart, Stop Crying, Make A Joyful Noise, all of those songs. And brought back Studio One right on top. 

How did you record Smile?

Keith: When we went to Coxsone he said to me “You have a song named Smile?” Because we’d go downtown and see screw face. People were screwing their faces up. Bad boys were screwing their faces up when they walked like they were bad. So we said “Let's make a song named Smile.” So I said (sings) "Wake up with a smile on your face… just like sunshine all over the place… don't be like a night when it's dark… when you're the nearest to my heart… so come on let's dance dance all over the place". 

He said “What I hear, it doesn't sound good to me” so I said I was going to change it. So I came with the bit that says "It's best to rise with a smile on your face" and the place tore down and he said "This is what we want". We recorded that song and Coxsone himself took that song and he mixed that song. And one morning we went to the studio and saw him and he didn't see me. We saw the man dance and whenever you see Coxsone dance you know this is a hit tune. He put out that song and I'll tell you that song was a massive hit. I myself didn't know it was a hit tune. But he thought it was a hit tune. Once we were amongst him we didn't move. We stuck to him.

Coxsone had great plans for us - for Silvertones - but I don't know why - he just died. That was the next fall again for Silvertones. Because he had great plans for Silvertones. Because he loved Silvertones. But I don't know if he got sick or anything like that because I saw him the day before and when I left and came back the next day he gave me and the group 80,000 and said " Sign a cheque for Silvertones - 80,000". And he said "What do you want to do, kill me?" Because that cheque is too big. Anyway he signed the cheque and every minute he was saying “Silvertones - go and take the cheque” because the truth was in those days we didn't move from there in the morning and we didn't leave until night. So we took the cheque and went down by the bank to go and change the cheque when I got a phone call saying "Downbeat dead". But we but I thought it was the Downbeat in foreign. You know you have a Downbeat in foreign?

Coxsone had great plans for us

Tony Screw.

Keith: Yes. I thought it was him. But the brother said "No man, is not him. Is not Tony Screw. Is Coxsone himself". He said "Turn on the radio" and when I turned on the radio it was pure Studio One tunes playing. So I carried the cheque to the bank and they couldn't change the cheque because Coxsone was dead. So we never knew if Coxsone was sick or anything like that.

The Silvertones-4

Anthony, tell me how you joined the group.

Anthony: I joined the group after Smoker died. Smoker died around two years ago.

Keith: He got sick. I don't know what happened.

Anthony: He passed away. And then one day I went by Keith’s place and I saw Joel and Keith and right around the dinner table we just started singing together.

Kush: Keith looked at me and we started to sing a song and we said “Wow”. Keith felt the strength so much.

Anthony: Wonderland Of Green.

Keith: If you look on the internet you will see all those kinds of songs.

Kush: We started in the backyard and it was history.

Anthony: The vibe was right.

Keith: So we joined together.

Kush: We joined together and we were strong.

Keith: We were strong. Because I’m 73.

We joined together and we were strong

You don't look 73.

Keith: That's because I say I'm born again. Because I did so much work and I didn't get any reward for it, Father made me born again and said "You will get your reward you know. The greatest thing is love and unity and if you have love and unity you will get your reward.”

Kush: Father sent us our manager Sister Gabby to get us back on the road.

Keith: I'm thankful for her. She made it out of nothing. Out of the backyard. She took True Confession in the backyard and we sang and she took that little camera that she has and videoed it and put it on the internet. Let me tell you the people they went wild!

Kush: 5 million hits in seven days!

Keith: They say only Usain Bolt got so many hits in such a short time.

Tell me more about your latest album you're working on.

Keith: This album is Wonderland Of Green and you have songs like Them A Grumble which we did sing on stage, Me Feel Alright, and many more songs but Wonderland Of Green is the title track.

When is it coming out? Is Lloyd Parks putting it out?

Anthony: We are working with Lloyd Parks on the album.

Keith: We are doing that album live with Lloydie.

Anthony: With an authentic band. That is our next project when we reach home we will start working on it.

Where do you get your silver outfits from?


Keith: Because we are named the Silvertones, we liked to do the things the right way from when we were small. We always come with that intention so we just do it the same way.

We've heard of artists telling people that the Silvertones died

How do you like performing in Europe? 

Keith: Everybody in Europe holds up their hands like they know me. Long time Silvertones are unknown and people want to know the Silvertones and get to know Silvertones. They know the songs but they've never seen us. And we've heard of artists telling people that the Silvertones died. Because when I was on Rebel Salute someone came over and said “Silvertones? People are telling us that you’re dead”. Some people try to hold us down. I don't know. But Silvertones are special.

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