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Interview: Winston McAnuff in Kingston (Part 1)

Interview: Winston McAnuff in Kingston (Part 1)

Interview: Winston McAnuff in Kingston (Part 1)

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"When you catch the tide you have to ride it!"


Winston McAnuff celebrated his 60th birthday on September 21st. For 60 years the Jamaican singer-songwriter and patriarch of the generously talented McAnuff family has lived a challenging and eventful life - even for a reggae artist.

He entered the business as a preternaturally intelligent schoolboy, whose song-writing chops took him from the classroom to the studio of veteran producer Derrick Harriott. Initially his songs were vehicles for his friend, Earl Sixteen Daley, before he was encouraged to take the mic himself and record three albums of artistically rewarding material.

He bided his time behind the scenes throughout the late 80s and 90s until the serendipitous reissuing of his catalogue propelled him to 21st century reggae-fusion pop-stardom and celebrity in France. His musical legacy continues via his children – including Rashaun Kush”, drummer and leader of Uprising Roots band, and Matthew, whose immense promise was snuffed out by his tragic murder in 2012.

Some six months before Winston’s birthday, in February 2017, United Reggae was riding in his 4x4 over the winding roads and many potholes of Jamaica’s Stony Hill. If ever a situation could demonstrate the overproof Jamaican constitution, it was the jeep bouncing nauseatingly, as its driver cracked jokes and told stories, fighting an ear-splittingly loud CD of his unreleased tracks. Winston’s driving befitted his flair for brinkmanship and mischievous disposition. At one point he deftly overtook an entire traffic jam from the wrong side of the road.

The interview destination was the elevated house where Winston, along with his friend Kiddus I and a host of veteran guests, recorded The Soul of Jamaica, the latest album by acoustic collective Inna De Yard. Winston had been drafted in by his French record company Chapter Two to coordinate the project, after the departure of guitarist Earl Chinna Smith.

During our two part interview, his third conducted by writer Angus Taylor, Winston shared insights about his six decade life and four-and-a-half decade career. In Part 1 he reveals his early friendship with Hugh Mundell, how he survived a fallow period in his fortunes, and why the piracy of his second album in France turned out to be a good thing.

Winston McAnuff-11Where were you born?

I was born in Manchester. Spalding Percy Junior Hospital. 1957.

And what did your parents do for a living?

My mother was a preacher and my father was a preacher. Minister in the church.

Which denomination of church?

New Testament Church of God.

How much singing did you do in church?

I started singing in church. Actually a song that is on my new album is the first song my mother told me to sing in church. It's called The Master. Put No Blame On The Master. A voice came and told me to record this song - and we did.

I started singing in church

How old were you when you first started singing?

I started singing from a very early age. I remember when I was in primary school some teachers came from college to teach for some time in our school. They weren't the permanent teachers but they came for about six weeks. There was a concert and I did a Bob Andy song. I was 10 years old at that time. Games People Play. It wasn't a Bob Andy song.

It's a country and western song [by Joe South].

When I grew older I found that out. But there is a part in it where it says (sings) "But you don't care a damn, a damn, a damn" so the teacher called me and said "Winston, that's a beautiful song but when you reach that part don't say "a damn" you're going to say "and you don't care at all, at all, at all" ". So I said "Okay miss" and I started doing the concert but I didn't remember what the teacher said so when I reached that part of the song I just said "and you don't care a damn a damn a damn!" She was kind of angry with me you know? But I didn't remember! (Laughs) Because I learned the song for a long time on the radio this way! So it was in my brain to sing it this way. Yeah but it's a big tune.

When did you write your first song?

Well you know it's from early… I have a friend… It's funny you say that because I left my house this morning and it's he who was reminding me of this song. I never remembered this song you know? And it was my first song I ever wrote. And the song said (sings) "Early one morning, just as the sun was shining, I something something something by the water, and as I reached by the water something something something, early one morning…" My friend he knows the song. He remembers it quite well.

Winston McAnuff-12When was this?

This was around the same time that I was doing the song "and you don't care a damn, damn, damn". It was when I was 10. Because there is a singer from where I was called Bill Gentles. He was living in England too. He was from where I am from, so I got a big inspiration from him. I said "This man is a singer. I could be a singer too. Well actually I am a singer but I want to do some recording too". So I started writing songs and that was the first song. But I don't remember the song. So I'm going to get it from this guy and try to finish it. 

Where did you go to school?

I went to school in Christiana, Middlesex, a small primary school and then I went on to another school, Christiana Junior Secondary. My dad died and my mother couldn't afford to take care of us so I came to Kingston to live with my sister. I went to school and I met Earl Sixteen. And then after that school I passed an exam and I went to Excelsior High School. And that's how I met Bubbler [Waul]. It's a big history with Bubbler! (Laughs)

Were you at school with any other singers or musicians?

Oh, not many people. I think Michael Rose was at the same school - Tarrant Junior Secondary but I didn't know him - we weren't friends. But me and Sixteen, we were friends because I started writing some songs for him and recording him at Derrick Harriott. Derrick Harriott was recording him - Charmaine, Dreadlocks Unite and I was writing for Derrick -Heavenly Love, the Roamer, and for his niece too - Kim Harriott. Never Fade Away.

Was Derrick Harriott your first entry to the music business?

Yeah, that's the first time I saw my name on a vinyl. And it's funny because it's Mikey Boo played drums on it and I saw him today so it was a big feeling for me.

Did you try and take your songs anywhere else? Did you go to any of the other studios and producers?

When I came to live in Kingston with my sister I found out that Hugh Mundell was living just like over there. Wayne Wade was living beside Hugh Mundell so I actually worked out some of Hugh Mundell’s first songs. (Sings) "My mind keeps going from a while, they say 1,000 miles, thinking about the rain, it goes pitter patter on my window pane, and the sinful people, Who break the laws in vain, my mind is going on, on and on and on, I think my little song, thinking about my brothers and my sisters too". But it is I who worked out the songs for him because I was the only one who was playing a guitar.

After that I was going to see some producers but one of the main producers I went to was Derrick Harriott. I played some songs to him and he said "Shit" so we started recording and he started to sing some of the songs too. But I wasn't singing any of the songs at the time. Heavenly Love, Roamer, Mr Windbag - those three I can remember.

I wrote some for Earl Sixteen too, like Malcolm X because we had a [Derrick Harriott] version of Malcolm X, with a different version for Joe Gibbs. Me, Bubbler and Hugh Mundell went to the studio to record for Joe Gibbs in school uniform. I sang the song and they said "Oh no. Winston, I don't think you can manage the song" so I said "Okay. I have a friend" so I went to Earl Sixteen and Earl Sixteen came and sang this song and they accepted it. But it was me, Bubbler and Hugh Mundell. Hugh Mundell recorded a song that morning too. I later did a version of it for Gussie P. A part version of it – a song that says about "Natty Dread is not on First Street, Natty Dread is not on Second Street, Jah where is Natty Dread?"

So the Joe Gibbs Malcom X came before the Derrick Harriott one?

Yes with Earl Sixteen.

How come you did the one for Derrick? Joe didn't put it out?

We did that one in protest because I and Earl Sixteen did it so I was expecting the Earl Sixteen song to be released. Then we found out that Dennis Brown was singing the song. Earl Sixteen didn't know anything. We saw the Dennis Brown so we said "What is this?" But it wasn't so much a problem because my name was there “Winston McAnuff” as a writer. From that time we were smart youths, I had my thing registered in England.

You had registered your songs with the royalty collection agencies?

From in school.

Who gave you that idea?

No one man! From a little boy I was very intelligent! Me and Earl Sixteen were moving and we were imagining and Franklyn Waul was interested in playing but we were dealing with intellectual property rights. From a youth I knew - don't sign. That's why with my record company recently I tell them, "Look at all my records from Joe Gibbs to Derrick - do you see anybody else publishing any of my things?" They say "No Winston" - "It's not by mistake".

From a little boy I was very intelligent!

Was it Bubbler who played the distinctive piano part on Malcolm X for Joe Gibbs?

Yes! I made the song on my guitar and we went to school and I said "Bubbler, these are the chords played on the piano". I had the chords already but he was a piano man so I said "Bubbler, play little intro thing" so he played (sings intro) But even he didn't know how effective that thing he was playing was because he was a little youth from high school. We came from school on a Thursday and we went to record. Bubbler played that but I was explaining to him today that I'm going to give him some money. Because he's my friend, man.

During that period of time did you write songs for anyone else?

No, not really at that time that I can recall. It was just Sixteen I was writing songs for. Then I started to sing in ’76.

How did that happen?

I went to record a song for Sixteen once in Federal studios. The studio Bob Marley bought now. Ugly Days. They said "Put on a rough voice so that Earl Sixteen can hear the song after" because he wasn't in studio. Most of the time he was the lead singer for Boris Gardiner. From that age Earl Sixteen was more advanced than us with singing.

Earl Sixteen was more advanced than us with singing

So I was recording a guide vocal for Ugly Days and then Willie Lindo and them said "Oh!" I said "Let me do a better voice" and they said "No, that’s it". I said "No but it's just one time" and they said "Winston, you can't do back that voice like that - we know that". But at that age I never understood. It's many years after when I listen back to the tune that I realised that this was a fluke. But they recognised and said "Winston, you cannot voice back this song like how you just voiced it". And that's how I got my first 45 which was Ugly Days.

Derrick Harriott put that out?

Yes. And after that Derek never auditioned me. He just told me to record what I wanted. I decided what I wanted to do.

How did you record your 1978 debut album – Pick Hits To Click?

My first album was with Derrick Harriott. We just kept recording until we had x amount of songs and Derrick said "This is the album." Pick Hits To Click. And I had a four-in-one song that I did with Very Well, Mule Train, Toots’ It's You. (sings) "Don't ask me how I got my name, when you Mack, when you Mack till you can't Mack no more and you Mack till you McAnuff, don't ask me how I got my name, Mule Train!" But you see that tune? I killed every show. No matter which artist. I didn't have any hit songs at the time. But every show I’d go it's a problem! Mule Train. I'd start the Mule Train - everything finish! Show mash up!

The first song on Pick Hits To Click references punk. Lyrically you were influenced by the punk thing?

(Sings) "Punk if you punky" Lloyd Parks and Sly Dunbar. Original Skin Flesh and Bones connection. No, well, you see at the time I heard this song from Bob Marley "It's a punky reggae party" so I said "Do you know what? I can write a song like that too" because I was checking and following the elders. So I wrote this song "Punk if you punky, skank if you skanky". I really love that song. Believe me.

Winston McAnuff-13Were you happy with your first album?

It's great man because even recently some people in France discovered that album and said "Winston, this is your first album?" And I said "Yeah" and they said they can't believe it! The standard is high. Pure great people played on that album. I'm the only fool on this album you know? It's pure big musicians playing. I'm proud of this album Pick Hits To Click.

And your second album - 1980’s What The Man "A" Deal Wid - how did that happen?

Well the second album, I was just standing one day in Halfway Tree and Inner Circle came and said "Winston, we are doing some recording and we want to help some youths - are you interested to come along?" I said "Yeah man". So I went and I played some songs and Ian chose the songs and said I must do Unchained on the album as a cover. So we went and we did the album in two days. It hasn't been released in Jamaica until now. And that album, they told me in France, if they going to pick 50 albums from all the reggae albums that have been made, that is one of the albums. I couldn't believe it.

In 1986 you recorded your third album Electric Dread with Inner Circle – then things went quiet on the album front for 15 years. What were you doing in the late 80s and 90s?

I was just looking to see what could happen on musically. I went to Japan and I set up a big thing there. I brought like 14 bands to Japan. My brother is still living there up until now. 20 odd years he is living there. But all of my friends, they went on that connection to Japan. I got this connection right at Aquarius, a youth named Izaba, who worked on the movie Rockers with Kiddus, and some Japanese came and said they wanted a band. We said "We have a little band", "Yeah, perfect". So we went and after we finished people asked us if we had some other bands for six months. "Yeah, we have some other friends". We started sending all of them there. So that was what was happening during that time.

With the same guy, we did a kind of documentary thing called I & I After Bob Marley 21,000 Miles. It was a documentary running from South Africa, Guyana, Jamaica, different faces of the ghetto. And they put it together with a Bob Marley thing to you know? And the film director was Bob Marley's friend named Dallas Rodgers. So he was the translator for the Japanese, he was fluent in Japanese, but he is from Guyana. I met these guys and they said "Come to Japan" so I went.

What were you doing at Aquarius?

We just used to hang out at Aquarius because the studio had telephones, in that time you had to go somewhere where people know where you are… “You see Angus? If you go down by the shop down there, down Halfway Tree? You go there and you must see him because he comes there every day.” So people had to know that they could find you in certain places you know? (Laughs) It's like my office!

Aquarius was like my office

So I brought some guys from the country and told them "Come to town". They came - my brother and his band and some other little brethren. So after they came for a couple of days they saw me down at Aquarius and they said "Winston, what are you doing? Out here every day standing up wasting time? Winston, you know what happen? We’re going back to country!" They left me and went back to the country and my brother went back down to May Pen and played with the band that I carried him to play with.

So when these men wanted us to come to Japan I had to go back for them, you know? I had to get up early in the morning to catch a ride to May Pen and tell them "Yow, don't move, I'm coming back at 12 o'clock with some Japanese to do a thing to send back to the boss up there." So I hitched back a ride and came to Kingston but I didn't have any money to carry the Japanese down there. I checked Dallas for the money and he said "Money? You want me to pay you to see you rehearse?" "Yeah man, get your shit together." The man was angry at me like a dog saying "Listen, I'm not paying to see you rehearse man". So I was saying "Shit, how am I going to do this?"

So I saw a taxi man out of Halfway Tree but I didn’t have the money to pay for the taxi to go to May Pen. So I told the taxi man "Listen, I have a job for you. It's some Japanese. We're going to go and pick them up on Constant Spring Road and carry them to May Pen". But when I went up Constant Spring I had like 40 Jamaican in my pocket to my name! But the man said "We're going to need a little petrol" and I said "No man, don't worry about it.” I gave him the one money I had to buy the petrol because remember that Izaba was not giving me any money.

So I took the taxi man and carried him to the country, did the repetition and filmed it and came back to Kingston. I got back to Kingston I told the taxi man "Drop the people up by the hotel" and they went in. I told him "Listen, I'm going round there to change the US and come back." I had to disappear for one month! (Laughs) The man said if he saw me I'm a dead man! Because I carried him up to the country and didn't pay him. He lost his whole day's pay!

But that is what I had to do to get those men to Japan. If I didn't do that they wouldn't be there. When I got the contract and got some money I just went back up to Halfway Tree and looked for the man and said "Here's your money man! I hear you're saying you want to kill me - take your money man!" (Laughs) But if I didn't do this maybe those men would still be in Jamaica until today, Rasta. Because when the tide comes in you have to catch it because you don't know if you will stand up on the seashore waiting for another tide all your life and when a new tide will come! (Laughs) When you catch the tide you have to ride it!

Who were the musicians that went to Japan?

My brother. Actually he had the band. We were working with them in May Pen. It wasn't really my band do you know? It was a band I went to do some shows with sometimes. I told them "It's my band" and we went and my brother was playing inside so we filmed the band and set it up so the band went and I didn't go, you know? At the end of the day I sent Calman Scott, the brother of Scotty, with the band. And the band members wanted to kill me because they said the man was singing off key! I told them "No, when he goes after a week or two he is going to sing on key. My brother, give him a chance" because at the same time I had to go to Miami to do some other work with Inner Circle. This was 1987 or so. I went there and we did like 40 or 50 albums.

What was your role in those projects?

Well, my role was like what I'm doing with Makasound, or Chapter Two right now. I coordinate the thing and situate that they record.

How were you surviving during the time you weren’t recording? From royalties of the songs you wrote and some of these things you were doing behind-the-scenes?

No, I wasn't getting any royalties. It was from donations from well-wishers and friends! (Laughs) Because we are used to just ask some guys for money - good friends. If I saw Kiddus I'd say "What happen, Kiddy give me 1,000 or 500". That's how we survived. But one day I went home, and a voice came and said "Tell everybody that you are rich” and that's what I did. And from that day everything changed.

I saw a man down there at the studio, he came one day asking me for some money and I told him "Stop begging, what you have to do is spread a positive rumour on yourself". (Laughs) “Tell some people that you're rich. The people who you want to ask for things the most - you have to go to them and say "You know what happened? I'm rich"". The mind works the thing.

Meanwhile your second album had been released in France.

Yeah, they pirated it for five years. Esoldun. I went and closed the company. The guy just committed suicide. They found him in his apartment. He killed himself.

Winston McAnuff-14

How did you find out they pirated the album?

I went to England. I wanted to see what could happen for me. I had my brother there, Brother John, but I was staying with Earl Sixteen. He had to do some show in Germany but he had some problems with his woman and he had his little baby so he didn't know how to go to do the shows. He was kind of afraid to even ask me to help him so I just told him "Sixteen, listen, go and do the shows man - I'm going to babysit for you". Because Sixteen’s youths they love me more than him, you know? They love me more than Sixteen! (Laughs) This was about 1999, 2000.

First he told me to sleep on a bed "Winston you take the bed" so I said "No Sixteen, why I must take your bed?" "No Winston, take the bed" and he was sleeping on the carpet every night. So I felt bad because I was coming to stay with Sixteen and sleeping in his bed and he was sleeping on the floor. So when he went to Germany I went to sleep out on the carpet. When I slept on the carpet and woke up the next morning I said "That's why this man made me sleep on the bed!" Pure back pain I was getting and I slept on the carpet and I was waking up in the morning feeling firm!

So when I was there sleeping one morning the phone rang and it was Patate Records from France. They said they were keeping a show with Alton Ellis and would I like to come over? Actually it cost me 1,000 US to go to the show because they wouldn't give me a visa in England. I had to come back to Jamaica to get the visa and then buy a new ticket to go back to France.

I was in the hotel and the next morning I heard my door knock. It was Romain and Nicolas from Makasound. They had my album and they said "Do you know this?" I said I don't know this album but it's my album. And I saw "Produced by Tommy Cowan". I said "But I never sang a song in my life for Tommy Cowan". So the guys said "Winston, let's take you down to the man's office." I said "No, I don't want to go to no man's office - I’m going back to Jamaica to Tommy Cowan. I'm going to get some guys and go to Tommy Cowan to find out how this thing goes".

So I checked Tommy Cowan and said "Tell me, what is this?" He said "Winston, I'm a Christian - all kinds of people try to tell lies on me". I said "Tell me, did I ever do a recording for you" and he said "No". So I said "Just write that in a letter". So I carried back that letter and that was the letter that saved Helene Lee's house. Because the man was suing for 300,000 because she said he was a thief and wrote it in Liberation.

And when the court case came up it seemed the man never owed Bunny Lee any money. The man only owed Bunny Lee 2,000 because the man came with the receipts. They said the man had 50,000 for Bunny Lee but the man came with receipts for 48,000 and said "Your honour, what are you saying? I'm a thief? I owe a man 50,000 and I have a receipt to pay him 48,000." So they came to me and the judge said "Mr McAnuff what do you say - this man is a thief?" I said "Yes your honour. See the proof here - this man is a thief" and done him!

I said "This man is a thief" and done him!

I took back the album from him and gave it to Nicolas in France. No other Jamaican ever did that. Lee Perry called him “the vampire of Notre Dame”. Because they couldn't manage this man because he was very slippery - Italian British man. Even skinheads came to me after and said "Winston, if you checked us we could… Solve the problem". I said "No, no! I don't need to check any skinheads to solve the problem!" (Laughs) I know how to solve the problem.

Read part 2 of our interview with Winston McAnuff

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