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Interview: Boris Gardiner in Kingston (Part 1)

Interview: Boris Gardiner in Kingston (Part 1)

Interview: Boris Gardiner in Kingston (Part 1)

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"A whole heap of people got hit lines from me"


Bassist, arranger and singer-songwriter Boris Gardiner’s career began before the ska era. He got his schooling with some of Jamaica’s top 1960s musicians, in touring bands led by Richard Ace, Kes Chin, and Carlos Malcolm.

Eventually, he branched out to form his own ensemble,  the Broncos, later the Boris Gardiner Happening. The Happening was active through the early 70s, helping to launch the careers of reggae singers Tinga Stewart and Earl 16.

Boris tasted international solo acclaim – if not financial reward - arranging the 1970 UK charting instrumental Elizabethan Reggae. In 1986, he attained more satisfying success as a singer, scoring a British number one hit with a rendition of Ben PetersI Wanna Wake Up With You.

Boris’ time on the hotel band circuit left him with a pragmatic, experimental approach to the music. This lack of purism, coupled to his talent, meant he could be found mixing in multiple musical circles.

His writing and arranging often fused homegrown rhythms with uptown jazz, soul and funk (like his mentor Dr Malcolm, he even wrote advertising jingles). Yet his skills as a bassist brought him session work at Jamaica’s top reggae studios, including Clement “Coxsone” Dodd’s Studio 1 and Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Black Ark. These parallel ventures resulted in the lanky, debonair Boris anchoring some of the greatest Rastafari roots anthems of the 70s.

Angus Taylor met Boris at Devon House, former home to George Steibel, Jamaica’s first black millionaire. Over the shouts of hundreds of careening school children, excited about tasting Devon House’s famous ice cream, the mellow soft-spoken Mr Gardiner told his fascinating story, meandering around the milestones of Jamaican popular music.

With a bassie’s timing, Boris spoke in strict chronological order for over an hour. Unlike many of his peers his memory for dates was precise. During much of the discussion Boris’ reminiscences flowed unprompted, detailing his progress as a singer and bandleader. He seemed surprised to be pressed for more detail on his session and advertising side-lines.

After this interview was completed, Boris’ legacy would make itself known to yet another new audience. The film Moonlight, featuring rapper Kendrick Lamar’s sample of Gardiner’s 1973 movie theme song "Every Nigger Is a Star", won the 2017 Oscar for Best Picture. Part 1 of the 2 part conversation traces his early years playing in bands and at studios until the late 60s.

Boris Gardiner

When and where were you born?

13th January. 1943. I was born in Rollington Town.

Where did you go to school?

I went to, as they say, a government school in Franklin Town. And Saint Monica’s College after.

I used to sing at school. I was a favourite

When you were a youth you were diagnosed with heart problems…

Yes. When I was 17 I developed this heart condition called tachycardia. It put me down in the hospital for three weeks. I came out and started moving around again but it started again and I had to go back for another two weeks. I didn’t know what would become of my life because I was told there was nothing they could do about it.

One day at home while doing nothing, just sitting around, a singer named Richard Ace came by. They knew I used to sing at school. I was a favourite and they said “Bwoy, Boris a good singer”. I didn’t know myself but I could do my thing. So he checked me and said “Well, how would you like to come and join the Rhythm Aces?” - a group he was forming. He was looking for a lead singer so I said “Okay, I’ll try you know?” I came in and the four of us got together. Delano Stewart…

Who later joined Gaylads.

Yes. Dennis Moss, who I think was an African but he went home after a few years in Jamaica, and there was Richard and myself. We did some nice little rehearsals with some doo-wop songs and this sort of thing. I could bang a piano a bit at the time so I composed a song called A Thousand Teardrops. Chris Blackwell of Island Records heard it and said he would record it. We recorded it and it was a big hit for us in Jamaica in those days. It was number two on the charts for a couple of weeks and in the top 10. This was, I think, 1961.

This was a rhythm and blues song.

It was like a ballad. Slow rhythm and blues. Because in those days ska was just coming around. It was mostly in the later 60s that it really took off. We used to play the boogie-woogie, Louis Jordan sort of music and the musicians decided to slow it down and we got the ska. (Sings ska beat) But we weren’t used to that kind of singing at the time - we were singing mostly ballads! (Laughs) Ballads and doo-wop music were the thing so we were in that vein the time. As time went by we did another song which was a Christmas song which was The Meaning Of Christmas. I re-did it in reggae also, in England after my hit I Wanna Wake Up With You! (Laughs) But it wasn’t really meant to be a reggae. It fits the slower feel to me more than the reggae - but hey!

I learned a lot from Kes Chin

How did you leave the Rhythm Aces?

Well after a while, we did shows around, we got popular in Jamaica. But the finances were very little at the time. You’d get 5 pounds to divide between the four guys you know? (Laughs) That sort of thing. It couldn’t go on so we decided to go our way. So Delano Stewart joined the Gaylads and I joined a band called Kes Chin and the Souvenirs which was one of Jamaica’s top bands at the time. I learned a lot from Kes. Touching up guitar and a little bass and that sort of thing.

What was happening to the music at that point?

At that point we were playing a lot of calypso, more or less popular music, Hit Parade. But we were playing mostly calypso sort of music from Trinidad. The Mighty Sparrow was a big thing. And one or two local songs because we weren’t recording a lot of songs yet in 1961. We had Jackie Edwards, Owen Gray and a guy named Shirley, Clancy Eccles, Derrick Morgan, so everything was coming.

Well, as time went by I left Kes Chin and the Souvenirs and I joined Carlos Malcolm and the Afro Jamaican Rhythms. Which was a big band in Jamaica at the time with five horns and rhythm section and percussion and about three or four singers. Derrick Harriot was one of the singers, Lascelles Perkins, a girl named Claudette Brown. So I was in the band and I would play a little percussion and sing one tune.

Carlos Malcolm said "you're going to have to play bass now"

So, about 1965 I’d say, Audley Williams the bass player, resigned and migrated to Canada. Carlos was trying to find the band a bass player, looking all about the place and just couldn’t find one. One day he called me and said “Well, Boris I’m searching all about the place and just can’t find a bass man. I’ll tell you what - you’re going to have to play bass now”. Just like that! (Laughs) I thought my heart would start palpitating! I said “Are you serious? But I can’t play bass in this band. I can’t read music.” Because everybody read music you know? He said “Don’t worry yourself man. You’ll just learn one tune at a time - and take your time, you’ll get there”.

I took home the bass and started running a few scales. I bought a book, a beginner’s book, and started to see how chords change and that sort of thing. I listened to a few hit records - ska was coming in and I learned a certain ska tune and I practised that bass-line until I got it. I went on the bandstand and Carlos gave me the bass and I played and I played and I got more confidence each time I played. So as time went by I learned each tune like that and kept practising. After a year or a year and a half I was very confident and could do quite a lot, you know? Backing up artists from overseas and all of that.

How did you depart from Carlos Malcolm’s band?

After Carlos migrated from Jamaica we went to the Bahamas and spent a year there. Between Nassau and Freeport - six months on both sides. Playing at the Cat and Fiddle which was a big club where pure tourists would come in and we were the entertainment. We went on and I started playing my bass and singing and everything went very nicely. Then we decided there was always a show in New York for Independence celebrations - Jamaican Independence. Every year they had a thing and we got the job to come and entertain in New York.

So the band packed up and we went into New York and played the show. Everything was nice and in half an hour Carlos said “Gentlemen, it doesn’t make sense to go back to Jamaica now because Jamaica doesn’t really have anything to offer at this stage”. His plan was we’d stay in New York, get ourselves straightened out, and get a job here and there working in the week and play music at weekends. Well you see now, with my heart condition and that kind of living, I could never wake up 5 o’clock in the morning and have to go out into snow and take a train… you understand? I was thinking about how having a weak heart I could just drop out any time. (Laughs) So I said “Bwoy, I’m not going to stay”.

I just packed up and went to Canada where Leslie Butler had a group playing at a club called Club Jamaica. He said I must come up and join the group so I went up there. This was about October-November. We had a nice time, the club was swinging, and then one day Leslie said “Well, it’s winter time” and he had to go back to Jamaica because he was playing on the coast at a hotel called Round Hill. A big millionaire’s hotel. Big job. Well, with that I decided with the snow now I wasn’t staying up here! (Laughs) None of these musicians really… enticed me to stay.

I decided I would go back to Jamaica - I think this was in the early part of December. I checked around, phoned Byron Lee and said “I don’t know if you have a space for a bassie?” Byron said “Boy, sorry you know because I kind of have Bumps”. Bumps was his bass player. He just died a few weeks ago. I saw on Facebook.

Bumps Jackson?

Boris GardinerI don’t know. I was just heard Bumps! But Bumps was the bass player so I couldn’t find a job. Until one day I got a phone call from a man called Eddie Knight who said “I’m opening a club called Bronco”. This was in Union Square in Crossroads - and was I interested in forming a little band to play? It was a good opportunity so I said “Why not? Sure. I’ll do what I can”.

I got a keyboard player and a drummer - two guys from off the north coast who were mostly swing musicians.I could play some jazz too, up on stage. They came in, we started a trio at Bronco and a few people started coming in for lunch and dinner because there was a restaurant and it was really nice. And as time went by I changed musicians: Keith Sterling, keyboard player, Tony Bennett on drums, Patrick McDonald, guitar. At this time Studio One wanted a bass player to join up the group down at Coxsone’s. He contacted me and said “Come in and play some bass for the Studio One band.”

I played on songs like Nanny Goat, Heptones On Top album, with Party Time and Why Did You Leave and those songs, I did Marcia Griffiths Feel Like Jumping, I don’t remember all of them by name but it was over 100 tunes at least. Because we did like four tunes per day or 16 tunes a week. Going on for some three months.

When you went to Coxsone who were the musicians you sat in with?

Jackie Mittoo as the bandleader. There was Fil Callender on guitar and drums. And Frater was also the guitarist. There was also Patrick McDonald as another guitarist. I was on bass and you had Skully who would play some percussion. The great Skully who just passed. You had Roland Alphonso passing through sometimes. And there was another trombonist - trust me I don’t remember his name - but we called him Trommy. He played some nice ‘bone.

Vin Gordon.

Yes! Right! That’s right.

Is it true that Nanny Goat was originally meant for Jacob Miller?

Yes. Definitely. Jacob came in, went to Jackie, started singing the tune and Jackie listened, did the chord construction and played a nice little intro. After, we’d normally lay the rhythm, so after the music was recorded and everybody was finished, in the evening, the singers would come in and voice their tune. That’s when Coxsone would normally come round and listen.

He came and said “Jacob, come, make we hear your tune”. The rhythm started and Jacob went to the mic and started singing the tune. Coxsone just told the engineer “Hold on, stop the rhythm. Hey Jacob, I don’t like the tune upon this riddim you know?” He shouted “Larry!” to this guy Larry Marshall “Make we hear your tune on this riddim!” And it was like the rhythm of the tune was made for it! (Laughs) The man got a big hit out of it. And poor Jacob went home with tears in his eyes. Hurt man. The first tune he was going to record and that happened.

Some people say that Nanny Goat was the first reggae tune.

A lot of people say that. We didn’t have the word reggae, right? So it couldn’t be the first reggae, you understand? In 1967 when I came back from Canada I heard a tune named Take Your Time. (Sings) Hopeton Lewis. And that rhythm really hit me because it was the first time I was hearing this feel of tune.

To me Nanny Goat is rocksteady


Yeah. So when we went in the studio and we were trying to imitate this feel. Although we stepped it up - because some tunes had to step up because the melody might be too fast so you have to slow it down to get the feel. To me I never knew anything about (sings Nanny Goat bass-line) as a reggae. It’s just a line that we worked out. It wasn’t music that we were imitating. Because the word reggae was not around. So it’s just to get that feel of (sings bass-line) right? To me it’s rocksteady. To me the first time I was hearing reggae music it was a (sings a skinhead reggae guitar chop) and it has a more mento feel to the rhythm because the bass was busy that kind of way in it. Jimmy Cliff The Harder They Come to me was one of the first reggae I think about.

That Beverley’s sound.

You understand what I mean? And Mrs Pottinger did a few songs like that also when she was recording. Hux Brown and myself used to play together on sessions. Hux Brown would later be in my band at the Courtleigh Manor Hotel. We played on many of these kinds of songs. So that guitar is what is the (sings in time with the chop) “reggae-the reggae-the reggae”. It comes from the guitar playing. Because it’s still one drop you understand? The drum was playing the same thing.

Reggae comes from the guitar playing

The bass-lines are the hardest part of a reggae and it tells which song it is. If you hear a bass-line you can tell a song without hearing the song. (Sings bass line) “You don’t care for me at all” - I was the first one to play that kind of bass-line. You Don’t Care. I played with Phyllis Dillon, Melodians, a whole heap of those people got hit lines from me. So when the bass-line is played, putting out the melody, that signifies what tune is playing. You hear at a distance and you can tell which tune is playing.

Why did you stop playing for Coxsone?

You know I can’t remember why? I just cannot remember exactly why. I always wonder. I don’t know if it’s because I wanted to get on with my band and we were moving around the island and I wouldn’t be able to do sessions when I was needed? Because that’s like a job you know? If you have two jobs you start to clash. Then it’s a problem.

You mentioned the Melodians. Did you do much work for Treasure Isle?

I did a few. I can’t remember names but I did a couple of songs with Alton Ellis. I did Phyllis Dillon Perfidia. I played and even talked on it. “With the sad lament my dreams are faded like a broken…” That’s me who did that! (Laughs) I played for the Techniques with Slim Smith. I did music with Slim Smith when he was with them at the beginning.

There are lots of songs I played on that I don't even remember

There are lots of songs I played on that I don’t even remember. Because everybody called you and said “I have three tune you know, just come down” and you go and you play and you’re done so you don’t even know who sang on it. You just collected and you’re gone. In that time, we didn’t know about credits and those sorts of things that would happen today. There are tunes I can’t claim for. PPL? I can’t claim because they want proof and I have no proof. Everybody who would give proof is dead. Duke Reid, Coxsone, Mrs Pottinger, Randy’s, you understand?

Can you tell me a bit about working for Derrick Harriott in the late 60s? One tune you’re associated with is the Loser – which you arranged.

Oh! Derrick started doing sessions, recording artists and those things with himself. I think this was his first session and he asked me to do arrangement. He had Keith and Tex on it. There were two other guys. I don’t remember their names. One of them had a big hit in England. It started with some talking. (Imitates intro to Double Barrell)

Dave Barker?

(Laughs) Dave Barker. Yeah man right! As I said that little part you knew it! So there was Dave and somebody else who used to sing together in the earlier days. There was Derrick and somebody else who I don’t remember but I arranged all that session. I played that Loser bass-line for him so after that Derrick started using other bands. He was with a band called the Vikings. He would use most of his band members in the future. But that’s life!

Let’s get back to your own things. While you were at the Bronco Club you also started a Bronco label…

Yes that was my Bronco label. That was about ’68. I started doing some recording with people like Roy Panton and Dawn Penn, myself.

So the Bronco label came after you left Studio One or at the same time?

I think it was after. Because I went to Studio One and it ran from December ’67 to January February March April [’68]. That’s the time I was with them. And after that I started the Bronco thing. We decided to do a few recordings. One of those songs that I recorded with Roy Panton - Endless Memory - somebody said the other day he wanted $4,700 US for a 45 single! And I can’t find a copy for me! (Laughs)

Can you tell me about arranging Elizabethan Reggae?

Oh Elizabethan Reggae. Wow. That’s a story. Now, 1969 or 1970, one of the two years, Byron Lee sent one of his workers - I think his name was Junior Chung - with a record to me [Ronald Binge Elizabethan Serenade] and told me I must listen to a certain cut and tell me if I can reggae it. (Sings melody) It was a waltz. I listened and I went back to him and said yeah “I can reggae it”. I could feel it in the reggae. It fit nicely. So he said “Alright, that sounds good. We can record it and whatever I make, 15% is yours”. I didn’t think that that tune was going to sell half 1 million you understand? (Laughs) Really when you talk about signing contracts you take a man’s word. He says “Okay” you say “Okay”. (Kisses teeth) So you go and record the tune!

I got Jackie Jackson to play bass because he was the hit bassist at the time. He was with Duke Reid. I just did my conducting and arrangements of the tune. After everything was done - recorded and released. It started to play on the radio and at that time Jamaica wasn’t really an instrumentals kind of country. But I kind of started feeling “Nice little tune and thing”. It went top 15 and that sort of thing.

Then they sent it to England and from the tune going to London to release it just went fly! It was top 15 on the British charts. When it came down to a certain thing that sold 250,000. “Bwoy, Elizabeth Reggae fly! In the Cashbox Magazine”. “Really?” I went down to Dynamics and looked in the Cashbox Magazine “Elizabethan Reggae - Byron Lee and the Dragonaires”! (Laughs) I said “What?” They carried us wide. Carried me wide.

So I went to Byron and said “What is this?” “You know I don’t understand this you know? How Bruce can put that name on the record…” But Byron Lee always wanted to be big in Europe. He played a lot of soca and calypso and Europeans are not a soca and calypso country. (Laughs) You like to dance and hold each other close! You don’t care if it’s reggae or something else. Not to jump up and down, right? (Laughs) So I made him know this and then after a while I noticed the name changed to Boris Gardiner Happening.

Now when the monies came down, you see because, I’m not one of those guys who threatens you, I just say “Boy, that’s just how it goes man. You go on man. Your time will come”. You know what I mean? That’s how I am. I’m not really a violent man. I won’t set people upon other people or do those things. So it changed, this guy came now with some monies, and I figure I’m going to get my 15%. Boy, you know up until today I didn’t get one penny off of that record. Because he had a lot of people who owns Dynamic Sounds at the time. Two lawyers, Byron and another guy. So how am I going to sue the man? (Laughs) I don’t have any paper or nothing!

Up until today I didn't get one penny off of Elizabethan Reggae

So I just bit my lip and felt it for a while and time passed and then Byron recorded it with his band, listening to my arrangement, but it was still never my feel. He did it twice you know? He did the slow version first and it never worked! That was the time that they came to me. I did it and then after that he recorded it again with a reggae which still never helped. Never got a song in the British charts.

That song went on for years and then somebody called from Japan saying they would really love to have it on an album. So I said “Well, give me a good advance, give me $3,000 US” and they said “Yeah man“. And that’s how I got a money off of that song! (Laughs) These guys when they advance, you don’t expect to get another money from them. The Japanese! (Laughs) They don’t give you any statement after that. So you better take what you can get from the beginning.

Look out for part 2 of our interview coming soon.

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