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Interview: Boris Gardiner in Kingston (Part 2)

Interview: Boris Gardiner in Kingston (Part 2)

Interview: Boris Gardiner in Kingston (Part 2)

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"Good music is always being sought"


Read part 1 of this interview.

In part 2 of our exclusive interview with Boris Gardiner, he talks about the Boris Gardiner Happening, session work for Lee Scratch Perry and the surprise success of I Wanna Wake Up With You

Boris Gardiner

How did you form the Boris Gardiner Happening?

It started with the Bronco band who were called the Broncos. And after a while it was really swinging. The manager or owner, of the Courtleigh Manor Hotel, came to the club and heard us and said “Bwoy, you guys sound so great. I want you at my hotel you know?” He wanted to hire us! I said “Well, make me an offer I can’t refuse”. He made me a decent offer because it was a top-class hotel at the time. So we moved on from Bronco and we went to Courtleigh.

In between that I was doing the sessions at Coxsone Studio One. He had good hits coming out but after four months I said, “Well boy, I have to be doing something else with myself.” So he got another bass to fill in and I, through the hotel, Courtleigh Manor, went on. Courtleigh was one of the best swinging spots around.

After that I decided I would change and went to another hotel called Hotel Kingston for about a year or so. And then we decided to change our name to the Boris Gardiner Happening. We went on the road and we started travelling through different parts of the island and performing. We made a couple of albums which were pretty big in the West Indian islands, Guyana, Grenada. We got a tour to Barbados and we went to Belize, went to Florida and so we got very popular.

Let’s talk about a few members of the Happening. You had Willie Lindo on guitar – who would figure prominently in your career later…

Yes, he was with my band from about 1970 to ’71. He used to be with Sonny Bradshaw Seven and then when I went on the road, I said “Bwoy you should come” so he left and joined the Happening. He played some good guitar and wrote some nice tunes. He was a good writer too.

I also wanted to ask about a couple of the singers that you had in the band. Tinga Stewart and Earl 16.

Tinga Stewart. And a guy named Earl 16! He’s in England. You had Paul Blake, Danny Adams, there was Errol Walker who was a good singer too. He had a hit in England with a group whose name I forget but he was with Phil Mattias and he did well.

Tinga told me that when he sang off key you hit him on the head with your bass!

All the while man! And stick him on his side and say “Tinga, you know, you flat!” (Laughs)

Earl 16 said he left the band because he started to become Rasta. Is that your memory of it?

You know, I don’t know. His personality to me was hard to get along with and he was just lackadaisical at the time. Like he wasn’t a serious person… But he had a good voice. If he’d just listened and bided his time.

Eddie Knight said "They're making a movie and they want somebody to write the music"

While you were running the Happening you also had an interesting encounter with the movie business…

As time went by, Eddie Knight phoned me one day and said “They’re making a movie and they want somebody to write the music” - if I was interested? I said “Well I’ll try anything!” (Laughs) So Calvin Lockhart, the producer of the movie, said “The title of the movie is Every Nigger Is A Star”. You heard me, right? I went home and me and my brother sat down and took out the guitar and we started to work the thing. He got some lyrics together.

Now that tune was in the movie as a feature song you know? That movie among black people is a big title - you understand me? So when the movie came out, Every Nigger Is A Star, filmed in Jamaica, the Carib Theatre, our main theatre, was so jampacked you couldn’t even walk! (Laughs) Everybody sitting down in the aisles and everything. And everybody waiting on something to happen. Which never happened.

It was a very weak story. It was like a documentary on Rasta and Jamaica, drum music, more or less. Big Youth - he starred in it. It was like he went here and he went there, he went to Montego to visit some people and somewhere else. And nothing really happened. He came back and he went on a plane and said “Goodbye” and he was gone! (Laughs) It was very disappointing. I was really hurt to see how they could make a movie like this.

But the soundtrack was good.

Boris GardinerRight! So they made 1,000 albums and 1,000 45s. And they sold off! So after this, years passed before Big Youth recorded it on a rhythm. The rhythm played and he just sang over it. Luckily it kind of fitted. (Laughs) It wasn’t too bad you know? Now with all this work I never received a penny from that. Because it flopped and I was working for a percentage and it never worked out. Big Youth recorded it and sold a good amount but I never got any publishing off it either. This went on for years.

Let’s jump back into session work. Did you do some recordings for Harry J as well?

I did a couple of things at Harry J but I just cannot remember the name of the songs and artists. Because Harry J used to record at other studios before he had his. Because when he had his big hit I think he recorded at Federal and then he went to England then went on like he was the keyboard player! (Laughs)


Yeah! Miming! But I don’t remember the direct hits. I know I played for Bob Marley. I played Punky Reggae Party through… (pauses)

Through Scratch?

Right. Scratch. Lee Perry. Got Mikey Boo and myself and Fil Callender. Bob gave him the tape and said he really loved the rhythm and if he can do anything? So we went down to Joe Gibbs studio. And headphones in, the rhythm would play then we started to feel out the rhythm. (sings bass-line) That was a good bass-line you know? (Laughs)

Punky Reggae Party. That was a good bass-line

Can you tell me a bit more about how you started to work with Scratch? Because you and Mikey Boo were instrumental in the sound was coming out of the Black Ark.

Well, Scratch used to go down to Studio One. Working with Studio One. And as time went by he realised that, boy, he could do the same thing. So where he was at his house he built up his little studio and started a thing. And he had a couple of nice hits with… what’s this guy? Names tend to slip. But this guy was going off like…

Junior Byles.

Yes. Gave him a nice hit and so he started getting more into it now, meeting Chris Blackwell and making a deal with Chris. He started the same thing like Coxsone. Artists would come and listen to the tunes so he decided he had to use good musicians to get top-of-the-line music. So at one stage he called on me and wanted me to come play some tunes. And he had people like… even Ernie Ranglin was there at that time. A guitarist named Billy Johnson, very good guitarist, he had Mikey, Keith Sterling and all these guys.

He recorded these guys named the Congos. That was one of his big, big hits he had. And Junior Murvin Police and Thieves. Many of the songs I don’t remember the names of them. I can recall those two but we did quite a few things for his albums. He’d bring in a guy and he was always on his (inhales) and thing! Smoked like a pound a day! Ganja can’t be that bad for you if you can smoke that much! (Laughs)

Eventually did you just decide to move on from there?

You know sometimes, you just fade out you know? I can’t remember how it stopped in that kind of way! It’s like you just slide into something else. Maybe most of the time now musicians kind of want more money, and they start to get cheaper guys even if they are not that experienced or good enough. I could work with and get something out of them still. It could be all that sort of thing.

Scratch used to go down to Studio One. And he realised he could do the same thing

So how did the Happening come to an end?

Anyway, in the meantime now, my band was doing well. We were travelling all about and we did about four or five albums and we were surviving - until it went into the 70s where we had our worst economy. Everything went down for a few years and it was just survival and the band folded for a while and everybody kind of went their own way. I decided to go into studio and started working at Aquarius as an engineer and singing harmony and helping with singers and arrangement.

When you were at Aquarius you used to record things other than music - like radio adverts.

Yes! Yeah man. I was a jingles writer. I wrote most of my jingles for Moo Young Butler. And they did quite a few jingles. NCB, Victoria Mutual, inspiring songs of the country, (sings) “It takes strong people to build a strong nation” you know that sort of thing. It’s been so long that I forget the people. But if Devon House wanted an ad they’d just call me. Yeah man, quite a few.

I was there for maybe two years or so until somebody asked me if I wanted to do a job and that was life. Went back into a hotel as a resident band and so we were at Intercon Rosehall, every winter season, five or six months. Until after about three years I decided “Bwoy, it’s kind of getting boring again” and somebody offered me a job in Houston, Texas. I said “Alright, I’ll do that and get some US money now!”

So I went to Houston, Texas and we played a club called Club Jamaica I think, some Jamaican club. Everything went nicely for a couple of months and then all of a sudden there was a fire inside and the club burned down! I lost my instruments and all those things. So that set me back again. Anyway, the club owner had some insurance, gave me a couple of grand and said “Bwoy, see what you can do with this.” I went and I bought another synthesiser and some instruments and I took it back and restarted the band. But somehow, I was kind of getting tired of the changing and restarting? Every time you leave, the same musicians, get a job somewhere else and that, you know? I decided to kind of fold up the band. This was about ’82 or ’83.

So how did you get back into singing again?

Willie Lindo looked at me one day and said “Bwoy, a long time I no hear you, you know Boris? People want music man. We ago do something.” I said “Alright, what you have in mind?” We sat down and we thought of three tunes. Guilty by Jim Reeves and a song named Let’s Keep It That Way and then I Wanna Wake Up With You. So we recorded Guilty and released it and everybody said “Nice Boris - it sounds good again. Welcome back”. (Laughs) Let’s Keep It That Way had a bigger impact on the reggae charts in London, that kind of thing.

I Wanna Wake Up With You was released during the Boops craze

I Wanna Wake Up With You, that was released during the Boops craze. “See Boops deh!” (Laughs) There were 49 Boops tunes recorded and I released my “I Wanna Wake Up With You” in the middle of that. Couldn’t get any airplay. Now and then Barry G put it on and gave me a little thing. I looked at it as dead. So it was released on the ethnic market in New York and Boops was number one too. A couple of Boops was there! So I came on the top 10 charts and I go up to 5 and Boops were still number 1 and then a couple of weeks passed and Boops dropped and Wake Up jumped to number 1. It stayed there for three weeks at the number 1 spot.

This guy named Phil Mathias from England heard it and said to Willie “I’d like to release this in London because it sounds like a good tune”. I wasn’t there you know but I’ve been told, Willie said, “Boris can’t hit in England you know” (laughs) I can’t hit in England? But he said he would try anyway. Phil went back to England and waited on Willie to send him the material. He called his brother and sent two copies of I Wanna Wake Up With You and it went into the mixing room. Because it wasn’t a 12 inch at the time. It was a 45 of three minutes or so. So they ran off a tape of both of them, splicing them up to make the length of the 45 to 12 inch. They EQ’d the two of them which to me was a better EQ than the original.

So it got mastered, pressed 500 copies and sent it out to the shops. By next weekend everybody was hard in again. I said “What? That finished already?” He said “Yes, I want some more - everybody love the tune. I’ll take 1,000.” You know there are certain shops that are a computer shop, so when it is sold it is…

Boris Gardiner


Right. I didn’t have the shops that he used. But he sent out 1000 and the next week the record sold off again! (Laughs) So as a small man it’s difficult - you must have money to make records, advertise and promote and all those things. He decided he’s going to go to Creole records in London. You’re from London? So you knew Creole right? The late Bruce White. He was the owner. When he went to Creole to talk to Bruce, Bruce was on holiday in the French Riviera, relaxing! So he told the girl “You have to get Bruce man. Get him on the phone. This is urgent business”. The girl phoned around and got him so he spoke to Bruce and explained that he had a tune, what was happening with it and he needed him now so he had to cut his vacation.

He cut the vacation and came back to London and started his promotion. The following week the tune came into the top 200 - like 190-something. He started to promote and it jumped up - in about three weeks it was in the top 50. And when it reached in the top 50 you can get your video played. Me and Willie Lindo went up to London and they arranged a one-day video. We did it in one day, early morning, and film through the day into the night. And we made I Wanna Wake Up With You video.

The next week they said it the biggest riser from 50 to 25 - the biggest mover for that week. They asked me to come and sing it on Top Of The Pops. I went on and I did because I really did look nice upfront singing, you know? (Laughs) From that the tune started moving from 25 to 11. I can remember the movement from 9 to 5 to 2 to 1. Just like that. And it came back down almost the same way! It spent nine weeks in the top 10, three weeks at number 1.

After that they started sending me to Holland to Norway to France, all the time to promote. That went on for about six months and it did well all over Europe. Number 1 in Australia. Unfortunately, the company declared bankruptcy in Australia and we didn’t make any money off of it. So that was mixing the bitter with the sweet! But man, life is still going on.

After that I went back to Jamaica, built a little studio and started recording a couple of things and other people. In fact, I did a follow-up named You’re Everything To Me which popped up to number 11 too. A nice song. Maybe if it was recorded in Jamaica it would’ve been different. But we recorded it out of Jamaica so the feel wasn’t right. We recorded it between New York and England. Some studio in the country. I don’t know where it was.

When music has meaning it will always come around

But when everything kind of died down now, the year before last, Kendrick Lamar made an album and used Every Nigger Is A Star. Sampled the start. Last year a movie named Moonlight used it to start the movie. So when you think of that, good music is always being sought. And when it has meaning it will always come around. I Wanna Wake Up With You is a song where, I don’t care what generation, you’re going to want somebody to wake up with.

It’s timeless.

You know what I mean? And you always have niggers and that nigger is a star! (Laughs) That word will never die. I don’t care what we do. You understand? So we have to accept it. They turned around to make it more positive. But it’s still here.

Throughout your career you’ve played a diverse range of music. How much of that was pragmatism and how much of it was just your very diverse taste?

I don’t know. Coming through the years, nothing is planned. You start, you get in a singing group, you do your thing, you learn to sing better, you get on an instrument and you start learning how chords move and learn an instrument or two, right? You go on and you learn how to write and you move on. Because I’m a self-taught musician. I didn’t go to school. I can think it and write it. If I have a melody and I don’t want to forget it, I can write it. And through the years I have arranged, I used to arrange all songs in most things.

Now as you go along, you leave from one thing to the next, the changes of music that are going on. You find yourself amongst certain musicians, recording is a different feel also, because with studio musicians you have to be thinking of what’s happening and trying to come up with something new. And this happens because of the experience - it’s a new thing, I can mix them together to get something new you understand? Bass-lines, you’re thinking about different eras that you’re writing a song, well, you get a sound and to find the right line you have to be changing all five or six lines to find the right one. Sometimes you never find the right one to tell you the truth! (Laughs) So it comes up the line a little at a time. Who you are around - you learn from. You learn from you.

I'm a self-taught musician. I didn't go to school

I still have my little studio at home and I do my arrangements. If somebody has a tune and they want to bring in two musicians, a keyboard player and a guitar, I play bass, and you know synthesisers can do quite a few things nowadays. If you know what to do what to make the horns really sound like horns and that sort of thing. And your percussion you know? You put them together, nobody can believe it’s just a little thing. You see all those studios down where we were [Mixing Lab] all big and everything? You say hello (imitates echo). Just this little square, yeah man. You can’t tell that it was recorded there.

You just have to know what to do to keep the sound and get that sound. And you know, just travelling on through the years, from one thing to the next. I was a musician, I wasn’t even singing and then all of a sudden I start singing and I put down my bass - for years I didn’t even take it up. I had two basses put down at home. You’re just into other things and start travelling doing shows all about the place. And then that kind of dies down and a man calls you for a session and you have to pick up the bass again and run it for a couple of days! And then you realise how nice it is and you start to find the bass-lines and play it again! But it doesn’t happen often enough. That sort of thing. Like how this man [from Fruits Records] comes and you do two tunes. It works and you feel it but then there’s not another session for three months!

Every singer should be practising scales and strengthening their voice

I guess it’s just part of life and what’s happening. I’m not a young man anymore. I’m an old man. When you reach 70 you’re an old man. I’m not a very old man! You know when you’re 50 you’re a young old man. So I am here and people are still after me to come and sing on their shows on Valentine’s Day. My voice is still keeping up. I can really sing and people say “Bwoy, how do you keep your voice that well?” Well you have to practice. There are things called scales. Every singer should be practising scales and strengthening their voice. Keeping in tune. And that’s where I am still holding on and doing my thing. I have a tour coming up in May on the east side of the States. About four different states coming down. So you know, I’m still at it. I’m still at it.

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