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Interview: Delroy Melody (Part 1)

Interview: Delroy Melody (Part 1)

Interview: Delroy Melody (Part 1)

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"Bunny Lee paid attention to us like a father"

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Possessing a silky yet grainy, versatile voice, singer Delroy Melody has been playing his trade for 50 years. Born Lassive Jones, he began his career in late 60s trio The Schoolboys, with Lawrence Weir (brother of the Jamaicans’ Norris Weir) and one Jacob Miller (who would lead Inner Circle).

Not to be confused with Prince Buster’s namesake child ensemble, The Schoolboys recorded the fast-reggae sides Guilty Of Love and Oh Tell Me for producer Bunny Lee. Guilty Of Love would be refashioned by Miller as Love Is A Message at Coxsone Dodd’s Studio 1 and Keep on Knocking for Augustus Pablo.

In the 1970s, Delroy Melody went solo, cutting debut Tears for Bob Mac’s Abeng label. Six years later he voiced roots anthem Dread Must Be Fed for Dickie Wong’s Tit For Tat Records (written by his friend, drummer Sly Dunbar, in response to Haile Selassie’s passing). The song got a makeover for soundman Emperor Marcus, crowning his 1979 collector’s LP of the same name.

Like his close comrade, Jamaicans member, ErrolI Kong”, Mr Melody experienced the vicissitudes of the Jamaican record business. The Dread Must Be Fed album was released abroad without Delroy seeing any royalties, while Marcus served jail-time for herb. The following year, Ease Up The Pressure - a remake of Dennis Brown’s Easy Take It Easy for Ruddy Williams - was repurposed in 1980’s infamous election and banned by the radio.

Again like I Kong, Delroy retired to the St Elizabeth countryside during the slackness era, where he and his wife have been happily self-releasing via their Level Head Music label. Lately, he has branched out to European imprints: reissuing Ease Up The Pressure and Dread Must Be Fed on France’s Jamwax Records; and updating 1986 Harry J hit Buss Shot for Glasgow’s Scotch Bonnet RecordsPuffer’s Choice compilation.

Delroy Melody ITV

Angus Taylor sat down with Mr Melody, who resembles a calmer Lee Scratch Perry, in St Elizabeth for this 3 part career interview. As well as revisiting his own music, the discussion is full of historical insights into the artists, engineers and musicians who knew this warm, likeable man - particularly Junior Byles and Jacob Miller, with whom Delroy was bosom friends.

Where in Kingston were you born?

Jubilee Hospital. Maybe a month after, when my mother got discharged I came back to Saint Elizabeth, where I spent most of my time with my grandmother and grandfather - that’s my mum‘s father and mother.

But then you came back to Kingston?

When I was about 11 going into 12. My mum, she wasn’t living in the country at the time, she had to stay in Kingston to work for us. Her kids were in the country. I am the second to last one for my mother. The fifth child. She had six of us. She was in Kingston working so she wanted to have me close to her and send me to school in Kingston. She had her big brother who was living in Jonestown at the time, Cook Street, and that’s where she was staying. When I went to Kingston she got me into a school, Saint Peter Claver, which was on the Waltham Park Road. It’s not self-praise, it’s self-confidence, but I was doing very well as a youngster in school. So they transferred me from there to Rousseau School. I was at Rousseau for two or three months, and they transferred me again from Rousseau.

Why?

Well I knew it wasn’t bad behaviour so it had to be education-wise. As I was saying, it’s not self-praise. It’s self-confidence. So I went to Melrose Primary and Junior High School and this was where I kind of settled, until I was 15 when I took my Common Entrance exam so I took for Kingston College.

What did your parents do for a living and was there music on either side of the family?

I can’t remember anybody from my side that was involved in the music. But I spent some time with my stepmother, she was a church lady and a very good singer. She had four kids at the time and when she went to church she didn’t take any of them. I was the one who she would say “Come Lassie.” No one used to call me Delroy in those times - it was Lassie. My real name is Lassive Jones. When I was attending Melrose there was this dog show that used to come on the television, on JBC and Lassie was the dog who would go through the neighbourhoods and try to help people. They just used to mock me in school but I used to answer to it just the same. (Laughs)

So it was at Melrose that you met Jacob Miller and Lawrence Weir?

Yes. Lawrence and I at the time were in a class with this teacher Miss Smart. I think that was the first class that I went to. Something like grade 4 or 5. So we moved up the line, me and Lawrence until we reached Mrs Morrison. Lucille Morrison was the vice principal and she was our teacher in grade 9A. She was a musical person too. She would take us to the auditorium where there was a piano. She could play to help herself and she showed us a few things also.

There was a school choir where they took children from different classes who had potential when they heard you sing. They put together this Melrose School choir. Year-to-year we would enter into a competition - just like on the TV now, on TVJ, you have Altogether Sing -where it was different schools, Melrose, JC, you name it.

Sometimes you hear a harmony in your head and sing it and it just blends with everything but you weren’t taught it by the music teachers - it just comes to you. Lawrence, he could hear - he had ears for hearing things like that. So when he heard me, I didn’t know anything about harmony but he would say “You know if you sing something like this”. When our class was having concerts Lawrence would sing a song like Oh Danny Boy (sings) because he had a baritone voice. His name is Lawrence Weir. That’s the brother of Norris Weir.

Of the Jamaicans.

That’s right. So at that time they were father I Kong, Norris, Martin.

Norris was the bass for the Jamaicans. Both Weirs had a deep voice?

Yes! Both brothers! That’s how Norris would sing too. And that was Lawrence. And he could play the guitar. So as I was saying, I just had the voice and I didn’t know anything really about harmonies and things like that. Lawrence, sorry he’s not around anymore, but I have to give thanks to that youth because he was the one who first taught us. And when you hear Jacob, Jacob had this strong voice. Although he sounded like a girl he had this strong voice. Lawrence he was like a chemist so he would listen.

How did you form your vocal trio?

Lawrence judged me and appointed me to be a member of a group he was planning to make. Sam Cooke, he was the singer that led me to get involved in music because I realised I could sing like that. The class concert that we used to have this lady Lucille Morrison, she was a great lady trust me yes. She forced the best out of you as a learner. In Maths and English she would get the best out of you. If you can’t come, you won’t come, when she finished with you in whatever.

And when they had the class concert, everybody was getting involved and she would say “What happened to you? Lassie? What can you sing? What can you do?” and laugh. She was like a motivator. I’ve done a lot of interviews but no one ever really sat down like this like me and the I brother Angus Taylor give thanks and praises and family. So this lady when I heard her talk like that I said “Boy, what I can do? I used to play on the cricket team but she’s not talking about cricket she’s talking about musical entertainment, whether I can dance or I can sing or deejay”.

Delroy Melody ITV

So how did you respond?

So my uncle that my mother came to stay with in Jonestown, Uncle Leo, give thanks and praises for him. They are not around anymore but he had a gramophone and he had these records. I used to travel now between there to my stepmother and when I’d go to look for my dad. My dad used to live in Shortwood Road, off Constant Spring Road, a place named Retreat Drive. They call over there “Village”. So travelling from there to my father’s wife they didn’t have anything like a gramophone. But my uncle he was the one who had the gramophone and his records.

When I’d go over to my stepmother on a weekend, she took me to the church, it was like she was the one who kicked me off now. She would sing songs like (sings) “The blood prevail no matter what others say”. She would touch me and say “Listen to what I’m singing and sing”. So I started to get to love it and then she would give me the tambourine and I would start shaking it and things like that.

When I was travelling from there back to my stepmother I got to know people like a guy down there named Fitzy. Fitzy’s best friend at the time was Carlton Smith who was the lead singer for the Tamlins. These guys were like bigger brothers to me. Wow those guys when you heard both of them sing! I used to just visit them and listen to them singing without guitars. They just sang. I started to visit the more times, sing with them, practise with them and play the records as I was telling you until I started learning to sing on key.

Tell me a bit more about the influence of Sam Cooke…

I started to search my uncle’s records and listen and then I came across the singer Sam Cooke. And when I listened to him I said “Wow, boy, this bredda can sing”. There was a record by him named When A Boy Falls In Love (sings) “I heard them say love, such a wonderful thing” something like that. So that was the song that I learnt. I studied and studied it and when they called upon who wanted to perform for the concert, I went up and sang that song - wow! The whole place went chaos. My teachers they just sat down and they couldn’t believe because I never used to involve in entertainment in class other than cricket and football. I used to play those kinds of sports.

When Lawrence heard me perform in the school concert he said “Yo, bwoy me like how you sound”. Me and Jacob were brethren and me and Lawrence were brethren so I was in the middle there. So when he heard Jacob had a strong voice so he said “Talk to Jacob” and I asked him if we could put a group together. Jacob decided “Yeah man” he would do something like that.

Now the only place for us to go and learn was Lawrence’s home and this is where we came to the great legends now like I Kong, Norris Weir, Tommy Cowan, Martin and Jerry. These brethrens were there to share the thing, to put us on the right path. So this is where it all began. Lawrence was there with the guitar rehearsing, practising and these elders showed us what to do. I got to meet other people like the Cables because the Cables were living in Jonestown. Egbert and Roy were living in Jonestown and I was still by my uncle at Cook Street. Sometimes I would also come up by Egbert and they’d have their guitar too. And Jacob would buck up on Keble. And Keble was close to Jacob even closer than Lawrence and I. So this was where it all began until one Sunday Junior Byles, who in those times was the lead singer for a group name to the Versatiles, he decided to take us to Bunny Lee in Greenwich Farm.

I started to search my uncle's records and I came across Sam Cooke

Was that your first recording?

Well, the only person we recorded for before Bunny Lee and I wouldn’t really say recorded for, was I had this cousin named Levi who used to work by Colgate. At the time he had this small reel to reel recorder with a mic from it and it was the first time we were ever going to see anything like that. The first time that our voices were going to go on something where we could hear it back. My cousin Levi who had this reel to reel tape, he used to live in this place off Waltham Park Road they called Mongoose Town.

I told him that we had this group and we had some songs we wanted to hear how it sounded and if he could do it. We said “alright, we want to hear how we sound” so my cousin invited us over and we did this recording. That was the only other thing that we ever recorded. This was before Coxsone and Bunny Lee. This was before Junior Byles took us to Bunny Lee. When the Jamaicans and the Cables and Junior Byles helped us to get ready for the recording session.

How was Junior Byles helping you?

Junior Byles used to live in Jonestown too. You know how they say this reggae music is a different type of music? You see, it takes you as an artist who is interested in the real music to me to link with other ones. Sometimes I don’t even question it. If try to I tell you how I got to know Junior Byles, I can’t remember. Or Keble Drummond and Egbert from the Cables. But all I know is that they were there for us and we got to know each other. So sometimes when I was leaving my home I’d just come up and check for Egbert and I checked with Junior Byles and I ended up at the studio by Coxsone. Because Coxsone was just up the road there. And at the time the Cables they used to do the auditions for Coxsone. Keble and Leroy Sibbles so when you’d take a stop now and these guys were satisfied all and said “Yes”, you were ready.

And this is where Junior Byles came in as a brethren because he used to go by Bunny Lee almost every Sunday. Sometimes these guys just would go by the audition you know? Just sitting and everybody would just be having a musical time. I think Junior Byles sang songs for Bunny Lee too. So he and Bunny Lee were very good friends.

This reggae music is a different type of music

Do you see much of Junior Byles now?

And that’s why I say now that he’s on the road I wish I could do something for him. Because he’s not like that. Because I know him from long time. Some people say “Boy, he is hard to deal with” and things like that. I was saying to Nigel Burrell the engineer “When was the last time you ever buck up on Junior Byles?” And he was saying to me that sometimes he was somewhere off maybe Lyndhurst Road. He was saying “Bwoy, Delroy, I don’t think you want to see him”. I said “Bwoy, me would love to see him“ and he said “No man. Bwoy, how him stay and thing”. And I said “Look here, him have a name. Me no care how he is mad in his head or sick in his head. And if you just see Junior Byles and say “Chubby” it’s like he just comes back sober when he hears you say “Chubby”. Because that’s his name that he grew up on. And if you say “Chubby” it’s like it just revives him back and he just looks around.

Because I saw him at Crossroads in Halfway Tree once, when there was Skateland and when I called to him and people looked, he just turned ‘round. He came to me and he just stood up in front of me and listened with me. So I said “Yo, this brethren here - me and him are brethren man.” So it’s that kind of love there and respect we used to have for each other so it takes us there.

I wish I could do something for Junior Byles

So when Junior Byles took you to Bunny Lee, the group was called the Young Lads?

The Young Lads.

And who came up with that name?

Lawrence. Lawrence was the founder of the group.

So it was like a younger version of the Gaylads?

Yes. When we went for the audition on the Sunday it was Slim Smith that we sang to. Slim Smith was playing the long-time pedal piano and when we sang both songs he loved them and sent us to Bunny Lee. Bunny Lee was the man who was going to give you the final hearing. When Bunny Lee heard us he was excited same way. And when you go to places like the great Bunny Striker Lee for an audition, there were other artists around who liked how we sounded. Maybe we could have be the youngest artists who were there that Sunday. The audition was at the end of ‘67 to ‘68.

Had Jacob already gone to Studio One to try to sing on the Nanny Goat rhythm?

No, no. In those times nobody knew anything about Jacob Miller.

What were the two songs that you took to Bunny Lee?

Guilty Of Love and Oh Tell Me. That song was written by Keble Drummond. And I want to tell you that the song wasn’t even finished. Keble said they were vibsing and we didn’t even know that the song wasn’t even finished. The song was so nice that we just went ahead to rehearse the song and then Jacob came over with the song.

Who wrote Guilty Of Love?

I think Guilty Of Love was written by Lawrence. I’m not certain. But in those times you as the singer and the writer, when you’d write a song then you see somebody else’s name under it and you didn’t even pay any mind. Because we never knew that in times to come these things would be that important. We just wanted to be on record. Record at Bunny Lee label, Studio One label, Treasure Isle label, Beverley’s, Derrick Harriott, in those times those were the labels that we knew. So we were getting the opportunity to record for Bunny Lee as youths.

So how did you become the School Boys as opposed to the Young Lads?

Bunny Lee heard us and decided he would work with these youngsters. He asked the name of the group and when we told him it was the Young Lads he said there was already the Gay Lads and the Mad Lads. He said “Unnu you look like you go to school”. We said “We go to Melrose”, so he said “You’re the Schoolboys man “. But at this time there was another Schoolboys. We didn’t know that there was another Schoolboys that used to record for Prince Buster.

Bunny Lee said "Unnu you look like you go to school"

This was the Schoolboys that Errol Dunkley was in as a boy?

I think Jah Ruby if he wasn’t the founder for that group, he was one of the members. And we understand they used to record for Coxsone too.

Where those Schoolboys still active when you came out with your Schoolboys?

No. When Bunny Lee released the songs, both songs were on one record because I can remember my copy was like a gold disc. I never saw anything like that before. The evening that I got my copy, that’s the first time I ever walked all the way home. I was so overjoyed I couldn’t wait on the bus. The bus was going to take too long for me to go home and show my mother and sisters my copy. I remember that. When that record came out maybe we were the youngest artists ever to record for Bunny Lee, so he paid attention to us like a father to us. He got us to start singing at a place named Johnson’s Drive In. Every Thursday night there used to be this live stage show with people like Tommy McCook and the Supersonics, Lyn Taitt and the Jets and Sonny Bradshaw. And we would go there and sing and perform with them.

Which studios did Bunny Lee rent to record the Schoolboys?

I can remember quite well because this year is almost 49 years or 50 years since I recorded my first song. But I know it was two studios it recorded. At Duke Reid and at Studio One. Because looking down the line later I am realising that these producers maybe they used to work together. We were recording for Bunny Lee and at the same time maybe Bunny Lee and Coxsone went in to some agreement about the songs also. But sometimes if you try to study those things it comes like you’re trying to study The Most High’s work! And if you try to do that it will drive you crazy. You have to just know say! (Laughs)

The Schoolboys recordings for Bunny Lee were recorded at Duke Reid’s studio. But we still went to Studio One to do some voicing and maybe overdubbing. In those times I didn’t understand the studio work fully so I just knew that I was there to sing. Like this engineering thing, all I knew was there was this reel to reel tape, the small two track, it looked like I was recording on and maybe 8 track. But it wasn’t like any 16 or 24 track. These kind of sophisticated tapes never came in those times.

This single also came out on the Pama label. So it came out in England?

In those days we didn’t know anything about England or America - we didn’t know where was released.

At this time Bunny Lee was having success releasing Max Romeo’s Wet Dream in England.

Yeah, after a while I understood Bunny Lee had great ties in England. But the label we didn’t really know. It wasn’t long ago that I realised that the label wasn’t Bunny Lee’s personal label that he owns. I didn’t know that the label was actually a company abroad.

Did you interact with any of the artists from that time in Bunny Lee’s stable? People like Slim Smith, Max Romeo, Stranger Cole? Or were you too young to be in that environment?

Yes. You hit the nail on the head! In that time we just did our recording. Jacob maybe. Jacob used to visit Bunny Lee on his own. Let me tell you how Jacob was, Jacob was an artist who just loved to sing. If we and Jacob just sang and recorded the song now for Bunny Lee and if Jacob went to Coxsone and there was an opportunity for him to record a song alone as Jacob, he’s going to do it. If there was an opportunity for him and John Holt to record a song he’s going to do it. That was Jacob. He wasn’t saying “Bwoy, Schoolboys is my group and me no sing with nobody else“. He just loved to sing.

Jacob Miller was an artist who just loved to sing

I found out that Jacob loved music bad bad bad. I don’t think me and Lawrence did love it like Jacob. So he would find himself places when me and Lawrence weren’t there. Sometimes we were on the street, the three of us, like we would go to Dynamics, to see if we can get to record a song but the place that we most used to go to was Derrick Harriott.

At the time there was a singer Rudy Mills. That was a friend of mine. That’s a friend that I used to have as an artist, different from the Cables and the Jamaicans. The Jamaicans were more than just friends. They were like family. Just like now. And it’s like a tradition. If I come to I Kong’s house and I don’t feel like going home for two or three days - this is my home. That was how Norris Weir’s home used to run. Sometimes five of us would lay down straight across one bed. That’s the kind of livity we used to have from those times. And then sometimes Jacob would come to my house for the weekend and if my mother would cook she would have to leave Jacob some dinner. Sometimes I’d be at Lawrence’s house and I wouldn’t even know that he would be at my house. As I was saying, it was like a family thing.

Did you put out any Schoolboys records for Derrick Harriott or any other producers?

No. If anything like that happened it would have to be Jacob and Lawrence and I didn’t know about it. Because I’m sure it wasn’t me and Jacob. We did some other recordings for Coxsone.

So this was around the time when Jacob went to Studio One and he was supposed to sing on the Nanny Goat rhythm?

Right. Guilty Of Love and Oh Tell Me released in 1968. And in 1970 I recorded my first song as Delroy Melody. So within that time the group wasn’t together again. Lawrence migrated and Jacob, he was this guy who just loved to sing and maybe within those times maybe Jacob alone did recordings for Bunny Lee also. So it’s right in that period but he went to Coxsone. I’m quite sure of that.

Delroy Melody ITVPeople say that Nanny Goat was the first reggae, so it must’ve been around that time. Al Campbell said that he took him there. They recorded on the rhythm, Coxsone didn’t like the song.

Yes, the first reggae. That’s what I heard too. And then they called Larry and Alvin to record the song.

I was talking to Boris Gardiner about it because he played bass on that rhythm.

Yes, Boris was there. He didn’t bother to put out Jacob Miller’s version. So Jacob did over Guilty Of Love and they called it Love Is A Message. That’s the same song.

So if Bunny Lee and Coxsone had an arrangement, did that mean the Schoolboys didn’t have to audition for Coxsone or Jackie Mittoo when you recorded for Studio 1?

We just came right in. To tell you the truth some of these songs that we did for Coxsone were with Cornell Campbell because Cornell Campbell and myself are very good friends. I did a lot of harmonies for Cornell Campbell. One day we recorded almost an album for Coxsone and I did a lot of the harmonies. I don’t even remember the songs.

One day about five years after that, Cornell Campbell was in New York and he came back and he played a song for me and he said “Listen that song there”. I listened and said “Bwoy, that song bad man” and he said “You nah remember it? It’s you who sing harmony man for Coxsone” and I never remembered anything about it.

I kind of remember one of the songs that we did for Coxsone. In 2015 when I was in New York I met Lady Gemini, the female selector from the New York University there. She let me hear a song and she said “Delroy Melody I am hearing your voice in this song”. And the song was named Don’t Blame The Children and I don’t even remember the song. I listened to the lead vocal I said “That’s Jacob. And if it’s Coxsone and the Schoolboys then it’s us”. So Jacob never heard it. Lawrence never heard it. So I am fortunate to have heard it.

I did a lot of harmonies for Cornell Campbell

So you don’t remember the three songs that you recorded for Coxsone apart from that one?

Blame The Children. That’s us definitely. But the other two I can’t say. But I know we did about three songs.

So a similar thing was happening with I Kong and the Jamaicans. They went to Coxsone and recorded some material that was not released.

Not released, yeah. It happened to a lot of other artists.

Coxsone sat on a lot of music. Even today people don’t know what they recorded.

Lots of music. Exactly. There are songs that could be released on Coxsone’s label that no one has ever heard.

Look out for part 2 of this interview coming soon.

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