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Interview: Joe Isaacs in Kingston (Part 1)

Interview: Joe Isaacs in Kingston (Part 1)

Interview: Joe Isaacs in Kingston (Part 1)

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"There are drummers who have their own signature"


There are many important drummers in Jamaican popular music. But the career of Joe Isaacs throws up multiple reasons why he should be considered one of the most crucial. Firstly, he is arguably a major architect in the changing of the ska beat to rocksteady in the mid-60s (although, in the self-effacing style that marks out Jamaica’s more inventive musicians, he claims it was his lack of technique that caused the shift rather than his brilliance). Secondly, he says he was on the stool when Studio 1 Records created a procession of its greatest immortal rhythms, perpetually versioned ever since. And thirdly, he is among a select few drummers named as a personal favourite by reggae’s most heralded pattern-maker, Sly Dunbar.

Born in St Catherine, of Belizean/Jamaican heritage, Joe joined Studio 1 straight out of school. He and bassist Brian Atkinson were the rhythm section for the group variously known as the Soul Brothers, the Sound Dimension and the Soul Vendors. The familiar fiscal disagreements with Studio 1 head, Coxsone Dodd, led to Joe and Brian going freelance. They cut some essential backings for other producers such as Treasure Isle, Federal and Beverley’s, before Joe migrated to Canada in the late 60s – where he has kept a footing to this day.

Now a Rastaman, Joe moves between Toronto, the USA and Jamaica. United Reggae had the good fortune to meet him in Kingston during Reggae Month, as he was passing through on the way to Negril. This two part interview took place over breakfast at the Pegasus Hotel, where Joe had stayed overnight with his daughter. Despite repeated references to being financially hard up, and the dearth of royalties from his Studio 1 creations, Joe remained both generous and philosophical about his situation. However, we have included his email address at the end of Part 2 should anyone wish to get in touch to support his various projects, including a Studio 1 Museum.

Part 1 of the interview looks at his glory days putting the swing into the sixties at Studio 1. Joe didn’t have much of a memory for the names of the label’s rhythms or tunes. He worked a production line at “the Jamaican Motown” – knocking out 12 backings a day. But readers of previous interviews will notice differences of opinion between Joe and other musicians over who played on particular hits – most notably Feel Like Jumping by Marcia Griffiths.

Joe Isaacs

Thanks for taking the time.

Give thanks to you to come and identify and speak to I and I. It’s very good that the interest and the curiosity is there for what went down. So that alone to me is like $1 million. But as far as financially is concerned, Isaacs didn’t make any money out of the business because my name was Drummie. And who is Drummie? (Laughs)

And let me tell you something else. I used to be upset with Clement Dodd. Coxsone. But after a while I realised that I shouldn’t be upset because even he as a big man and producer would call the musician by his instrument because he couldn’t remember all the names. So he would say “Wh’appen Drummie?” “Wh’appen Bassie?” or “Wh’appen Gitsy?” and that name, you’d go with that name. Unfortunately we did not know that our names were really important as far as getting mechanical royalties and publishing or whatever - how you earn from the music. But after a while you learn and say “Whoa whoa” after the cow has already gone through the gate! (Laughs) And you’re trying to close the gate now! So thank you my brother.

Where do you live now?

I live in Negril in the summertime. I live in Miami sometimes. And I live in California sometimes. But my family, my kids, like my daughter, live in Toronto. So every summer I go to Toronto. Spend time with my family. So I work out of there.

Where were you born?

I was born in Jamaica.

Which parish?

Saint Catherine. You see originally my mother is from Belize. She’s a Maya Indian. And she came to Jamaica with me when she was pregnant. She had some kind of a sickness, I don’t know what it was but she delivered me in Jamaica. So I grew and born in Jamaica. And I grew up with my father’s brother. They were like adoptive parents. I’ve never seen my mother yet. I’ve seen my dad once.

He is Jamaican?

Yeah. He came in a couple of years after I became a teenager. He wanted to take me back to Belize. But at that point in time I didn’t know who this man was. The man who I grew up with, that’s who I called “dad”. So I said “No man, I can’t make that move with you”. So I didn’t do that! (Laughs)

My school was on the same road as Studio 1

Was there music on either side of the family?

Not really. I don’t think any of them played music. I guess I was one of the chosen ones from the Almighty to deal with music.

How did you move to Kingston?

Well in those days my father who I grew up with, used to work with a company called United Fruit Company Estate which was run by the English. When my dad got sick they transferred him, because he was running the estate. They brought him to Kingston to the head office. So that’s how I came to Kingston. I was pretty young. I think I was probably about nine or 10. I went to a prep school. And you know something? The school was on the same road as Studio 1. Brentford Road. Because I left school at a young age of 15 years old and that was when I went into Studio 1.

So Studio 1 was the first place that you did a session?

Yeah man.

How did you pick up the drums before that?

Well to be honest with you, where I was brought up my dad couldn’t buy me a drum set. So I used to have a like a big drum pan as my bass drum. And then a frying pan as my snare. And I used to try to do that. Until eventually in the neighbourhood all the guys formed a little band. But of course I didn’t have a drum set so my dad bought me a conga. So I started playing congas.

Until one day we were going to play in the square and I was setting up my little congas and then I saw a man, a big man, in those days you had to respect big people you know, when they tell you something. So the big man looked at me and said “That’s the instrument you play?” I said “Yeah man” but then I looked at [the drums] and said “That instrument, I can play that you know but they won’t give me a chance”. So he said “Okay today you’re going to get a chance”. So up and behold after the band played the first song, one of those Beatles songs, I think it was And I Love Her, the big man said to the drummer, he called him Fat Boy: “Hey Fatboy get up off the drum, give this little one a chance”. And I sat on the drums and everything worked. I had the independence and everything worked. So then now I realised I could play. So my whole career is straight from the Almighty. Rastafari, because that is what brought me into the business.

So after that I started playing the drums a little bit until one day the bass player from Studio 1 came to where I was working in the store as a wrapper. He came to me and said “Coxsone wants a drummer”. The bass player was called Brian Atkinson. He was the original man you know? He said Coxsone wanted a drummer and I went to the studio with him but when I went there I didn’t know who Coxsone was. So when I went in I knelt down beside Bassie and I said “Wh’appen Brian? I heard Coxsone a thief, it’s true?” Not knowing this man was standing behind me. So Brian wouldn’t answer me. So I said “Brian tell me is this man a rip-off thing?” And then he looked at me and Coxsone put his hand on my shoulder and said “Alright Jackson”. I said “Whoa”.

So the next day I started playing drums. But before even I started playing the drums, who I got most of my experience, my tutoring from, without him ever really telling me anything was a man called Lloyd Knibbs, who was the Skatalites drummer. Lloyd Knibbs was a dynamite drummer. I used to crawl under the fence where he used to play and go peep and watch him. And I learnt everything from watching this man. How he played the hi-hat cymbal. How he opened his eyes. Everything. So when he left Studio 1 to go on a ship to work, I replaced his seat.

My whole career is straight from the Almighty

Who were the studio musicians when you first started recording for Coxsone?

It was Jackie Mittoo, Brian Atkinson, Hux Brown, and a man named Mr Campbell, they used to call him Ska. He played a very important part in the business which nobody ever recognises him for. And his job from 10 o’clock till 5 o’clock every day was to go so (sings) “Parp Parp Parp Parp Parp Parp Parp” playing the ska with the sax. They don’t give him any solo, they didn’t give him anything. Just “Parp Parp Parp Parp Parp Parp Parp” the whole day. Then you had another man called Denzel Laing They used to call him Pops. He was the percussionist. He would come with a bag of tricks like a hubcap and chains and anything because in those days they didn’t have modern things you know? Anything you can find like a bicycle sprocket “Brrrp! Ting!”

Joe IsaacsHow did you find working at Studio 1 when you first joined?

Now going to Studio 1 it was just ska music they played. Real fast. So all my life I’ve heard different people, I call them reducers, who go around and say what they did and what they didn’t do. All fabrication trying to make themselves be all that. I never did say anything but I always knew one thing - within the music industry as a musician - the tempo of each music, that’s what creates the dance pattern. So going into Studio 1 playing this fast, because of my incompetence, I couldn’t do it because I couldn’t really keep up the tempo as fast as it was. I would try every day but the tempo would always drop, drop, drop.

Until one day after about say two weeks or so Coxsone called me upstairs to the control room. He said to me “Jackson the man no like you”. I started crying because I liked all the musicians - why didn’t they like me? What did I do? So I started crying and he said to me “No man, don’t do that. They like you but they don’t like how you play. They say you’re not keeping up the tempo. But I want you to play this drum”. Now here is a man who is not a musician looking at me and saying “Okay Jackson hear me now. Session starts 10 o’clock. You come at 9 o’clock in the morning and you sit down around the drums and just play “Ting ting baff! Ting ting baff! Ting ting baff!” just play that for one hour. Play it fast and strong and keep it up.” So I had to do that for quite a few. Then he bought a metronome. Click click click click. I used to hate this thing. I used to feel like this machine controlled my life. I used to kick it over sometimes and make it look like it was an accident. But even with that the tempo was still going down.

And when it came to Delroy Wilson he was actually the first person where it really slowed down big. I always remember Delroy. One day in the studio. We used to have to make 12 tunes every day, so every time we made a tune we would go upstairs into the control room. Every time I would go up in the control room with all the musicians, I could feel their spirits. I could tell they didn’t like me because the thing slowed down too much and you could feel that vibes.

And Coxsone went like this (inhales and exhales) with his cigarette. Because that man was a psychologist. He never went through university to be a psychologist, he just had it on his own. He knew the buttons to punch. He knew the things to say to get the best out of you. So he then said “Boy Jackson, this the real rocksteady”. That’s how the name came about. And this is where the rocksteady thing came from. So I would not take the credit to tell anyone that I did it. I didn’t do it. It was because of my incompetence. Not being able to play fast enough. That’s how the thing was created.

A lot of people say “Boy I did this, I did that”. Even Hopeton Lewis. I did those songs like Take It Easy [for Federal]. I hear his interviews God bless his soul, telling the world “When I came to the studio I said to the musicians to slow it down make it slower”. I hear all of them. Now Coxsone, he was a good man to do marketing. He knew how to market stuff. That’s the reason we were called the Soul Brothers. We were called the Sound Dimensions. We were called Soul Vendors. And then he would write like “Alton Ellis Mr Rocksteady”, “Ken Boothe Mr Rocksteady” and these artists would go away thinking that they are really Mr Rocksteady! (Laughs)

I’ll give you an example. One day we did 11 songs. After the songs we ended up in the control room. We were tired and everybody wanted to go home but Jackie said “Gentlemen I don’t want Coxsone to have nothing, I’m just going to play one more way”. He went inside and he said “Okay left-hand” and he went on the keyboard there (sings bassline) “Dong dong dong dong dong dong, dong dong dong dong dong dong” and said “Drummie you play straight. Run this about four minutes”. And I played. So two days after Coxsone and Ken Boothe went in the studio had the rhythm for the first time and they made a song called “The train is coming through, the train is coming up”. That song became a movie score. Money Train. They made big money. Did they pay the musicians? Nada. (Laughs)

Lloyd Knibbs was a dynamite drummer

The drummer Winston Grennan talked about how he invented the one drop. What’s your perspective on that?

Well I’ll tell you something. I don’t know anything about any one drop. When it was the rocksteady “Ting ting baff! Ting ting baff!” there was a man called Hugh Malcolm. He kind of changed the rhythm with a song called Ride Your Donkey. Because Ride Your Donkey was “Dog a dog a dog a dog a dog a dong” (sings bassline and drum) and it was a different kind of rhythmical pattern that came into reggae. After the reggae thing came now there came a man named Sly Dunbar who started playing the steppers with the bass drum. No I don’t know where the one drop thing really came from. The one drop was “Ting ting baff! Ting ting baff!” That’s one drop you know?

Yes it was before the reggae. Sly said it was present in the ska.

That came from Studio 1. That is one thing that I had to play, that I had to learn to play. But I’ll tell you something, because in those days we only had a few tracks to deal, because of everything tying up, you’d find the parts were not even properly heard. So after a while Downbeat brought in other musicians to overdub on top of these tracks. What saved me, is there are drummers and there are drummers. There are drummers who have their own signature like you would sign your name.

Just like I’m Still In Love With You, I made that song for Alton Ellis. And then Sean Paul did Dutty Love and after it got about 7 million units and everybody started claiming from this and that. And even Alton, God bless his soul, I felt so sorry for him. Alton was in Toronto and came by me and we made a song called Honour Your Mother And Father. After making the song he was rushing to the airport and I said to Alton “Alton why are you rushing, what’s going on?” He said “You remember the tune we made I’m Still In Love With You, Miss P, Miss Pat, Randy’s they have done a thing with it. The man come and sign some paper so now it’s gone over to be with them.” When he was telling me this I never even thought to myself “Boy, those tunes you play drums on too.” I just don’t think about that. I felt happy that Alton is getting his day.

Up and behold he went back to London and I followed him up with a call saying “What happened Alton, how the tune come off?” He said “You find certain things you signed certain papers with people and signed the wrong papers - you find that money goes in a different way”. So I don’t fuss about that because he got messed up in his agreement and the signing. I went back to Jamaica now and I saw Alton and I said “Alton you know something? I’m thinking of claiming for this tune you know?” He said “No man, don’t do that”. So I said “Why?” He said “No man because I claimed”. I said “You claim for everything? You claimed for the lyrics, you claim the music, everything Alton?” He never answered.

But that was just water under the bridge because when Alton told me this by the time I went home and smoked a big spliff I had forgotten about that. But eventually one time when me and Brian went to see him he said “Boy Joe, you never even played the tune”. I said “I never played the tune? What happened to Bassie?” He said the upright bass played it. I said “What do you say Alton man? What are you saying man?” So we were kind of vexed for a while but before he died I friended back. But that really hurt but up until today nobody has gotten paid. All this money is been held up in escrow. Millions of dollars. And nobody can get the money.

Coxsone was a psychologist. He knew the buttons to punch

Do you remember the tunes that came out of your first session at Studio 1? Or the session where you slowed down the tempo?


Can I ask you about some specific songs that my research says you played on? You played on Dancing Mood?

Yes man. Dancing Mood was just like any other rhythm. We just played a rhythm and Delroy was there and he sang Dancing Mood.

Did you play on Artibella?

Yeah man. Ken Boothe. The original version. That again was just another song. There was nothing special about it, it was just another song. It was only when all these other guys kept recording it over now, Snoop Dogg, and all them they got big.

What about Swing Easy?

Yeah man. Jackie Mittoo. How does that song go again?

It has that cymbals intro…

Oh yeah. The rhythm was made and I think there were vocals going on that rhythm too - you know? There were vocals to go on all of these basic patterns. And Coxsone really made it an instrumental by adding things to it. With Jackie. So that was that song Swing Easy.

Rocksteady was because of my incompetence. Not being able to play fast enough

Rockfort Rock?

Yeah man I played on that. A big song that I did was I’ve Got To Go Back Home.

Bob Andy.

Yeah man. It was a big tune. Marcia Griffiths - Feel Like Jumping, as well.

You played on that session with Boris Gardiner?

No. Brian.

Really? Boris Gardiner said he played on it.


Well that’s interesting! What about Drum Song?

Yeah man. Me and Jackie Mittoo. Drum song. And then they had Count Ossie and these people on it too. And it became really a Drum Song.

Why Baby Why?


Which Leroy Sibbles told me was his first time playing the bass.

No. You see I’ll tell you something. When Brian and myself left Studio 1 Jackie Mittoo taught Leroy Sibbles to play the bass. Leroy Sibbles’ song was Pass the Kutchie.

Full Up.

Yeah. That song was Full Up singing. But before that all Heptones on top of all those albums Leroy couldn’t play the bass. Brian is a very humble guy who stays quiet in the background but Brian did all of those songs. And of course if you notice my conversation when I’m speaking I’m not just speaking about just Joe Isaacs. Forget about Joe Isaacs. I would love for the people who are part of this great foundation to be recognised on at least getting some kind of credit. I sincerely hope to Almighty God that they probably get some money too!

Because I have proven to myself that it’s not really money that keeps I living. If it was money I’d be dead long ago. Because I’m the same way from 1968 until this day. Financially. I’m not crying or looking for any sympathy. Nothing, because I give thanks. Because the more important thing than all these people who say they own this and that, is, I never said I own anything yet - because everything is from the Almighty giving me that inspiration to play what I play so I can’t really own it. Because when you own things sometimes you forget where you put them down. With music now, any song, any artist that I recorded for, it comes back. I don’t have to practice it, it comes back like a tape recording in my head. That means it cannot be I who owns it. It’s got to be the Imperial Almighty God.

It's not really money that keeps I living

What about Bend Down Low for the Wailers? It was Bob Marley‘s birthday yesterday…

Well Bend Down Low that I can never forget because that’s the first time in my life that artists, singers were going to rent Coxsone’s studio. They rented Studio 1 and Bend Down Low and a tune called Freedom Train were made that day. We made that song Brian, Hux, myself and Jackie. Bob Marley and The Wailers paid us and paid Downbeat for his studio. Downbeat wasn’t very happy that day because it was the first time in his life that they rented the studio. He never usually rented the studio so he was not too happy!

Why did you leave Studio 1 and start working for other producers?

I remember when we made Puppet On A String and a tune called Fatty Fatty for the Heptones. That was the first time that recording was done on a Saturday. Because we always worked from Monday to Friday. Every Saturday we got a little £12. So this day we made those two songs and Fatty Fatty was banned off the radio because it was too vulgar.

Joe Isaacs

It was too suggestive.

Yes. (Laughs) So after doing that session the Bassman and myself went up to Duke Reid Treasure Isle. Duke was sitting outside his place with his two guns and a big gun at the side of his liquor store. I went up to him and I said “Hey Mr Reid, I name is Drummie, Bassie this”. He said “I know you. Who sent you?” Because him and Coxsone were rivals you know? I said “Nobody sent me Mr Reid. I just come to check out the man and thing.” He said “Alright, we go upstairs”. In those times we didn’t have any cell phone so I wondered how he contacted the people upstairs! We just went upstairs and we saw a man named Lynn Taitt, we saw a man named Gladstone Anderson and we saw another man named Winston Wright. So Bassie went on the bass and I went on the drums. We made six rhythms in about one and a half or two hours. In those times we were seasoned.

So after making the six rhythms - and I don’t know what they were named either. I can’t remember that. We went back downstairs to Mr Reid sitting in the same place in his chair. I said “Finished now Mr Reid sir” he said “How much tunes you make?” I said “Six Mr Reid” and he said “What?” And he went into his pocket and he took out £12. He gave me £12 and he gave Brian £12. I thought “£12! That’s what I make in one week working for Coxsone! Doing 12 songs a day!” So when he gave me and Brian £12, Usain Bolt couldn’t run as fast as us! We figured he made a mistake! Paying us £2 for each song!

So from that, me and Brian decided that we’re going to leave Coxsone and go and work with Lynn Taitt - the band was called Lynn Taitt and the Jets. And then we started working for everybody. We worked for Federal, we worked for West Indies, we worked for all the independent producers, started making over the whole of Coxsone‘s catalogue. I’ve made Coxsone‘s catalogue about three times already in my life for different producers. (Laughs)

Sly recognises me and I recognise him

What you said about you slowing down the tempo at Studio 1, Sly told me that last time I was here and you’ve confirmed what he said.

Yes, yes. Sly recognises me and I recognise him also. We love each other. And he recognised me for the discipline of how it was played because in those days as a drummer you couldn’t just play and roll any time. You could only roll sometimes at the introduction, the end of a bridge, the beginning of a solo, but you couldn’t just roll any time. So you found that it was more restricted and very simple. And that’s where the whole foundation was laid upon. Now you find all people putting all different parts to it but everybody always loves the Studio 1. Because of the simplicity.

Who are the drummers that you admired when you started out? You mentioned Lloyd Knibbs but were you listening to any American drummers on the radio?

I never listened to anybody. Not that I was selfish or didn’t care but it just never dawned on me to do that. It was after getting older that I started to get into Buddy Rich. I love him like food! I went to him one time in Canada when he took a break and said “Mr Rich, I’m Joe Isaacs. I am a drummer and I want to ask you one question. How come you get your left-hand so strong?” Because this man could press roll with his left hand better than me rolling with two hands. So I said how does this man do that? He was a very arrogant person too you know? But for some reason he kind of took a little liking to me and decided he would speak to me so he said “Okay come here”. I walked towards him as a right-handed person, he offered me the right foot to shake my hand. So he said “Listen, you want to get the left strong? When you’re walking move off of your left foot. When you’re picking up a cup use your left hand. Everything. Get this side strong.”

Everybody always loves Studio 1. Because of the simplicity

Read Part 2 of this interview here

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