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Interview: Joe Isaacs in Kingston (Part 2)

Interview: Joe Isaacs in Kingston (Part 2)

Interview: Joe Isaacs in Kingston (Part 2)

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"Coxsone used to treat us like we were his kids"

Read part 1 of this interview here

In Part 2 of this exclusive interview with Joe Isaacs, he explains how he went to Canada and became Rasta, why he made his peace with Coxsone, and how his achievements have recently been recognised abroad if not at home.


So which of your Jamaican contemporary drummers do you rate the highest?

Carl McLeod. That’s a really good drummer. Lloyd Knibbs. And of course Sly Dunbar. The rest of them we are just followers. No disrespect or putting down anybody. Hugh Malcolm was another special man too. Because I admire people who come with something different. I can’t admire and appreciate you if you play like somebody else. It’s all good. But I’m always looking to find a person with some originality.

When I asked Sly this question, he said one other drummer he admired was Bunny Williams.

Yes! That’s another good drummer too! Bunny Williams. From the army, yeah. As a matter of fact Bunny Williams went with Studio 1 to London the first time because I wasn’t going.

Why weren’t you going?

(laughs) After we did the session with Duke Reid, remember, I didn’t tell Coxsone anything. Because we used to be afraid of that man, that man would knock you, you know? He was strong you know? And he used to treat us like we were his kids. So after one week working we sat down for a pay. He would look out in the yard and he’d say “Bassie come” and Bassie would go inside. Now me and Bassie had made a plan to say we were leaving Coxsone. Because we didn’t know anything of any trip. Because me and Bassie became so close. So Bassie went in first and Coxsone talked to him and Bassie came back out. Bassie was coming towards me but Coxsone didn’t give him a chance to talk to me. Coxsone said “Drummie come” so I went inside.

When I went inside Coxsone said to me “Boy, Jackson, you know because a cat goes out and makes £12 in one day” and I’m frightened you know “Don’t feel that will happen all the time. Because that’s not the way it is. And right now as we speak we are planning a trip to go to London, England”. (Laughs) Now me and Bassie every time we went for lunch we would see the plane flying over Studio 1 and I’d say “Bassie, one day will go up in the big bird”. So I am wondering what did Bassie say? Did Bassie say yes? Or Bassie say no? Because we made a plan to go with Lynn Taitt. Coxsone tells us that he is going to take us to London, England first time on this big plane. I was confused because I didn’t know but I thought “Boy, if you have a plan with Bassie go with the plan”. So I looked at Coxsone and I backed off far from him, out of his arm’s reach, and I said to him “Boy Downbeat, you have to find someone because you see me, I just want to go out and play for everybody else for a while and get to know this thing”. He said “Alright Jackson”.

So after that we left him and that’s when he took Bunny Williams and the rest of those guys. He took Lloyd Brevett to play the bass. And carried them up as the Soul Vendors. So one time now, because after that me and Downbeat came back friends again. We were like family. I love him. I was in New York and I took a series of songs to him and I said “Downbeat I’d like you to release those songs you know? These are my tunes and I made them with Pablove Black and all those Studio 1 man. Put it on the Studio 1 label.” And he said “That couldn’t work you know, Jackson, we need the Studio 1 mix. But I’m going to tell you something you know? You could release as Soul Vendors 2000. Because originally all those songs I was playing in England, it was you guys that made those songs and the musicians just came up there behind and played the same songs as Soul Vendors. But you are the guys who really made those songs.”

I admire people who come with something different

What did you play on at Treasure Isle?

A lot of songs. A lot of Melodians. John Holt. Techniques. I didn’t really do much with Treasure Isle.

But there must’ve been some big hits that you played on?

I can’t remember their names. If I heard them I could say yes.

Tell me about the stuff you did for Derrick Harriott.

Oh yeah man. Lots of stuff.

The Loser?

Yes man. That was the Keith and Tex all of those guys. Lots of work. One thing about Derrick Harriott. I used to admire him because he used to put our names as musicians. He gave us credits. But then now I was sick in Canada one time and my son bought me an iPad. So I started watching different concerts and different festivals shows all over the world. And I see where there are so many movies that have been made with Derrick Harriott songs. And none of these things he thought of getting us some money. And there are so many. The Harder They Come. All of those songs in the first part of the movie - we made all those songs. Nobody ever thought. I guess we’re not supposed to earn any money. (Laughs)

You did some stuff at Federal. You mentioned Take It Easy. 

Yeah man. Johnny Nash. Hopeton Lewis. You see all of these studios always tried to get the artists from Studio 1 and record them.

Did you do any work with Lee “Scratch” Perry in the early days?

Yeah man. Well Lee “Scratch” Perry, his job in the studio was at Coxsone’s studio to sweep up the studio. And while he was there he made a song called Roast Duck. And I played on that song. He had other songs too, I can’t remember the names of the songs, but he did a few songs with us there. Coxsone would give him a bly. Just like Dudley Sibley. Dudley made Gunman and he made probably two or three songs but he used to work in the pressing plant. Never really recognised, loved Coxsone to the bone. It was just a couple of years ago because most people are dying off now and they don’t have anybody else to call and they called Dudley and gave Dudley a tour in Europe. Dudley went to get some money and came back nice.

Let’s talk a bit more about Beverley’s. Beverley’s had a reputation for paying people a bit more.

Yeah, Beverley’s now we used to make big money at Beverley’s because when they did sessions it was 15 tunes for the day. And Beverley’s were playing 2 pounds a side. So you’d make big money.

One thing that stood out in my head was 54-46. For Toots & the Maytals. That was kind of unusual because he just came from jail that day and he came to the studio. At the time we were doing West Indies studio because it was called Dynamics after and West Indies before. He came in and Beverleys was doing the session - Leslie Kong. So I remember these things like yesterday.

So Toots came in and pushed his head in and said “Wha gwaan gentlemen?” and we said “Wha’appen Toots, you back upon the street? He said “Yeah man I’m there upon the street. But we have a new tune you know?” And he has never told a word who made those songs. He said “Yeah man it’s simple though you know? You just go ‘54-46 was my number’” and Lynn Taitt just went like this (sings bassline picked on the guitar) because Lynn Taitt was a great musician. He was like Jackie Mittoo. These two musicians were very specially gifted people. By the Almighty they got very special thing about them. And that’s how that song was made.

Beverley’s had the whole of Coxsone’s artists, every one of them. Ken Boothe, Delroy Wilson, every one of them. And Beverley’s sister was a writer. She did a lot of writing. We did the whole catalogue of Studio 1 for Beverley’s.

Which tunes?

Well, all the songs that Studio 1 made, all the singers came to Beverley’s and did them over. (Laughs

For example you talked about 54-46. The bassline is quite similar to Feel Like Jumping. Which one came first?


I man is a talker from a little kid

That’s what I thought. But in Beverley’s did you play on Israelites? 007?

Yes, man. All those songs for me. I’ll tell you something about Israelites. There is a mistake in the introduction from the drums which was never done over. One time Sly was making over that song because Sly is my good friend. And Sly told them “Boy you better get Joe Isaacs because I can’t really play back that introduction!” (Laughs) Because of the mistake!

So tell me why you decided to go to Canada?

They have this thing in Canada called Caribana. The second year of Caribana, Byron Lee was supposed to go but he couldn’t make it. So they sent a band called Virtues. That was Byron Lee’s second band. The Virtues wanted a drummer. Otis Gayle who was my friend, we came off the same corner, told the Virtues “Carry Joe Isaacs” and the bandleader said “No I don’t want to carry him, Joe is a problem, he smokes weed. No, no, no, forget about it”. But Otis Gayle, they listened to him because he had a hit song called Hey You Want Love. So they carried me.

When they carried me to Canada we only went for seven days but while I was playing I met a man named Fitzgerald Riley who owned a club called Club Jamaica. Riley came and offered us a job to play in Club Jamaica. Riley offered to take us through immigration and get us an extension of our time. But Carlton had put our passports down in the hotel lobby. But I man is a talker from a little kid so I go to the hotel man and I say “We need our passports to get an extension so I’d like my passport you know?” He said “No it’s held there. Mr Hayden says we keep it”. I said “Keep it? You want to go to jail? You want to go to prison? Because guess what, nobody supposed to hold my passport other than the immigration man. You as a man can’t do that you know?” So right away the man got nervous so I got mine, Brian got his, everybody got their passports. (Laughs)

So we got the extra time. We stayed in Canada and this man Fitzgerald Riley got our immigration status in place. Actually in two years he made me a Canadian citizen because I was residing there. And then I travelled all over Canada. Everywhere in Canada I’d go. One time Jackie Mittoo was up there too. And we made a song, we made an album, for a company called CTL. Canadian Talent Library. Some little ticky time tune, quiet tune instrumental but it got played all over Canada. Because that company were jockeys, radio personalities, so that gave us the opportunity to touring over those places with Wishbone. That’s how we stayed in Canada.

Sometimes I question myself saying if I’d stayed in Jamaica probably I’d be musically better off than staying in Canada. Because leaving Jamaica at that time was when Sly really came out and went on with his thing. And my name was really diminished. My name wasn’t happening again because Joe was gone. But then you know it’s all ironed out because whatever happened I just give thanks.

Joe IsaacsSo how did you make a living during that time? What kind of music things were you doing?

In Club Jamaica are used to play R&B, calypso, a little reggae. Then after a while I went with a man named Frank Mutley who used to play the trumpet. That was strictly R&B. And then we travelled around Toronto with a brother named Toby, another R&B singer. So after a while I kind of eased off on the reggae business and dealt with R&B and funk. So that’s where I got my experience from. That was great because I learnt too. I was like Sly & The Family Stone. I had a big Afro and lots of sequins.

This was before the Rasta thing.

Oh yeah.

Tell me about how Rastafari came into your life.
Well, after going to Canada I saw different things. And I got involved with all kinds of different things that you’re not supposed to get involved with. Because you want this and you want that. I came to my senses and removed myself from the things and going to places where it wasn’t really a place for me to be. Because that’s a part of my life I don’t want to go into because they used to be a lot of girls and all those things and it wasn’t a proper way.

So I removed myself from it and just went to Rastafari. After all the different churches when my mum used to force me to be an altar boy and I used to go and see white Joseph and white Mary and white everything. And I wondered “what happened to me” you know? So after all those different denominations who quarrel and they don’t like this and they don’t like that I said to myself “Boy, and if you get up and say ‘Rastafari’ all your family forsake you but I didn’t pay it any mind because it’s the wrong thing they say. But at the same time it is the only situation that is one. We don’t fight against each other. So it’s just Rastafari for I.” And it carried me through my life.

One time, my sister-in-law was living in Miami and she called me up and told me that her son was in some trouble and she wanted me to come and help dealing with him. So I went to Miami. In those times I used to have my children’s mother plait my hair for me in one plait. When I went to Miami now I used to have different girls plait my hair but every time I’d deal with a girl to plait my hair me and her would end up sleeping together and all those kinds of things. I ended up in a relationship everywhere. So one time I said “Cho! I should run from this already” because I needed to run from the girl business. Because the girls used to mean I was a kept man in Toronto when I was a young youth. I’d come to Miami and come to Toronto to be girl, girl, girl, girl, girl.

And one day a sister said to me “Just wash it and leave it” and I washed it and I just left it. And I had a little Puerto Rican girl in my life and she just helped me to separate them. My locks weren’t something that you’d lock up. My locks were just natural. It grew by itself. My locks were down upon the ground. I never twisted or nothing. It’s all formed by itself. My locks are different colours. I never dyed my hair yet or anything like that.

You could drop a dime on the ground and Jackie Mittoo would tell you what key it dropped in

Jackie Mittoo has appeared in the story a lot - tell me a bit about Jackie as a person.

Jackie Mittoo is the greatest musician I have ever had the opportunity to play with. This man used to come into Studio 1 every day of his life and create 12 different rhythmical patterns every day. Of course if the man gave you a line to play and said “You play dong duggo duggo duggo dong” (sings bassline) then the bass player is going to play that with their feel, their vibes and their sound. But, and most people don’t say this because everybody wants the credit for themselves, all those original patterns were Jackie Mittoo. He was phenomenal. You could drop a dime on the ground and Jackie would tell you what key it dropped in. He was such a great musician you know? Because in Studio 1 we were like a family we were together. Whatever Jackie said we did it: “Jackie said like this so we do it“. Coxsone would come and say “Listen. Who doesn’t listen to Jackie inside here leave the studio now”. So we had to. But we all had that love within ourselves. But then after a while when Jackie got older and started realising what he did, then a kind of selfishness started coming into him now. He started feeling sorry for himself and whatever opportunities he would get he wouldn’t think of the rest of the musicians. He wouldn’t speak about them. And when he started registering his songs he made, he would never think of us to put our names also. So that’s the selfish part of Jackie. At the same time, you see how good I talk about him? Because I love him a lot. And I understand what he went through. And I understand the bitterness.

That’s why Downbeat I never have anything bad to say about him. I give him his respect. Because if it wasn’t for Clement Dodd I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be speaking to you right now pertaining to music. So he played a very important part in all of our lives. So I have to give him that that respect. His distribution, funds and all of that, that’s a different thing.

The Soul Vendors got back together and played at the 2006 Sierra Nevada World Music Festival. 

Yeah. Well that was when I had an agent in Atlanta and she realised who I was. And she put a girl who was an agent to contact festivals and contact Warren Smith who introduced the idea about Soul Vendors. And then we went and played with Ken Boothe, Willie Williams and other Studio 1 artists. And that’s how Soul Vendors came back together

You also recorded some albums? Together Again and It’s Only A History Lesson. 

Yeah, we recorded some albums in Toronto.

If it wasn't for Clement Dodd I wouldn't be speaking to you right now

Tell me about the 2012 documentary Studio Drummie One And The History Of Rocksteady Music… How did that happen?

There was a company called Surfing Medicine International, they were in Hawaii at that time. They were putting an album together with various artists from all over the world. They contributed their songs to go on the charity album because it was a non-profit organisation. A girl from Ethiopia she mentioned my name to these people from the company and they called me up and asked me if I could give them a song. So I said “Yeah man, I gave so many songs already, why not?” So I gave them a song. I never made any arrangements with them or nothing. I said “What the hell is percentage?” and gave them it and said “Run this”. And that was the title song.

And this man now his name was Guy Ragosta, his wife was Donna Summer, she is a doctor, a herbalist. They started asking me about myself and I started telling them about who I am and what I did. They got very interested and they came to Jamaica and they started interviewing me and making this documentary and they did it for years trying to put it together. But then he was doing all this not knowing what he was going to do afterwards. He was just a man who felt hurt about the disadvantages we got and things like that. And even right now that it’s completed and he has submitted it to a company in California and they plan to air it in March, the new version of it with added things to it. So I’m just hoping that something can happen.

Joe IsaacsIn 2016, you, Brian and Hux Brown, received an International Artist Music Award in Guyana.

There is a gentleman who resides in Toronto and he is a hairdresser, we call him Professor. He started a thing in Guyana where they give an award once a year to various musicians all over the world. Because he knows me he decided he would give the musicians from the original Studio 1 rhythm section an award. So they took me to Guyana. Because they mentioned that we used to play with Bob Marley and all those things, the red carpet was thrown out for me big-time, with the government in Guyana everybody respecting me up to a point. We went to various parts of Guyana and they gave me an award, the first award I ever got in my life. And the other one I got was from Kingsley Goods here in Jamaica. But Sly now and Bunny Brown have been talking to Olivia Grange and all these people know me so just maybe they’ll give me an OD but hopefully not an overdose!

The Order Of Distinction. Fil Callender who sat on the Studio 1 stool after you, got one, so you should get one too. 

Yeah man, yeah man. But you know, but that’s basically what it is. But as I said before I am glad that I can, always from the bottom of my heart, regardless of how I am, give thanks to the Almighty because he has proven to me that if you’re broke I can’t get no broker! (Big laugh) Hold that.

Do you have any plans to work with Sly in the studio?

Recently myself and Sly Dunbar we have a plan that has never materialised yet, but it’s going to be materialised. Two drummers are going to make an album together playing two drums at the same time which will be phenomenal and the greatest thing that ever happened in the world. Rastafari.

Studio 1 has a name throughout the world as the main thing

Tell me a bit about your son and his rap music career.

In my family, my daughter, she is a twin. Both of them can sing like birds but they don’t do anything. She is a banker, the other one is a nutritionist but my son now he is the one who really pursued the music career. And he is a very good writer. He writes a lot of hooks and lyrics. And he has done well for himself because he has actually made his own recordings, made his own videos so he has a very big catalogue. He goes under the name of Syph and he has his group New Money Gang. There is a fight between the New Money Gang and there is also a fight with his content.

But he just recently did a song which I know is a million seller because after playing on so many different million sellers I can identify. And this song is identified by a company who is affiliated with Universal. They have taken that song from him and have given it to a girl who is going to release it. So they are planning to sign him now and everything like that. But he is doing very, very well.

And finally tell me about your idea for a Studio 1 museum.

Well the museum now that’s where you can give me a plus because I need some money to put that together, any kind of contribution I can get from anywhere to set that up. Because I would like for the people all over the world to be able to actually come to a place and identify the musicians with pictures and articles on them and different props, like the instrument that was utilised, how the songs were made, and the whole 9 yards. Because people tend to want to know and Studio 1 has a name throughout the world as the main thing.

Because Coxsone has passed away and his wife passed away and leaving his daughter Carol and they have another son. But you see a death in a family can create so many things.They lost out a lot of what Downbeat created. Downbeat had his own studio in Brooklyn, Downbeat had his pressing plant in Miami and he had all these things and that again just forces me to really be able to set up this museum.

Music is one of the strongest forces in the world

Do you have an email address people can contact you at?

Is there anything else you want to say?

Just that the content of the words that is created over these rhythmical patterns they were made over the years, I would really pray to the Almighty God Rastafari that they change that. Because the content it has created the world to be an uproar with violence and killing. And try to bring proper lyrics because music is one of the strongest forces in the world and you find little kids and everybody grabs onto it. So whatever you say on the song the kids would like it. Like “My father was a gunman, my mother was a thief” these kinds of lyrics and disrespecting of women and the badness is what is making the world the way it is right now.

Because in our days it was all about love, message. It might be jiving another guy like “Blackhead Chinaman”. And now we’ve gone haywire. So we’re not pointing any fingers at anybody really because I don’t want a man to trouble me but I would love the content to be changed. It’s most important. So the kids could learn and get back to the way it was and bring the world back to just love. Because it’s just love you know?

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