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Interview: Mikey Chung in Kingston (Part 1)

Interview: Mikey Chung in Kingston (Part 1)

Interview: Mikey Chung in Kingston (Part 1)

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"We just liked the music to go through, in the best way we thought possible"

Sampler

Guitarist, multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter, producer and arranger… Mikey “Mao” Chung is one of Jamaica’s undisputed musical champions. He and his brother, the late great Geoffrey Chung, were the nucleus of groups including the Minstrels, the Virtues, the Mighty Mystics and famously, the Now Generation. Their painstaking, progressive, internationally-informed approach to music left them among the most recognisable and fondly remembered studio bands of the ‘70s.

When Now Gen disbanded and Geoffrey became a full time producer, Mikey continued as a top session player during reggae’s international invasion. Alongside Sly & Robbie, he was a part of Peter Tosh’s band, and Chris Blackwell’s Compass Point All Stars. His resume includes playing with Bob Marley, Inner Circle, Black Uhuru, The Rolling Stones, Grace Jones, Serge Gainsbourg, and James Brown.

Having decided mid-career to formalise his musical training at Jamaican School of Music, he migrated to New York at the end of the 70s. He returned to Jamaica in the 90s, where he remained in demand from the likes of Garnett Silk and Buju Banton.

Sadly, Geoffrey passed away in 1997 yet Mikey is still active to this day. He has been a member of the Kingston All Stars veteran ensemble project – who recently released their third LP Rise Up. And at the time of writing Mikey is planning a double retrospective solo album, GIVTHANX; a charitable foundation in memory of his brother; and an autobiographical book, paying tribute to the many Jamaican musicians Mikey feels have not received adequate recognition.

United Reggae met Mikey by chance at the end of February 2018’s Reggae Month. A surprise call from a mutual acquaintance, Rudolph “Ruddy” Manning of the group Home T, yielded an invitation to Mikey’s veranda at his historic house in Kingston, where he has resided since the Now Gen days.

From a distance Mikey has a stately regal air, but this belies a down-to-earth sense of humour. “You’re putting on weight!” he jokes, offering a refreshing glass of pineapple juice – much needed after a trip to Bunny Wailer’s scorching all day show on Bournemouth Beach.

This two-part impromptu interview was conducted without pre-prepared questions and probably doesn’t scratch the surface of Mikey’s incredible career. However, it does give an overview of a life spent at reggae music’s foundations. Having attended so many sessions Mikey does not have a good memory for names and dates. But like his colleague Robbie Lyn, who played in Now Gen’s sister band In Crowd, he has plenty of opinions on what went down.

Mikey Chung

Where were you born?

I was born in Christiana, Manchester.

What did your parents do for living?

Well, my father was a Chinese shopkeeper! (Laughs) He was a businessperson originally. And then my mother was a seamstress. Very popular. She made dresses for the Governor General’s wife. A lot of people used to come to Christiana and she used to sew for them.

I was born in 1950 and a lot of people have it that Geoffrey was older than me but Geoffrey’s one year younger. But when I was nine my father took ill and he went back to China for treatment so he brought the three first boys – Geoffrey, myself and my older brother - and we lived in Hong Kong for a year and a half. Went to school there and everything. Then we came back to Jamaica. And what he had done with the business in Christiana was his brother took it over so when we came back now - we went in 1959 and we came back in ‘61 - and his brother had kind of taken charge of the business. So he just left the business with him and we moved to Kingston and he got a bakery.

I think it was a godsend because we went to where he bought a bakery on Maxfield Avenue. The bakery was right opposite the street called Tewari Crescent. This was a music street. Every Friday, Saturday, weekend they had dances. Ska and old time music. And I think this is what prompted Geoffrey and I. We heard the music every weekend so this is how we got interested in music. I was fortunate at our age – in ‘61 all that ska and the development of the music was just coming in. So we were lucky to be involved with all of that. Prince Buster, Duke Reid, Treasure Isle, Coxsone.

And I remember one of my fondest memories they had something in Jamaica called [Radio] Rediffusion which was a one speaker box piped like a cable network. This was somewhat overwhelming for me as when this went 24/7 the Rediffusion, I remember hearing Ken Boothe’s Home, I remember hearing all the songs. And from that now we just segued into music.

Geoffrey wasn't the musician. I was the musician

Which instruments did you and Geoffrey pick up first?

Ironically Geoffrey wasn’t the musician. I was the musician. I got the first acoustic guitar, my grandmother went to America and brought back one. I started playing and it became so lucrative, Geoffrey was in UW doing studies and when it started taking over my life he said “Oh“ (laughs) and he came into the music. But we were singers first. I had this group called the Minstrels. And we recorded for Coxsone and Federal and all of these people.

And did all those Minstrels tunes get released?

Yeah. They’re out there. Lo and behold I never got anything off of it! (Laughs) We did two tunes for Coxsone, we did two for Federal which they put on the Merritone label which Winston Blake informed me he’s never got anything for that either! (Laughs) But I think looking back now we should have sung more. We should have continued recording. But session playing and musicianship took over and we said “No – we’re not singers”. Because even now I go to places in the world and I talk about Minstrels and they say “Mikey! You’re the Minstrels? That’s one of my favourite songs of all time!” (Laughs) I couldn’t believe it, you know? There are lots of people that love what we did. But you know, that’s how life is sometimes.

We were singers first

Was it Coxsone that you first recorded for? Did you audition for Coxsone himself?

Yes. Coxsone was the first one we recorded for. We used to go to St George’s College and after school at 2:30 in our khaki clothes uniform we went down to Coxsone and auditioned. And they liked us and then from that now, we played guitar. Geoff started picking up guitar and he was more of a singer than me because he had a group called the Peter Ashbourne Affair and Geoffrey was in that group. But I was more of a musician. And we were all self-taught. I taught myself the guitar, I taught myself keyboards, Geoff taught himself and then it went from there. But while we were in school at St George’s you know Kingston College is just down the road. Jackie Mittoo went to Kingston College and Alan Skill Cole and a lot of people. We formed a band comprising some people from Saint George’s and some people from Kingston College and we called the band The Mighty Mystics - which was the origination of the Now Generation. The Mighty Mystics became the Now Generation.

So who was in the Mighty Mystics?

Myself, Geoffrey used to come around and fool around sometimes, there was Trevor Thompson, he plays with Skatalites now. He is the drummer.

Sparrow Thompson.

That’s right. Val Douglas was one of the bass players and we had horn players from Kingston College. And we went from there into the Now Generation. And then we moved over to recording. We started getting sessions.

The Mighty Mystics became the Now Generation

Didn’t you play drums in the band for a while?

(Laughs) I should have said that! From my first being interested in music when the Mighty Mystics formed - the only opening was drums. And I said “I can do it!” And I became the drummer. And there is a funny thing about it because a song I used to play, in the early 60s, A Taste Of Honey - there was a little drum solo fill in that song. One day we were there and Sparrow passed through and he went on the drums and lo and behold he did it better than me! (Laughs) So they said “Alright, Mikey you’re not the drummer anymore”. But I wouldn’t let them get away with it so I started playing guitar. And I became the guitar player.

What was your first session?

Well, all I know is when doing music I was also enrolled at CAST and I was doing electrical engineering. Niney Holness used to come up to CAST every day and pull us out of class and bring us to the session. Bunny Lee and people like that started using us a lot on sessions.

Do you remember any notable tunes or sessions you played on as that line-up?

No. In that time I hardly remember titles. I know what happened when we became Now Generation. I can’t remember titles because we were doing massive amounts of sessions. And I don’t know if it was a blessing or what but people liked the Now Generation. Maybe because our attitude to the music was more like - we took more time in the sessions. We didn’t just rush through sessions and it was about the quality of the music.

People liked the Now Generation... we took more time in sessions

Were there any established musicians who inspired you in terms of seeing them perform or record?

You know what Angus? I’m not talking down on the music or whatever… but one of my main emphases now is I cannot believe that Jamaica has created this music that has completely conquered the world and the people over here don’t even recognise it. And one of my main duties is to get these people to be honoured.

I mean Lynn Taitt is my idol. Another person who is my idol is Eric Frater. I don’t know if you realised but up to now I am realising that a lot of those rhythms with Eric Frater, he created a lot of that. It’s not just “check-eh check-eh” (sings chop) It came from his playing of American music and some of these white groups. I like Jackie Jackson. I like everybody. I think Lynn Taitt and Jackie Mittoo deserve the highest honour for their role in Jamaican music.

This music has completely conquered the world and people here don't even recognise it

Do you think Lynn Taitt was not honoured because he wasn’t a Jamaican?

Well you know what? To be honest I think so. Because years ago JARIA gave me an award and when I accepted the award I said “I’m giving this to Lynn Taitt”. And they were surprised. They said “Mikey you’re giving your award to Lynn Taitt? He’s not even Jamaican!” I said “come on! But without this guy Lynn Taitt, reggae, rocksteady, wouldn’t even matter”. And do you know what was the greatest feeling for me? When I did that Lynn Taitt’s family contacted me and said thank you.

Some singers of Chinese heritage in Jamaica said they faced barriers in the 60s and 70s to their progress. Did you face anything like that?

Never. As a matter of fact I don’t think anything like that has ever happened in either Geoffrey’s or my lifetime. We never got anything negative. We just felt like we were just Jamaicans and everyone accepted us. Never had a problem, never had a racism problem, nothing at all.

Lynn Taitt is my idol

Didn’t you also play the bass as well?

I played everything! (Laughs) And I also think I have a record for playing with every band out of Jamaica. I played for Byron Lee, I played for Vikings, I’ve played for everybody.

This is an interesting point. I saw an interview that Ray Hurford did with you where they quoted an interview that I had recorded with Junior Dan about Generation Gap.

I played with them too yeah.

You did play with them but you weren’t actually a member?

I was a member of Generation Gap. I was a member of Inner Circle. I was a member of a whole heap of bands.

Can you give me a timeline of being in all these bands?

It’s the years that I can’t really remember. It was just that I couldn’t sit still. If somebody wanted me, I loved music so much, whoever wanted me, I went and played with them.

I couldn't sit still. If somebody wanted me... I played with them

Generation Gap did a cover of Edwin Starr’s War at Randy’s – did you play on that?

Do you know what I honestly can’t remember? Because I can do a session last week and I don’t remember what song I played! I don’t remember the songs.

Can you tell me a bit about the group you played in called the Virtues?

(Laughs) How you know about that? Yes, the Virtues was one of the first bands that we were in after the Mystics. Which coincidently Rupie Edwards, Bob Andy, Gregory Isaacs sometimes Dennis Brown were the singers and there were some other musicians that don’t play music any more.

Did the Mighty Mystics take a break or were you playing in bands at the same time?

Mikey ChungI would have been playing at the same time. Because even Sparrow started playing for the Virtues too. But we were gigging all over. I mean everybody didn’t play every weekend, so you play with this one and then you play with that one.

And you were playing popular hits for people to dance to? Dance band kind of thing?

Dance band kind of thing. That’s what the Now Generation did too. They were a popular dance band - Top 40, American, New York, Temptations, Four Tops, Sly and the Family Stone, anything like that.

How did Mighty Mystics become Now Generation?

Mighty Mystics became the Now Generation because we hit the road doing dance music and we were also in the studios. But the studio work became so hectic that we just said “We can’t do this dance band thing again”. We’d go to Falmouth, go to Montego Bay when we’d rather just go in the studio.

So the live thing was just becoming too much and was taking too much of a toll?

Yeah.

What was the first studio that you recorded in as Now Generation?

(Laughs) Errr… Well I know some of the early things were at Joe Gibbs’ studio in Duhaney Park, his first studio. Niney and Dennis used Randy’s. Dynamic was a popular studio. We played for Duke Reid. We became the studio band for Duke Reid too. I never played for Studio One. Until right up until Mr Dodd’s passing. A little around that time.

And do you remember any of the hit tunes you played for those studios?

Two of the first two tunes we played were Maga Dog and Haffi Get A Beating, the original versions for Joe Gibbs. For Duke Reid we did Ken Parker and some of these other obscure kinds of artists but they had hit songs too. Then we did Harry J and all the Dennis Browns.

What was the line-up of Now Generation at this time? What had changed since Mighty Mystics?

Well Sparrow had to go to America. And then we got this drummer called Martin Sinclair. But he was also working separately as that was more secure for him, so sometimes he couldn’t come or whatever. At the same time the studio needed two keyboard players so Wire Lindo was our keyboard player. Then good friends of ours were there in In Crowd band with Robbie Lyn and Mikey Boo. So Mikey Boo took over on drums and then Wire and Robbie Lyn were the keyboardists. Val Douglas was the bass player, Geoffrey and I were guitar and we didn’t use the horn players too much. We just used people like Ron Wilson and the horn players that were in the field.

How did you get to know In Crowd?

We just knew them from being on the road. Sometimes in Jamaica you had two bands playing and so we knew them from that kind of angle. And they were people we liked because they showed the interest and professionalism of good musicians in a good band. They weren’t just hustlers. I’m not putting down other bands but the ethics that we had were different from… I grew into what you call roots time, you know the simple… Because one of the things was people used to label us as an “uptown band” because when we went into the studio we spent time on the music. If we cut a song and then we were doing another one we didn’t want the other one to sound like that one. So we tried to improvise and get a good sound.

People used to label us as an "uptown band"

So they called you an uptown band because you were too progressive?

Yeah. We spent too much time on sessions! Because we were listening to everything, you know? We started using more than just major and minor songs. We started using unusual chords and started pushing arrangements. People like Derrick Harriott, you know the Chosen Few people like that, they started using us because we spent more time and paid more attention in the music.

Yes because you can hear Derrick Harriott was listening to a lot of foreign music that was out there. You worked on that Dennis Brown album for Derrick Harriott Super Reggae And Soul Hits? So you play on all those songs – Concentration, Musical Heatwave, Changing Times?

Yeah.

How well did you know Dennis Brown?

Dennis Brown sang in Now Generation! Amazing man. Good, good friend. He was one of us! (Laughs) A lot of people say that his version that we did of Wichita Lineman is the best version of Wichita Lineman ever! The amount of people that come in and say “Mikey, the guitar you play there was wicked!”

It’s a good opportunity for me to play a tune for my collection which came out of an English label Horse - credited to Jam Now Generation. I’ve always wondered if it was you or if just an English band copying your name?

What song was that?

It’s called Peacemaker (plays song)

It sounds a bit like us but it’s not.

How can you tell?

It’s the rhythm guitar. There is no Geoffrey on this. That’s not Geoffrey.

But while you were in Now Gen you did have some solo songs released in the early 70s under your name on the Splash label.

That is a bootleg again. That’s Lloyd Charmers. I’m thinking about that. That’s another thing too - when reggae was created it wasn’t the money. It was just doing it and we weren’t caring about the money but we should have been more paid more attention to publishing, copyright and all that. Lloyd Charmers he used to say after every session “Mikey, just do a version on the rhythm track there”. And then low and behold I’d see Trojan putting out Mikey Chung - For The Good Times, this and that. And Trojan had a lot of the songs on different CDs. But we never got anything. And then I accosted Lloyd Charmers and he never got back to me and then – boom - he passed away.

So what stuff did you play for Lloyd Charmers in terms of memorable tunes?

All of those Stylistics type tunes, Children Of The Night, Betcha By Golly Wow, all of those songs.

How did Geoffrey start to produce?

Well you know what? Geoffrey was one of those people. I think he was brilliant. He was always searching, reading books, reading about the recording industry, engineering. That’s why after a while engineering became like nothing to him. He just wanted to branch out. He started more engineering first and then he became a producer.

Geoffrey was always searching, reading books

That reminds me - did Geoffrey produce an early Third World album that never came out?

Yeah. Geoffrey produced a lot of things that didn’t come out! (Laughs) Well for Third World there was a song that I always liked Sun Won’t Shine. That song Geoffrey produced with them too. We were close too. Third World and Geoffrey were close.

You were just talking about how you and Geoffrey listened to music from outside the Jamaican market. What were you listening to early to mid-70s that was really blowing your mind that you wanted to put into reggae?

I would say I was listening to WAR, Sly and the Family Stone, Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, everybody! We were listening to jazz, we were listening to Miles Davis, Geoffrey was listening to Cream, we were listening to everything. Because eventually when I started playing with Sly [Dunbar] round here we had a good system set up so people used to come round just listen to us playing records. And we’d turn them on to stuff. Even Sly.

Sly we hit it off with because Sly started to understand. Because up to this day Sly would swear that Geoffrey gave him the best drum sound ever. He complimented Geoffrey for that. He said “Boy, with Geoffrey he knew.” He would listen to Brothers Johnson all these people and say “Yeah man, this is the sound”. So we won a lot of friends that way. Or associates in the business. Just from the music we had and the music we listened to and we’d turn them onto that, you know?

Mikey Chung

Tell me a bit about recording and Harry J. Breakfast in Bed was a big hit but Mikey Boo told me that Harry J didn’t like the drum sound.

Harry J didn’t like it! (Laughs) And when he said “I don’t like that” Geoff says “Alright I’ll take it” and then he said “No, no, no“. Because Mikey Boo played an amazing drum track on that song. But to be honest, and I don’t mind you printing this, but most of these producers are tricksters. I can’t understand why you know? They are unscrupulous or whatever. I have yet to meet a producer that was fair. All of them are tricksters. We played for Byron Lee too and did a lot of sessions. Geoff produced a lot of stuff for Byron Lee, Federal too.

Obviously Geoffrey was a producer so you don’t count him in that.

No, no.

Was the difference that Geoffrey was more of a hands-on producer rather than someone who just rented a studio and let the musicians do the work?

Yeah. We didn’t hold back. We would just say “No man, that don’t sound good, do this, do that”. Not expecting any kind of credit and not any compensation. We just liked the music to go through, in the best way we thought possible.

So which producers and studios did you have the best relationship with?

One thing I know, when we were down Federal there was this producer called Jimmy Radcliffe he produced Life Is Just For Living [the album production is credited to Jerome Francisque] and that’s my first time hands on working with a real producer. The guy came in the studio and just took charge. Knew what he was doing and everything. And he was amazing. And then Eric Gayle. Eric Gayle is one of my favourite guitarists too. When he was here I was very close to him - you know he lived in Jamaica for a while? Where he was living if you stepped out of his veranda, you hit the water! (Laughs)

You did a lot of work with Ernie Smith at the start of the 70s?

I did a whole heap of work with Ernie Smith.

You’re credited as playing on Joe Higgs album Life Of Contradiction with Eric Gayle.

Eric Gayle is on that too. It was just another project but I enjoyed it because I was playing with Eric Gayle! Eric was there with us and Joe Higgs is one of my favourite artists too. He was a great person. I knew him for a long time, you know? So all in all it was a good session. The memory of it was good.

Didn’t you do some stuff for Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry? You did Beat Down Babylon?

A whole heap of stuff! You see all of the stuff made me who I am in the music. Because Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry was just unbelievable and strange! So you’d get to see his kind of stuff. When you’d worked with him you would see his antics. Because all of this is experience and knowledge. He was really of all those kinds of producers, a very good producer. He saw. He heard stuff and he knew how to get it. It might be a bit strange how he got it but it was amazing and really educational.

Scratch heard stuff and he knew how to get it

How did he do it? I’ve heard stories of him dancing to get what he wanted.

Somebody said to me recently “Mikey when you were around Scratch and Scratch would come in and start recording in the studio, who was running the machine?” And I said “Nobody! Scratch would start the machine and then go across the studio. He would come out of the control room push Record then just come into the studio”. And he said “That’s strange!” And I said “Yeah but it worked!” (Laughs)

So he was almost like a conductor?

Yeah, yeah. Yeah man, yeah man. And what he was doing he heard it. It’s not like he’s trying something - he heard what he wanted and he was doing it.

At the same time you were doing stuff with Inner Circle in the mid-70s…

Well with Inner Circle I did everything with them. In the sense that in all this time I was doubling. I was often playing guitar but also doing a lot of keyboards. Overdubbing, synthesiser work. Within Inner Circle I kind of helped the more with arranging and that kind of stuff.

You also played on Ernest Ranglin’s album Ranglin Roots.

Ranglin Roots was Herman Chin Loy at Aquarius. I played on that. Me and Ernie Ranglin. I enjoyed everything you know. We should mention also I Jah Man. I love I Jah Man. I did a lot of work with the Abyssinians. They were amazing. I really respect the Abyssinians. I mean there are three of them but Clinch is kind of hard to get along with! (Laughs) But I like the Manning brothers. They are cousins to Ruddy Manning.

You played on I Kong’s album The Way It Is - along with almost every other musician in Jamaica!

And that was a long time ago. When we did I Kong album I mean it was like before anything took place. Long time. But that’s another great masterpiece album.

So what happened to Now Gen? Why did that wind down?

What really happened was when Geoffrey sidestepped and became more of a producer and recording engineer and all that. And then everybody started getting busy. Wire started going to Taj Mahal then he started playing with Bob Marley and we all branched off so we didn’t have enough time to concentrate on Now Gen. So that’s what happened. Everybody went away with all the bands and people became producers in their own right. So we didn’t have the time. But then from that time which is ‘74-‘75-‘76 I hooked up with Robbie and Sly. That took me away again. Because that became very lucrative, playing for Chris Blackwell, playing for the Compass Point All Stars, Peter Tosh, Black Uhuru, all of that came into being.

Look out for Part 2 of this interview coming soon.

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