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Interview: Vivian Jones - Career Retrospective Part 1

Interview: Vivian Jones - Career Retrospective Part 1

Interview: Vivian Jones - Career Retrospective Part 1

By on - Photos by Angus Taylor - 3 comments

"Jah Shaka never recorded any English artists before he recorded me".


For this feature length interview Angus Taylor met the veteran UK based singer Vivian Jones. A byword for quality roots and lovers reggae releases throughout his four and a half decade career, Jones left his beloved grandparents in Jamaica in 1968 to make a new life in London. There he laid down some sought after singles with his bands the Mighty Vibes and the Pieces, before going solo and ultimately taking control of his output with the formation of his own label Imperial House records. In part one of this exclusive retrospective, Vivian takes us through his early years to his first album successes with Ruff Cutt Band and the mighty Jah Shaka...

Vivian Jones

You were born in Trelawney in 1957 in the north west of Jamaica. What are your memories of growing up there?

My memories of growing up in Trelawney are wonderful. I think that was the best part of my life, growing up there amongst my family, amongst my grandfather and my grandmother, uncles and aunties and cousins - that was the greatest part.

Your ancestors and relatives have figured in your lyrics a lot over the years.

(Laughs) Definitely, yeah! That's because you see the greater love. That's what we call it - "the greater love". Because there was so much love surrounding me from the day I was born by my family - especially my grandfather and my grandmother - that it really stands out in my upbringing and how I see life. They really set me on a firm foundation. They really showed me the right way to go - put it that way. A solid foundation that remains with me to this day. So their influence on my life was the greatest.

When did you become interested in music?

Well the music really started from a little youth, growing up in Jamaica as I say. My grandmother, she was one of the main members of the church. I had to go to church with the family every Sunday, sometimes even in the week and things like that. But they recognised my voice even in the church, just from me singing the church songs. There’s one of my songs, Reggae Lover, where I say (sings) "MY GRANDMOTHER USED TO SAY... I HOPE YOU KNOW YOUR LESSON LIKE YOU KNOW THAT SONG..." These are real things that happened, because the people in the church were say "Him have a good voice!" and the preacher said "He has a good voice" and my grandmother turned round and said, in simple terms, "Time is longer than rope, so he will make his choice when the time comes!" But for that time it was just school and them things there. Learning to read and write - Grandma was very strict on that!

You left at the age of eleven to come to England. Why was this?

The main reason was because my mother and my father were living in England. They came to England and got married and set up their life there. And this was one other thing: when I was born my grandparents took me away from my mother and father and said, "You go to England and build a new life and when you're ready, we'll send him. But he stays". So I stayed in Jamaica from the day I was born until I reached eleven years old. But then, there was a bit of what they call "tug of love" between grandparents and parents because my mother she wanted me from when I was five years old. My grandparents said, "No he is not ready yet and you not ready yet!"

Do you think that was the correct decision?

Absolutely. I think Grandma and Grandpa should have stuck out longer!!! (laughs)

Where did you settle?

The first place I came to live in England was Willesden. I lived in Willesden with my mum and dad and then we moved to Alperton near Wembley, and then from Alperton we moved to Harrow in Middlesex. I think mum was trying to get me away from the reggae crowd because I think she saw it as a rough crowd! I was well influenced by the reggae by then and she tried to get me out of it but it never worked!

Now your first band was the Spartans. When were they formed?

Spartans was about 1974-75. Spartans had some great musicians like Bigga Morrison, who played with Aswad and Misty In Roots. There was also Crucial Tony Phillips from Ruff Cutt band. Lots of good musicians at the time and this was all of our first band. It was my first band as a singer and their first band as musicians. So it was like a real eye opener you know? It really opened my eyes to things because when they called me to sing at that time I used to be a deejay. I deejayed like Big Youth and U Roy - that was my kind of style. I used to deejay on the sound systems and in the dances and parties on Saturday nights and weekends. And there was one sound in particular in Harrow where I used to play in a place in Harrow and Wealdstone called the Railway Club. When I started to deejay in that place it was like 'Woooaaah!' And so I started to deejay on sounds like Lord Koo's Sound and it just went on from there. People started knowing me as a good deejay and wanting me to take the mic and things like that. Then Tsungi, who was the bass player from Misty In Roots, real name Tony Henry, and a brother called Clive, they came to me and said, "Listen we heard you deejaying on the sound and we think you can sing man. We have a band so come come sing with full band". And I went down there and the band that was playing was Spartans. I started singing and the first song I sung was a Bob Marley song - I think was Trench Town Rock which was popular at the time (the band would play whatever was popular at the time) - and when they heard me sing it they were like 'WOOOAAAH!' And from then I started singing that - that was it. We started working, playing in youth centres. I think Alperton Youth Centre was one of our first gigs. It was most of our friends that were there and to see the appreciation that we got from our friends - it was amazing. So we just took it from there and carried on.

What happened to the Spartans?

Later on that band split up. Musicians went into different bands and stuff like that. Basically there were other bigger bands than us because we were just coming, and they wanted good musicians, so they really targeted our band because we had some real good musicians. So after they took a couple of musicians the band just split up because it was never really worth it again. We were looking at it as one band and together we were that band. So after that I met up with some other musicians from Wembley and Harlesden, Mark Moore, Stefan, Caswell Brown and Ray Brown. They were putting a band together and after a while we named the band Mighty Vibes.

This was the band that you cut Jah Music in 1977 on the White Rum Red Stripe label. Was that the first recording you did or were there others before?

Jah Music wasn't the first song I did. It was the first song we did with the band. And in fact we did do a recording with Spartans as well. We did a tune called Whop A Doody Whop and Punishment Of Jah. And then we went to Mighty Vibes and did Jah Music. That was one of the first recordings we did. We paid our own money to do that recording. We all put in together and did that song Jah Music. It was produced by all of us, engineered, everything! In those days we really had the vibe for it because we considered our teachers in the music business at the time to be people like Lee Perry, Bob Marley, and King Tubby. Those three were the main people that we specialised in when making rhythms and building our tunes. So the sound that we had was a mighty sound - that's why we called it the Mighty Vibes. That band, we did a lot of great things together: we played with Chas & Dave, we played with Adam & The Ants, we used to do shows with all of those people. It was after Chas & Dave had a number one song that we did a tour with them. The crowd sat down for Chas & Dave but when we were on they were on their feet jumping up and down - everybody in action! It was a wonderful thing to see that. We were at Warwick University: we did a lot of university gigs in those days. Reggae music was just like all the other music in those days so we had opportunity to play on shows and things like that - which was great. Adam and The Ants crowd was just a normal crowd. In those days you had the punk rock so you had the punk rock crowds but they loved reggae as well so it was always one good vibe. There was never a problem when it came to those kinds of sessions.

So what happened to the Mighty Vibes?

Mighty Vibes split up in about 1978 and that was the end of Mighty Vibes. But before that happened we recorded two songs. One of those songs was Good Morning and another one called It's True which was on the other side. Those songs were recorded with Mighty Vibes and I wrote both of those songs. After they were sitting around for a year, a friend of mine who organised the recording - a brother called Vivian Marshall who played a very important part in my career from the time I started to sing in the UK, a very important part in me, Vivian Jones being here - he kept pressing me and saying, "We've got to release that tune, we've got to release that tune!" Because the tune had been sitting there doing nothing for a year. Then one day he said to me, "I've booked a studio in Suffolk, and we're going to Suffolk and we're going to mix this tune and then we put it out!" so we went to Suffolk and we put the tune on. It was a rock band's studio but I can't even remember the name of the band. It wasn't a big famous band but it was a good band and they had their own studio. So we actually mixed that song in their studio and we even got one of their guitarists to play a little riff on Good Morning as well. The producer was myself and Vivian Marshall but it was a song we used to play as Mighty Vibes. We the musicians arranged it.

And that song went to number one in the reggae charts.

Yes, it was my first number one.

Now you sang that song in a very high voice. Why did you choose to sing it in that style?

(Laughs) I always, even as a youth growing up in Jamaica, used to sing anything that came on the radio, whether it was Desmond Dekker and The Aces, Bob Marley and The Wailers, Jimmy Cliff, Diana Ross. It doesn't matter who - I always sing along to anything that plays on the radio. Now Junior Murvin had a song at the time called Police and Thieves and I kept on singing it because I didn't realise that I could sing falsetto for a whole song. So I kept on singing that song and then one day it just dawned on me that I could sing like this. I remember one day I was looking through my window when I got up one morning and there was this nice young lady passing by! (Laughs) And I just started singing (sings falsetto) "GOOD MORNING... HOW YOU DOING... GOOD MORNING..." and it just went on and on. I went to rehearsal that same day and I said, "Eh, listen! I have a tune. Make we just build this tune!" So I started singing and we started playing and that was it - Good Morning.

And you re-recorded that tune in the 90s didn't you?

Yeah. In 1990. Had another number one with that as well! (Laughs)

Now your third band was the Pieces. How did they start?

Well because I'd had two bands already that both broke up and it was like I wasn't charge of these bands, I decided I'm going to set up a band. So I set up the Pieces, and the reason why it was called the Pieces is because I took pieces of different musicians from different areas and bands and I just put them together and we started rehearsing. So I called it Vivian Jones and the Pieces. In fact at one time it wasn't even Vivian Jones and the Pieces - it was VJ Pieces so nobody knew it was me singing on those songs.

And you recorded several tunes with the Pieces on the label Virgo Stomach in Willesden. How did that come about?

Virgo Stomach was the first record label that showed interest in Vivian Jones. Virgo Stomach was a brother who was releasing records at the time named John Ruby. He heard about me and I went to see him and he was talking saying, "OK, let's go in the studio and do some recording and see what comes out". The first recording we did was a song by Bonnie Tyler called It's A Heartache. Then we did Black Green and Gold as well.

That was about your grandfather and your ancestors in Jamaica wasn't it?

Yes, this was about Jamaica, saying we as Jamaicans must come together and live good and have a nice time. This was one of the first songs that I wrote that really touched out on the road (because this was before the release of Good Morning). So those records went out and did quite well. Very well as a matter of fact. Even today Black Green and Gold is a collectors tune - especially for the dub. When we went in the studio we didn't really know that we were going to actually do those songs. There were just some songs I had to choose from and we just started working because in those days we'd just set up and decide what we were going to play and just play. So we got those tunes out of there, which were the first tunes that really came out from Vivian Jones. Then we went and recorded with the Pieces doing a song called Mighty Love, and another one called One Of These Days. And those songs were released and did very well - especially Mighty Love which was a classic lovers song for me.

But those ones were for a different label, Cha Cha in Harlesden?

That's right, because with the Pieces now, I put the money together and went in the studio and recorded those songs. So when I finished them, I didn't know anything about putting out records. I didn't really want to put out my own records and I didn't know much about doing that side of the business. So I would take them to a label, and Cha Cha was a man that we knew at the time who liked the kind of tunes we were putting out.

Going back to your Virgo Stomach releases, you also recorded a big tune called Who's Going To Get Caught (In Babylon's Trap) with Pieces. What sort of bad things were people around you doing that inspired those lyrics?

(Laughs) Yes. That was about 1980-81, with the Pieces musicians for John Ruby at Virgo Stomach. That was based on being through so many bands and seeing how musicians and people operate. Because, it was strange for me - and you must remember that I hadn't been in England for that long - coming from the countryside of Jamaica from a Godly Christian family, teaching upfullness and truths and rights, to England and seeing the people you mix with and go with are not that way. So it started dawning on me when people start doing wicked things to you and I said, "Hmmm... who's gonna get caught in Babylon's trap?" and started writing that. It was the same with the song One Of These Days. I remember driving on the North Circular and writing that song. Because when I say 'writing the song' it was not pen to paper, I'm just driving and singing the song and building the song, and by the time I drive from North London to Harlesden that song was completed: horn section, backing vocals, everything - I knew exactly how I wanted the song to go. And that song, One Of These Days was also about people treating you badly and pretending that they are Rasta. Pretending and then living some other life. So Who's Going To Get Caught and One Of These Days were in the same kind of vein.

And another tune you did for Virgo Stomach that year was What You Gonna Do?

That was one of the last tunes I did for Virgo before me and him had a big falling out. In fact that tune was done in the same session as Who's Going To Get Caught. We licked those two tunes the same day. But maybe he didn't think much of What You Gonna Do? so we just left it there. And after a while What You Gonna Do came up and started creeping up on him and then he decided to release it. Especially when Java Sound started playing it. When Java started playing it people started saying it was a good tune and he realised and decided to release it.

In 1981 you also recorded the tune Red Eyes that would later be released by Jah Shaka. Who played on that?

That was session musicians. I just called together some different musicians and put this one together. Red Eyes was some of the Pieces musicians and even some of the Mighty Vibes. I wrote that song one night when I was at home with Mum. I wasn't still living at home with her but sometimes I would go to Mum's and stay for a couple of days. Mum didn't like the ganja thing you understand? So I was going home one night and I remember when I opened the car door and I looked in the rear view mirror I saw my eyes were really red! And I just started laughing and singing, "When you see my eyes red, don't think I've been crying". Now at the same time I was going through a little crisis in one of my relationships and so everything just rolled into one. I just put the red eyes in with the relationship and was like, "red eyes, don't think I've been crying" you know?

It brings together some topics that don't normally coexist in a reggae song which is quite unusual.

(Laughs) That's right! Because it's kind of a love song and a roots song at the same time!

Now that song wasn't put out by Shaka until 1986, quite a while after you recorded it.

Yes, it wasn't released before that. It was just sitting around and being played around with. I took it to Jah Shaka and that was the tune that started my label. Because when I took it to Jah Shaka he said, (puts on Shaka voice) "Why every man a bring tune come gimme? Why every man don't build them own label like how me build my label? You haffi just build your own label Vivian instead of just a keep bring tune fi me fi put it out! You can put it out!" And I never liked the way he talked to me about that and I went to take back the record from him and he said, (puts on Shaka voice) "No! No worry I will do this one but you haffi do your label now!" So from that I decided, "Bwoy, Shaka no talk to me so again". So I go build my label you know?

In 1981 you were also voted Most Talented Singer in the UK by Black Echoes. Did that mean much to you?

Not a thing because I didn't even know about it until way afterwards. Because at that time I wasn't in the public eye as such. It was just the tunes that were doing well so people knew the tunes and they knew the name but no one knew what I looked like. For example when Good Morning was released they wrote in the review in the paper 'Miss Vivian Jones' because of my high voice!

After that, you disappeared for a while. Tell me about this period.

Well I kind of quit the business in about 1982 and decided, "This a idiot ting this! Rubbish this! I go back a Jamaica and spend some time with Grandma and Grandpa". So I went to Jamaica and spent about three or four months and I even recorded songs while I was there. But I was really fed up with the music business and the way the producers treated you. That's why I fell out with Virgo because he was driving the biggest car then. You name the top car and Virgo was driving it. And Virgo was not coming and saying, "Well bwoy, Vivian Jones, hold this. This is for your record". Virgo wasn't saying nothing! So it went on and on and then he decided he was going to give me a little something. But he gave me a little something because he wanted more tunes. Now I wasn't fooled by those things. I was always a bright youth. So I decided, "Nah I'm not recording for none a dem! I'm not recording no more music for Cha Cha! I'm not recording for none a dem!" So I went to Jamaica and spent a good time in Jamaica and when I came back I decided to get a job and start work nine to five straight!

But you did manage to link up again with Crucial Tony Phillips and Ruff Cutt band to record the album Bank Robbery. Tell me about that.

Ruff Cutt was like '82-'83-'84 time. Because at that time I never had a band to work with or anything so I spoke to Crucial Tony Phillips and he said I must come in. I went down to Ruff Cutt (at this time they were just changing their name from Undivided Roots to Ruff Cutt) and they had some rhythms down there that they didn't know what to do with and I think they were even going to wipe some of them off the tape. They played me a few of them and I said, "What? You gwaan wipe off this?? A me tek this!" so they say "Alright, come voice it..." and the tune was Flash It And Gwaan. When I heard that rhythm I said, "Bwoy you mad???" and they said, "we cyaan get nobody to sing 'pon this riddim" so I said, "gimme the riddim". And, in fact, before I sang it, when I heard the rhythm I went to a sound party where Boopie Black and some of those people from Hawkeye Crew were playing in North London. I went there and they gave me the mic and I started singing Flash It And Gwaan right there and then. Then I went to the studio and sang it for Ruff Cutt. After Flash It And Gwaan I sang about three more tunes that night and then they decided to make an album so they started giving me different rhythms and I kept voicing them until we had an album. That was the album Bank Robbery, because at the time the bank robbery was a real thing that happened on my birthday, 1st April, when they robbed some gold bullion or something like that. Whole heap of millions. And because it was on my birthday, I remembered that and then one day they gave me a rhythm and so I sang Bank Robbery on it for the album title track. That was the first album to ever come out of Ruff Cutt.

You also worked with Jah Shaka during this period. How did that happen?

While I was working nine to five I linked up with Jah Shaka and we talked and then one night he called me and said, (puts on Shaka voice) "Bwoy, me have a session tonight!" So I went down to the studio in New Cross in the night and we didn't know what we were going to play or anything. Shaka was producing the rhythms and he just told the musicians what kind of style he wanted and they'd just play and I'd sing. We did about five tunes in one night and then I went back the next night and we did about five or six. This was about 1982-83 and then in about 1984 things started to bubble up and Jah Shaka decided he was going to release the album. But when the album Jah Shaka Presents Vivian Jones was released I never liked how he did the thing because the songs were written by me and he'd put 'written and arranged and produced by Jah Shaka'. So strong words were passed but in the end the album went out and got on too. But Jah Shaka told me that he never recorded any English artists before he recorded me. I was the first one, even before Aswad and them. But the album really came out and went on with a thing when it was released because I don't think it came out until about 1986 or something like that.

This was the album that was released as Jah Works in 1987?

Yeah the same - Jah Works.

Did you prefer the experience of working on the Ruff Cutt album or the Shaka one?

The Shaka album was more like, you just hear a rhythm and you just voice. They're building the rhythm, we're there and he'd say he wants the rhythm to go like this or that. But while they're building the rhythm like that, I'm voicing. So it was more like a Jah Shaka production on the rhythm. Ruff Cutt was a different style of music and production so it was nice working with them on it, especially how I knew some of them you know?

Read part two of this exclusive interview on United Reggae here, where Vivian Jones looks back on his lovers hits in the 1990s, his life changing experiences in South Africa, and his opposition to the handling of the 2005 Live 8 concerts...

Photos copyright Angus Taylor 2009
Reproduction without permission of United Reggae and Angus Taylor is prohibited.

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Read comments (3)

Posted by irationvibe on 02.13.2010
Always been one of my favorite singers ever since I first hears Bank Robbery.Ras Charles Jones,WHRW Binghamton,NY

Posted by Britishgal207 on 07.24.2010
Why is it so hard to obtain a copy of the Jet Star Reggae Max CD featuring Vivian. Please tell me where I can buy this CD.

Posted by Camille on 07.25.2010
Yes, it looks like it is unavailable everywhere ! Will keep on searching.

Comments actually desactivated due to too much spams

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