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Interview: Junior Dan Part 1

Interview: Junior Dan Part 1

Interview: Junior Dan Part 1

By on - Photos by Angus Taylor - 1 comment

"When I saw Jimi Hendrix playing left handed I said, Nah man. I can do this!"


Junior Dan (born Sydney Gussine) AKA Lefthand Bassie is one roots reggae's most enigmatic, esoteric and progressive artists. Born to a comfortable middleclass background in Kingston, Dan has always chosen his own path, whether as a member of the 12 Tribes Band, as a sporadic solo artist or even an ascetic living in caves or Native American reservations.
Where most Jamaican musicians move to the beat of the soundmen and producer's demands, his outlook has always been closer to music's mavericks outside of reggae. While the likes of Bob Marley and Lee Perry (with whom he worked closely as a solo artist and session player) were having an opportunistic "Punky Reggae Party" in the late seventies, Dan was creating symphonic, glockenspiel laden roots collages such as Jah Foundation, which owed more to the experimental spirit - without the longueurs - of progressive jazz and rock.
His works might have been lost in the shrouds of time had Damon Albarn and Honest Jon's not reissued his work at the start of the last decade. Now Dan has a new, lo-fi, multi-textured album out, Reggae Roadmap, and allowed Angus Taylor to conduct this extensive two part interview with one of music and life's true originals - whose story has never been told...

Where and when were you born?

Kingston Jamaica. My parents were living in Trenchtown at the time I was born, 1950, October 3rd. For me growing up there was very good - I wouldn't say the area I lived in but more the people I was in touch with. When I was born, first we lived in Trenchtown, then we moved from there when I was not able to know and we lived at Whitfield Avenue until I was nine. Then we moved to Hagley Park Road which was more upper Kingston, and there is where I would say I grew up. Across the street in front of me was Ernest Ranglin and next door to him were the Blues Busters, along with Sammy the trombonist from Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, who were all living in a house there. On the other side of Ranglin was a boxer who was the first Jamaican boxer to achieve international fame. Right next to where Blues Busters were living, down at the bottom of Greyden Avenue was Boris Gardiner. The area was very athletic - most of my friends from in that area had grown up to become either sports personalities or musicians.

How did you become interested in music?

I guess I was born in music. My Mum used to play organ for the church and because of that I started getting a liking for songs. When I was really small I remember I used to get these big carton boxes and I would draw a speaker on the front and get inside the box. This is how I would get my pocket money at the time! I had this sardine tin - one of those long sardine tins they used to have at the time - and put that on a piece of board with some fishing line and make a guitar. So I would be strumming it inside the box and my granddad would drop coins in like it was a jukebox! Every Sunday evening I was a jukebox for the family and I would drop coins in and sing whatever they want! Then I got a comb and put silver foil over it and blew through it. That was long before I got into any instruments though. I was really small, ten eleven.

Did you have any formal training?

Then, while I was going to St Cecilia Preparatory School, my Mum decided she was going to put me forward to learn the piano. So I said, "yeah, I liked that" and I would go to piano lessons and go (imitates melodic gentle piano) "Ding, dong, ding". But whenever the woman would leave the room I would start (imitates banging the piano hard) so one day she came in and shut the piano down on my hands because she was really fed up with me doing that! So I was like, "OK", took my music book, stuck it in my back pocket, and went outside to play football! So that was the end of my music trip there, and that lasted a little while, but when I went to Rusea's [High School] they had a school band there called the Serenaders. So I started to hitch along with them, saying, "Hey can I come sing with the band?" singing harmony and playing bongo drums and doing whatever I could do. At this time I was about fourteen. Then I asked them if they could teach me guitar and they said, "no because you hold the guitar this way and we hold it THIS way". So that didn't happen and I went back to Kingston where my family lived and there was this guy named Scott Richards who used to live down a lane next to my yard. I would see him passing with his guitar so one I day I said, "Scott! Help me learn to play guitar!" and he said, "Come down to the house." I went down there and he had another guitar and said, "Look, if you play this way and I play that way I can't show you anything. I'll tell you what: I'm going to play, you're going to watch me and then you're going to copy me".

Like a mirror?

Exactly. I said, "Cool". So everywhere he put his fingers I stuck mine there.

So despite being left handed you play the guitar strung the tradition way...

(Laughs) I'm glad you said, "strung the traditional way" because if you said "upside down" I was gonna slam you! (laughing) I consider that I am playing it the way it was made to be played, that's just my bias. Because if you look at the speakers in the dance or anywhere, you see bass at the bottom, midrange in the middle and top end at the top, and when I hold my guitar like this you have the same - bass, midrange and top end! So I know this is right!

And of course, Jimi Hendrix played it that way as well.

Yes, and that's my inspiration. When I saw Jimi doing it like that I said, "Nah man. I can do this!"

Why did you choose to focus on the bass? Did you gravitate towards it or was it practical necessity?

No I needed to play! (laughs) I do play keyboards and guitars and stuff. But for me the bass was the way I could express more emotions in the music because with the bass, depending on the mood and how it's going, you don't really have to think about the chords and how it's going, what the next change is going to be, it's all the bass. And if it seems a bit outside of the chords everyone is playing it harmonises. Like playing the 5th note when everybody's playing the root or whatever. So the bass was the instrument I liked the most.

So what happened to the music after you left school?

Well after the school band I came back to Kingston to go to college. I'm a Kingstonian - I went to Rusea's because they sent me out of town to school due to my antics! - so I went back in and went to Jamaica College. There I started to form this band called the Blue Angels - that was my first band. I got wood and chopped it out and sandpapered it to make a guitar, then I went to Boris Gardiner's house, put his bass down on some cardboard and made the markings for the frets and everything. Then Mikey Carrol the trumpeter was passing by and he said, "Hey, come join my band". He had a band called the Explosions so I went there and that lasted just for the summer holidays. That was my first experience with a band manager and it wasn't the best one! This guy he said "I'm going to be your manager" and he got us this gig in Half Way Tree. We played there and every Friday and Saturday night and after we'd played the little money we got went to him and he was supposed to take it to this music company so we could buy instruments. So we went down with him one day and said, "I want that bass!" "I want that amp!" and got all this stuff in, but then three or four months after when we were playing a gig and I was taking a break I saw all these big guys come up and start taking the equipment! I went, "Eh! Eh!" and they said, "sorry mate - these instruments are not paid for". And I was like, "what??? we been playing two nights every week for the last three months!" but the guy took all of them.

How did you form your famous Generation Gap band who played at Randy's?

From the Explosions, that's where Gap came in. I was going to J.C. and Johnny Parkinson, he was the innovator behind starting that band, he said "hey let's get this thing together" and I said, "Yeah, cool". So myself, Bugs Parkinson, Norman McCallam, who was the keyboard player, we were at J.C. and we hooked up with Paul and John Lindo and Largey from Woolmers. That was Generation Gap as it started then. We had a singer called Carlton Brown. During that time I got some gigs in the studio. There were people around me who said, "come down to the studio" and I went down to Randy's and they auditioned me and said, "yeah we want you to play here" but I said, "I got my band". So I brought the whole Generation Gap down and we started recording at Randy's for $100 a day, for the entire band that is, on Sundays. And we took that $100 to the music shop and paid for our own instruments ourselves and took them back out! So all the sessions we did at Randy's were used to buy instruments for the band.

So what did you do with your homemade instruments?

(laughs) Those were left somewhere at my grandmother's house after a while! They just disappeared!

What was your relationship like with the Chins?

(thinks) How should I explain it? It was a good relationship with no bad vibes or anything. I think we got a bit of kid glove treatment from the Chins because of where most of our families were based. A lot of the guys in the band were uptown guys. The Lindos, their family owned jewellery stores, and Bugs Parkinson's father was a high court judge, so they took care not to abuse us in any way! But we did a lot of work down there, some for ourselves and some for Randy's.

A very memorable tune credited to Generation Gap is the cover of Edwin Starr's War with that huge bassline. Who played on that?

That was a set of guys who were at university with me - I was studying medicine then - Richard Kirkwood and a couple of guys. These guys were almost opera singers - that's the kind of training they had - and they used to sing at the campus fetes all the time. We just went down the studio and recorded that and then it disappeared until it turned up now.

I've got an old UK press of that. What other tunes did you play on at Randy's?

One of the projects we did with Randy's that at the time I heard went pretty well in England was some classical songs we re-did in reggae like Blue Danube and Swan Lake. One of the biggest hits we did was Go Back and we also did Bridge Over Troubled Water, Mikey did an instrumental of it which they called Waterfalls.

This was the same rhythm Jimmy London sang over?

Yes, it was our project. We did it, Mikey did the instrumental, and Fred Locks along with his Buddy called Beenie, who were called the Lyrics, did the first version of it, where Fred Locks would sing one part, Beenie would respond and both of them would sing the chorus. For me that was best recording of it that I heard. But Mrs Chin, Miss Pat, she was introduced to Jimmy London and liked his silky voice more than Fred Locks rough and tough voice, so instead of putting out ours they put out Jimmy London's thing. Someone told me the other day thatb one some of Jimmy London's records if you flip over the flipside there is that song I'm looking for by the Lyrics. Anyway Randy's was from about '68 to around '71-72.

So how did your career as a session man progress after Randy's?

Well while I was there a certain Mr Gibbs came to me. He was selling seasonings - baskets with spring onions, thyme and garlic. He asked me if I was Mr Lefthand and I said yes. He said, "I have a singer I want to try out and I wonder if you can help me". He was this tall guy standing next to him, Nigel we called him but you know him as Nicky Thomas. So I listened to him and said, "Alright I will book some time at Randy's". So when I did that with Joe Gibbs my name started going round a bit more, and then Duke Reid called me in for a couple of sessions at Treasure Isle, then Phil Pratt and it just started from there. When Joe Gibbs built his studio we became residents there. As well as Nicky Thomas we did Dennis Brown, Heptones material like Book Of Rules. Then he moved the studio to Retirement Road. While there GG came in for a couple sessions and liked my playing so I started working for him doing a lot of Gregory Isaacs and Starlites, Donna Edwards, Barbara Jones and all of them. But then after a while he fell out with Joe Gibbs so he decided to move his sessions to Harry J's so I ended up doing 11 albums at Harry J! That's when 12 Tribes came in to the picture.

How did you come to record your own song Look Out For The Devil at Lee Perry’s studio in 1973?

Well after Generation Gap I went to Hells Angels which is nowadays called Chalice. And from Hells Angels when it exploded I went off to the country with Solid Foundation Band, which was Pablove Black, Sowell, Benbow and Chokey Taylor. This was the group that ended up going into the Black Ark. We were the resident band there and we started to record stuff like House Is Not A Home, Look Out For The Devil, about three or four songs some of whose names I can't remember.

The devil lyrics became a staple of Perry’s later work. Who wrote them?

It was a combination of myself and Richard who we called Blackie. We sang it both together like a duet and I sometimes challenge people to identify the two different voices! John at Dubvendor did! He said, "That's you there!" so it's up to you to find out as well! (laughs) But yeah Lee took them off my stuff because mine was there long before. I don't "think" it was a blueprint - I know that! (laughs)

Now that song was mixed at King Tubbys. How well did you know him?

I was his apprentice mate! When we'd go to studio in the early morning we'd get there at like 10 o'clock in the morning and we'd hang out til about 5 o'clock in the afternoon. After that I'd be at Tubby's place and I'd leave with him! He didn't live far from me - he lived in Patrick City and I lived about two streets away - so we travelled together. I learned a lot from him. He was a quiet person, he didn't waste time talking too much, but you could see that he was always thinking. He was a very kind person who wouldn't think twice about giving you stuff. People would come and ask him for time and he'd say "Go in the studio, let's see what you can do".

You said in the past that that was the same session as Junior Byles recorded Curly Locks. How did you find him at the time?

Oh gosh. I would say he was pretty normal - for a singer! He was not eccentric as he is now. There was a lot of bad coverage of that song at the time. It was recorded by myself, Pablove Black and Benbow - the three of us. But the story that came out was different. It was said to be recorded by Jimmy Aries and Theophilus Beckford and they still kept Benbow. I'll tell you why that happened: when we did the song and it was getting big Scratch said, "I want you guys to tour. I'm going to take you to England but you have to get a haircut". I said, "I'm not cutting my hair for you so gt somebody else!" (laughs) Pablove said the same thing but Benbow had a haircut so he got the credit.

Kind of ironic really given the title of the track?

(laughs) Yeah! Junior Byles went on stage at Carib Theatre and he was introducing his band and he said, "Here's my bass player Jimmy Aries, Theophilus Beckford and Benbow..." and I think he had someone playing guitar for the show. And when he said this he looked around and saw me and Pablove standing at the back and, I don't know if that's what did it but he just ran off the stage and he hasn't been the same since. Seriously, he has not been the same since. And Perry, a couple of months after that, started acting in his eccentric way - he wasn't like that before.

How did you first meet Lee Perry?

At Randy's. We all used to hang there together with Dizzy and Bob and everyone was there. I started playing bass for Bob's first band, Bob Peter and Bunny, called the Wailing Wailers band. They had a record shop on Beeston Street which we used to rehearse at and it was there I began my association with Lee Perry.

How involved was Lee Perry in your Black Ark recordings?

Lee Perry was very involved. In my estimation he was one of the most involved producers I've worked with. He was live and direct when he was in the studio. He did everything with his body - if he wanted the drummer to play in a particular way he'd use his body to show you and you'd understand. It was like when we were doing Mr Brown he came in the studio and started to walk like this (imitates a linping gait) saying, "Hey, I just saw a man walking down the street and this how he walking... play the bass like this! Just drop it 'pon that note!" He was one of the most involved producers and in my opinion he was one of the best that ever came out of Jamaica.

So which Wailers material did you play on and who was in the band?

The way Bob recorded was he never used "a" band. He recorded it individually. He'd say, "Hey drummie! Bass, guitar, keyboards..." and put it in like that so I couldn't really say who it was - it was just the Wailing Wailers band.

In his book Solid Foundation David Katz says Duppy Conqueror was recorded by the Upsetters and Mr Brown was recorded by Soul Syndicate. Is that just putting names to whoever was there at the time?

(laughs) Or possibly he was given that information - I don't know. A lot of people do give information they really don't know much about. I've read a lot of Bob Marley books where after reading I couple of pages I'm like, "I don't want to read any more of this!" I've heard interviews with Bob's mother and I've turned it off because she's lying through her teeth! It's just about money making right now. I've seen the stuff that Neville Garrick and a couple of them are coming with and I'm like, "where did they come from with this information?" A whole lot of lies but I just leave it alone - people are trying to make money and some gullible people buy it! (laughs)

But surely it's quite hard to prove a lot of this stuff? With all respect I could be the gullible person who wasn't there buying all this?

No it's not because there are still people around that were there!

But surely if you say one thing and someone else says another it's your word against theirs?

Yes but they weren't there! That's the difference! (laughs)

But for example, if someone asked "Who played on this Rolling Stones record?" it's probably on film or on tape or more than one journalist was sniffing around. Whereas in reggae if someone is doing a retrospective in many cases they have no choice but to accept that they're told. There are methods of cross referencing and talking to venerated underground reggae historians but often deadlines won't allow for this.

OK I'll tell you something now. As you mentioned that I'm going to give you a specific incident. Africa Unite: I went to Bob's studio that day to record Burning Spear's Hail HIM album. I arrived early and was sitting down with Bob under the mango tree, because apart from music we were friends, and he started strumming this song. I had another guitar and both of us were messing around with it, dropping lyrics in and all that kind of stuff. Then Santa, the Soul Syndicate drummer, came by and Bob was like, "Rah! Drum, bass, let's go in the studio". So we went into the studio, myself, Santa, Bob and Sangy. There was nobody else there except for Errol Brown the engineer. While we were in there a photographer from New York came by and me and Bob were sitting there talking and the two guitars formed a "V" with both of our heads inside so the guy took the picture. He gave it to Bob and Bob said, "I want this to go on the Survival album sleeve". If you look at the album you'll notice there's a photograph for every song except Africa Unite. For Africa Unite there's a logo with two olive buds and that was where the picture was supposed to go. Bob had the picture and at the time we were in Sangy's office and then the picture went missing. About a month later I went to Sangy's house and there was the picture in his cabinet. So I said, "Sangy!" and I took it back to Bob and Bob started cussing like hell because he had already sent the sleeve off to be made. So that was proof that I was there doing that song with Bob - right??? (laughs)


Now years later in about 1994 Familyman came to my house. He was seeing some girl while living with his wife and he had to come to my house to see her! So I said, "Fams, did you register Africa Unite as one of your songs?" and he said, "No no no! I wouldn't do that! I know it was your stuff". I said, "the reason I'm asking you is because I'm going to go to England to claim for it. So if you registered it, it's cool no problem but I just need to know" and he said, "No no no". Now as luck would have it, when I came here to the PRS there was some discrepancy with my registration which was done in '71 so I went to Germany and registered myself with BMI so I also registered that song. But they came back to me with a piece of paper that said it was already registered by... Aston Barrett! They said, "If you want to file a counter claim, we can and it would freeze everything" but I said, "Nah, leave it alone". Then I saw John Masouri a couple of years ago and he told about the case with Familyman for the royalties. Then somebody called John Smith or something told me to go and see Familyman's lawyer up in Oxford Circus. I spent some time with this lawyer and he interviewed me on tape but then I asked him to turn the tape off and said, "You ask me about Bob Marley and these songs but I don't want to put it on tape if it's going to damage Familyman's case". So I explained it all to him and he said, "It's OK because I heard that in Jamaica" and apparently Judy Mowatt told him that it was I who played it and not Fams. So I said, "tell Fams when he comes to London to come to court he should call me because I will stand up and say yeah yeah yeah!" (laughs) But he didn't do that and then the next thing I know he lost the case and lost a whole bag of money and I thought, "Fams, you're stupid!" Because if he had someone like me in there talking for him like that it could have made a difference because a lot of the evidence that was made in Jamaica was just thrown out!

Read part 2 of this interview where Junior Dan talks about his involvement with the 12 Tribes organisation, his work with Blur’s Damon Albarn and his new album Reggae Roadmap. He also gives a scathing warning to vintage roots reggae vinyl collectors, suggesting they are partially responsible for modern reggae’s ills….


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

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Read comments (1)

Posted by Gigi on 05.26.2010
What a fine written piece of interview. A bit too long!

Comments actually desactivated due to too much spams

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