|Harmonica is one of those instruments which hasn't exactly been overused in Jamaican music at least, which is a pity indeed. The blind singer/instrumentalist Roy Richards was a pioneer in the sixties on the harmonica but Charles Cameron, more known as 'Charley Organarie', was probably the first to use it extensively on Kingston recording sessions in the early 1960's. Charley's name has sometimes popped up during the past thirty years when foundation artists has been asked who backed them, and it's a shame he isn't more widely known to the general public for his efforts in those times. Organaire turned to self-production from early on, releasing songs like the great double-sider 'Little Holiday'/'Little Village', both substantial hits at the time. He is still recording, and can be found on stage frequently in Chicago these days. My thanks to Charley, Carlton Hines, Teacher & Mr T, and Donovan Phillips.|
Q: Give me a little background from your early days.
A: Well, I grew up in Kingston, Jamaica. My entrance into the music is actually from about age five. And it was one of my neighbours actually... Mr Randolph, he played the harmonica, actually played the harmonica and the guitar. And I got turned on to the harmonica. And the other thing, my mom sung all the time, so there's no way I could get away from it. So I performed in my neighborhood, I mean churches, and they have political parties. So they had different areas where they had meetings and stuff and I would sing and play in those places. And that was from childhood, from about that time.
Q: What did Mr Randolph teach you from that stage?
A: Actually he didn't neither, y'know, he didn't actually taught me anything, I just picked it up because I was turned on by the way they play the harmonica. They play it very well at the time. Back in those days you'd find a lot of guys playing guitars and singin', for a hobby. Because there was no other stuff like television and all that stuff. So by seeing him and hearing him play the harmonica I got turned on to it. So my mom bought me a little plastic one, and that was it from then on.
Q: Unique in a way at the time in Jamaica, I guess, not a very popular instrument and not used to an extent in the music either.
A: Well, actually there were other harmonica players. I mean, I think maybe why I'm more recognised than they are is because of recordings, that might be. But there was a guy, a blind guy, an old blind guy, his name was Lenny, and he was excellent. He used to play the diatonic harmonica, diatonic tones. And I know he died a long time ago. Then there was another guy, his name was Milton Dawes, now he plays chromatic harmonica, so I played the diatonic harmonica till I saw Milton Dawes, then I switched to the chromatic 'cause I like the way it goes to the semi-notes, like the black keys. So then Roy Richards came on the scene.
Q: Oh yes, almost forgot him.
A: Right. So that's about it that I know of, that play harmonica in Jamaica.
Q: You lent an ear to American blues at that time, not the R&B but the actual Mississippi type blues stuff?
A: In those days American music was popular in Jamaica. We did, we had like Stanley Motta and they did some recordings like that.
Q: Mainly mento though.
A: But, yeah, we listened to a lot of the New Orleans Rhythm & Blues, the American music was popular, country music was played in Jamaica. We had one radio station.
Q: RJR, before JBC came on?
A: RJR, played everything.
Q: Then there was the Rediffusion.
A: Oh, same RJR. They had like - the Rediffusion was more or less like a speaker, just a box, all you have to do is turn it on, y'know. It was RJR, you would tune in to that one, just play that one. It came from RJR actually, the Rediffusion. So we would rent that box, it was for rental, and it would play from early in the morning till I think early in the evening.
Q: So the first serious experience musically speaking was when you toured the island as a member of a group, like singin' in country clubs?
A: Well, OK. It was from my school, the Boys Town School in Kingston, one of the directors, his name was Bailey, so he brought Vere Johns into Boys Town - Vere Johns was a talent scout, actually he did a lot of shows all over Kingston in the theaters and at the RJR radio station. So actually a little history on that: Alton Ellis and I was on the first show that we did at Boys Town, Alton Ellis was dancing. He wasn't even singin' yet, he was dancin' at the time. I came first playing the harmonica and he came second, dancing. He danced with another guy name Brenton, I didn't even know I knew (chuckles)... But anyway, so from there Mr Bailey would take us to various country clubs, Caymanas Country Club, just numerous country clubs all over the island. And had us performing. I mean, not just myself, there was a guy name Ben O' Leary, Carlos Sinclair, Roy Martin, so he just took us all over to perform.
Q: And after that was when you entered the Vere Johns show?
A: That was when I entered the Vere Johns, so I would perform in the theaters in Kingston. The Ambassador Theatre in Trench Town, from there to the Palace Theatre, Gaiety Theatre, the Majestic Theatre, Kings Theatre, I was just performing on all them theatres.
Q: The capacity in general was up to five hundred, max, at those theatres?
A: Oh no, the Ambassador Theatre took probably I would say about eight hundred, about a thousand people.
Q: Ah, big thing.
A: If not more, this was a big theatre. Yeah. And so, Palace also would hold quite a bit (hawking). The others, like you had the Ward Theatre also, which I performed on, but that wasn't for Vere John, that was on the shows. That was one of the old, old theaters, from back in the... I would say from maybe when Spain controlled Jamaica, or in the early years of British rule, when that theater was built. That was for, like, not just movies, but it was like a real theater.
Q: So tell me a little about Bim & Bam, the comedians, they had like a revue at the time. You worked for them when they started out.
A: Right. Bim & Bam was one of the people, I mean one of the teams that would perform at the Ward Theatre, when they did shows all over the island, not just the Ward Theatre, they had like the Carib Theatre, that was like one of the main theaters where they had different performances. And so I performed with Bim & Bam in Kingston and other places on the island, that was a great team, I mean a huge team. There's comedy, there's music - everything, all in one. Yeah.
Q: You had like a prepsel man and you had people who would make 'balance' numbers on bicycle, right?
A: OK. That was more on the Vere Johns type of stuff.
Q: I see.
A: Yeah. Bim & Bam now is more like they would - let me see if I could see... just trying to see one of our sitcoms, comedy, y'know, them type of stuff they would do. And so I remember one of the shows I was involved in, it was called 'The Case of the Big-Headed Walking Stick'.
A: And this was all about a car, but it wasn't really... it was pertaining to women and a runaround sexual situation. Yeah. But the 'Big-Headed Walking Stick', 'changing the gears' and them type of stuff. So my part in that, I was the witness, eye-witness, and I was the private-detective.
Q: (Chuckles) Would like to see the script for that one.
A: Oh man, believe you me! When I got that part, it took me about three weeks before I could get serious, when I came out I would laugh during the performance. I mean, it was a whole lotta laughter in this during their performances. And there was this wife called Chloe, and, oh man, I tell you (chuckles)... great, great show.
Q: What became of Bim & Bam later on?
A: They eventually died. Bam died and then later on Bim died and I think Chloe died also.
Q: In the 1960's?
A: In the seventies. Yeah, because they died when I left - I left Jamaica 1976, so they died while I was here. So they died from about '76, '77, '78.
Q: I think where both Bim & Bam and Vere Johns is concerned, they don't get the credit they deserve for being formative in the early part of the Jamaican entertainment industry. So something should be manifested through the authorities to memorise their contributions, don't you think? That's the least you could ask for.
A: Right, and also there's Ranny Williams and Louise Bennett, a comedy team (hosting a popular radio program in those times).
Q: There should be some kind of museum or something to display their works in Jamaica, to show the rest of the world how important they were to shape what later became the industry it now is.
A: You know something, now that you say that, because when you talk about doing something like that, it takes quite a bit of finances. But that's a good idea, to kind of doing something in their name, in their names y'know.
Q: As a tribute, and to collect memorabilia that hasn't been visible for the outside world before, to show where things came from.
A: Right, a tribute. You know, that's great. It would be a good idea. I mean, not only in Jamaica, but in New York, wherever.
A: Those people, I mean, without them there wouldn't be us.
Q: And they gave you your start, created the scene.
A: Right (chuckles).
Q: So the first recording session, how did it come about? This was soon after the Bim & Bam experience?
A: Yeah, this is after... no, this is during Bim & Bam.
Q: With Prince Buster and Bobby Aitken.
A: Yeah. He and I got together, and we did this recording 'Never Never'. And that was for Prince Buster, actually we recorded it for Prince Buster. So Bobby wrote the song, I did the riff on the harmonica, and that just took off like hot bread. And from then on I became a steady studio musician, not only for Prince Buster but for Duke Reid, Coxson, for Beverley's, for Tip Top, King Edwards, you name it. Just anybody who goes into the studio, I had to be there also.
Q: How did you like the recording scene at such a young age?
A: I was in my teens now. Oh, I was excited, y'know, I think most musicians or artists who start performing at that age, that's something new. It wasn't probably like now, it was new to us, recording in Jamaica, it was something new to us. I mean, you hear yourself on the radio (chuckles)...
Q: Just excitement.
A: Different, different DJ's play your songs.
Q: Charlie Babcock, 'the cool fool with the live jive'?
A: Charlie Babcock, Radcliffe Butler, chuh, you name it, man. All these guys, yeah.
Q: But it wasn't a question of monetary reasons for your artistic interest, at least not in those days.
A: Well, the music, the only thing about it now, because I think - I stopped recording for some producers for a certain time.
A: It was a little disrespec' from just by the way how they handle the situation. I mean, you're recording but you'll have to wait for your money. You know, you go to get your money but you'll have to wait until the next day and still don't get it, probably a couple more days. Sometimes a cheque's a (is not?) bounce an' them type of stuff.
Q: The typical delay.
A: Right, so I kinda got paid off and took a break from it. Actually I did a couple more recordings after for myself (chuckles). So, that's how I got out on the recording scene at that time. Then I performed with various bands all over the island, I played with Sonny Bradshaw, I played with a guy named Trenton Smith, I played with a whole lotta different people. Mr Carlos Malcolm & The Afro-Jamaicans, I did recording actually for Byron Lee, but Byron Lee was someone I played with also. But I did quit the recording scene because of the way they handled the business, how it end up towards us.
Q: Milking you dry.
A: Yeah. Every now and again you'd find a half-decent person and you'd do something for him, they'd pay you right away, or whatever promise then they would come through . But then, during that time also I must tell you that I started my own producing too along with... I did some things with Bobby Aitken, I did some things on my own.
Q: And that was when you formed the Organaire's label.
A: The label, the Organaire's label, actually I do that from...
A: Yeah! It was before '65, I think even about '62. I was always singin' about '60 now but it was about '62 when I did the first recording.
Q: That you even managed to finance such sessions at that point is interesting, to do all that independently.
A: Well, the thing is that whatever money I collected for recordings...
Q: That was put away.
A: Yeah, because I was on a lot of sessions, just about - I would be in the studio from, say, nine o' clock or ten o' clock until probably three the next morning, recording for different people.
Q: Oh boy.
A: Because I have to tell you that recording in those days were like between nine in the morning and five, we'd do like fifteen songs.
Article: Peter I|
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