You have copycats and you have the true originals in popular music. I would place a group such as The Ethiopians in the latter category, being the brainchild of lead singer and songwriter Leonard 'Sparrow' Dillon. Musically he is like no one else in a sea of less original music makers, lyrically he is a pioneer of the 'conscious' or 'cultural' form of reggae we know as roots music, pointing to the harsh realities of everyday life. The whole package is one of timeless quality, unsurpassed in the story of Jamaican music so far. I look at Jamaican veteran Leonard Dillon from this perspective. Listen to his early work from scratch up to the present and you get a hint of what I mean. Nevertheless, he received the acknowledgment he truly deserved in 1981, being presented with the 'Certificate of Appreciation For Pop Music Development' by the then Prime Minister, Edward Seaga. Dillon, perhaps more known as 'The Ethiopian' these days, has been in the business for more than forty years by now. Originally he was recording as 'Jack Sparrow', then he formed The Ethiopians with local friend Stephen Taylor, and together they were responsible for a bunch of memorable hits and a strong catalog of songs that is hard to match by todays standards. Who can forget such songs as 'Train To Skaville', 'Hong Kong Flu', 'Everything Crash' or 'I'm Gonna Take Over Now'? These are almost evergreens within the reggae sphere. I spoke with Dillon while on tour in the winter of 2004, February to be precise. My thanks to Leonard, Tim (Maestro Ent.), Donovan, Michael de Koningh, Steve Barrow, Tim P, and Bob Schoenfeld.


Q: How did you grow up?

A: OK. Well, I was born in the parish of Portland.

Q: Where is that again, in the northeast of Jamaica?

A: Eastern Jamaica. And a district which is called Snow Hill, where I later move from Snow Hill to Port Antonio, which is the capital of Portland. Yeah, being there for a while growing up, I grew up in the church with my grandparents. My grandfather he was a conductor in music, and my mother she teaches music also, so I left for Kingston wanting to do some recording. I left for Kingston, and I met up on Peter Tosh. I met up on Peter Tosh (or 'Touch', JA pronounciation) and we sang some of the songs that I wrote. And well, he accepted them and he decided that, in the evening, we would be going down Second Street, that is in Trench Town.

Q: This was just one of those trips down to Kingston while you were still living in the country?

A: Yeah, I was living in the country. But I came into Kingston and decided that I wouldn't leave Kingston until I make something out of the music, y'know, or make a career of the music. So, Peter took me down to Second Street the night where I met Bob and Bunny, and he told them that I had some songs. So I could not play the guitar, Peter play the guitar and I sung the songs and everyone liked them and the other day they took me up to Studio One, to Coxson.


Peter Tosh.

The Ethiopian.

Q: And this is like, what, '64?

A: 6-... correct! You got it right (laughs)! Yeah, that was '64. Yeah, they took me down by Second Street and then we go up by Studio One an' I sung four songs to Downbeat.

Q: For Coxson himself, or you had someone else doing the audition?

A: Yeah, I audition before Coxson, Jackie Mittoo, Lee 'Scratch' Perry. And after I sung the four songs they stopped me and told me that I was to come for recording the other day, and I went and I did the four songs.

Q: 'I'm Gonna Take Over Now'?

A: No, that was in Ethiopi-... it was 'Ice Water', 'Bull Whip', 'Woman Wine & Money' and 'What You Get You Must Take'. Three of those songs was harmony by The Wailers, and one by a young Delroy Wilson, y'know.

Q: So all of that was solo work, there was none of the other Ethiopians involved.

A: No man, at that time I called myself 'Jack Sparrow'.

Q: Ah! OK, yeah, I am aware of that name. Under that name you did at least one song, 'Beggars Have No Choice', that much I know about. And that one was for Coxson?

A: Yes. Four songs as Jack Sparrow, and 'Beggars Has No Choice'. True. So I did those four, and after I did that four and was around Coxson for a while, Bob and Peter they did not have enough time, neither Bunny, to spend with me to do my thing. So, I left Studio One and I went to live with a friend in Waterhouse, to live in Kingston. And there I met Stephen Taylor and Aston Morris.

Q: 'Charlie'.

A: Yes, and we sang for about a year, until I thought that we were all right. And I went back to Studio One, this time with a group. We did 'Owe Me No Pay Me', 'Live Good' and 'Praise Far I'. We did those three songs and Aston Morris left the group.

Q: Why?

A: Well, in those days yunno, we get nutten for recording. And because I was there before, the first time that I sung four songs for Coxson, I got forty bucks, thirty pounds for the four songs. And then when I went and redid these three songs for him, I think it's four songs, we only got twenty pounds. So Charlie say that I am giving away his talent, so he left the group. And the next week I and Stephen go up by Studio One and we did 'I'm Gonna Take Over Now' and 'Free Man', and there he give us forty pounds for that too.

Q: In those days artists wasn't that focused on getting proper compensation, music was first and foremost in focus.

A: Is not a matter of 'focused on getting money' - no money was daily there, we only thought of that, but no money was there beca' the music was just exploring, y'know. And we used to think before I get into the business proper, I used to think that somet'ing was happening, but when I get into the business I realise nutten was happening. Because the music did not win that wide degree of acceptance, which is now enjoyed nationally and internationally. So it wasn't really there, y'know. But, we didn't even think about the money, yunno, believe me it was not the money we was thinkin' about. We just loved this thing, we was just lovin' it. Because even if the producer give us nutten today, and tomorrow, we still in the studio recording, y'know?

Q: So how did you survive in such circumstances, how did you support the household, the living at this time?

A: Well we used to work, ca' I'm a builder by trade yunno, so we used to work. But I decided that if I am singin' I'm gonna stop working, ca' I have to live off it, so...

Q: On a full-time basis, yeah.

A: Yes. So I spend a lot of my time now in music, meditate in music, y'know. And I left Coxson after a while and I went out and started workin' on my trade again. 'Cause Bob and Peter, Bunny, didn't have enough time with me. So I leave them and there I met up with Stephen Taylor and Aston Morris.

Q: What was their experience in the music, previously, at that point?

A: What was their previous experience? Oh well, there wasn't any more than they was just around singin', playing the guitar and singin'. But no-one had ever been to a studio or a producer. So that is why he (Charlie Morris) blamed me that I am giving away his talent, because I was the man who was doing the business part of it.


Lloyd Brevett.

Jah Jerry.

Hux Brown.

Q: By the way, do you recall who backed you on that session with the first four songs, as Jack Sparrow?

A: Oh, OK. Yes, well, I can remember it like Jackie Mittoo, Drumbago (Parks), Lloyd Brevett, Johnnie Moore, Jah Jerry (Haynes)... I will try so we can get all of them here... I think I have them all. Yeah, but those are the basic, yunno.

Q: The majority from the Skatalites.

A: Yes, exactly. That time they were all at Studio One. And I think - OK, Hux Brown was on guitar, Ikey Bennett was on keyboard, and that's the band. Hux Brown, Ikey Bennett, Drumbago, Lloyd Brevett, Jackie Mittoo, that was the band.

Q: No horn players apart from Johnnie Moore?

A: No. Yes, well, more horn players there like Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso, y'know, was all the man that I go there and see.


The Ethiopians. From left to right: Leonard, Stephen & Melvin.

Q: When you formed the group, who came up with the name 'Ethiopians'?

A: Well, when we were rehearsin', y'know, we were rehearsin' at a place called The Ethiopian Reorganization Centre, where all of our culture was exposed, y'know.

Q: This is in Trench Town?

A: Yes. So, when we went to Studio One, and we told Downbeat, it was one out of these two (the other option was 'The Heartaches'), and he choose the one who say, 'OK, we go with Ethiopians'. And from the day that I say that is like heh, is a whole lot of spiritual inspiration that get to me, y'know.

Q: It was still pretty brave of you to expose that name in the business, especially at this point in time, mid sixties.

A: Tellin' you, man. Believe it, 'cause no radio station would play my record.


Q: A lot of people was lookin' down on Rasta at this time.

A: Of course they were, I was called 'Rasta singer'. Is only the well-educated on the roots that used to penetrate our materials.

Q: Even among the musicians, the elite, it wasn't something that earned respect in those days, you looked down on it in general. That was how it used to be, wasn't it? 'So you're one of those dutty Rastas', like.

A: Yeah man (chuckles)! A lotta dem. And you know the way how I was singin', I was singin' the Jamaica dialect, and each and everyone was tryin' to do 'English'. And I even say to them 'we don't talk like that', so is best for us to sing the way we talk (laughs)! You know? And Louise Bennett (Miss Lou) used to be the one that credit me for that.

Q: But the Skatalites was mainly into the Rasta doctrines, so I suppose you had a good vibe when dealing with them.

A: Yeah man. Very, very good support. Yeah man, very good support.

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