Johnny Clarke is the prototype 'dancehall' singer of his day, setting the foundation for future generations to come with versioning, recutting and/or transforming old themes into something new and current. He pioneered this thirty years back but the works still stand as an everlasting monument, or should I say 'testament', for an era that seemed to be, in hindsight at least, almost too good to be true. He took Jamaica and the reggae scene worldwide by storm when it needed it the most; presenting a fresh, youthful and energetic style and a crisp voice lots of us would give their right arm for! The breakthrough came about in 1974 with the Earl Zero-penned 'None Shall Escape The Judgement' which, also, introduced a rhythmic pattern producer Bunny Lee would later run to death, known historically as 'flying cymbals'; a style emphasized through drummer 'Santa' Davis' Philly-inspired hi-hat playing. A funky, effective and driven style. Johnny personified the so called 'rockers' period, a transitional time in the music which gave us several classic works such as 'Joshua's Word', 'Be Upright Natty Dread', 'Move Out of Babylon', 'Enter Into His Gates With Praise', 'Roots Natty Congo' and 'Girl I Love You', coupled with covers of standard songs like 'Left With A Broken Heart', 'Tears On My Pillow' and 'Rock With Me Baby' among others. The man was a veritable (hit) machine between the years 1974 to '79. Such a consistent body of work has seldom been seen in Jamaica since then even though, perhaps, he stayed a bit too long with Bunny Lee at the controls, where Lee literally flooded the market with Johnny Clarke records and eventually the winning concept just had to meet its end. Soon thereafter Clarke left the island. After that he hasn't done bad in the business, he returned after a few years overseas, mainly in the UK, and cut a couple of solid albums, but has never been able to recapture his position as a strong creative force at the top section of the Jamaican charts since these days despite some exceptional recordings. Nowadays he seems to be focusing on live performances and is, indeed, appreciated all over Europe, Japan and the States. Thanks to Johnny, Nicky for the effort, Big Mikey, Donovan Phillips, and Steve Barrow.

Q: You were born in Whitfield Town, Kingston.

A: Yeah, Kingston, that's Kingston 13.

Q: The drummer/singer Eric 'Fish' Clarke is your brother, but you never grew up together.

A: No. Well, no, I never grew up with him.

Q: Because of...?

A: No, it's because - I mean it was a large family, y'know, we don't grow together. It was like... no small family, I mean my mother and father, like my older brothers, they were, like, stay away in school, stay at a school. You know, was just a school, yeah, more in the boarding school.

Q: I think 'Fish' grew up in Alpha Boys School, right?

A: Yeah, yeah, it was a... boarding school. Yeah.

Q: What was music like in the family, apart from your brother, anyone else who was musically inclined?

A: My family? Well, my family is like...

Q: Your mother and father was able to play whatever or just sang in the local church?

A: Well, my mother was a Christian, a cantor and sang in church. My father now he never really go to church but he just sing around the corner every now and again, y'know, never deal with it on a professional level, just a level like most people who every now and again would be like hummin' somet'ing. Yes, he never really - I don't know of him, as I said, doing something international or official, musician or vocalist.

Q: So what was Whitfield Town like in those days, any prominent name from the music business residing there in your surroundings?

A: Yeah, you have some names... it's not really from the golden days, but you have like other people who we consider up (inaudible) like myself who usually work with them more time, do some work in order to get - there was this famous band by the name of The Caribbeats.

Johnny Clarke

Bobby Aitken

Q: Right, Bobby Aitken's band.

A: Yeah, Bobby Aitkens who usually lived like just around the corner, like he was you'd say a neighbour. He was the only recognised singer and entertainer in those days, y'know, it was like the only man.

Q: Did you do like an audition for him, I almost get the impression that you sang with his band at one point?

A: If I did an audition? No, well, I never do any audition or sing or anything, I usually go by, right. He had a band, it was the Caribbeats, and Bobby Aitkens led the Caribbeats and we usually is like, we play instruments like the keyboards. Every now and again I come along, go out to a small village in the country where they back different set of entertainers while I was the keyboard player in that band.

Q: Oh, so you played with them for a short while.

A: I played with them for a short while. Yes, I did, and then he just audition other players, y'know, from the entire community. I get knowledge that he got to stay in Miami after a while and living there (and now a devout Christian, more or less out of the music business).

Q: What was the link between you and Linval Thompson at the time? I know you both grew up together.

A: Well, we're actually like brethren, not more really than a community brethren, like a 'corner brethren'. The whole a we sit dung deh 'pon the corner, y'know, jump in an' singin'. That's before music business deh, when man an' man used to sing every now and again, when we used to feel the vibes. So we always there among the man them an' him used to come amongst we them time.

Linval Thompson

Q: Was he serious about the music at that time or that came later, when he returned from New York?

A: At that time deh, Linval as you say left for New York and one time him come back an' jus' stay amongst we. As far as the music is concerned, he figure say he want to try. At the time we were kinda dominant on the scene an' he get inspired by that. I recommend him start penetrate the music an' soon he get the chance through Bunny Lee, things start 'appen. But he was being ignored as 'im pass through some producers.

Q: What about man like Tony Mack, where does he fit in here? The promoter.

A: Tony Mack? Tony Mack them time have some amateur contest, that's where we rehearse before we become professional. He was very instrumental to push fe youth in the community, as far as the community was concerned he introduce a lot of talent, like talent shows.

Q: How did the first record for Clancy come about, Clancy Eccles ('God Made The Sea And Sun')?

A: With Clancy, he was a producer who was more easier to get to, or get through fe really... towards what I wanted to do as far as laying a track or two, one take. You know, I made a direct link and he found out about what I had, good lyrics and so on, and make arrangement for it to be recorded. You know, we considered the time was right for recording.

Q: What was the connection to Clancy at the time, you knew someone who knew Clancy, like? That was the link up, or through Tony Mack?

A: No, Clancy was just a producer there downtown. August Town, I remember I come there, him used to operate (from), 'im worked 'ard, effective. Him always rehearse the normal way, trying (to) do it with no stress. But for them music I never get no promotion.

Rupie Edwards

Johnny Clarke

Q: It didn't work out there, so you moved on to Rupie Edwards.

A: Well, Rupie Edwards, we're talkin' 1973. After I did that song for Clancy Eccles, y'know, him no pay, so I jus' pass through. I figured more or less I should go to another man, and after some searchin' I found the Success record shop, that's where I stop. That's how Rupie Edwards come about. I do an audition, and he fall in love with two of my songs.

Q: 'Julie' and 'Everyday Wondering'.

A: Yeah.

Q: Those two sold pretty good in England at that time, did you ever find out how well they did over there?

A: No, no, I know nutten about them songs. I never hear what them sell and so on, but that's how them used to do it back in the days, just rip you off. He used to travel to England and all them things, came to England and I heard the songs came out there, but as far as how the songs were doing - nutten. I wasn't informed. I created them, but him never put my name on the record, so I moved on and did 'None Shall Escape The Judgement'.

Q: But that song wasn't your own, Earl Zero wrote most of it.

A: That was as close to being my own as it could be, like 95, 96, 97 or 98 percent was my part of the song.

Q: What about Earl's part of it?

A: Well, Earl Zero wrote the original song, it was brought to my attention by Earl Zero. It was officially done and officially made by I in terms of... most of the lyrics was already there, but I add my t'ing.

Q: You gave your own touch to it.

A: As far as the arrangement, and most of the lyrics also, I did my own t'ing there.

Earl Zero (Photo: Dave Hendley)

Q: What was your impression of Bunny Lee at the time?

A: At the time when I did audition for Bunny him have some of the top acts, name artists, and it was a... just top acts, his stable was very established. So the song for Bunny Lee, it came about as far as the everyday movements, everyday troddin', everyday huntin' for a producer.

Q: But before hitting with Bunny, didn't you do some stuff with Niney ('Warrior') and Glen Brown too, maybe that came after, some time after this, or in-between?

A: No, not Niney. No, Glen Brown, yeah, I did some stuff for Glen Brown...

Q: 'You Really Got A Hold On Me'.

A: Yeah, yeah, you know, but those stuff wasn't properly managed, so I still have to talk 'bout Bunny. I haffe continue, because Bunny Lee is more really, like, give me the highest motivation and strength and continuation.

Q: In what way?

A: Oh well, I mean he have me amongst him an' bring me inna the family now, like a family t'ing, y'know. We meet the Soul Syndicate an' Robbie (Shakespeare) an' Santa (Davis) an' we create an' create, and we become a link, seen. That's why we have them other hits deh coming behind 'None Shall Escape the Judgement', because we build up a strength and a unification with each other, a togetherness, both with artists and musicians. So when you 'ave them strength, them vibes deh, it's like all you going to get (is) more hits, more hits gonna come out, y'know. Yeah, through the unification and the togetherness of all musicians and artists.

Q: Sounds like it wasn't much of a competition as such within Bunny's stable then, more of a teamwork you mean?

A: Yeah, as I say... Yeh, teamwork, but no competition as far as - there wasn't really a competition, ca' nobody was competing. I mean there was other artists there but they were doing their t'ing as well. So, I mean if you gonna compete - you gonna be doing your t'ing, your t'ing have to be up to standard, 'cause these other artists are highly professional artists. He had these other artists among him, whom he usually call upon to fill a gap, or a space. So you're there, if you don't come straight to the positive, you can be jus' there sitting for a long time on the outside watching, watchin' these other artists doing their thing an' you on the outside jus' lookin' in.

Q: You have a sort of 'expression' for that in Jamaica, a name you more or less earned after a while, the so-called 'Studio Idler', someone who spends a lot of time hangin' around the studios.

A: Yea, well...

Q: Which means you have to sacrifice a lot to even come close to recording, running errands, whatever.

A: Yeah, well, y'know because it's like - you're there, I mean you could afford to say that, for them to say it. You allow it, because you know that I was there for a reason while you allow it, because memba; they don't normally idle around a studio with the people doing that. Because with the musicians (chuckles) and producers does not allow strangers minglin' around the session.

Q: Right.

A: So, if I was allowed to be there it must be special.

Q: Mmm, can't waste no time.

A: Yeah. No, I'm jus' there waiting for my turn. But there could be no 'idler' around the studio, they'll never allow it. They'd never allow it, anybody there 'idling' is also the person involved. So the studios is no place for outsiders. Most people hearing the music, they just hear it and they're surprised hearing it, because they were allowed to be inside a studio while the song was being laid down, or recorded. But I, as me say I was like always there, seeing the different artists record and seeing the different artists doing their thing. I was allowed to, so if they say I go a studio an' a 'Studio Idler', I'm allowed to be a studio idler. They could've dispatched me or run - chased me away from around the facility, but they didn't. They needed people to be there and observe and to get a vibe, for I must know and break the scene, or the seal.

Johnny Clarke

Q: Did it take long for you between singin' your first songs for Bunny, doing the audition, and finally get to record?

A: No, it didn't take long. Because when I got to Bunny it took about - my second, the firs' song I did was just like running away - actually the second song, or the first song was by the name of 'My Desire', and then came 'None Shall Escape the Judgement', and from then on... So maybe it was a reason for me to be there on the outside, just be there - be there, y'know, as they would say 'hanging around'. And I was allowed to. When my time come, most of those people who was there, big names, highly representative as far as 'cream of the crop' is concerned or a high musical level or 'in the camp', as a top notch artist, was all down low. 'Cos me (was) allowed to further stay an' create a storm that they're all just there lookin' and watchin', 'cos they was there with a name but they wasn't really puttin' in the...

Q: Anything really creative, or innovative?

A: Yeah, or they wasn't even piling on the funds, financially. They wasn't makin' the funds turn over, financially. I was on the outskirt, and when I get my time, I mean, dollars start turn.

Q: Brought in a lot more than they had had for a long time?

A: All right, because other songs were being released, but they were just being released on the ordinary basis. You know, there was no strong hits away from after songs like 'Better Must Come', Delroy Wilson, and song like 'How Long', Pat Kelly, and 'Stick By Me', John Holt, and those other songs. After a while they were just like there, making songs that wasn't as big as those earlier ones before. So I mean, we was there experimentin', searchin' for a hit from those top notch. It didn't find, 'cause after those numbers I told you about, the 'Stick By Me' and the 'Better Must Come' and all those big songs...

Q: There was a 'dry-up', so to speak, a big gap.

A: There was a - all right, a big gap, for real! And then came I as a new youth, and there came a new sound, a sound like a sound with new cymbals. The people come down with the 'flying cymbals', and then now...

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