Keith Poppin is one of those names you've just got to take a closer look at. His career stretches back to the late 1960s, entering the studio at the well known address of 13 Brentford Road, Kingston, Jamaica. At the start of the 70s, his group Rocking Horse had a few hits for the Federal and Randys imprints, and then he went solo, hitting with such great shots as "Same Thing For Breakfast" (his biggest success so far, recorded for the Spiderman label), "Get Together" for the legendary Glen Brown, the hit song "Envious" for Phil Pratt, the superb "Some A Dem A Go Shame" for Clive Chin, and the roots classic sound of "Hold Not Thy Peace". Unfortunately, after many, many memorable recordings and at least a public success without much money to see from it, Keith more or less vanished from the scene in the early 1980s. His career is a typical Jamaican reggae story of "praise without raise" and one I definitely felt should be told. He still possesses this soulful voice I grew to love when first hearing his works sometime in the late 80s. A new release is out now, titled Journeys, and one I beg you to lend an ear to. I can assure you it will be worth it. I spoke to Keith in mid-October of 2002 over the telephone from his American base, and this is what he had to say...

Many thanks for help in getting this interview "off the ground" to Bob, Mike, Clive Chin for the link, and to Keith for taking the time to discuss some events, "trials & tribulations", of his long career.

(Note: First published by Dubstar in 2003 at Space Echo Ina New York City)

Q: When and where were you born?

A: I was born in Westmoreland, Jamaica in May, 1949.

Q: What were some of your early influences as far as music and entertainment goes?

A: I am a big fan of the Motown sound. You know, most Jamaican singers... we always listen to the Motown sound like Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, and Otis Redding, you know what I mean? And then... you know I personally was a big fan of that Motown sound until this day.

Q: But locally... what captured you most?

A: OK, locally man, I was into like... you know, Bob Marley and we listen to Toots and the Maytals. Because Toots was until this day a great, great showman. I liked to watch Toots on stage, you know, so I always admired Toots live and stuff like that. And I liked the Paragons and the Heptones and a couple more a dem Jamaican singer that we liked to listen to. But my favorite was the Maytals then, and the Clarendonians too.

Q: By asking that question Im trying to trace where you got that vocal style from? I suppose it was something that evolved over the years but... you know the obvious influences?

A: Well, to be honest, I dont pick no style from any other singer. God just bless me with a voice and a style to go with it. You know, I can sing any song... like a bass tone, and a tenor sound. So the Lord bless me in all different area in the music and singin' business. If it comes to it I can sing a backing vocal for anyone, really. But I am more a lead singer than a back up singer.

Q: I Suppose you were a church man too, started out in a choir and all that?

A: Oh yeah. I grow up with a Baptist church in Jamaica (laughs)! What I used to sing... my favorite song man was like "Amazing Grace" in times weh a little boy. (sings) "How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me..." And to this day I love that hymn. Everybody mostly in the whole world like that song. But that was one of our favorite songs during the Baptist church. But I still go to church, yknow.

Q: How big was your family?

A: Oh, my family was big... eleven of us.

Keith Poppin

Keith Poppin

Q: Did any of your brothers and sisters sing, or encourage you to approach the business side of it?

A: No, no... Im just the first one. The Lord bless me that I'm the only singer in my family that can really sing. Although I have a younger brother in England who sings, doing cabaret and sings at weddings and things like that...

Q: You come from Westmoreland, like Ronnie Davis too, right?

A: Yes. Ronnie is in Sav La Mar. I was born right there in Westmoreland and grew up in Kingston.

Q: At what age did you come to Kingston?

A: About 17. 'Cause I remember when President Kennedy was murdered and I was studyin' at bible school, y'know, and then... I remember that Friday afternoon whilst at bible school we heard the news that the President was shot. And shortly after that now I moved on to Kingston to live with my father. Before, I had stayed all of my life up to that point with my grandmother. So there's no father guidance around, y'know, so I pretty much do on my own. No father to say "Keith, this is wrong!" or whatever. So that was a world I had to face and do what I gotta do... and shortly after I have to leave my father house now. He used to live in Vineyard Town, Almond Town... you name it. But I used to mostly grow up in Almond Town. That is close to Heroes Park.

Q: So from what time did you start to write songs?

A: When I came to Kingston... in church I used to be such a good singer that missionaries from, like, all over the world come and go up to the country to teach about Christ. And then when they hear me sing in church, man, it's like some of them off to my grandmother now and say it would be better if I go abroad. One of the missionaries want adopt me to Canada. And I remember one wanted to take me to America. And my grandmother say "no". She can't give me up, because she don't know what my father might say. Then after I go to Kingston and moving around now and I can sing and listen to the radio and hear the other rest of the guys dem how they sing. And go to the record store to hear other people's record and go to the concerts like Saturday morning when you go to like the Carib and Regal Theaters and see all singers on stage. It influence you a lot so you wanna be "there" too. So, rehearse now and we start practice and get a group together, Rocking Horse. And some of the guys dem in Rocking Horse now... we change about two members. Some of them don't want to show up for rehearsal, y'know, that is so true! That will always be the problem with groups! You know, some guys want play dominoes... or whatever. Always a big problem when we supposed to rehearse! I remember actually me and one member called Winston Newhill (Newell?) we actually have to fight... for rehearsal! One time I think we get a little money from a record producer and... he (Winston) was the first one there (laughs)! To help to collect the money. And the guy don't wanna rehearse. So eventually I get rid of the group, man, and get out 'cause I know I'm a singer by myself and is me who used to carry the group, singing and performing... get a little concert here and there in Jamaica. I'm the one people used to tap on (?) for performing on stage. And then people used to call me "Mr Energetic" in Jamaica. On stage I used to go from corner to corner and people loved that about me!

Q: When did you hook up with Jimmy London?

A: I met him in Kingston. He used to have a group named the Inspirations. They used to sing for Lee "Scratch" Perry. And Lee Perry used to be on Charles Street in downtown Kingston and then Prince Buster used to have his record store on the other side of the street. And then Bob (Marley) was with Scratch on Charles Street. They did "Duppy Conqueror" and "Small Axe". I listened to them when rehearsing over by 36 Charles Street and they used to rehearse at Scratch record store round the back. And Glen Adams and Family Man and Carlton Barrett, the one that passed? Yeh... all of them used to come by Charles Street. Then you have David Isaacs (later a member of the Itals). He sing a song for Lee Perry now, "Place In the Sun (There Is Hope For Everyone)". He did a cover version of that... by Stevie Wonder. That was a big hit for David Isaacs way back in the earlier days. Then I start to record for Lee Perry, the one I sang... and he make many versions of this song called "If You Are My Girl (Tell Me You Love Me Baby)", and he put it out. I think he called it "Serious Joke"! (sings) "...if you are my girl, tell me you love me baby, if you are my girl, hold me and kiss me darling, you know I love you baby, no one would hurt you honey, if you just stand by me...", that song. Then Scratch make a lot of different version of that song as "Serious Joke" and my version of the song, called "Stand By Me". I think I sing about three songs for Perry. Jimmy London, now him sing a song called (sings) "won't you tighten up, tighten up baby...", that song. That sold a lot for Jimmy London and another guy called Billy Dyce in the early 70s. After that Jimmy London move on to Randys in downtown Kingston. I myself went to Randys, too. And then I move on to Phil Pratt. Now, Lloyd Campbell... I did "Same Thing For Breakfast", that sold like 45,000 copies in Jamaica alone. Then I do another... a cover version for Lloyd Campbell, "Before The Next Teardrop Fall" (sings the verse). And "Whenever There Is Moonlight". I do quite a few songs for Lloyd Campbell.

Q: Rocking Horse. What I've heard is that Keith Chin (Randys) "discovered" the group and made the first big records... what's the story?

A: No. We used to sing for Federal record company. That was for Ernie Smith. He used to be producer for Federal and the Khouris who used to own Federal record company. It's now owned by Tuff Gong. Then with me, I'm the leader for Rocking Horse and we go down to Federal and Ernie Smith listen to us.

Rocking Horse

Q: First of all, how did that link to Federal come about?

A: Well, I think we enter a festival, a festival song contest. And you know every year during independence time there's a festival song competing for best song, just like you hear that Donaldson song ("Cherry Oh Baby"), right? And we compete and I think Ernie heard us there. Then we went to Federal and they say okay, they will record us and put out the song. Now Ernie Smith, he arrange it and after he arrange that he want a follow-up from us. So we give him that with "Oh What A Weeping & Wailing". And then we move on like any other artist without the promotion we would like to get. At that time Federal have like Ernie Smith, Pluto Shervington, Tomorrow's Children, and all them boys was Federals big artists. Now they would wanna "shelf" us (laughs)... like they would have us to be like certain people, y'know. And now that song "Weeping & Wailing" goes to number two on the charts. Ernie Smith give us that name too. And then we go to Randys Records...

Q: Why did you decide to move to Randys?

A: Well, at the same time Jimmy London used to sing for Randys and we was spar at the time, you know what I mean? Then we talk to Keith Chin, who is uncle to Clive. I believe we enter with another festival song. I think we did a song called "Festival '72". Keith Chin record that song and then we move on to "(I Am A) Righteous Man" and "Hard Time".

Q: So what happened with those songs at the time, they sold well?

A: Yes definitely... in the 70s them songs sell a lot. That's what people know us from at the time.

Q: What about "Ram Daughter" for Randys? You did that one solo as well didn't you?

A: No, I never do a solo cut of "Ram Daughter". Me and Rocking Horse did sing that... (sings) "the children them a ram tam tam...", something like that. So, no... I never redo that song. Keith Chin now... I am no longer in Rocking Horse and started solo by myself.

Q: There's other tracks credited to Rocking Horse. One on the Rocking Time label, "Hold On Strong" with Eric "Monty" Morris?

A: No, that's not me. I never do a song with Eric "Monty" Morris. Also, I forgot to tell you, Peter, that when we just start the group we went to Sir Coxsone Dodd. Coxsone have the first cut of "Envious". He have it on tape, with Jackie Mittoo playing organ on that recording session and Leroy Heptones playing bass. We used to call the group The Robbins. I sing about three to four songs for Coxsone Dodd.

Q: Then there's other songs with Rocking Horse such as "Be Thankful" (on the Sydna label), "Better Beware" and "Festival Bells" on Merritone?

A: "Better Beware"? Yes, that was for Federal record company.

Q: Then there's "I'm So Fed Up" on Panther in Jamaica (Randys/Trojan in England)?

A: "I'm So Fed Up"? Hmmm, yes.

Q: There's some female voices on it I think? A: No, is me! Is me singing back the voices on that song. Yeah man, is me singing back the vocals on the harmony section there. Is me sing the lead, and me go and double track the backing vocal with a kind of female voice (the song was later redone as "Fed Up" on the "Envious" album for Phil Pratt.)

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