One of Jamaica's best and provocative lyricists is without doubt the man we know as Max Romeo, a singer who gave us such enduring songs as the PNP-used 'Let The Power Fall On I', 'Chase The Devil', 'Public Enemy Number One', 'No Joshua No', 'Macabee Version' and 'Three Blind Mice', which are too few to mention here and hardly even scratching the surface of a vast catalog of classic music from the so-called golden era of Jamaican music. In the mid seventies he cut two albums which could easily be regarded as milestones if you allow me to use such a worn-out expression, namely 'Revelation Time' and the Lee Perry-produced 'War In A Babylon'. Two outstanding contributions that will, most likely, remain in print for as long as coming generations will investigate what went on in the the music's glorious past. But he began, solo, in a filthy and rude manner, 'Wet Dream' was exactly about what you would believe such a title would be about; some the most elementary and natural of our needs and pleasures, sung in a suggestive way that the skinheads found to their liking and supporting at the time, 1969, and thus making it into a big novelty hit around the UK and kick-starting our artist's overseas career after he had called it quits with groups like the Emotions and the Hippy Boys on Jamaican ground. But he had to reconsider the direction his career was taking, and so he chose the cultural side of things, which proved right in the long run and to be one of the most interesting developments in Jamaican songwriting from the early seventies onwards. I spoke to him while on tour with the Ethiopian in February, '04. My thanks to Max, Tim (Maestro Ent.), Bob Schoenfeld, Michael de Koningh, Donovan, Tim P, and Steve Barrow.


Q: You grew up in an area called St. Ann, Alexandria to be more specific.

A: I was born in Alexandria, in St. Ann, that's in the country. I went to Kingston at the age of eight years old. My mother left for England, so I went to stay with my father in Kingston. I actually grew up in Jarrett Lane in Kingston.

Q: So you didn't stay in the country for that long. Alexandria, that's close to Brown's Town?

A: That's out in country, St D'acres the district, close to where Bob Marley is from, we are from the same area - Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Jackie Edwards, myself, Ernie Smith, we are from that part.

Q: What was your father working with in the country, or he was based in Kingston most of the time?

A: Well, my father actually was living in Kingston, he's a chef. He worked as a chef for - he cook for the Police training school, that was the job. He's retired now.

Q: So the Smith family was to split up from early on.

A: My mother migrated, but actually my mother and father didn't live together. Now, she migrated to England in the fifties, this was in 1954 I think it was, and my grandmother couldn't take care of me so they take me to my father in Kingston.

Q: How did you find the move?

A: Well, obviously I was, about, between eight to nine years of age, so I didn't like Kingston.

Q: Way too stressful, noisy, crowded - a hectic place.

A: Well, I was born in the country area, I wasn't used to clustered life. In Kingston it was more a clustered situation, you have all different type of people gone bungled in one area. I didn't like that about Kingston.


Max Romeo.

Q: What was the neighbourhood like where you settled with your father?

A: Well, the community was actually... it was leased, it was some land that was owned by a man named Lewis who leased it out to various families, and he leased out a piece of land. And he built a house on it, that's what my father did. Earlier down the man wanted back the land so my father went on to buy another piece of land of his own at a nearby community, at Saunders Lane. And he took the house down and built up one at Saunders where the house is standing today.

Q: I read somewhere that you were more or less a renegade child in those days, or walking from house to house, how come you...

A: Not really 'renegade', I was a runaway child actually. I left my father, I was at fourteen and went on my own because I didn't like the way my stepmother was treating me.

Q: Right, you didn't click.

A: Yeah.

Q: So what became of you, where did you live?

A: Well, I basically live in the streets.

Q: OK, the street child.

A: I became a street child, yeah. Obviously I was left to the mercy of good folks at the time. Jamaica was actually a gentle country then. It wasn't like now, you couldn't do that now, you wouldn't survive a day in the streets now as a runaway. If you're not being killed by the police you will be killed by gunmen. So it's actually a different society now, it's a more hostile type of system, now. Them days it was gentle, people care for each other, so I find it easy surviving then. I wasn't really a bad child, I didn't steal or getting mixed up in any gang situation. I was actually just a runaway kid, y'know.

Q: But under such circumstances it's so easy to get trapped in that same 'gang situation' in order to survive, isn't it?

A: Well, like I say we weren't really exposed to the American way of living, because we didn't have the TV to preach the profane and progression. So we were influenced by basically our surroundings, which was actually - basically what was Christian people who go to church on Sundays, and all the good things, y'know. It's since Jamaica become Americanized that the whole fabric of society demoralised, break down and, y'know, violence and crime becomes the norm.

Q: But then you had the 'rude boy' era of the fifties and sixties.

A: I wasn't part of it, I was never a part of it. I always criticise it, because that's when the whole structure of caring and sharing start falling apart. You know, even when Bob Marley start to sing all those songs...

Q: 'Rude Boy'.

A: 'Rudie Go A Jail' and all them t'ings deh, he was actually... Well, not Bob, it was The Wailers then, it was a dominant group that was happenin' at the time, focused on that type of thing.


The Wailers.

Q: Supporting and glorifying it.

A: Supporting and glorifying the gun, y'know. Well, I wasn't really for that, maybe that's why I survived. I have always been a humble person. I'm not into the 'get rich quick'-situation. I don't believe in going through the back-door, or the window. I believe in going through the front door and doing the right thing.

Q: Was this only the few who stood behind bad manners, the 'rude boy-ism', or did you feel at the time that a lot of the acts were behind it, 'for it' so to speak, actually standing behind it?

A: Yeah, well, obviously that's when the underworld overrun the industry. You had producers that would record artists that instead of paying them they would beat them up, and when them come for their money it was that thing that started that way. It carries on until this day.

Q: So the first experience within the record industry was like a handyman, a record-plugger, something like that, or is there another side to this story how it began for you?

A: Yes. Well, obviously I got a job at a - obviously I was interested in music from school days, until I drop out. Because, like I said I was a runaway kid so I didn't continue, I get my education on the sidewalks of Kingston. As a matter of fact, when people ask me about my education, I always tell them that I go to 'SWU'. "Where's that?", they ask. "Sidewalk University, Kingston, Jamaica", that's where I acquire my education (chuckles).

Q: (Chuckles) Not a bad school still.

A: Right, y'know. And I think because I actually studied the practical, while the university was teaching the theory (chuckles).


Q: Who taught you the rudiments of playing guitar, composing? Do you play other stuff as well?

A: No, the only instrument that - I really wouldn't say 'master', but I'm good at, is harmonica. Obviously until this day I haven't learned to play the guitar in a professional way. I just play chords when I'm writing. But in a professional way, I never did seem to get around to learn it. I play and I pick around a little of everything that I get my hands on and I try to play, but I've never been a professional musician now. Basically I'm a lyricist.

Q: Poet.

A: Yeah. And basically I deal with lyrics and I can compose melodies quickly to put my lyrics to. But there's no formal training in my musical career, is adopted, I'm proud to say. Ca' it work for me.

Q: You have some form of 'inward' talent for it.

A: Yes, everything is within me and I get it out verbally.

Q: When did you discover that you had a way with words, to put a good lyric together? Ever since school, before you dropped out...?

A: From school days. My favourite subject was 'write a composition about', I'm always gettin' straight A's in composition. And further down in life I realise that I can live off 'write a composition about', write a composition about what's happening and put it to a song, and that's where I developed my writing.

Q: You got encouragement from an early stage, that's pretty crucial in a way. I can almost see in front of me, like I would imagine if you didn't drop out of school, that perhaps you would have been educated in writing and a professional journalist today (chuckles). It's not that unlikely, I mean considering your writing ability.

A: Maybe I would've become a Prime Minister for my country.

Q: (Laughs) You never know!

A: (Chuckles) Because even now without an educational background, I see them make mistakes that my common sense wouldn't allow me to, you understan' (laughs)? My common sense wouldn't allow me to make the mistakes that I observe they make from time to time. So, 'SW' is better than any other 'U' (chuckles).


Q: How did you meet up with the owner of Caltone, Ken Lack? This was running errands for him to begin with, that was like '65?

A: Yeah. Obviously I met this guy who was a dentist, he's called Merrick, we grew up together. And he had a dental clinic adjascent to the record company. So I went to see Merrick one day, and he told me that there's a company on the building. If I'm interested I could go see that guy. So I went in - not as a singer, but lookin' for a job. And he took a liking to me right away and he gave me the job, to take the samples to the record shops. Beca' he wasn't really one hundred percent in the music business, he was actually importing figureens, them little things weh you puttin' in your house, decorating the drawers, y'know where you dress, and things like that. You know, wase, ashtrays, and decorating things. That was the main thing. And he was actually - he and the now Prime Minister, PJ Patterson, they were working together as managers for the Skatalite band. So I went and I got the job to take the samples to the stores to get orders. And then he heard me singin' one day, and he said: "You don't sound too bad". I had the song 'I'll Buy You A Rainbow', and after I set to record it it was an instant success. It went to number two on the national chart at the time. But I actually started with a group named The Emotions.

Q: You never had a group before them?

A: No. It was me and this guy Lloyd Shakespeare, that's Robbie Shakespeare's brother, and a guy called Kenneth Knight. We put this thing, this group together, called The Emotions, and we audition the song for Ken Lack. He decided to record it.

Q: That tune was an original of yours?

A: Yes, original. I wrote the lyrics actually, and it went to number two on the charts.

Q: What about other members of the Emotions? Was that after you had left, that other people like Leroy Turner (today known as Leroy Brown) and Milton Henry (previously in The Leaders at the time) and Audley Rollins joined?

A: After I leave the group I went out as Max Romeo, then I formed a band together called The Hippy Boys. We start workin'...


Max Romeo (1969).

Audley Rollins.

Q: Right, with the Barretts and Glen Adams?

A: Yes. After I leave the group then Audley Rollins start lead singin', and then Milton Henry came in. But it didn't last for long, Lloyd Shakespeare died.

Q: Oh, at that time.

A: Yeah.

Q: What happened?

A: I think he was working in some chemical factory and he got poisoned by whatever chemical they was producin' at the time. Kenneth Knight migrated.

Q: To the States?

A: Yeah. So everybody become solo artists. Milton Henry is in Guyana now, I think Audley Rollins is in Canada.

Q: How much did you record while in the Emotions? Two, three songs only?

A: No, we did about five. I think it was about five recordings.


Q: There is one of these typically fast-paced tunes from the late sixties I can't get out of my head, with your vocals. I don't know if it's a solo track or by the Emotions, perhaps even by the Hippy Boys. The lyric goes like: 'What the world is is one great melting pot...'. Can you recall that one?

A: OK, yeah. 'All we need is one great melting pot...'. No, that's not (Emotions) - that was Hippy Boys.

Q: Ah, that's the Hippy Boys.

A: Yeah, it was after I leave the Emotions. It was the Hippy Boys recorded that.

Q: It's titled 'Melting Pot'?

A: Yes. And 'Dr No Go' - 'You Can't Stop Me' was the original song, but on the release of the riddim now is 'Dr No Go'. I wrote this song.

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