Roy Panton came up at a time in Jamaican music when it was changing from the local R&B to the edgy, harder and shuffling sound of ska. As such he was a pioneer and also a popular act in the early to mid 1960's. As was so popular for a time, he shared vocal duties in duo combinations with other upcoming stars like Millie Small, Cornel Campbell, Patsy Todd and Eric 'Monty' Morris'. But mainly he was a vocalist on his own, having possibly his biggest success with 'Endless Memory'. The list of great recordings is one of those impressive stories of a successful Jamaican music industry and creative flow: 'Mighty Ruler', 'Beware Rudie', Control Your Temper', 'Good Man'; 'Lolita', 'Run Old Man', 'We'll Meet' with Millie, and on and on it goes. But Panton got out of the business too early, he came back briefly and then it seemed he was gone for good forty years ago. Not so. Some years back he was rediscovered, got back to a scene hungry for 'vintage' acts and timeless music, and has made appearances lately in Los Angeles and Mexico, with probably a lot more to come. Thanks to Roy & Yvonne, Carlton Hines, Teacher & Mr T, and Steve Barrow.

Q: Your early life, Roy?

A: Well, I was born in West Kingston, and I grew up in western Kingston, went to school there. And I move away in the fifties for a while, I go further away, in the northwest, and that would be an area called South, y'know.

Q: That is what you call Waterhouse now?

A: Waterhouse, right. And we lived there for a while. Now, in school I used to be in a choir that I always sang with. And after I finished school I would go to the Ambassador Theatre, and that is in west Kingston, as a matter of fact Denham Town. I would say on the border Denham Town - Trench Town. And I would watch the talent shows that Vere John hosted at the time. He was the only person one could be involved with actually, for an artist. On a whole, not just singers but if you have an act, so to speak, you could go on stage and it would bring you more confidence. You'd get more full exposure. (Chuckles) But I never had the confidence! I never had the guts to go on stage at that time. Some of the people I'd admire are a lot of those from that time on stage at Vere Johns; Lascelles Perkins, Owen Gray, Jackie Wilfred Edwards, to name a few.

Q: Right.

A: But I started out singin' with a group. The leader of that group was Stranger Cole, not actually as lead singer but he was like in the front. And the name of the group was The Rovers. But it did not really make any stride or anything like that, because we recorded only one song as far as I can remember, for Duke Reid, and after that the group fell apart. And we all went separate ways... but we were still on good terms.

Stranger Cole.

Monty Morris.
Q: What year would this have been, '59?

A: In the fifties. No, I'm not sure it was '59 but I know it was in the fifties for sure. Yes. I did some recordings in the late fifties. And after I recorded with the group - that was my first time in the studio - I team up with (Eric) 'Monty' Morris, and we were called Monty & Roy.

Q: Yeah. You had tracks like 'Jenny'?

A: 'Jenny' for Coxson. I think we first recorded for Duke, though... I mean, for Beverley's.

Q: What about 'Myrna'?

A: No, that's with Millie for Beverley's. That's later on. But at the early stage, like when I first started out with it was with Monty, and the first two songs we did was for Beverley's.

Q: Mr (Leslie) Kong.

A: Right. And 'She's Mine', flip 'Girl of My Dreams' - and 'She's Mine'... I don't know if you know this guy called Charlie Babcock who was around in the fifties?

Q: He was a Canadian born radio personality in JA.

A: Canadian deejay, he's from Canada, right. And he played that song a lot, 'She's Mine'. So after that we went to I think it was Duke Reid, we did 'Sweetie Pie', 'Since You Left Me', y'know, that has some Count Ossie drums in it. I remember the saxophonist was 'Bra' Gaynair (a devout Rasta, 'Bra' came from his association with, and visits to, the Count Ossie camp up in Warrika Hills), I don't know if you recall him?

Q: Who again?

A: 'Bra' Gaynair (aka Wilton 'Bogey' Gaynair), that's the name we used to call him. I don't know his first name. But he was one of the top sax players in Jamaica at the time.

Q: A jazz player, basically?

A: He was... yah, probably, yes. But then everybody played, yunno, the same thing, in the hotels they would play different stuff. But in the studio nobody was playing jazz, it was like boogie woogie until we got the ska. 'Cause when we started out, it wasn't ours, it was more like a boogie woogie thing.

Q: Or 'shuffle'.

A: The shuffle, right. And then ska came of age, or came from somewhere. But in my opinion, the first ska - or record - I heard, was 'Easy Snappin'', with that 'uh uh' piano sound, y'know what I mean, Theophilus Beckford?

Q: Theophilus, yeah.

A: And he was playing it after that and it was the first record as far as I know, long before the ska.

Q: Right, that tune came out in like '58 and kinda pre-dates the ska era...

A: Yeah, it came out in the fities, but it came out before I started singin'. But I think, the thing about it is that it was a totally different sound. And then it wasn't being expanded on until later on until somebody came up with the name ska. So I would say, if you want to place which song came first, then I'd say 'Easy Snappin'. 'Cause before 'Easy Snappin'' you never heard anything with that 'cha cha cha', y'know wha' I mean, it was more the boogie woogie or the shuffle as you said. We used to try and play sounds like that. 'Cause even when Laurel Aitken recorded his first songs, and Wilfred Edwards and Monty, it was like soft songs and shuffle. So I would say it was the first ska. So from Duke Reid we went to Coxson, an' that's where we recorded 'Jenny'. And after that then Coxson suggested... Owen Gray came up, he recorded with Owen first - Owen was the first from the audition he recorded. And he made 'Sugar Plum', 'On the Beach' and some songs like that.

Q: What became so attractive with duos at this time? Would you describe how taste developed in that direction, we're talking the early early sixties now.

A: At that stage, as far as I can remember, Keith & Enid was the first. But duos, as two guys, Higgs & Wilson was the first... Bunny & Skully, because Bunny & Skully is from Vere Johns. Those guys recorded before... Let me tell you who recorded before, Derrick (Morgan) - ca' Derrick as Derrick & Patsy (Todd), Alton & Eddy (Perkins), came after those guys as Joe - I'm talkin' 'bout Higgs & Wilson, Blues Busters, Keith & Enid, and Alton Ellis. So we started out as a duo after those guys.

Q: I heard - Keith of Keith & Enid, was that Keith Stewart who passed away pretty recently?

A: Yes. 'Worried Over You', yah, that was the intro to duos. And Alton & Eddy was 'Muriel'.

Q: Right.

A: Higgs & Wilson had 'Manny Oh'. And obviously Blues Busters, they were, I would say, after those three hits I was talkin' about. Now I could be off a little bit when it comes to who was before or after. But as far as I can remember I heard those guys' song before the Blues Busters. But they could've been recorded at the same time. Sometimes producers record a song and don't release it, and recorded another one after and put out that one, you understan' wha' I'm saying?

Q: Mmm.

A: So to state what time they were recorded, I could not say. I can only go by when I heard them. And in Jamaica you hear them, y'know, 'cause you're right there, around the time when they were recorded. But Keith & Enid I know for sure was the first, and then it was, like, Derrick & Patsy recorded, followed by Alton & Eddy, y'know.

Keith & Enid.

Derrick & Patsy.

Shirley & Lee.
Q: This was patterned after the American R&B scene, basically, to have a duo.

A: I think so, because you had Gene & Eunice and Lee & Shirley, they were like the stars of blues or rock' n' roll. Shirley & Lee was pretty big and they performed in Jamaica. Gene & Eunice, I don't think so, but Shirley & Lee came down at the time. That was the American Rhythm & Blues, so we tried to pattern our songs from them.

Q: An obvious question would be, in this case, to ask of your experience, as a youngster (chuckles), of having to deal with Duke Reid?

A: I'm sure what I'm gonna say is no news. You know, he always had his guns in his waist. I thought what he had was a cane chopped off an' carry a big stick (chuckles). And Duke is, like, he used to be a police officer. But, he was OK, y'know, but he had to do it his way.

Q: Did he give you the impression that he knew a lot, musically speaking, did he seem to know much how to go about things at the time, about the music itself?

A: About the music? I wouldn't say so, I would give Coxson more credit in that. The reason why I say it is because Coxson was more like a pioneer. Coxson would do things that nobody had done, but then after Coxson do it everybody would try to do it. Coxson would record songs that I know Duke Reid wouldn't record until Coxson had recorded them.

Q: He was more willing to risk things artistically and commercially?

A: Yeah. He like to create new sounds, on his own thing. And he was noted for that. Because even when it came to - back then it wasn't disco, it was sound system - his sound was different from Duke Reid, talkin' from the sound coming from his speakers. So he was more jazzy than Duke.

Q: How you mean with 'more jazzy'?

A: His music was... he would play jazz, for example, to record it would be jazz he'd record, y'know what I mean. He covered jazz, a lot of jazz. Let me give you an example. When Coxson came out with 'Freedom' - I don't know if you are familiar with that Clancy Eccles tune?

Q: Yes, yes.

A: And 'Freedom' was one of Clancy's earliest songs, and at the time we didn't know it was a foreign song... it was also cut by Nina Simone. But anyway, to make a long story short. Duke Reid got us to do 'Freedom', y'know what I'm saying, I mean 'Freedom' was nowhere near the Coxson one because the 'Freedom' that we did was the original one that Nina Simone wrote. So the Coxson 'Freedom' was better, but Duke Reid wanted to ride on that. But that's just an example.

Q: Would you say that, even back to the earliest period, Duke was after a more polished sound? Coxson on the other hand was the grassroots personified, rough, unpolished.

A: No, I wouldn't say that. Because I honestly believe that Coxson liked the pop sound also. But, if you were to complain with the songs that was left out of Duke Reid's sound, different from what's out there, he would touch it. Some of the promoters wouldn't want to touch it, because it's not the norm. That's why I say he was really a pioneer in this business. Because he recorded a lot of these type of songs first. The only thing he never touch first, that was with the drums - that was Buster, like what (Prince) Buster did with (the Folkes Brothers') '(Oh) Carolina'. Then that's when Duke came in an' try do songs with the drums. But I don't know if Coxson ever did. That's how it wound up with the drum beats, 'cause Duke Reid brought Count Ossie in to get the drums. But this is what I'm tryin' to say, Duke was good at this t'ing to try an' copy. I wouldn't say that Coxson didn't do that, but Coxson copy a lot from America, y'know what I mean. And at the time we didn't know. 'Cause a lot of songs that Coxson record, we didn't know it was American songs.

Q: He sort of practised this in two ways; playing on sound he scratched off the labels to foreign records, local recordings...

A: Oh yeah, they all did!

Q: ... and obviously didn't tell what it was.

A: Because songs like 'Riding For A Fall', we didn't know at the time that it was a song recorded by The Tams, we thought it was a Delroy (Wilson) song.

The Tams.

Delroy Wilson.
Q: But he had the musicians playing the melody, and presented you with a lyric to go with it, and unknowingly to you, this was a foreign composition although it happened to be a 'local' arrangement.

A: Well, to be honest I can't really, yunno, comment on that, because I wasn't really given much songs to sing which was chosen by him. So I can't really comment. But later on, as I say, today I'm finding out more songs that was recorded by more than I that was covered back then in Jamaica. Like, we weren't exposed, we were just exposed to the songs. It was the only thing to know at the time. So we didn't really know. It was some really really good songs, but we didn't know - we were getting this from this guy's friend. (Chuckles) You know?

Q: The marketability and commercial appeal of a song, we are talking a long gone era and musical and creative values which has diminished over time, but without trying to be provocative here; how much was written from your heart at the time, and how much was focused on the 'appeal' in question? That thing versus this thing, so to speak.

A: No, with me specifically writing a song jus' for fans? Like, you take up a theme, a lyric, or melody. 'Cause when I used to write, I wouldn't write the melody at the same time as the lyric. And obviously I couldn't write the music, so I would hum the music with the lyric. But it's not a form of personal experience. I never wrote a song from personal experience. It's always something that I dreamed about, like, take up something like a 'story'. So it was all fantasy.

Q: Like written from a 'third' person's perspective.

A: My songs? No, my songs that I wrote were like from scratch - day one, my songs. And like I say, sometimes I would write a song, and the next day I forget the melody (chuckles). I had the lyric and tried to find a melody (for it), to fit the lyric. But that's the disappointment when you can't write notes. And in the beginning, speaking for myself, I used to write all of it myself. But the great thing is, if it's no music you'd have to memorise the song. You know what I mean, you gotta memorise it. So when I write... Again, when I was writing songs I would sing it over and over again until it stuck, yunno, lodged in my brain. As long as I do that and wake up the next day and memorise the melody, I know it's there - I'm not gonna forget it! But it's like, when you know something it comes naturally, so that would come naturally too. 'Cause I used to write a lot of songs.

Q: And then you wrote everything - lyrics, melody - altogether in a whole creative process, back in those days.

A: Oh yeah, altogether.

Q: Now the process is 'shortened' to just fit lyrics to a common rhythm and melody.

A: Well, you can do that too. You know, back then we didn't. Because, funny enough, we didn't try to write songs like anybody else. 'Cause if you write like that, it's the same. You know, very few... I can't remember any artists that would write for another artist. But back then we didn't have rhythms to fit the lyrics in it, because you'd have to write your song alone to fit the rhythm, the melody or the music. Now you can go into the studio and you get a rhythm and you put lyrics in it. But you see, the person who wrote that music owns the music, you jus' own the lyric.

Roy Panton (Photo: Alex Flores).
Q: Right (chuckles).

A: (Chuckles) I mean, I have no problem with that! But then I can't get the lyrics - I mean music - to write lyrics 'pon, because... And then, technology is so much different now, because you can put it on a computer and file it away so you don't forget it. Back then we didn't even have a tape recorder (chuckles)!

Q: Had to do it 'live'.

A: The 'tape recorder' was the brain (laughs)! Those were primitive times, man.

Q: Probably, but that meant more focus on the creative process to get everything together.

A: It had to be! You had to be more focused, because when Coxson say you have to go to the studio tomorrow with two songs, y'know, 'bring two songs', if you haven't got two songs you try an' write two songs. And most times you'd memorise the lyric, so you write it down and more concentrated. And the melody, because the lyrics you can sing - but the music you can't, it's laid down in the studio. And you never really ask anybody to put music to your lyrics, y'know what I mean. And then you go to studio with the proper thing. Sometimes we'd go and record, after we had recorded the song, if you ask fe the music right back, I can't sing it without the paper (laughs)!

Q: Yeah.

A: I don't know the lyrics. You know (chuckles)? And it's funny because I have songs today that I haven't heard in years, and I know it's me singin' it but I can't sing it jus' like that because I don't remember all of the lyrics to all of my songs.

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