Few places are surrounded by the same myth as Lee Perry's Black Ark studio in Jamaica. I'm pretty sure a lot of strange things took place at the Washington Gardens premises where the Ark was situated, but I am almost just as sure a lot has been exaggerated over the years. People just love to feed the myths because it creates a better story. Still, what we have is the music that clearly speaks for itself, the sound was like nothing else before or since. One of Perry's right-hand men was Watty Burnett who had been working alongside the Upsetter ever since the studio's inception. Watty became known for a few singles in the early 70s, on imprints like Lee 'Scratch' Perry's "Justice League" and "Upsetter", but he already had a tune out as a duo before this solo venture. He is closely associated with Lee Perry, but did recordings for people like Phil Pratt, Harry J and Micron as well. Many know his name from a long stint in and as a member of the Congos, joining them in 1977. But he always maintained a solo career while singing behind the Congos foundational members Congo Ashanti Roy (Roydel Johnson) and Cedric Myton. I spoke to Watty on the 2nd of January ('03) about his experiences at the Ark, the times with Cedric and Roy, plus his revitalised solo career. Watty produced his solo debut CD called "To Hell and Back" (Wajesskor Music Connection) not long ago. It's a very mixed bag, with a wide range of musical genres but with the foundation being firmly in reggae music. Apart from this the CD contains a previously unreleased Black Ark rhythm, and some tracks in a hard roots & culture mould. My thanks to Watty, Russ Bell-Brown, John Schultz, Bob, Greg, Joe Gelosi and Mike Turner (whose book Roots Knotty Roots is a must) for getting this article the assistance it needed.
Q: Back to the beginning - describe the environment you grew up in? What was it like?

A: Yeah, I was born in Port Antonio, that's to the east of Montego Bay. And about 17 miles from Kingston. It's a seaport town. Everybody in the town is like a... it's a musical town. Ca' one of my friends, you know him too, is Jr Murvin. Yeah, we all came from the same era. Mikey Dread, the "Dread At The Control", we all came from the same district. So, that was what it was. Everybody tried some form of music, either singing, playing or... something in music.

Q: Seen. So all that was on a school level?

A: Well, is school level and everybody want to be... wanna go to Kingston too. Beca' at that time there weren't no studio in Port Antonio so to get a little closer fe everybody to a studio we haffe come to Kingston. That's where you do all the good work. So at the age of 14, after school, I started at weekends to come to Kingston, to see Lee Perry. Before we check people like Studio One, Duke Reid and Beverley's, Federal and all those producers. But Lee Perry was my... he was the man! He was the man. And my first recording was when I think I was 16 years old.

Q: Right. But if we stay at the earliest stage still. You were just singin' then in your teens in Port Antonio, or you learned to play instruments?

A: Yeah. Well, at that time I learned to play bass guitar. And drums. This was in school. Because it was handed down from my dad, he was a guy who play guitar, in the church. So going around him it's like everything came naturally.

Q: Through his involvement in the church...?

A: He played in the school too and I started to sing in the school choir and in the church choir also. Started singin' there...

Q: Were you ever part of a group as such, in Port Antonio?

A: Yes, it was like a duo - with another guy name Jimmy Nelson. We started together. And we called ourselves the Soul Twins, or Jimmy & Derrick. The first song we recorded was 'Pound Get A Blow' (available on the comp. CD 'Shocks of Mighty - 1969-74', miscredited to the Upsetters, compiled for Attack/Trojan, UK in 1989 - P).

Q: For...?

A: For Lee Perry. And later on it was released by Trojan on a single. It came on a box set (referring to 'The Complete UK Upsetter Singles Collection vol. 1' - P) on Trojan too.

Q: As the "Soul Twins"?

A: Yes. But it was mislaid on the box set, as the Bleechers (Leo Graham's group, another classic name from Lee Perry's stable - P). Yeah, a mix-up there between those groups, mislaid as Bleechers. But the track was 'Pound Get A Blow' so it was supposed to be Jimmy & Derrick, or I think it might be the Soul Twins, at that time.

Q: But the first, real step into the music business was when you entered the Song Festival, right? Before doing that recording. A: Yes, that was with the track 'Pound Get A Blow'.

Q: What year was this?

A: I think it was 1968. Or '70. Somewhere there. I'm not too... correct. And it was around the same time Desmond Dekker entered with this song 'Intensify Festival'. So, that was the same year we entered. And I think he won that festival - Desmond Dekker & The Aces.

Watty Burnett
Q: What was the sixties scene like, compared to now?

A: Well, I think I started from the rock steady era, right at the end of the rock steady, that's when I started to get my ideas, then it goes right into reggae. But I think I came right at the end of rock steady or probably in the middle of the rock steady era. We went around the studios (and producers) like Gay Feet and Treasure Isle and Studio One, or West Indies (WIRL) or Federal - all those people. And we went back to Lee Perry now. That time it was the Upsetters. Hippy Boys was the band, but Hippy Boys became the Wailers afterwards. The same band became the Wailers. So that song we entered the competition with was the same song Perry produced.

Q: Do you remember the backing band at the Song Festival?

A: It was Val Bennett (sax), Carlos Malcolm... No, Hugh Malcolm on drums, and Jackson - that big one on bass...?

Q: Jackie Jackson?

A: Right, Jackie Jackson on bass. And that ('Pound...' rehearsal/recording) was done at Treasure Isle studio. On guitar was I think Hux Brown also. But I got scared... After the track was recorded I couldn't do it - I were so nervous. So Toots (Hibbert) came in and tell Scratch that "it's OK, let him calm down and he can do it". And Toots guide me along until the track was finished. From that track now, Jimmy decide to go. I mean... go astray. Because, we were both electricians - that's my other trade, electrician. So he went to do electrician work, and I percieved the music. And Lee Perry was my only producer until a little time after we did tracks like 'Rainy Night In Portland' and 'Rise & Shine', 'Open the Gate'... tracks like that, solo. And then the last track I think we did with Perry was 'Rainy Night In Portland', then Congos came along. After all those singles, then Congos came along and that was... a different change again.

Q: How was that first encounter with Lee Perry, anything you can remember meeting up with him? What made him interested in your group and... what happened to the song at the festival by the way?

A: It goes well, but not as great as (the top entries)... It was my first effort, and I know it wind up on a box set. It didn't go that great but it was enough to kind of just... open the door. But what one can say about Perry: he's a genius. No other producer or engineer or whatever could fathom his ability of music. He is one of a kind! I could say I'm very happy to be one of his students, that's what I would call myself here. And most of the records that Perry produced I can tell anybody about any track recorded because I was always there, always in the studio. And Perry, to me, he guides me along. And what can I say? It's too much - words can't say it! So, so far even when the Congos came along and we did that 'Heart of...' album, we had a little problem. Well, not we - Scratch and Roy and Cedric did, and wanted to break up with Lee Scratch. That's when CBS came along and wanted to produce a... I didn't like the idea, I didn't want to go. I didn't want to leave Scratch, it was something I didn't want to do...

Lee Perry.

Watty Burnett at the mic.
Q: Boy, boy... you're moving too fast now! Slow down. I wanna touch some of the earliest days here still, with the Soul Twins. You met Perry backstage at that Song Festival, or?

A: OK... No, I went to his little shop on Charles Street and we went behind there, that's where we used to do all the rehearsals. That's where Bob and Peter and Bunny and everybody used to hang around there. So we went there and he said, "give me what you have, yunno". So we started with our little box guitar and then he just "OK - studio!". So the same day he knew the song, the same day he recorded it!

Q: Did it take long after this with the break up from Jimmy and all that to do those solo tracks like 'Babylon A Fall', and 'I Man Free'?

A: No, it take like some six or seven months after because what happened is... I started to write from that time now. I didn't want to jump and record anything more at the same time. So I know I was getting in the door with Lee Perry now. I was taking the time out with him still in the studio, and just start writin'. And start to learn more on my instruments. And then when I think I was ready now, then 'Babylon A Fall' and those tracks came along.

Q: What was the inspiration for 'Babylon A Fall'?

A: Yes, it was politically affiliated. How I saw the people and when I reflect on the bible I just... Yeah, it just came.

Q: It came out on Perry's Justice League label, when was it -'72?

A: I think so. It came out in Jamaica before. Yes, and it was released in England too on a single, by Trojan.

Q: I mean, other Perry artists at the time like Junior Byles had similar themes, such as 'Beat Down Babylon'. This was the early times with that sort of hard-hitting message. Did it do well for you - what kind of response came for a song like that?

A: In Jamaica it tore the place down! What happened was... I was a little scared because it was said that in certain parts of the country there was a certain party... (they) started to use that as their theme song. And I didn't like the idea beca' I didn't want to get involved, politically. And I could say in Trelawny and certain places like Montego Bay there are certain parties like a PNP section use it as their theme. Because I think the Labour party was in power so they (PNP) just said 'Babylon...', and I mean they use their thing to a... to go right to the other party. But it was good, because it was a good seller but I didn't like the way they were portrayin' the track. It was a likkle scary for me.

Q: I mean this is around '72 or '73, and the Ark was ready in 1974. Where were those early songs recorded - Federal? Randys?

A: No, no - right at the Ark. And it was the first recordings before the studio was even finished! Right in the Ark. Because what happened was he didn't have everything together but we could further things there and that was what it was - it was recorded there. The first several tracks that was recorded there. Same with 'I Man Free', yep... and with Jr Byles and everything. Those were the earlier tracks.

Q: 'I Man Free', 'Babylon A Fall' - those came out as "King" Burnett. Was that Perry's idea?

A: The idea for "King" Burnett is... Scratch say that, because I was so little, y'know - a small person with a big voice and he decide to give me that name seh "you sound like a king" (laughs)! HE did that, not me! T'was his idea... But I didn't like the name still - it was too strong for me. I think I changed it after the track 'Rise & Shine' came out.
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