Interview... Bob Andy Remembers Ska
02/29/2016 by Angus Taylor
Bob Andy is one of Jamaica’s original masters of popular song. In a music where the majority of recordings were covers (the island’s rhythms being so infectious that they gave any old standard a new dimension), the man born Keith Anderson’s deceptively simple-sounding compositions stood out.
Having founded the harmony group the Paragons, Bob joined Clement Coxsone Dodd’s Studio 1 Records as a singer and songwriter for others (including future duet partner Marcia Griffiths). His own 60s recordings like the heavily revisited My Time and Too Experienced are succinct servings of intelligent pop perfection. They rank him at his craft’s highest region, alongside Joe Higgs, BB Seaton and Bob Marley, followed by perhaps Gregory, Beres and namesake Horace Andy.
Due to legal wrangling with former employer Studio 1, Bob Andy’s superlative 1970 Songbook LP remains difficult to find. But his importance in the music is recognised by those who know (and the Jamaican government, who awarded him the Order of Distinction in 2006).
Reggaeville met Bob at his home in Kingston ahead of his performance on March 25th at the London International Ska Festival. For health and legal reasons, Bob preferred not to discuss his own career too much. Instead we asked him about his memories of the birth of ska. These flowed into his Studio 1 insider’s perspective on rocksteady, reggae and even dancehall. And, if you read carefully, there are more than a few choice references to the man himself.
FIRST EXPERIENCE OF SKA
“The first Jamaican music I heard was not so much ska. It was a ska guitar but the tempo didn’t suggest ska. It was the Monty Morrises, the Derrick Morgans, the Jackie Edwards.
When I heard the first instrumentals by Clue J and the Blues Blasters that was how my association with ska came - through instrumentals rather than vocals. When I grew up at that time we only had one radio station and the big bands really did something to me. To hear a 30 piece orchestra with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton… just the sections, how one section would do [something] and the next section would take over! When I heard the Blues Blasters and Jamaican instrumental ska, it occurred to me it was a similar kind of music being played to a Jamaican beat.
One day I walked to Arnold Road where there was a club called Arnold Drive In. I went in and none less than Clement Dodd was having an audition session with Sims and Robinson. I was in heaven. It was a live band doing the audition with an acoustic piano and the music was set so that it wasn’t louder than the piano. That was one of my most memorable occasions and experiences of live music. After that experience it was a done deal. I was going to be a part of this whatever. If I was going to lift instruments then I would do that.”
THE RISE OF SKA
“Then I started hearing the Skatalites. I started going to Bournemouth and watching the Skatalites and various other ska bands coming up. I went to Studio 1 and saw ska music being played.
The first time I heard Schooling The Duke – in 1962 probably – when I heard it was Don Drummond and a Jamaican orchestra I was just blown away! I was thinking of JJ Johnson or some big American band – not for the actual playing but for the ability to compose such a song and the arrangements. I was aware of arrangements from a very early time and that is why when I started going to studio I would select my musicians.
Ska music was a very happy music. I still prefer instrumental ska although I became very attached to Derrick Morgan and Monty, Owen Grey and Wilfred Edwards. I was living very close by so I felt the pride from living in the same community as these guys. To lift up a disc and see your name in it in those days was just magic. It was just beyond belief.
Funnily enough the ska music that was popular on the radio was done by Island Records – Laurel Aitken and Jackie Edwards – and they were like softer touch pop music. Jackie Edwards was never an up-tempo singer. So even in the upsurge of the ska, Jamaicans loved another kind of music which they called “soft tunes”. Nat Cole, Brook Benton, Sam Cooke – we always had those as a reservoir we could feed from. Byron Lee tried to play some ska because he was the face of ska internationally with Jimmy Cliff.
I think what made the ska such a strong beat was it brought out the dancers. There haven’t been a lot of dancers since ska. You had Pluggy and Beryl, Persian the Cat… these guys were James Brown before we saw James Brown. These guys were legs men. And they also danced with women and you saw women flipping over. It’s hard to put into words because I was very young. When I was about nine or ten years old they used to have these bullhorns in the trees and on a Saturday evening I would just listen and follow the music to wherever it was and stand at the blues dance gate. I have really fond memories.
So that is my memory of the ska. The greatness about it was that, out of calypso, we now had a music coming into what we call Independence, and it really was a great addition to Jamaican culture.”
THE ROOTS OF SKA
“Certainly you can’t take out the producers of the day. But I really think the ska came out of American blues, especially Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five. What we did was added the guitar strum to it “chik chik” but the beat was always there. (sings) “Ain’t nobody here but us chickens… Ain’t nobody here but us” They didn’t have that strumming guitar in there because their thing was the piano, and we added the guitar. And rather than playing notes we just played chords to sharp the thing.
I wouldn’t name one person. I wouldn’t go into that. What I would say is they have a word called “onomatopoeia” and Jamaican music is along those lines. Ska sounds like “ska”, rocksteady sounds like “rocksteady”, reggae sounds like “reggae” and dancehall sounds like “dancehall”. So our music evolved with that onomatopoeic behaviour. Jah Jerry – that was how he played guitar… just strumming… he would strum to whatever tempo was being played. And the guitar and the drum became the ska expression. There were some great musicians. Lloyd Knibbs of course. Lloyd Spence.
What I loved about the ska was that the bass didn’t have a particular line like in reggae or rocksteady, a line that is repetitive. The walking of the bass really reminded me of jazz which I really loved. Brevett and Cluett Johnson were the two guys who could do that – and Lloyd Spence.
A very interesting statement made by Paul McCartney years ago was that Jamaicans start the drumbeat where it finishes. We have that roll. Listening to formal music that is how it would be written but we hear it the other way ‘round.
I have this observation that our popular music was born out of American black music and our music came to the dancehall structure and then influenced American black music. So it’s a revolution that came full circle.”
FAVOURITE SONGS AND ARTISTS
“Laurel Aitken had a song called Little Sheila. And I was knocked out by Jackie Edwards songs like Tell Me Darling. Owen Grey and Jackie Opel. Jackie Opel was probably one of the best singers I’ve ever heard and seen perform.
Jackie Opel was a big hit in England. He toured with Otis Redding when they came there and he was outstanding. I remember another Jamaican singer who went to reside in England – Jimmy James of the Vagabonds. I was talking to Jackie Opel one day and he said “There are two singers in Jamaica I am really fearful of – Owen Grey and Jimmy James”. I was amazed because to me Jackie Opel can out-sing those guys every time.
He was one of the best performers I’ve ever seen. He had a range second to none. I watched him at the Ward Theatre where Studio 1 used to have their concerts during the Christmas period and Jackie Opel was a dancer, a good songwriter and an excellent singer. I watched him evolve because he started out as a very soft singer and then he sang with the Skatalites so he had a good push. Definitely one of the finest to have come out of here.
From the beginning this business was dominated by men. Millie Small didn’t hang around for long but there was Doreen Schaffer and a few other women. Clancy Eccles had a few good songs at the time… But I have so many favourites that it’s hard to pick any one.”
BOB DYLAN, SONG-WRITING AND GOING SOLO
“During that time we had a second radio station Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation and they used to have a Hit Parade. The Hit Parade of the day was dominated by American songs and they would use artists to mimic the American songs of the top ten. Arrangements, sounds, everything. So you were rated then by how well you mimicked an American singer.
That is what, more than anything, drove me into song-writing. In the Paragons, all of our performances were cover songs. We recorded Follow Me by the Drifters and I said “I think we should start writing our own songs”. They said “You’re crazy! We don’t have to write songs. The Impressions!” But when I heard Bob Dylan I just decided “I’m going to write some songs for myself.” I was amazed that I was hearing song-writing with melody and a story that wasn’t talking about the bedroom. I realised “So you can talk about any issue?” and that set me off.”
THE DAWN OF ROCKSTEADY
“It is said that my first [hit] I’ve Got To Go Back Home was the bridge between ska and rocksteady. I never planned any of that. My life just unfolded.
When we went to Studio 1 I think part of the reason [the music changed] is the horn section came out of the rhythm – became separated - and made the rhythm slower. It was the fact that the section was always five or six men and it just seemed like there were too many people to pay. Coxsone had sessions five days a week because he was stockpiling rhythms. So – I think – one of the reasons was financial. And because we didn’t have a lot of tracks. In the ska era it was mono so you had to be able to play a song now. When Coxsone got his two tracks it became easier and he went for harmonies rather than plenty of horns.
But with the influence of growing up loving horns and big bands I always asked for them going to the studio. Jackie Mittoo said to me once in London “The difference with Bob Andy, was he came to studio with an arrangement in his head”. I couldn’t write it but I could tell the musicians the phrase I wanted to hear and with their formal training they could put it in perspective.
After Brevett, Jackie Mittoo was the guy [who was] responsible. To me Jackie Mittoo was responsible for the Studio 1 catalogue. Coxsone and himself. If Brevett didn’t come to work or if a new set of musicians came to the studio… like Leroy Sibbles was just playing around with a guitar but Jackie Mittoo taught him how to play bass in sessions “Hold this, hold that and just keep repeating that”.
Those evolutions just came out of innocence. The learning experience of a musician going into the studio, not knowing what he’s going to do, but comes out and says “I just played bass on five songs” when he wasn’t a bassist before. So it was the innocence and the ignorance and the coming out ignorance that I think – for all of us who were there including Coxsone – provided that dynamism that evolved into a sound. Because there are Jamaican songs that I hear that still have ska and rocksteady influences today. Reggae is the name that took the world but I still prefer to look at Jamaican music as “Jamaican music” with reggae being a form, ska being a form, rocksteady being an idiom, whatever.”
THE BIRTH OF REGGAE
“A couple of years ago I gave an interview when the Bob Marley film was coming out and the Chicago Sun Times had quoted me saying “Jamaican music evolved out of an accident”. The reason is… what I remember about when the music was going to change from rocksteady to reggae, was Coxsone had a machine, a piece of equipment in the studio for a long time and no one knew what to do with it. Then he plugged it in and it was a tape delay. So when the guitar strummed one time it would echo back and the other bands and musicians thought there was a “check-eh”. So it really was an illusion of the tape delay playing and it was a great development.
That was where the sound came from. But the other guitarists now, hearing that sound, thought it was making two strokes and so it developed. The first two songs were Nanny Goat and Why Baby Why. I was there when it happened. The excitement of being able to use this tape delay as an instrument. And I’m sure the other groups just heard it and played the illusion and a musical form was born.”
FAVOURITE SONGWRITERS OF THE 60s
“Bob Dylan, Smokey Robinson and Curtis Mayfield on the American side. Certainly Lennon and McCartney. When first I went to England with Young, Gifted and Black I fell in love with this English group… What’s the name of the group? Emerson Lake and Palmer. That was the group I loved. They were just playing different music. Pop, jazz, rock. Elton John was also coming up.”
WHY JAMAICAN MUSIC IS SO POPULAR AROUND THE WORLD
“Jamaicans are a laid back people and so when we play that tempo we find an easy way to dance to it. I think when the music goes to temperate climates, people are wanting to be warm. I know about the Shubeens in England… I mean you’d go to a Shubeen and just ska all night! And I think that because the skinheads related to it, it almost had a defiance rebel effect before rebel lyrics were starting to be written.
So I don’t know what would influence a group like the skinheads to be drawn to that kind of stuff. I wonder why the Japanese love all aspects of Jamaican music. I mean that influence just amazes me. But I can see it was a music form that wasn’t heard before and I can understand why some people would identify with it. I can’t speak of why the influences are. I just know that the forms were good.
I don’t have any answers for why it’s successful but I made a statement on the first Young Gifted and Black tour where I said “Given the opportunity, our music is going to be as strong and as successful as any other music”. Bob Marley followed that by saying in his time “This music will just evolve and evolve until it reaches its rightful people”. I wouldn’t refrain from saying… a lot of it just seemed divine. 95% or more came from the salt of the earth. It was what we had to offer. Coxsone was asked “What is this music?”
“Jamaican music is poor people music”. Because they are the ones who determined. I mean we used to go to the dances and watch the people and make songs to go with the dance. That still happens today. A lot of artists still go to the dancehall and watch what the fans are doing and provide them that. It’s kind of a supply and demand.”
“And I love it all. I love the dancehall. Especially, that these people weren’t taught anything. Say what you want about a Vybz Kartel. He may have gone over to the dark side but the fact remains he’s an authentic artist using the only things he knows to make a living.
That’s what I rate most about it. A guy gets up and knows that he’s not going to have a high school certificate. He’s not going to have a university degree. But he’s going to live a life equal to those people or better because of how he grew up, the circumstances that inform his lyrics music and attitude.”
PERFORMING AT THE LONDON INTERNATIONAL SKA FESTIVAL
“It’s great. I just want my health to be in shape so I can participate at the level I’d love to show myself. It’s a great honour to be a part of that somewhat retro [thing]. I lived the era.
The last ska festival I did was a One Love concert beside the prison Wormwood Scrubs. When I went onstage singing some Jackie Opel songs the band had an upright bass. I was thrilled to because I’d never performed with an upright bass before. That was in the 90s and that was my first inkling of how my message had reached out. The field was rammed and when they introduced me the shrill of the whistles… I mean I never ever heard my name! Someone took me on stage and I stood there for a while because the shrills just wouldn’t stop. I remember a review said “Bob Andy seemed quite taken aback by his reception” and I was. Every time I leave my country to work somewhere I feel like an ambassador and this is no different. I’m really looking forward to it. Whether I’m working or not, when I leave my country I represent my country at the highest level.
I think I have more vested interest in Jamaica than all the politicians and the private sector. Because I’ve observed that we are the only sector who don’t have to bring anything from abroad to make our product and we send it abroad and get even more money. All the other sectors have to import 25, 30, 40, 50% of their raw materials.
We’re still fighting to bring equipment into Jamaica to make music without tax. They should have just waived that forever. “Musicians you can bring your instruments. Whatever helps you to make your music - bring that in”. So my involvement in music helps me to inform my national and international view. I love that as much as I love doing the music. To be able to speak through the music and to be able to articulate without music how I feel about my country. So whenever I step on a plane… well, I don’t even have to step on a plane! I represent Jamaica in Jamaica at the highest level I can”.
“I want to make the statement that in all of Jamaican music, especially Studio 1, Jackie Mittoo is the unsung hero. It’s amazing that people like Delroy Wilson who were all so early, mammoth contributors, just didn’t get anything out of the music. I know of Jackie Mittoo going to America and asking Coxsone for royalties and he gave him boxes of his records to go and sell. So those things really hurt.
Take nothing away from Coxsone because he knew what he wanted. But in terms of executing it, a lot of the arrangements you hear coming out of Studio 1, Jackie Mittoo is responsible. You’d just sing the song to him, he’d feel out the chords and find it and say to the horns “You blow that and you blow that”. It’s sad that one can make such a major contribution for so little returns.
It hardly happens in music today. They say you can see the forerunners because you can see the marks of the spears in their backs. We paid the price for the generations that came along. A guy can break a song. A new artist can leave Jamaica with a full band today. In our time that couldn’t happen. Even now people like myself and Ken Boothe have to travel and go rehearse somewhere else with a band.
The successive generations have been able to learn from our mistakes. Information is now free to access and so people educate themselves. You know you need a manager. You need a good band. You need an engineer. And most of all they come in the business with a lawyer. We signed contracts without a lawyer even vetting it. So we certainly have come a long way.
I cannot envisage a time 100 years after I’m gone when Jamaican music won’t be among the top ranking music in the world. You look at the social media and some Jamaicans who barely speak English are so creative. Governments over the decades have missed out on the true potential of the Jamaican people. They haven’t tapped into that. Government is passé anyway. Whilst the average person is fighting for freedom from what I like to call Euro gentile Greco-Roman influences – we are totally Afrocentric. We use what we need from those countries but our culture is still the driving force. Jamaica School of Music is turning out musicians, yearly three or four bands are created – and the fantastic thing is these guys are musically literate – they can read it, they can write it, they can play it, they can arrange it. So you’re going to have to reckon with us in the musical world for decades to come. I’m sure of that.”