Interview with Derrick Morgan - Blazing Fire
11/11/2018 by Angus Taylor
Derrick Morgan looms large over the landscape of Jamaican music. The word cornerstone doesn’t do him justice.
He was among the first superstar singers of Jamaican R&B, ska, rocksteady and reggae. He’s been a songwriter, producer and A&R man; discoverer of, and all-round inspiration to, countless veteran artists who followed.
His dapper toughness set the stylistic tone for the deejay phenomenon (that superseded singing to define his island’s musical masculinity for decades after his 1959 recording debut). His infamous early 60s feud with the equally gritty Prince Buster was the first of many rivalries between vocalists that have captivated dancehall fans ever since. He is one of the main contributors to the new documentary Rudeboy, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Trojan Records, the label that distributed many Jamaican productions to Britain. Read more about Rudeboy here!
That he could do all this while experiencing degenerative visual impairment from childhood, and still be touring 60 years later, heaps testimony on his importance. At age 78, he was the stand-out act of a star-packed 2018 London International Ska Festival, just one of the countless crowds he wows around the world. The roar that greets him as he is helped by his wife to the stage, removes his hat, and explodes into the same animation that won him the Vere Johns talent show in 1956, is something to behold.
Reggaeville met Derrick at his hotel in Benicassim, Spain, the night before he was due to appear with the Skatalites at the 25th Rototom Sunsplash festival. The easy-going and astute Mr Morgan was in good spirits as he reminisced on his adventures in the business, blazing a fire in which much of his nation’s musical identity was forged.
How are you?
Well, the breath is blowing! Thank God for Jesus. I’m good.
You’re from Clarendon originally?
Originally? I am from Mocho, Clarendon. I was born in in a district called Mocho and grew up in Kingston. I left Mocho at the age of 5 and I went to Kingston to join with my mum. From there I schooled and everything went on in Kingston until I was a big man.
Why did you move to Kingston?
I moved to Kingston because of my eyesight. I was born with retinitis pigmentosa and my aunt found out that I couldn’t see in the dark. My mum was in Kingston doing some work, so she sent me up there to her and that’s how I got to reached Kingston. I used to live in a place called Orange Lane, off Orange Street from the age of seven until I was 19.
Tell me about how you took part in Vere Johns Opportunity Hour in 1956.
Oh yeah. I used to do some singing in school. I went to Kingston Senior. On Fridays I used to do Children Talent and every class would have their own talent going on. In my class I was the number one and everybody liked how I sang. And that gave me the inspiration to say “Why not?” I should’ve really done some recording but I wasn’t really thinking of recording at the time. When I was going to school I was studying what they called stenography in those days and that was what I wanted to do in my life. Bookkeeping.
So at the age of 17, after I came out of school I decided. Eric Monty Morris and myself got some songs together by punching the jukebox, listening to different artists. But my favourite artist was Little Richard in those days. I studied two Little Richard songs and then went down to Vere Johns at the Palace Theatre. They used to do it in the Ambassador Theatre and also the Palace Theatre. When I reached the Palace Theatre Frankie Bonito and the All-star band were the ones who were doing the audition and I got picked that night - Monty and myself, Jackie Edwards, Owen Gray, Hortense and a little group calling themselves the Richard Brothers. So we all that night got picked and we decided to run the contest among us.
On Monday night they had double bills - two shows, and between the shows they would have the talent show for half an hour. Every artist would sing one song and the winner would go back and sing another song. So everybody went up and I went up and I sang this song called Long Tall Sally by Little Richard. And I heard the crowd was making noise. It was my very first time on stage in front of a big crowd. I wasn’t seeing the crowd but I knew the crowd was making noise and laughing and I noticed I didn’t hear any music behind me. Because the band man they stopped playing and they laughed too. It was because I was dancing like Little Richard! (Laughs)
When we did all our songs Vere Johns came out and asked who they thought was the winner. The first artist went up and he said “What about them?” And the crowd said “No!” And when they reached me everybody said “Yeah!” So that meant I won. So I won that night, got my £2, and I was feeling good. But Bim and Bam were there, they were the two comedians that kept shows and went around the island and they decided to take me on with them. So I went around the island with them.
Some of the artists that you beat in that talent show started recording before you.
Yes, Owen Gray was before me, Wilfred Edwards. Higgs and Wilson, they recorded before me too but they weren’t there [at the talent show] at the time. And Laurel Aitken recorded before me. I saw them because all of us used to go around with Bim and Bam. So I asked them “How did you get on the recording?” Because I heard them on the radio and I would have loved to be on the radio too. And no one gave me an answer. Luckily I was going home one day and I met this guy on the road who knew me who said “Morgan, Duke Reid is doing his audition you know? Do you want to go round there and go see him?”
I said “What, you have to carry your own tune?” And he said “Yeah” so I just went home and wrote two little songs named Lover Boy and Oh My! Love Is Gone. I found Duke Reid and I went inside to him and I said “Mr Reid, can I do some songs for you too?” And he said “Can you sing?” I said “Yes sir” so he said “Alright sing”. I said “Where sir?” He said “Right here - sing!” He was a liquor man who sold liquor and the place was full of people so I said “Alright” and I just started singing Lover Boy to him. He said to me “You have any more?” I said “Yeah” and I gave him Oh My! Love Is Gone and he said “Alright, meet me at Majestic Theatre on Wednesday”.
I went on Wednesday to Majestic Theatre and there I met the band now. That was Jah Jerry and the All-star band. Jah Jerry and Drumbago and those guys. When I went there and I started singing my song they said “Yeah man! That one good” and practised it and practised it. And the next day I went to the studio. That studio was a one track studio, Federal, so you had to be good because you’d come on like you are doing a stage show! (Laughs)
Yeah, one take.
The straight thing. The band rehearsed one more time and said “Red light” that meant they were ready. I sang Lover Boy and the next tune was Oh My! Love Is Gone and it was done. And it came out the Saturday. Duke Reid had a programme on the radio called Treasure Isle time. So I listened on Saturday and I heard a song play (sings bass line) and I thought “That sounds like my song man” and it was Oh My! Love Is Gone. He played that tune and then he played it about three times on his programme. I called the whole of Orange Lane to listen to Derrick Morgan sing. And they didn’t used to call me Derrick Morgan, they used to call me Little Richard. Because I used to go around with Bim and Bam as Little Richard. As soon as I started recording I went back to my original name of Derrick Morgan. And that is how I started.
But those first recordings, Duke didn’t release them to the public.
No, he didn’t. He didn’t release them. He played them against Coxsone [Dodd] in sound system. Lover Boy he threw that on Coxsone, so Coxsone met me on Beeston Street and said to me “Boy, Derrick I’d like you to do a song for me“. I said “Yes sir” so he said “Okay, come in the studio man and make we do something”. I went there and I recorded a tune for him named Leave Earth and named Wigger Wee Shuffle. And I went back to Duke like nothing doing. And when Duke threw this sound on him he threw me on him too! Leave Earth because Duke never knew anything about that song. He [Coxsone] didn’t even tell anybody it was me who sang it.
Anyhow, he wouldn’t release my song and I heard of this man named Little Wonder, Simeon Smith. I went there and asked him if he was doing a recording and he said “Yeah” and I recorded Hey You Fat Man with him. I took Monty with me and I recorded We Want To Know Who Rule This Great Generation. And he put out that song to the public and it was the first number one song for me.
What inspired the lyrics of Fat Man?
Well, nothing really you know! (Laughs) Sometimes you just see some man and his belly looks big and he fools around all the little nice girls and you say “No, man” because the little girls love the fat belly man, you know? So I said “No man, just leave my girl alone” you know? (Laughs) “If you don’t have a girl go look one of your own!” And that’s it. But it’s nothing really. It’s just looking into things and making songs off it.
So what happened when Duke found out you’d been recording elsewhere?
Duke Reid heard about that and sent some badman for me. Want to beat me now. And I went back to him and said “No you can’t beat me over this because you and me didn’t have no contract or nothing - I just sing”. So he said “Alright don’t bother go back sing there no more, just stay here alright?” And I just sang back for him. I found Patsy, took Patsy to him and he said “Jesus mash them down now” because the first duet song came out now with Patsy and I.
And then from there I stuck with Duke for a long while until another day I was going home and buck up this guy named Prince Buster. On the way home he stopped me and said “Boy Derrick, I want to do something you know. Duke Reid gave me some money and I would like do some recording and see what we can do”. So I told him “Yeah. I never afraid to sing for nobody because I love the singing”. (Laughs)
So I took Buster and I had a song named They Got To Go and I finished fixing it up for him. And we went into the studio and we did that song, and I did Shake A Leg. I carried Monty and Monty did Humpty Dumpty and Money Can’t Buy Life. And the man did 13 songs that day and 13 songs became hits. And he wanted to give Duke Reid some of them but one of his songs the engineer never picked it up good, didn’t pick up the bass or pick up Drumbago’s foot drum. So Buster claimed that one was spoiled and you know what he did? He took that one to Duke and gave it to Duke. And when Duke listened to it and there was a number one for Rico Rodriguez, Let George Do It.
So by this point you were already a talent scout (because you found Patsy) and working behind the scenes in studio (because you fixed up They Got To Go for Buster – which had the same rhythm as his Madness).
Well, after leaving Prince, James came and found me, James Chambers which is Jimmy Cliff…
Who is here at Rototom right now.
I just talked with him! He came and found me and he said he had a song called Dearest Beverley. A slow ballad song. And he went into this restaurant at North and Orange Street corner, the restaurant was named Beverley’s restaurant. He went in there with that song asking them if they would record him. He sang the song to Leslie Kong - Dearest Beverley. Because through the place being named Beverley’s Jimmy thought they would take him so. But they said “No” because they were never in the record business. So Leslie Kong said to him “Do you know Derrick Morgan?” He said “I don’t know him but I can find him“. Leslie said “Find Derrick Morgan, make him listen to you and after he listens to you, you bring him come to me”.
So Jimmy found me at Orange Lane and told me exactly what Leslie said. I listened to his song Dearest Beverley, it was a nice ballad song but I said “Well we doing the more up-tempo song”. So he said he had one named Hurricane Hattie and I said “Okay then, that sounds good”. I had a friend in the yard called Courtney Green and he had a poem named The Lion Says I Am King And I Reign. And Jimmy took that too and he put a melody to it.
I went down and found this man Leslie Kong and he said “Did you listen to James?” I said “Oh yes sir, it sounds good. Very good.” He said “I would like to go in the business. You know what you can do for me?” I said “Well I know the band called Drumbago and the All-stars”. He said “Can you get him?” So I called up Drumbago and when he talked to Leslie we decided to go rehearse. We rehearsed at a place in Greenwich Town, Blissett, around one piano with Drumbago and we went to this studio and we recorded.
Jimmy recorded the Hurricane Hattie and the Lion Say and then I did Sunday Monday first. I went outside and I buck Owen [Gray] and I said “Wh’appen, can you come and do a tune for us?“ And he said “Yeah man” and he came in and he did Darling Patricia. He came outside and he boasted his tune was the best tune out there. “Best tune Leslie can get today”. And I said “Be still boy, I’m your superior“. And I went in there and I just recorded that song. Be Still. I never had it written out I just went in and put it together!
Anyhow, Leslie Kong got all of those songs and every one that he put out became number one. And that’s how he started too. Just like Prince got 13 songs and 13 were number one - so he started too. And I said “I ain’t going to leave Leslie Kong because he pays me £20 where everyone else pays me 10“. So I stuck with Leslie for a good while. Giving him all the hits.
Buster, he was not happy about that?
He couldn’t be happy because he was not getting the hits! (Laughs) So in 1962 when I made Forward March, Deadly Headley blew a solo on it and Buster claimed it was his solo I took. And gave to the Chinaman. He called me the Blackhead Chinaman so I wrote a song called Blazing Fire and the two of us started. He put out Blackhead Chinaman and Leslie put out Blazing Fire. And any tune I put out, he put out one after it. And then after we had a big rivalry.
It was going too wrong after a while because the fans all came in and started “Who love Buster?” “Buster better than Derrick” and “Who love Derrick?” And they fought over it. So the government came in and started asking us to stop it. And Eddie Seaga who was the finance minister, he gave us the idea, he said “Come, go down by the Gleaner and the two of you hug up and take pictures and say you are the best friends”. And we did do that. And kind of eased the fans from off one another.
But that wasn’t all because Buster was still making songs. After I made the song called Don’t Call Me Daddy, Buster ran over and made one called Derrick A Chiney Baby [China Jacket] . And I said “No man, you shouldn’t do that because we never call names, so how come you’re calling my name in this song?” And he said “Yeah man, so it go, no business”. I said “Yeah but don’t have to call name. If you put out that song I’m going to write one off of you”. I said “You see B that’s Buster - while you were away at sea I was along with B” which was his wife Blossom “And all your children have the mark of this Blackhead Chiney“. And he said “No Derrick, you can’t do that”. And that’s how we stopped permanently. (Laughs) But you know that trickster still went and put out that song because I saw it a long time after! Years after a gentleman from Boston sent me a cassette with the song on it! But it never bothered me because we never really did fight with that. (Laughs)
How did the ska start?
Well, ska started when I remember we used to imitate Roscoe Gordon, Professor Longhair and those types of American artists. Because their beat was up-tempo and people used to dance that way. So when we started recording, we started recording like we were recording those style of tunes. But our one sounded a little different because musicians didn’t pick it up the right way and so on. So in the music came Jah Jerry who is the one who brought in that name ska. Because he would say to [Dennis] Campbell that is a tenor player “Campbell, you play the ska” and Campbell said “What you call the ska now?” And he said “Pop pop pop with the rhythm, with the riff“. And so that is the ska. And so Campbell started playing the riff with his horn along with the guitar. And from that time the name caught it. So they said “Ska. Play ska.” It’s so simple like that. But it was the same rhythm and blues we were playing. But he called it ska and that’s how the name stuck to it.
How about the rocksteady?
Until Lynn Taitt came to Jamaica from Trinidad and started playing for Coxsone and playing a different style. Rock it down. So everybody listened to that and liked it. And then he came and played one rhythm at Beverley’s named Rudies No Fear and Greedy Girl, then Alton Ellis and those guys sang some nice rock with him. Meanwhile when people danced the ska they would hold the people and dance and spin them like rock ‘n’ roll. But on the rocksteady you couldn’t do that. And that’s how it got its name you know? Because the people who would go to the dance they would just rock. And you see it in the stage shows now - they are only rocking when you see those guys singing like all those young artists, rocking to the music. When they’d go there and ska them a play, they fling their foot! (Laughs)
So what inspired a song like Greedy Girl?
Well, you know the same Leslie Kong. Leslie Kong is the one who changed Jimmy‘s name from James Chambers to Jimmy Cliff. Because he said “Every James is a donkey” so he changed it from James to Jimmy. “Every James is a Jimmy” and he put on the Cliff on it. So Jimmy got his name. So he said to Jimmy one-day “Look, all these girls in Jamaica, they have contests, beauty girls, they call themselves Miss Jamaica when they win. Why don’t you make a song named Miss Jamaica?" And he sang the vocal line to Jimmy (sings) “You’re my Miss Jamaica” and Jimmy took on that and went to write that song. So he came to me with Greedy Girl now and said “Derrick, you know the girls out there greedy. We go make a song of them named Greedy Girl.” I said “Okay” and I just went and made Greedy Girl. It’s simple. And that was a big, big, big seller for him too.
Can you tell me about your early interaction with Bob Marley?
Well, Bob now, in 1963, I used to go out to a bar at Charles Street and this girl there named Pat she called me and said “Derrick, why you don’t try this youth? He can sing”. That was Bob she talked about. And I said to him “You can sing?”. He said “Yeah“. So I said “Meet me up at Beverley’s”. Jimmy Cliff was living very close to her to just right on the Tivoli Bridge. And I said “Alright I haven’t seen him come to Beverley’s for about six months”. And then one day him and Jimmy walked in and came in there. And when he walked and came in there he says “I want to sing”. I was the man who was doing the auditions for Leslie Kong. I went up and listened to him and I said “This sounds good man” - he had One Cup Of Coffee and Judge Not. He sang those two and I said “Okay, we can record this” and Leslie said “Oh yeah, this sounds good.” So we go and record those songs.
Then Buster tried to carry me back into his field by signing a contract to come to England with his Blue Beat records. And I said I wanted to do this then because I noticed Jimmy Cliff has gone to England, Desmond Dekker gone and I haven’t gone anywhere. And Leslie Kong wouldn’t let me go because I had a contract with him. So I said “Leslie, I get a bly to go England” and he said “How?” And I said “Buster manager want me to sign a contract“. And he said “No Derrick, you can’t do that”. I said “Yes I can because I’m with you all the years and you nah send me away and you send everybody else. So me ago with this one. And that gives me £1,000 which is enough money for me!” (Laughs)
I ran and signed that contract and that’s how I left Leslie to go to England. But I came back because I couldn’t stay in England. I didn’t like the weather. I spent only six months and I said “I’m going back home - not taking this weather”. And Buster said “You know what I’m coming with you”. We had come to England permanently but I said “no sir I go right back to Jamaica”. (Laughs) And when I went back to Jamaica now me and Buster did a few songs together like Where Have You Been and I did Poison Ivy On My Flesh.
But after a while I said “No sir, I prefer Leslie Kong. I’m going to try to go back to Leslie“. So I went up to Leslie and I said “Les, I’m back, I’m ready for you again”. Leslie said “What happened to the contract?” I said “I no business about that contract” and he said “No, you can’t do it sir.” He was not going to record me with that contract. So at the same time I went to look for a group, I got two guys, Bill and Jill and I decided to form a group named Derrick Morgan and the Blues Blenders. I went to Coxsone and Coxsone decided to record us, so I recorded about an album with them with Coxsone.
But still yet Leslie Kong was on my mind! (Laughs) So I went back to Leslie and said “Are you ready for me yet?” And he said “No your contract is still”. So I said “Alright“. I went to Seaga which was the Prime Minister and I told him “This contract Buster carried we with, is it is a binding contract?” and he read it said “This contract is binding Derek and you’re supposed to honour a contract and it’s for life”. So I said “No sir, I didn’t honour it because I didn’t go back to England“. So he said “Alright I’m going to get you out of it” and so he called up [Emil] Shallit and told him to release it because you cannot sign a contract with a blind man without a lawyer. And that’s how he got to release me! (Laughs) And when I was released from it I went back to Leslie and Leslie said “Alright” and we gave him Rudies No Fear and those tunes. And he was happy.
How did the reggae start?
Reggae now, after the rocksteady was going on for a while, Glenn Adams came in playing his piano and shuffling another way from how the rest of them. (sings shuffle) A different type of shuffle. And Bunny Lee because he was playing for Bunny said “Streggay“ and he called the girls them and he said “Streggay no reggae” that’s how I heard it start. I don’t know if it was him that started it but it was him I heard it with first. It’s the same rocksteady and ska rhythm but only that they change the tempo from the rocksteady and made the reggae go up a little faster with the piano shuffle. So that is how reggae came in because it used to spell R E G G A until this man in Trinidad who used to buy records - when he sent back the name he spelt it R E G G A E and they said “Alright let’s stick to this – reggae”.
So Bob Marley songs are not really reggae to me. Those are rocksteady songs. He doesn’t play reggae. The Bob Marley songs are rocksteady songs. The reggae came in and after that they were trying to change the name again to Pop A Top. But it only came out as one song Jack Slade and then I did Fat Man over and put in the Pop A Top (sings the version - Lynford “Andy Capp” Anderson Pop A Top) but it never took off, so we left that alone and stuck to the reggae.
Now dancehall came in. But the dancehall is the same reggae music but sometimes they cut it down. Now you have the younger guys slow it down they are doing ballad and talk talk kind of thing. It sounds good some of them, not against them at all, just creation.
You did a tune in 1968, Hold You Jack, for Bunny Lee, which was the first re-use of a reggae rhythm to make a hit for Max Romeo.
Yes. Hold You Jack was Bunny having a session at Duke Reid’s studio and I went upstairs there and I sat down and I wrote the song called Hold You Jack, Make Me Tie Me Janine. And when I recorded that song it was doing well in Jamaica but Bunny he went to England and came back. I don’t know where he got the name Wet Dream from but he came to me and said “Sing this song upon Hold You Jack man, Wet Dream”. I said “No man, I don’t sing dirty song” and he called Max Romeo and said “You have to sing it” because Maxie used to sell records for us. Maxie never wanted to sing it but he said “If you don’t sing it you don’t get to sell any more records for we”. And Maxie said “Okay!” And Maxie sang the song Wet Dream and Wet Dream came over here and mashed up the place. And he sang it on the same Hold You Jack rhythm. And I tried to do one I Love You upon it but my one never went anywhere! (Laughs)
Max told me that you were his biggest inspiration.
Oh yeah. He did a hit song for me called Let The Power Fall For I. And that was a big hit. Yeah true and he and I are still great friends.
How did you start producing? On your own Hop label?
I started producing when I left Leslie Kong in 1967 or ‘68. Buster had a shop on Charles Street and he was going to leave 36 Charles Street and go over to a building in front, which he built that belonged to him. So I said “Make I rent this shop“. And I rented it and started to sell records and from then I started to produce, bringing some artists and so on. And Maxie saw me in the studio and said “Beg you make me do a song“. And I said “Alright come” and he sang Let The Power Fall. After he sang this song it took me months to release his one because I released the other guys’ ones, and he said “You didn’t release the song”. One day I said “Cho!” and put it out. It was a big hit. It was the biggest hit from that session! (Laughs)
Also your song Conquering Ruler inspired Cornell Campbell’s 1975 hit Gorgon.
No, no, no. Conquering Ruler, I wrote it. I sang it for myself. One day we were at studio and Bunny he always called himself the Gorgon, said “Boy, I’ll make Cornell sing that song there. Derrick make him sing it and put in the Gorgon for me.” So he sang this song with the same lyrics but he just changed the Conqueror to Gorgon. And I get to understand that he walked around and told everybody that he wrote the song. Which is so bad with him. I didn’t like that at all. Telling everybody you wrote it. You can’t put one word in the song named “Gorgon” then say you wrote it. And another thing, it’s not him who found the word, it’s Bunny Lee and Bunny Lee is my brother-in-law. So Bunny Lee is free to say. (Points to wife) That his sister she.
Let’s jump from reggae to the present. You have a road named after you.
Oh yeah. (Laughs) It’s best to have a road named after me and live on my own road! Derrick Morgan Close. I have a road named after me right where I live right now. The developer of this scheme that’s named Toby Heights decided she wanted to get my name on the map because everybody comes and wants to buy a lot when they hear that Derrick Morgan is living there. Everybody wants to buy a lot from her so she said my name is the best name to put on that street. Derrick Morgan Close. People cry to come on that road! But they’ve run out of lots.
Also you have been honoured by the government.
Yes, yes. I was honoured in I think ‘98 with the Order of Distinction. OD.
And you have a daughter who is making music.
Oh yeah. Queen Ifrica. Queen Ifrica is mashing down the place man. Champion girl. I’m proud of her but I have some other girls who are singing like Laverne Morgan and Andrea Morgan, and my son Courtney is a doctor but he sings, they call him the singing doctor! (Laughs) All those guys they’re doing well but they don’t take it serious like Ifrica does. She is mashing down the place number one.
You’ve been touring now for nearly 60 years. I saw you perform at the London International Ska Festival, on the same bill as Alpheus who helped arrange this interview. Why do you love performing so much?
(Big laugh) Because it’s nice! I like to entertain people. Especially white people you know? Especially because they show me like they appreciate me. I’m at the age of 78 now but at 99 you’re going to find me singing on stage same way. Entertaining people you know? I love entertaining and they show me that they love me. Everywhere I go it’s jam packed. Full capacity. Everybody is just “Derrick, Derrick!” any country I go in the world “Derrick, Derrick!” I went to Mexico and I didn’t expect anyone to call “Derrick, Derrick!” I love to hear them bawl “Derrick, Derrick!” in Mexico. (Laughs) Brazil, all those areas. They love me man. They love me and I really do love them too. Especially the skinheads. The skinheads are my number one boys man! Skinhead people champion for me. And when I sing to the skinheads I feel like I’m doing something because they make me feel that way. Skinhead dancers.
Thank you very much.
I think you got a good one there.