Interview with Devon Irons - Mysteries Revealed
10/28/2020 by Carl Finlay
The name Devon Irons is familiar to all serious fans of roots reggae as the name adorning two of the most seminal singles to have been produced at the Black Ark during one of Lee Scratch Perry’s most fruitful and creative periods. Ketch Vampire and When Jah Come are two of the most iconic songs of the roots era and in the case of the former, one of the most expensive and sought after singles on the reggae collectors market, where the twelve inch version can fetch astronomical figures when it appears. Despite the stature and international popularity of these songs the artist himself has received neither financial nor personal reward for his work. To say there is little known about Devon Irons would be an understatement, in fact it has been speculated that he either passed away long ago or remarkably that he never existed in the first place, with some suggesting his name was just an alias for either Devon Russell or original Viceroys lead-singer, Bonny Gayle.
So, it was with great excitement and intrigue when earlier this year (2020) I finally made contact with Devon who, for the past twenty years has been living an agrarian and anonymous life in the rural parish of St. Mary in the north east of Jamaica. I have conducted multiple interviews with Devon who has shared in great detail most of his life story. The sheer length and extent of our conversations is too long and all-encompassing for this article, so I have edited it down to focus on the details of his recording career. However, for the sake of context what follows is my attempt to briefly give some background on Devon’s life up to the point at which he made his first recording.
Born Christopher Irons on the 16th of Jan 1952, he spent the first eighteen years of his life living in Morant Bay in St. Thomas. For reasons that remain a little unclear, his primary school teacher Mother P started to call him Devon and that’s the name he has continued to go by for the rest of his life. Devon described his childhood in Morant Bay as a carefree and idyllic one until his life was turned upside down and his innocence was shattered when his father was killed in a road accident just outside the family home as Devon and his brothers were playing in the yard. Without his father around the family struggled financially, so at the age of twelve Devon left school and began working to provide an extra income for his mother. Initially Devon found work as a gardener and house hand for a wealthier family in the area, he worked briefly with the local fishermen and had a brief stint as a labourer on a construction site before finally becoming a painter and decorator, a trade which would sustain him for the majority of his life.
At the age of eighteen Devon and his family relocated to Santa Cruz in the parish of Saint Elizabeth and it was during this time that Devon first began to explore his musical talents. Having sold his bicycle to buy a guitar from an elderly neighbour, Devon began writing songs as soon as he had mastered the rudiments of the instrument. It wasn’t long before he formed a musical duo called The Now Now Healers with a friend he had made in the area named Errol Berwise. They would perform at schools and at local competitions and on three consecutive years they entered the parish finals for the Jamaican festival song competition. With backing from Zap Pow they were finally crowned the winners for the parish of Saint Elizabeth on their third year entering. Devon had a further boost of confidence when a song he wrote promoting the importance of literacy in the country was performed by a class of students on the national TV station JBC. It was shortly after this that Devon relocated to Kingston where he had been offered a job as a painter on a building site. He spent the first two weeks living on site, sleeping on top of an empty closet before ultimately making contact with an aunt living in Greenwich Farm in western Kingston who provided a room for Devon to share with his cousin. It’s at this point where Devon made friends with Earl Zero and his recording career commenced. It’s also at this point where the following excerpt from my interviews with Devon commences.
What was live like in Greenwich Farm at the time?
It wasn’t bad because I just gone to work every day and earn a little money that I could go through with. It was inna those times that I meet Earl Zero. He live on the other street different from me so that is how I get to know he can play the guitar. Earl Zero could play the guitar good, he would do most of the playing of the guitar and me and him would sing every evening after work. So there is where the idea come to write the song None Shall Escape The Judgement that me and him write and rehearse very often.
Wow! Johnny Clarke made that song famous but I have heard that it was actually Earl Zero who wrote and originally recorded it, but his recording wasn’t released. I had no idea that you were involved too. So you both wrote that song together?
He just come up with the idea and the both of us write and sing and put in words and match words. So that is how it put together sounding so good that we link up Bunny Lee. Because Bunny Lee never live so far away from us.
Bunny Lee was very connected with the Soul Syndicate at the time..
Right, that was mostly fi him backing band.
Did you have much interaction with the musicians from the Soul Syndicate?
No, no, no. The first time when we go a Treasure Isle studio to do None Shall Escape The Judgement they lay the riddim and me and Earl go inna the studio and voice it.
Was Duke Reid there at the time?
Yeh man, Duke Reid’s studio and Duke Reid was alive at the time.
Do you have any memories of recording None Shall Escape The Judgement? It’s an important song, its often said to be the first song to use that ‘flying cymbal’ sound that became very popular for a while…
The both of us go to the studio and we do a rehearsal with the band that they get the chords that we are playing in, get the drums together, the keyboards together before they start laying the riddim. It’s just the co-ordination of the musicians that really put the introduction together and really get it done. In another about two weeks’ time Earl Zero come link me and carry a copy of that record fi come show me seh them only put out the song with fi him name alone as the writer and Johnny Clarke voice it over. Them take both of us voice off and make Johnny Clarke voice it over completely. So look here now, because I did just move inna the city the only name Earl would know me as was just Devon. Bunny Lee never know my name either. Because it was the first time Bunny Lee would have seen me so he wouldn’t know seh me and Earl are the co-writer for the song. So that is possibly one of the reasons why I never on that record as a co-writer.
It was your first time in a studio, that must have been a great experience for you?
Yeh man. That would have been my first time in a studio and I was so grateful fi it and glad fi know seh bwoy a little country boy just left country and come a town and in a studio. In a short while after that I did have to move from Greenwich Farm to live in Jones Town. When I was living in Jones Town I save some money and say I gwine do this song Last None Stop Train fi myself. I go to Randy’s and enquire about the studio time, the musicians and the tape to get and they have the Soul Syndicate band there as the studio band as well and they have the tape and everything so I just purchase everything right there and go in there and do that song Last None Stop Train.
Last None Stop Train was your first recording as a solo artist and you financed and produced it yourself. How did you go about distributing it and getting it into the shops?
Well I used to walk around selling it and carry it to the shops and one and two might sell. Nobody no know about it. Me carry it to the radio station and it’s like people ignore it. One of the time I did do an advertisement with The Weekend Star with it. But by sale I never make no really significant money out of that song. But I don’t mek those things worry me.
It’s a great song Devon. Your vocal is really impressive on it. I love the song, it’s a shame it didn’t sell well. You were still making a living by working as a painter at this time though weren’t you?
Well that is what really keep me to survive up till now. Because the music nah earn nothing fi me fi live so me haffi continue paint. I get to do that song in 1974 and that is when I get to finish mixing it and getting the labels and the stamper and those things together, there is how I chose Cannon Ball to use as my label name [in honour of his father, whose nickname was Cannon Ball]. After doing that first song, I move from Jones Town and go to live in Waterhouse in the Balcombe Drive and Unity Lane area. In Waterhouse in that time I keep on writing songs and playing guitar right through the while. My bredrin live a Washington Gardens where him link me and tell me “You know seh a studio just deh pon the road next to me down at the bottom deh. You no see it? So me can give them a link” So that is what I do now, I go down there go link and get to know Scratch. And when I go and meet Scratch, Scratch say “Alright, sing something mek me hear now man” and there is where I start to sing this song [Singing] “The wicked man I know will really never get away from the fire, for it is only good things last forever and it’s my father’s salvation” and him never mek me finish it complete, him no want hear nothing more. His musician line up same time to record it and then after them make the riddim, lay the track, then I went in and voice it. So that is the first song I did for Scratch.
Tell me what inspired When Jah Come? It’s such a heavy song and you sound angry. You’re calling down judgement on all wicked men…
Well because inna those times is when things start to really change inna Jamaica that you are going to be going in fear from walking from one street to another. Dem time deh a the days when the political thing just boil up, just start to BOIL up. So as a person who always just jam to myself and a looking wha a gwan through the world, the idea just come to me. So the best thing fi sing bout is when Jah Jah come hell fire burn. Because him a go burn up all the bomb and the gun and only good people a go get the gift fi really live forever. So that a the inspiration that come through fi really put that song together. When I go inna the studio and I listen my voice through the speaker it ring a message inside of me fi say I love that melody, so that is why I follow what I hear and put all of what I definitely have into it. And as you listen it, every note in it is original. Everyone who try to sing that song just can’t reach to that note because those notes come from inna the words and how I write them and how I inspire them. But Scratch say “You know what? That song nah too gwaan with nothing. You can write another song”. But the next thing a few days or so after I voice that song when I go down a the studio fi really check Scratch, to my surprise I hear Max Romeo in there voicing the same song. I don’t really hear him on it but I went to the studio and hear him was voicing it so I do not know if eventually Max Romeo is on that track doing it differently out there.
I’m pretty certain Max Romeo’s version has never been released. But it’s funny that Scratch was telling you that the song wasn’t good enough and that you needed to write another song, meanwhile he was getting Max Romeo to voice it again. Perhaps he felt Max Romeo had more of a name….
Right, but at the same time it couldn’t do enough to match mine because otherwise him would have him pon it out there instead of my voice. Now after doing that song I link Scratch and say “Wha’ happen Scratch? Wha gwan for the song?” and Scratch say “Bwoy, nothing nah gwan fi it. That song deh no great, good or whatsoever. You can write another song”. Inna the meantime while writing the song the same bredrin whe introduce me to the studio down deh link me and say “But me hear a girl who come from England yesterday a sing that song right through and know every word.” Him haffi ask her “How comes you know that song?” and she did a say “But this is a popular song in England where I live”. So he’s telling her now this man who do that song just live up the road there and it was a surprise to she to know that man could live up dehso and [it was a surprise to me when] I hear that song so popular in England. That song eventually Scratch give to this bredda name Winston Blake to deal with. So Winston Blake used to distribute that song. Then me get to link up Winston Blake and get to know him and him actually know my father. So every Thursday at the Turntable club at Red Hills Road I always go up there and meet him and get a free pass to go inna the club go sit down listen him play and he would offer me a red stripe beer or two and when me a go away him would palm me a twenty or even a thirty dollar, inna those days a whole heap a money.
Was he playing When Jah Come at the dances?
Well at the time Thursday its just old hits and that song wasn’t an old hit at that time.
But he was distributing the song?
Yeh, he was the one who was distributing it, selling internationally. Because it wasn’t released in Jamaica for anybody to know it and buy it. It was marketed overseas.
Was he connected to Scratch somehow?
Yes. Scratch give him [the record] fi deal with it, fi make it look like him no have nothing to do with it. So looking at it in those days I say well me a young boy come from country and me remember Jimmy Cliff [in the movie ‘The Harder They Come’] how him record and him show you the things whe him go through before him really make it. So I ignore all those thoughts and go and write the song Vampire. So writing this song Vampire is inna the same time when the political thing between Marverly and Waterhouse a boil up.
What was the problem, two political factions?
One over dehso a JLP and one over yahso a PNP. So one couldn’t walk from the next side to the other without being harassed. I seen a person who would have called himself a Rastaman, a locksman a run down a next Rastaman with a gun to kill him. So that is what happened that day when I see the dreadlocks a run cross the bridge with a gun fi come kill the Rasta who run down the gully two hundred miles per hour and the dreadlocks come only one hundred miles per hour so him couldn’t catch him. So that is how it come to me and I just really see them going over and I start to sing [singing] “I man trod up down a Unity Lane see a dreadlocks running down a Rastaman. Swear that if him catch him he will kill him down. The dreadlocks couldn’t catch the rastaman” So that is how I get to write that song Ketch Vampire. When I got to Scratch with it him never hesitate, him line up the musician dem. I think Boris Gardiner was the bass man on that song.
That would make sense. Do you remember any of the other musicians?
No, I don’t quite remember no other one right now.
Is there any significance in how you mention the name Obadiah?
Due to Obadiah is a name from inna the Bible I just figure to use that name. Since that song come out and a lot of people who hear it the first thing them say when them see me again a “Wha’ppen Obi”. So everybody who know me inna them time deh would see me and say “Wha’ppen Obadiah” So when I go now and hear somebody say “Wha’ppen Obadiah” I know seh it’s a one who knew me from inna that era when I was living in town when that song was out. So now, after doing that song I link up Scratch a little while after and say “Scratch wha gwan fi Ketch Vampire? Can you let off something pon me man?” Scratch say “Alright, hear what you a do. See that stamper yah, go hustle see what you can do for yourself”. That is how I get a master record for Ketch Vampire that I release on the label Cannon Ball. That make people out there question how comes Cannon Ball label and Black Ark label have the same record, who is Cannon Ball? Who own Cannon Ball? So what you are doing now is to put it out to really mek them know who is the owner fi that label.
Can you give some insight into what it was like to work with Scratch? The sound of the Black Ark is incredibly unique, it had an almost spooky otherworldly sound? What was your impression of Scratch and his working process?
Scratch inna those days live inna that studio. Scratch is a very creative man when it comes to acoustics and dealing with percussions, as Max Romeo woulda say, him woulda use a bottle and make all six different sounds and record it and put everything together. Him was a good listener and a good arranger for the songs. Because when I listen how him put Ketch Vampire and When Jah Come together I don’t know if any musician woulda really so good fi find those notes that they play in those songs. So Scratch definitely had that gift to do all of that.
So you think Scratch’s creativity had a major role in how those songs you recorded turned out?
Yes, and a lot of artist inna those days always go to his studio for recording. Name them, every artist inna Jamaica in those days go a Scratch studio fi do recording fi get that sound that him have in there. Scratch no sleep because Scratch is a man who just go inna the house and bust a Guinness and build a big spliff and come back in there. Most of him mixing work a night time him do in there.
How did the Black Ark look when you were there? Had Scratch started to write on the walls and paint murals?
Inna those days in the studio all he had put up in there was pictures of all the artists. Decorated nice and fix up nice. But eventually after doing the song Ketch Vampire fi him and him give me the stamper, is where I did go now and meet this brother named Gayman who used to work with Tommy [Cowan], Gayman link me and say Ketch Vampire come pon an export order for 200 records at Federal. So him say him know how him can get it lined up that me can get it pressed so that the only thing me would haffi do was to get the label, because them nah go do it without label. So that is how I get the 200 label pressed with Cannon Ball and all the rest of all the other information on it and then press Ketch Vampire and get those 200 records sell on a consignment. I never get paid fi it until the consignment go through the other week when another order come again for another 50 or so, so I eventually sell a couple hundred record through that stamper that Scratch gave me.
Scratch released it too on his Black Art and Upsetter labels..
Yes, yes yes. He is the one who put it out and have it right around the world. When I listen and hear the amount of people and that places that song play in.
The version he released on a twelve inch has become one of the most sought after records amongst collectors of Jamaican music. In fact I think one of the most expensive records ever sold on the Reggae collectors market is the twelve inch version of Ketch Vampire. It has a totally different mix, it sounds almost apocalyptic. There is some extra instrumentation on it and a female voice that is not on the original version of the song. Do you have any idea who that female singer was?
Scratch supposed to know who all the rest of the people is. The one that is on the Cannon Ball label that is the original everything else you hear, any voice or anything else that you hear like added instruments to that one there. That is added.
They are overdubs that were done after you had stopped working with Scratch?
Were those songs you recorded with Lee Perry hits in Jamaica?
No, no. You don’t hear them play in Jamaica and it don’t really publish in Jamaica nothing about those songs.
So you didn’t get to hear those songs on the radio or on sound systems?
Well only possible if I really take it there and in the earlier days in the 70s when those songs were released once I think I hear one of them playing on a radio station and another one in another time but from that I don’t hear nothing more. Up till now Jamaican people do not know nothing about all these things. I definitely gwine haffi get these things out there that the people dem can know what is taking place.
Why do you think the song wasn’t a success in Jamaica?
Just because of exploitation. You see the producers and promoters they are the ones that are exploiting the thing. They are the ones that are hiding these type of things from Jamaica. Because they are the ones who have it together and if they did really put it out in Jamaica that Jamaican people could hear it, same like how the people dem abroad hear it and respect it and like it that’s the same way they would appreciate it [in Jamaica].
Maybe he was making more money on the international market and that was his priority?
Just like that, because eventually he used all those things to tour the world.
Outside of Jamaica those two songs are considered to be classics of the genre. Ketch Vampire in particular is very famous, it has been released and reissued so many times that it has become a Roots anthem. Did you know that even the Irish pop artist Sinead O’Connor did a version of ‘Ketch Vampire’ on a very successful album she recorded with Sly and Robbie in 2005?
Can you imagine Sir? Now you see how the truth take time a reveal itself man? Because I never know all those things you know. Well that is one of the thing that I’m really going to have to get a lawyer to really investigate it. I tell you now this has really encouraged me, by next week I’ll get in touch with a lawyer so we can go through the procedure of getting all those informations together. Father sent you, Jah sent you for a reason you know…. [LISTEN TO VAMPIRE BY SINEAD O'CONNOR HERE]
Why did you not go back to Scratch?
Well from meeting Tommy [Cowan] I never reach back a Scratch place. I see nothing about him from those times. I was amongst Tommy and my links with Tommy was that I never find no interest to go back to Scratch. So that is how coming to meet Tommy Cowan by a man who I used to work with named Raymond Lindo. Tommy a him bredrin so him say him go introduce me to Tommy and me do a little audition fi him and Tommy say “Yeh man. The youth deh can sing, man” So the first recording me do for Tommy was Jerusalem.
Yes, that’s another fantastic song. Can you give some background to that recording?
Inna the same time one Thursday evening, little after meeting Tommy, a police man come inna me yard. Me right by the zinc fence a bun a spliff tail and this policeman come inna mi yard and drape me up. Carry go lock me up fi a spliff tail. Drape me up the wickedest way and me drape him up back you know sah. Him drape me and me drape him back.
When you say he draped you, what exactly did he do to you?
Him drape me inna my waist man and I drape him up back inna fi him waist.
And he didn’t lick you down for that?
Yeh man! Him draw him gun pon me. Another policeman haffi come and say “Easy yourself my youth just come and mek we just mek things run things easy”. And me go with them and them carry me go a the jailhouse whe not too far from where me did deh. And even write up bail fi me the same night fi me go a court Monday morning. Now the Friday me link Tommy and tell Tommy seh “Me haffi go court Monday” and him say “Alright, all you haffi do is sing fi the police them at Twickenham Park later”
Twickenham Park is in Spanish Town isn’t it?
Yeh man, a Spanish Town deh.
That’s where they have the police academy, right?
Right, definitely. The academy. Well now the show the Ras dem plan to do over there is to form a truce between Rastaman and police, that Rastaman can get the privilege fi can use them ganja without harassment from police
Run that by me one more time…
That show that is going to be kept at the police academy with Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus was a show to highlight the truce between Rasta and ganja and the police. Fi know seh the police a go really stop harass Rastaman fi using ganja. I never really know all of those things more than I hear I haffi go pon the show go sing. So when I go there now Ras Michael and them don’t know the song, them never hear it yet. I have to get a guitar and show them what chord I play, A minor, B minor, A flat or whatsoever. Then I start to strum the guitar and them follow me and I start to sing the first song When Jah Come and remember the words of When Jah Come? It did come like the song was written for the show, because it say ‘When Jah Jah come hell fire bun, Babylon haffi run’ it’s a Babylon place Rastaman deh a say that. So after I do that one the next one I do was Ketch Vampire with ‘Jah Jah send us here to catch vampire, and I have the chalice to light up the fire'. Before the show start about a half pound weight of weed pon stage and light a big chalice pon stage, every Rastaman haffi take a big lick out of it. So we dark up the stage with smoke before the show start.
But ganja hadn’t been legalised in Jamaica at this point and the police had no problem with you burning a chalice on stage like that?
A them give we it! And when me look me see the big pot of ital food whe them cook fi we and some big long length of table of Heineken and Guinness and them thing deh. So we was well treated by them fi highlight the freedom between Rasta and ganja. So when I sing the song Ketch Vampire with the words ‘Jah Jah give me the chalice fi light up the fire’ and the chalice just done light pon stage when it dark up with smoke. I remember pure Rasta drum, Ras Michael you know. So after I do those two songs now the only song that fly come inna my thought fi do was Jerusalem. And there is where that song sing for the first time inna public. Because not even Tommy never know nothing about that song Ras Michael them never know nothing about that song either. And when I do that song by showing them what to play the applause go very big for it, big boots up me get for the three song deh you know sah.
Eventually the next Saturday, Tommy line up some musician at Dynamic Studio at Bell Road fi do that song, but when me go there now the musician who him get fi do the song are just some little youth who just put them little thing together and never really experienced with no portion of music talent. So eventually them couldn’t start to play the song because the drummer not able fi play the song how me want him fi start the drum. Because when him make the drum roll and start play him a play a one drop thing and him can’t take it. Because if you listen to Jerusalem it’s not a one drop drumming inna it. So eventually they had to abandon that session. The Sunday now Tommy line up Ian Lewis, Roger Lewis and the rest of the musicians from Inner Circle and meet at Treasure Isle studio.
Was that the first time you met the Inner Circle guys?
Yes that’s the first time I gwine meet them. They go now and I start sing the song now and Ian really showed the drummer, him say “Drummie, a so you haffi play it” and the drummer follow it and from the drummer follow it and they lay the riddim them never haffi go back over it another time. They lay the riddim and say “Alright come go in deh and go voice it now” and when me go in there and a voice the song, every note whe me lick its pure hands inna the air behind the glass man. Them say “Gwan Devon, no stop, gwan!” So when you check it out I never did haffi go in there go do no additions to it because it’s just one cut. Another day him line up to go to Joe Gibbs studio around Retirement Crescent to dub on the back vocal that I did and to get the horn section that you hear on it. The brother named Errol Thompson used to engineer in that studio, after I done lay the voice track pon it him come out and him say “Wha? The youth deh BAD!” So that is how Jerusalem get to be created and went on record.
Was it successful?
Well the first time Tommy make this bredda from JBC studio, Alphonso Walker, hear the song Alphonso say “Alright send him come a the studio mek me put it on the Where It’s At programme.” Where It’s At is a music video programme that come every Saturday where they feature all artists. It’s a JBC production.
So you had to perform it in a television studio with the cameras filming you?
Yeh man me go do it a the studio.
Was there a stage or did they have some sort of set made up?
No they just build up a little platform where I go and I sing with a camera or two. In the studio you know. So they just set a little stage and just put two camera there and meanwhile I sing them record it.
Were you miming over the original recording?
Yes, yes, right, right, that is it. I was going over the song that way.
Did you get to see yourself on the television?
Yes, mostly because remember inna those days a black and white, colour TV never come in yet you know. That Saturday evening come, because it do this weekend and it’s the other weekend it really come Saturday evening. When I sit and everybody a watch Where It’s At and see me pon that show it’s a big talking man. Inna them deh time me never earn no money outta it and couldn’t pay rent and people had to fling me out of them place.
So the promotion from the TV appearance didn’t help the sales?
It only help Tommy. I gwine tell you something, when I go inna the studio go do the recording for the song, when I done and when I look I don’t see Tommy you know, Tommy gone. And a walk me haffi walk from Half Way Tree go a Waterhouse, that is over three miles, with the guitar pon me shoulder.
You may not have made money, but I wondered if it got much exposure? Did you hear it playing on the radio much or was it playing on sound systems? Was it popular at the time?
Well that would be the only time I hear it on the air anywhere any time. From I hear it that time I never hear back on another radio or another TV until 1978 when I did it back over on the same Where It's At programme again. Tommy have the song a England a distribute amongst this label named Pressure Sounds.
Yes I remember that. I bought that compilation at the time. Pressure Sounds have put it out on a seven inch single on a couple of occasions and they also featured it on a compilation of Tommy Cowan productions called ‘Life Goes In Circles’. But those releases came out relatively recently. I’m wondering if it had much success in Jamaica when it was originally released in the 1970s?
Not in Jamaica.
But you kept recording for Tommy. You did another song with him called Mary…
Yes because you see inna them time me never used to make certain things worry me. Because me just really love the idea of getting to do the song them and hope that one day things might a turn.
Do you remember much about recording Mary?
Having a little girlfriend me say me a go write a song about my girlfriend. So what you hear in that song is just what I express about her. That session take place at Harry J studio where Robbie [Shakespeare] a the bass man for that song and Horsey a the drummer and I can’t really remember the guitar or the keyboard man, but I believe it was Winston Wright. I don’t hear no gun shot fire about that song from when it go pon record whether it play here or there. Now it’s after doing that song I do Bright Was The Night. That is an idea Tommy put to me, him say I must write a song fi Christmas, something about stars and night and whatsoever. So the idea come to me and me just grab me guitar and me find that melody and just write that song. Just as how you hear it is what come to me and I just write. It’s the same Inner Circle a back that song at Channel One on Maxfield Avenue.
Did it come out for Christmas?
Yeh man, it come out for Christmas and I gwine tell you that year when come it out for Christmas I hear this brother Allen Magnus play it on a Saturday morning on his programme one time. From that I don’t hear it again. I remember me hear Allen Magnus say “Well this is a brand new one from Devon Irons - Bright Was The Night”
So having done a few recordings with Inner Circle, did you become friendly with the guys from the band like Ian and Roger?
Well I get to know all those guy from this place 1C Oxford Road where Tommy always have his headquarters office. I don’t know if you did hear anything about 1C Oxford Road?
No, I haven’t..
Well 1C Oxford Road was a big place where all musicians meet, where Zap Pow, the realest band, was stationed. So a lot of rehearsal take place there with bands and arranging of shows and distribution of records and all those things. So all the artists that you can ever think of always meet up right there at 1C Oxford Road.
Ok, so it wasn’t Tommy Cowan’s place?
No, it was a rent place…
Ok I see. So you’d go there and rehearse with Inner Circle before you’d go to the studio to record?
Right, right. Definitely man.
What was it like working with Inner Circle?
Well those guys are great guys man. Them guys are professional workers. Believe me, me rate them man. So there is where we do the song Bright Was The Night and then we go to another studio to do the back vocal I did on it. It was a little studio on Devon Road, where a brother named Mikey Chung put that lead guitar sound on it and I did the back vocal on it. Tommy meet this youth now who called himself Mighty Scorpion who walk on there the same time and Tommy say “Wha’ppen Scorpion? What you can do with this?” and him go in the studio and what you hear him do there a no something him did write out, a just freestyle him go in deh pon. To my surprise now about two weeks after that Tommy link me and say that them kill the youth a east Kingston.
Oh my god that’s terrible Devon. Was that due to more political issues?
Well I never really hear what happened, just Tommy tell me that them shoot him out that way there. Because inna those days a when the political things get up bad, bad, bad. Believe me the things that I behold in those days I never before see those things fi real, its only in a show. Me used to see them things when me did live inna Waterhouse. Some gun whe me hear fire at Waterhouse me did hear the gun fire for the first time.
It must have been very scary to live through that Devon..
Wha? A mad house inna them time deh man. Me a tell you seh it’s a history to really tell my life what I go through man. Bwoy, I used to sell all little weed and all them thing deh. To speak the truth is a good thing you know. Because living in a yard now, a tenement yard, the same Tommy [Cowan] did just give me about six pound of weed fi wrap out and sell fi him. So me stay home a me yard this evening and wrap out all of the weed but me pick out some bud whe me pick out fi myself as special fi as my smoke. Now the next day I have the weed pack up in a bag inna me house with my special pon the top and go a my field and come home afternoon. Me pass come round which part my little quarters deh and start to cook a pot. Now the pipe fi use deh outside so me haffi go a the pipe go do everything outside and come inna the house. So when me do a thing fi go outside a the pipe, when me put out my head to rahtid is a gun-mouth me look up inna you know. A soldier man stick me up and say “Wha, you a the general? Wha? Come round yahso man.” So me just haffi leave pot pon fire and everything and go round a the front which part him have two other man sit down pon wall round there. When me look me see couple stick of weed throw down a ground so me say what this to bloodclaat man? That’s when me realise now the brother inna the room whe live beside me, weed them go search and find. So when I go around there me hear the policeman him say “If this boy did tell me seh him have the weed and search fi it, me wouldn’t haffi go search fi it. But him tell me lie and mek me haffi go in again and haffi a search fi it. So me a lock him up.”
Raas, when him say that deh now me say “What happen to me now sah?” So it come now and he ask me if me have any weed round a fi me house. Me say “Yes officer, me have some weed round deh”, hear him now “Alright no bother make me haffi go search fi it. You go fi it” So when me go round deh fi the weed the soldier a follow me go round deh and a say “Right, me want all the gun and the thiefing goods whe a round deh too” and me say “Soljie, me nah have no gun nah no thiefing goods round deh. All me have round deh are the little ganja whe me a go bring a you.” When him follow me go round deh him go nowhere else but come my doorway come stand up and me just go in there go put me hand inna the bag whe me have the six pound weight of weed wrap out inna and just take out the little special draw whe me have fi meself and say “See it yah sah?” When him see it him was so impressed with it that he no bother want no search because the weed PRETTY. Them time deh the sensimilla weed just a come in. So when him see it him say “Wha? A this the youth have round yah man?” Same time another little policeman come now and say “Mek me see it” him a say “Wha? A wha you a say? You lucky you never make me come in there come search. How much you want fi it?” and me say “Me nah sell weed. Keep take it and gwaan” [laughter] Right now you’d know its sweet when me hear him say me haffi go fi it. You no hear me deh sah? Because if him did come round deh, come really search and find the amount of ganja deh, me couldn’t miss prison! You see whe me a deal with sah?
[laughter] You’re a lucky man Devon!
You no hear me a tell you seh that is why I learn seh it better you speak the truth.
OK, to get back on track we spoke about your song Bright Was The Night, what came after that?
Yes, after Bright Was The Night we went and did One Nation. A Beverley’s we go run the audition fi it and then now the next day we end up at Channel One studio on Maxfield Avenue and did that song.
What was it like at Channel One?
In those days things was terrible but at the same time no-one ever harassed no-one fi that studio. Musicians them come there and them can park them vehicle outside and walk go in and you come back out almost any hours of the day or night and you don’t have a problem. It was good there man. That is a very original studio in that era at that time. Things wasn’t like now. The back vocals you hear on that song is Winston McAnuff and Tyrone Taylor you know.
It’s based on a Funkadelic song. Did Inner Circle back you up on that one too?
Right. Well very funny after I do that song I don’t behold Inner Circle again from that. I don’t see them after that, nowhere no time we ever meet. Because first thing them don’t live in Jamaica again, so it’s from inna those days now them man move and live a Miami. Tour and travel the world big time artists them really is, big man and none of them no make no mention of Devon Irons.
Then your last record was ‘A Different Song’. Was it Tommy Cowan again who organised that production?
It has a nice message of accepting people no matter of their differences.
That was a song that was written with all the things that was taking place around with the type of people that you have to deal with. For instance man just really love to smoke as them breakfast, nuff man used to drink as them breakfast and whosoever want eat, eat. You know everybody is so different in the things that they do. I just a try fi say every man fi do whatsoever they choose. And that was another song that was done at Harry J’s.
The rhythm was recorded at Harry J’s but you told me that you voiced it up at Hope Road?
At Hope Road yes, at Bob Marley’s studio.
What was it like to record there?
In those days Bob Marley never dead yet. Bob Marley was still alive and that time they just built a studio up there and there is where I went to voice that song.
Was Bob Marley there when you recorded the song?
Yeh man he was there at the time but not in the studio.
Did you get to meet him?
Well it was just to pass and say “Hail Bob” and just go inna the studio and just go voice the song. But in the middle of doing the song I had to stop it to adjust some melody in it.
Why did you have to stop it?
Just because the melody of that part of it wasn’t doing right so I stop it fi really get it corrected. After doing that and going in the studio the engineer said the voice track can’t take off of it. So that was called abandoned. So I just really forgot about it, I said “Bwoy, a spoil me spoil up the thing.” But to my surprise recently when I start to really search the internet I get to find out the song was modified and released.
But hang on you had recorded the riddim at Harry J’s and you were only voicing the song at Tuff Gong. They should have been very capable of doing another take. Maybe they felt like they ran out of time?
You see what I mean? But that was probably one of the trick fi get that song out deh now and me dehya now and a know nothing about it.
It did actually get a release. It came on a Top Ranking label where it says it was produced by Tommy Cowan and Horace Andy…
But I never see Horace Andy at the time when that song was doing at Harry J. That time I don’t even know that Horace Andy have anything to do with the production of that song. Then now it come out with horns that dub onto it. You hear that horn section in it? That was dub on, I never do that none at all. So Tommy go through and do that between him and Horace Andy. So there’s a lot of mystery in this thing to solve.
OUTRO: A Different Song was recorded in 1980 and to date is the last recording Devon has made. Aside from a brief stint in a short-lived group called Steady who made no recordings but performed at a couple of community stage shows in the mid 1980’s, Devon has had no involvement with the music industry since. Instead he has put all his focus on earning a living from his painting trade which he plied until the turn of the millennium when he relocated to a rural district in St. Mary where he now works as a farmer, growing an impressive variety of fruit and vegetables which he sells to local higglers and market sellers. Despite such a long absence from the music scene Devon’s voice is in incredible shape and he passionately wants the world to know he is a true and living person. Hopefully this interview will go some way in setting the record straight.