❉ A fantastic album, full of tight grooves, and some classic, rare songs.
Clancy Eccles was a crucial cog in the evolution of Jamaican music. He sang, wrote songs, produced records, promoted concerts and helped change the political landscape of the island.
A series of his work has been released by Cherry Red Records’ Doctor Bird, the legendary label licensed to release material from the Trojan back catalogue, and hot on the heels of Freedom and Fire Corner comes Top Of The Ladder, originally released in 1973. The album, virtually untraceable in recent times, was released as part of Trojan’s ‘Big Shot’ range to capitalise on Clancy’s popularity during the golden era of reggae from 1970 to 1972. It consisted of a dozen lesser known cuts. However, Doctor Bird have bolstered it with over forty Eccles produced tracks from the early seventies, including the first reggae recording of Kingston Town. As ever with these releases, a superb, exhaustive booklet together with a great selection of period photographs is part of the package. Thus, the chronology is continued.
There was a three-year gap between Trojan’s release of Freedom and that of Top Of The Ladder. During this period Clancy was incredibly popular, his productions scoring huge Jamaican hits for The Fabulous Flames and Merlene Webber as well as enjoying several of his own, such as Rod Of Correction. It seems strange that Trojan chose to delay issuing an album mopping up these successes until 1973. Freedom was put out in a similar manner but was issued during the golden era for reggae in 1970. By the end of this period the genre had become a little cleaned up, sanitised even. Tracks awash with strings enjoying considerable chart success. Thus, the material on Top Of The Ladder sounded dated upon its release. However, the quality of musicianship, song-writing finesse and performance in the grooves speaks for itself. The passing of time has been kind to Top Of The Ladder. Ultimately, the music has proven to be timeless.
Winston Wright, organ player with The Dynamites, is prominent on this largely instrumental album. He starts things off with a perky Open Up, swiftly followed by the slightly slower but still lively Thinking About It, credited to The Dynamites. All are produced by Eccles, and many of the tracks were unreleased at the time of Top Of The Ladder’s release. One track that had been out before is the first vocal cut on the album, Captivity by Joe Higgs. A strong number, with a shout-along intro followed by a passionate, heartfelt lyric. Higgs was an in-demand songwriter and vocalist as well as vocal teacher, who listed a young Bob Marley as one of his pupils and was a mentor to The Wailers.
Higgs features on the soulful duet with Roy Wilson, Love That Builds. A beautiful tune, written and produced by Clancy that underlines the man’s song-writing talent. It is followed up with Clancy pre-empting the medley craze of the late seventies with Hits Medley, a series of mini do-overs including Puppet On A String, Merry Go Round and The Games People Play.
A quartet of Winston Wright and The Dynamites instrumentals follow. Wright’s dexterity and feel are showcased, with rich, velvety organ tones spread across these tracks. Of these, the stalking Cat Walk and bouncy Quarter Master were released on Clandisc in 1970 and 1971, respectively.
Lord Creator (a calypso musician from Trinidad, real name Kentrick Patrick) pours his smooth tones over Passing Through. A tune that is easy on the ear, with instantly memorable simple lyrics. The album closes with two more instrumental numbers, Cow Feet Reggae (The Dynamites) and one of the best tracks featured in this collection, Nyah Rock. Written by Eccles and credited to Wright, this is marauding piece of work, darker in feel and different to the rest of the album. Wicked.
What is intriguing about the album are the tracks left OFF its original Trojan release. Freedom contained the hits Freedom, Fattie and What Will Your Mama Say. Yet Eccles’ big sellers of the early seventies are not contained on Top Of The Ladder. However, they are dusted off and included in this expanded version, and it is so much the better for it. It makes it a truer representation of Clancy’s work during this golden period.
For example, Holly Holy is a gospel, spiritual sounding number originally written by Neil Diamond. It was a hit on the island for The Fabulous Flames.
Eccles’ own Rod Of Correction, a politically inspired piece written by the man himself, follows this up and another political song, Power For The People (Part 1) appears shortly after. Both are powerful songs, performed by Clancy who by then was working very closely with the socialist People’s National Party (PNP). Indeed Part 2 of the latter appears on disc two, featuring policy snatches from Michael Manley, no less, the leader of the PNP and future Jamaican Prime Minister.
Another Jamaican hit included is a version of Old Man River, complete with rousing gospel chorus, by Mello and the Mellotones. The Dynamites arrangement of Hello Mother (as in Hello Muddah!) was another island big seller. All produced by Eccles, these chart smashes show the range of his work, jumping from politically charged to light-hearted do-overs. The Mellotones return later for one of the standout tracks of this collection – Build My World Around You. Again, a soulful number, telling a story of one’s quest and arrival, with a celebratory, joyful vocal and backing. Tracks like this one are good enough alone to warrant purchasing collection such as this; they tend to be tucked away, gems waiting to be rediscovered.
Lord Creator returns for an upbeat Molly, a song eulogising a girl’s journey into adolescence. Pianist Gladstone Anderson (‘Gladdy’), member of the Roots Radics and the Revolutionaries among others, provides an upbeat instrumental with George. Eccles produced the cut and his own ability as a vocalist shines on People Are People, and on the sunshine reggae hit, Sweet Jamaica.
Don’t Call Me Nigga by Tyrone Taylor (credited to The Soul Twins) is a good example of a beautiful melody carrying a straight-forward hard, threatening message. It is a concise tune with no fat on it. A characteristic of Clancy’s work. And alongside Eccles, future star Taylor also worked closely with the PNP and Manley. On its B-side was Joe Louis, released on Clandisc by The Dynamites. The trombone leads the way, accompanied by ear grabbing toasting, and the track is included on the second disc in this collection.
Speaking of toasting, the final track on disc one features Winston Sparkles. AKA King Stitt. Eccles was a producer at the forefront of the toasting (spoken word-style vocals) revolution, and King Stitt one of the real frontiersmen. The track, Rub A Dub, sounds fresh and alive.
Disc two is entitled Sounds From Kingston 1970-72 and its title shows clearly what is on offer. The familiar, tuneful melody of Kingston Town is first out of the blocks, a song written by Lord Creator himself. The cut is the first reggae release of this internationally famous song, issued on Clandisc. It simply drips out of the speakers, Lord Creator ringing out the soul in each line. There is a nice footnote to this. UB40 of course had a colossal global hit with it as part of their Labour Of Love series. They sent Clancy a huge royalty cheque (quite rightly) and Eccles himself went searching for Lord Creator to, in turn, pay him. Lord Creator disappeared into hiding, thinking Eccles was calling in a debt. When he eventually tracked him down and paid him his share of the royalties, Lord Creator was able to buy land and build a house on it. He still lives in that very house.
Lord Creator returns later with a smooth vocal on the bustling That’s How I need You.
Equally famous, if not more so, is the Tammy Wynette tune Stand By Your Man. Merlene Webber’s do-over was a huge island seller, although, incredibly, it was credited to Cynthia Richards on its release on Clandisc in 1971. Merlene had dancehall success subsequently with Hard Life and continues to record sporadically to this day.
Clancy’s vocals are superb on the snappy and rejoiceful Hallelujah Free At Last, another of his own compositions. Further Clancy solo outings on disc two are John Crow Skank (mad but good!), Ganja Free and the meandering Uncle Joe.
Carole King’s Hi De Ho receives a reworking courtesy of The Fabulous Flames, who enjoyed decent sales during this period with the fantastic Growing Up and the fore-mentioned Holly Holy. Both are winning tracks and have a sharp, street feel production-wise. Edgy and passionate. Another cut by The Fabulous Flames, Livitis, is also included. They worked consistently with Eccles, as did several others showcased here. Another example being Mello and The Mellotones, whose plea to the messiah of the Rastafari, Haille Sellasie, continues the religious conviction in much of the band’s output.
The shuffling rocksteady of The Silvertones’ Teardrops Will Fall is a standout, by a band famed for their work with Lee Perry and who appear on many a Trojan compilation. Another delicious slice of rocksteady is If You Were Mine by Honey Boy Martin. This was released on Clancy’s Records and is a further example of the lost tracks unearthed here. A great track, as is Single Man, co-written by Martin with Clancy, which appears deeper on disc two.
The Dynamites and Winston Wright once again feature heavily on disc two, Wright’s distinctive organ brightly colouring anything he plays, such as his own hit Growing Up West and The Dynamites’ Red Moon. That other virtuoso of the keys, pianist Gladstone Anderson (‘Gladdy’) performs on the subtle, soulful Tomorrow, a duet with vocalist Stranger Cole.
The Kingstonians’ Jackie Bernard gives us a huge vocal on Winey Winey, An instantly memorable tune that will lodge in your ear for days after listening to it. It is not, however, the same track as The Kingstonians themselves had a hit with in 1966 – despite sharing the same title!
Beres Hammond and Barry Wilson both make one appearance on the collection, with a tale of emptiness, The Wanderer and the organ-led Live And Love, respectively. Two final instrumentals are included, one by Larry McDonald and Denzil Laing (I Fe Layo) and the other by The Dynamites (Sha La La), which features backing vocals.
The final track is a ‘strings mix’ of Clancy’s rocksteady hit from the sixties, What Will Your Mama Say. In adding the strings, the edgy tuff strut of the original release is smoothed over a little, possibly indicative of reggae at the time. It is subjective – a matter of personal taste.
One of Clancy’s final big hits was Power For The People Part 2. As stated before, Clancy’s vocal lines from Part 1 were by and large replaced with Michael ‘Joshua’ Manley’s political manifesto. Clancy’s socialist political work was becoming more prominent and his musical career became an unwitting victim of this. His record sales began to suffer as his airplay dwindled. He recorded less and less as the seventies went on, releasing a single from time to time – ‘a trickle of releases rather than a flood’ in Tom Rounce’s words.
Clandisc released Neville Martin’s The Message in 1976. Another politically led tune, and it became one of Clancy’s biggest ever hits. Eccles drifted away from the recording business completely after its release, concentrating on concert promotion and his tailoring business. Tragically, Clancy died in 2005, aged just 65.
Despite the lack of smashes on Top Of The Ladder, it is still a fantastic album. Full of tight grooves, impeccable musicianship and some classic, rare songs. Doctor Bird have given us a better reflection of the work of the man during his later period, by adding so many golden cuts to the twelve included on the original Trojan issue.
Clancy Eccles may not be the most famous reggae musician of all time. But his presence and influence as rocksteady morphed into reggae, and then experienced its first golden spell, was as significant as anyone else’s. His talent is undeniable, and his sunny, inventive but unassuming personality are equally appealing.
Harry Hack wrote a line towards the end of his work, The Clancy Eccles Story. It reads thus:
“We sincerely hope that the quartet of Doctor Bird collections showcasing the entirety of his released work from 1967 to 1972, will help towards elevating the man and his music to their rightful position at ‘top of the ladder’.”
The response? Mission accomplished.
❉ Clancy Eccles & Friends: ‘Top Of The Ladder’ (2CD) released May 8, 2020, from Doctor Bird/Cherry Red Records. RRP £11.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ Paul Matts is a writer from Leicester, England. His first novella, ‘Donny Jackal’, a kitchen-sink coming of age drama set in English punk rock suburbia in 1978, is out now both in paperback and as an E-book. His fiction has been featured in Punk Noir Magazine, Brit Grit Alley and Unlawful Acts. Paul also writes articles on music, in particular on the punk and new wave movement, and is a regular contributor for We Are Cult, Punkglobe, Razur Cuts and Something Else magazines. See https://paulmatts101.wordpress.com/ for more details, and to subscribe for updates.