❉ This latest Doctor Bird collection documents Karl ‘Sir J.J.’ Johnson’s crucial role as a producer and label boss.
“That’s My Best Producer. J.J., he’s the best man I ever believed in ..” – Leonard Dillon, The Ethiopians
These words were spoken by the man who sang Last Train To Skaville and Everything Crash, some of the most famous tunes in Jamaican music.
Dillon is talking about Karl ‘Sir J.J.’ Johnson. Johnson fits the bill of many a record producer from Kingston. A mysterious, silent and almost shadowy figure.
‘He is suspected to be of very few words,’ – Jackie Estick
His record production speaks for itself, however. He was a natural, recognising the public’s growing fondness of deep bass and slowed down beats. He produced over a hundred 45s, including classics by some of the most popular names in the island’s music. He had hit records. The fore-mentioned Ethiopians. The Kingstonians. The Rulers. Carl Dawkins. Winston Wright. The Claredonians. Roy Shirley. All these acts worked with J.J. during this period and released singles on his Sir J.J. label.
Karl Johnson came from a privileged family background. His father, Bramleigh, owned the Magnet Bus Company and his brothers, Millard and Copley, were also entrepreneurs. Indeed, Copley owned the nightspot ‘Johnson’s Drive In’, location for the influential Teenage Dance Party radio show. Handy for Karl, himself owning a record and juke box retail outlet on Kingston’s Orange Street.
Jukeboxes were all over Jamaica and played a crucial role in the spread of music across the island, especially in the towns. Most homes could not afford to buy a radiogram of their own, and so jukeboxes in bars, restaurants, ice cream parlours, rum joints and social clubs were hugely popular in the 1960s. As local music became featured on the Teenage Dance Party, Karl began to move into record production. One of his early products was Give Me Justice by Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, an attack on his previous employer at Studio One, Joe Gibbs. The year was 1966 and rocksteady music, with its strut and bounce, was taking off.
J.J.’s studio musicians were the Carib Beats (The JJ All Stars) featuring Bobby Aitken (guitar), Winston Grennan (drums), Vincent White (bass), Bobby Kalphat (piano/ keys) and horns courtesy of Val Bennett (tenor sax), Alphonso Henry (alto sax), Mark Lewis (trumpet) and Dave Parks (trombone). J.J. appeared happy to let the musicians to ‘do their thing’.
This line up helped J.J. produce a string of hits for the likes of The Kingstonians, (Winey Winey), Carl Dawkins (Baby I Love You) and The Rulers (Don’t Be Rude). A further hit for the latter was Wrongem Boyo, covered by The Clash on London Calling.
J.J.’s biggest successes, however, were with The Ethiopians. Everything Crash was a comment on the island’s political situation, but other huge hits included Woman Capture Man, Hong Kong Flu, What A Fire, and, of course, Last Train To Skaville. The latter even became a top forty hit in the UK in 1967, and precipitated a UK tour the following year.
In 1969 Trojan Records, motivated by J.J.’s rocksteady successes, approached J.J. with a view to release an album initially in Jamaica of new material in the new, slower ‘reggae’ style. He was an obvious choice. The album (the only one in J.J.’s career), Reggae Power, featured several artists but was dominated by The Ethiopians. After all, the band were J.J.’s golden ticket. By the time the long player came to be issued in the UK, the album’s track listing had been changed to include even more Ethiopians’ cuts, along with new sleeve artwork. Indeed, only two tracks were NOT by The Ethiopians. The idea was to capitalise on the success of the band, understandable given J.J.’s entrepreneurial spirit and the public’s enthusiasm for their tough, edgy and strutting sound. It was a sound loved by UK skinheads and working-class kids. This release was recently re-issued by Doctor Bird, entitled Reggae Power and Woman Capture Man.
However, the spirit of the original Reggae Power issue is present on this latest Doctor Bird collection. With a whopping fifty-six tracks, it brings together most of J.J.’s output from 1968-72, with material new to compact disc. As ever, the sleeve contains superb period photographs, and notes by Harry Hacks.
A feature of J.J.’s sound was a slow, deliberate, yet relaxed beat. And this is evident on the first disc, Reggae Power 1968-70. The twenty-nine cuts document J.J.’s crucial role as a producer and label boss. Sadly, J.J. died in 1972, reportedly gunned down. A further example of the shadowy world of Jamaican music at the time.
No track showcases this sonic characteristic better than Roy Shirley’s opener, Dance Up The Reggae. Also known as Dancing Reggae aka Dance The Reggay, its slower groove is a good example of evolving Jamaican sounds. The continual slowing down of ska music allowed more interpretation and emotion. Note the early use of the word ‘reggae’ or ‘reggay’. The word had not been used until the late sixties and its origin is unclear. Stories exist of ‘reggay’ being derived from the word ‘streggay’, describing a woman with loose morals. However, Roy Shirley’s song has a pioneering role, alongside Toots and the Maytels’1968 Do The Reggay.
It is also one of the tracks on the original Jamaican issue of Reggae Power. Shirley, after The Ethiopians, was the most prominent artist on the release – an indication of his popularity. He has four cuts on disc one of this collection. I Like Your Smile is distinctive sounding number, showcasing Shirley’s voice clearly over a gritty backing, whilst Bright Life kicks into action with a brass intro. Another slow, steady reggae rocker is Musical Priest, featuring a great, spontaneous vocal completes the quartet.
The Kingstonians are a name familiar to many Jamaican music lovers. Their strutting, lively sound was hugely popular on the island, and the band’s work has appeared on countless Trojan compilations. Mix It Up is as lively as the title suggests, guaranteed to put anyone in a good mood. I’ll Be Around is slower, and has a doo-wop feel, an example of Jamaican music fusing the sounds of the USA with is own unique sonic. The harmonies are soulful, with a delicious organ operating in the spaces. Fantastic.
The JJ All Stars contribute several instrumentals of their own on disc one, but their first appearance is in partnership with rocksteady vocalist V.Vinstrick. Resonant vocals combine with a slow backing on the brooding Love Is Not Your Game. The band also collaborate with The Dynamites organ legend Winston Wright on Five Miles High, Poppy Cock and Neck Tie. The latter is an instrumental version of The Rulers’ Got To Be Free.
The Rulers’ sweet, straightforward sound is always effective. Voices in unison, clear as you like and full of charm and character. They are one of the island’s underrated acts and contribute the fore-mentioned Got To Be Free and What A Situation. Fans of The Clash should listen up.
The duets with Ansell Collins on three of the cuts are among the collection’s highlights. Bigger Boss is a version of The Ethiopian’s Everything Crash with the deejay voice of Cool Sticky. Ansell’s trademark bright keys decorate the sound. The Removers is the disc’s penultimate track, but Mango Tree is a standout. Up tempo, chirpy and vibrant, with Ansell working magic alongside great horn work from Val Bennett and Alphonso Henry. Bennett, also a member of The Dynamites, shares star-billing with The JJ All Stars on the disc’s final cut, Cabbage Leaf.
R.F.K. (Robert F Kennedy) is sublime, and is the only cut appearing on both Reggae Power collections. It is credited to The JJ All Stars here, and to The Ethiopians on the Reggae Power and Woman Capture Man issue. It features sharp fret work from leader Bobby Aitken – brother of Laurel, incidentally. The brass signature riff belongs in a cool sixties spy thriller movie.
The Ethiopians themselves provide a threesome on disc one. Obviously, the other Doctor Bird collection comprehensively covers the band’s output for J.J. However, the three cuts included here are not on that issue and are worth checking out. 1969’s Israel Must Win utilises the melody of John Lennon’s Give Peace A Chance. Rock Ma Dine is an over-looked gem, incredibly not included on the previous collection. Here I Come is the third number.
A Jamaican star of the day was Carl ‘Ras’ Dawkins. His gutsy vocal performances appear on three tracks, including his best-known hit, the magnificent Satisfaction. Another stomper of a number, with Dawkins squeezing out every drop from it. Equally good is I’ll Make It Up, complete with ear-grabbing keyboards. The strutting The Only Girl completes the trio, with a hard-edged sound perfectly complementing Dawkins vocal delivery.
One final cut worthy of mention is The Vibrators’ Live Life. No, not the English punk band of the same name. The track bursts with life, a primal sound which is gloriously ragged and full of itself. The band also released material on Sonia Pottinger’s High Note label.
The second disc is entitled Wreck It Up 1970-1973. As this suggests, it references The Ethiopians track of the same name. Indeed, The JJ All Stars have their version of Wreck It Up included here, the original being included as a bonus cut on Reggae Power and Woman Capture Man. The Ethiopians have five more numbers here, none of which appear on the earlier issue by Doctor Bird. The first of these, Drop Him, contains a lively groove, complete with effective organ and background fun. An alternative instrumental version is included courtesy of the All Stars. Don’t Go contains almost angelic vocals. The declaration that is I’m A Believer is sequenced late, but the inclusion of Selah is a treat. A song about leaving Babylon and repatriating to Ethiopia and Haile Selassie, it comes with two alternative versions – one with toasting by Dennis Alcapone and a full instrumental courtesy of the All Stars.
The All Stars tracks on the second disc are mainly alternative versions of 45s. Their version of Carl Dawkins’ I’ll Never Be Blue is a good example, following on from another explosive vocal performance by the man himself.
Almost a quarter of the tracks on this second disc are from Dawkins. And this is a good thing – it is great to see so much of his material right here. The slow beats of Perseverance, This Land and especially My Whole World (Has Ended) allow Dawkins to wrench the emotion from the lyric, delivering a spectacular performance each time.
Another Dawkins track, Get Together, features two alternative versions. One of these is credited to ‘Family Man’ Aston Barrett. Barrett was of course the legendary Jamaican bass player, best known for his work with Bob Marley.
The remainder of the disc heavily features vocal harmony groups. The Kingstonians are again present, and it is great to see work by The Linkers and The Bleechers. The Linkers perform the gospel Nyah Man Story, with its uplifting melody. The Bleechers brisk Put It Good is full of hooks, and no small portion of drama.
However, it is The Claredonians who almost steal the show. Their wonderfully soulful and sweet tones start the disc off with Try To Be Happy. I mean, how can you not be listening to such sounds? Their bright voices light up once more with Come Along. The Claredonians are a band who feature regularly on Trojan, Studio One and Treasure Isle compilations and are loved and familiar to lovers of vintage reggae.
Finally, the disc’s standout track – in this writer’s view, anyway. Stranger and Gladdy are a duo who produced a handful of 45s, including one for Clancy Eccles called Tomorrow which was included on the recent collection, Top Of The Ladder. Gladstone Anderson (‘Gladdy’) was a top studio pianist, and ‘Stranger’ was of course Wilburn ‘Stranger’ or ‘Strangejah’ Cole. AKA The King Of Montego Bay. His track, Glad You’re Living, appears on the first disc. Make Good, the gem of a track in question here, has a brass riff to die for, and a descending chord structure which flows like the Rio Minho and has subdued harmony vocals from Stranger and Gladdy themselves. The bass heavy groove underpins the whole thing.
As Jamaican music moved out of the short-lived rocksteady period of 1966-67 and ‘reggay’, or ‘reggae’ was born, the role of Karl ‘Sir J.J.’ Johnson was critical. He produced and released strutting, hard-edged and raw performances from his artists and The J.J. All Stars. He let the sonics flow, and his artists had the freedom to operate. I wonder if he had any idea at all how significant this musical legacy was going to become?
If you like the raucous, stomping, deep bass and deliberate grooves of ‘skinhead’ reggae, then this is for you. Reggae Power enables the listener who is a fan of the Trojan Monkey Business compilations to delve even deeper. Go for it.
❉ ‘Reggae Power’ (Original Album Plus Bonus Tracks) (Doctor Bird DBCDD062) was released 7 August 2020 by 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.