Tighten Up Your Gird! Derrick Harriott & The Crystalites: ‘The Undertaker’

❉ Showcasing Harriott’s innovative production and The Crystalites as a session band, this is a must for any vintage reggae fan.

The arrival of US culture in Jamaica was huge. Popular music joined the big screen in influencing the lives of the youth and lapping it up was one Derrick Harriott. To say that young man went on to become one of the most important figures in the subsequent evolution of Jamaican music is an understatement. Along with other famed figures such as Coxsone Dodd, Arthur ‘Duke’ Reid and Lee Perry, his role is so crucial it is difficult to imagine the island’s musical legacy without him.

Born in February 1939 and raised in Kingston, Derrick was, inevitably, immersed in music as a teenager and took his first steps as a performer forming a duo with a friend, Claude Sang. Sang and Harriott’s self-penned Lollipop Girl did the rounds at dance halls, catching the ears of both Dodd and Reid. However, progress was scuppered when Sang left to work overseas.

Undeterred, young Derrick formed the quartet The Jiving Juniors. Although talent contests and dance halls loved his new sound, progress was once again stunted, when Derrick left for New York City. He returned to Jamaica in 1960 at Duke Reid’s request, to re-record Lollipop Girl as a 45 with a new line-up of the Jiving Juniors, including Claude Sang, with whom Derrick was reunited.

After another track, Over The River (released by Coxsone Dodd) became a huge island hit the following year, Derrick re-settled full time in Kingston in 1962, embarking on a solo career. A series of singles followed and in 1965 an album was released packaging them together, The Best Of Derrick Harriott. Not a bad debut LP, eh?

Derrick began fronting the hot live act, The Mighty Vikings, enhancing his already burgeoning reputation, and started his own record label, Crystal Records, which would go on to issue much of his future material. His solo output included huge island smashes The Loser, Some Guys Have All The Luck, Do I Worry and Solomon.

The young man was at the top of his game, and the rock steady output cemented this. By the time reggae arrived in 1968, Derrick was primed and ready, issuing the awesome John Jones by Rudy Mills and the seminal The Sufferer by the Kingstonians, which both appeared on early Tighten Up compilations, introducing Derrick to an international audience.

A demanding leader, Derrick assembled his studio band The Crystalites in 1969. Members included future solo star Boris Gardiner, pianist Gladstone Anderson, and future members of Toots and the Maytals Paul Douglas and Hux Brown. The Crystalites and Derrick shared equal billing for the 1970 release of The Undertaker on Trojan Recordsan incredible instrumental album with fantastic sonic quality. It is the focus of this collection.

Doctor Bird Records have issued The Undertaker as a two-disc collection, the first of which showcases the classic long-player alongside well as other material credited to The Crystalites. The second disc is made up of boss reggae from a variety of artists, produced by Derrick with The Crystalites providing the backing. Period photographs and sleeve notes complete a wonderful package, home to over fifty tracks.

Time to put the cans on…

Many of the Crystalites were also members of Clancy Eccles’ session band, The Dynamites. So, the two were ostensibly one and the same. Indeed, The Dynamites released the superb Fire Corner with Eccles and toaster King Stitt a year prior to The Undertaker. So, the pressure was on Derrick to rise to the occasion.

Whilst comparisons between the two records are obvious, they are radically different. Fire Corner majors on the innovative toasting of Stitt, whilst The Undertaker showcases Harriot’s American cultural influences. Particularly celluloid ones. Derrick was a Spaghetti Western fan, like Lee Perry. The title track opener features Derrick and one ‘Ramon The Mexican’, reciting dialogue from the Fistful Of Dollars scene featuring Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name and the ‘The Undertaker’. A steady groove underpins the action.

There is a sequel, The Overtaker, showcasing organ player Winston Wright, sequenced third. Again, it features line recital by Derrick and Ramon, clearly enjoying themselves. Nearly half of the album has this Spaghetti Western vein running through it. And it works. God, it works. It has enough dialogue, committed to tape with just the right amount of echo, reverb and resonance. The voices cut through sharply often with menace, and land in breaks, mix with rhythms or just drift in and out. The result is spellbinding, Harriot’s production innovative.

Given the quality of the musicians it is little wonder The Crystalites’ performance is immense. Vibrant, edgy, cool, rhythmic, natural, organic. Take the rugged swagger of the second cut Biafra – it has menace, beauty and a shuffling, highly danceable bounce, again led by Wright’s organ. Both Wright and pianist Gladstone Anderson shine on the floating, but uneasy calm of A Fistful Of Dollars, and there is an effortless nod to both Jamaica’s mento tradition and Trinidadian calypso on Reggae Showdown.

Musical virtuosity obviously abounds. Karl Bryan’s sax on Bobby Ellis and the Crystalites’ Bombshell is light and full of flight and Anderson’s piano shakes through in fantastic style on Musical Madness, which opened side two of the original vinyl. There is a fabulously bombastic do-over of Lennon and McCartney’s Lady Madonna, which has awesome brass, teetering on the brink, bold as you like. Winston Wright again plays an absolute blinder.

The Beatles cover is sandwiched between True Grit and The Bad. The latter is highlight – riffy, edgy and with menacing dialogue. The former is credited to drummer Herman and the band. The album closes with the evil sounding Dr Who (not that one!) and The Barefoot Brigade, the latter credited to Winston Wright and The Crystalites. There is again effective use of dialogue in the mix.

The Undertaker, like all the best long players, is over before you know it and a must for any vintage reggae fan.

The formula continues with the disc’s bonus tracks. The smiling strut of Short Story, written by Derrick and Rudy Mills, gets these underway, with the reggae-funk of the western-fuelled Stranger In Town taking things higher. Ghost Rider maintains the Spaghetti theme, delivering a very ’69 skinhead stomp in the process. And there is more ‘Spaghetti speech’ introducing Sic Him River, before the choppy up-tempo rhythm jumps in.

Co-credits and showcases are a-plenty. Gladstone Anderson’s resonant piano dominates the pumping Isis Part 1 and the minor key morosity of Tonight. Wright lifts the instrumental version of Rudy Mills’s hit Heavy Load and Bongo Herman is again co-credited on Don’t Look Back and Cool It. The latter is amongst those cuts released digitally for the first time. Karl Bryan’s saxophone sizzles and glides its way through the lively Slippery. Ramon continues his ‘Undertaker’ stylings at the beginning of The Undertaker’s Burial, which then grooves with a snappy horn inspired kick. He has another co-credit which closes the disc, Golden Chickens.

A standout is the instrumental version of Stop That Train. It features (and is co-credited to) Ike Bennett. The song, aka Draw Your Breaks by Scotty from The Harder They Come sound-track, is one of Jamaica’s finest. Like many tracks here, it is written by Derrick, albeit in this case adapted from Prince Buster’s 1965 ska version recorded by The Spanishtonians. Nevertheless, it is testimony to the man’s talent, alongside the sonic snatch of his recordings and ability as a band leader.

Disc two further showcases the work of Derrick and The Crystalites, this time with the addition of several familiar vocalists. Derrick ran a tight ship and had a limited roster of artists. Thus, there is consistent high quality throughout these cuts. Take Rudy Mills, for example. The gifted vocalist contributes over a quarter of the tracks on the disc, including the uplifting opener Lemi Li. Issued in 1970, its soaring chorus lands in your head and stays there!

The ruff tumble of hit 45 A Heavy Load is sheer joy, Rudy’s voice playing with the backing, making the most of opportunities. A sharp do-over of the classic tear-jerker Tears On My Pillow features terrific, sharp brass work combining with Rudy’s vocal. More do-overs include Otis Redding’s Wholesale Love and the Jagger/Richards classic Time Is On My Side. But the standout is co-written by Rudy and Derrick – the storming, vibrant Hang Your Heart To Dry. All performers give their absolute all, wrenching everything possible from a brilliant song.

Another of Derrick’s acts were Keith and Tex, aka Keith Rowe and Philip Texas Dixon. Their version of Stop That Train is definitive, obvs. The duo morphed nicely from rock steady into the reggae tempo and other 45s are included. Check the sinister sound of Tighten Up Your Gird (aka Run To The Rocks) and the stomping, riffy and resonant Don’t Look Back. Terrific, edgy stuff. Yaba Yah Festival is as lively, smiley and fun as its title suggests, with an earthly, rustic sonic.  Fourth and final cut, Look To The Sky unpacks the funk trunk.

Rock steady harmony legends The Ethiopians are present. They recorded and released material with many of Kingston’s producers, including Derrick. Two cuts showcase their class, the rock-solid No Baptism and Good Ambition. The harmonies are heavenly, the voices soulful. However, Winston Wright makes a bid for centre stage with his organ splashes.

The only solo track included from Derrick is Candy. His warm vocals show up, as ever, especially on the melodic chorus.

More household names include Junior Murvin and Eric Donaldson (of Cherry Oh Baby fame). One of Eric’s early bands were The West Indians and his swansong with them, Come A Little Closer, is a quality inclusion. Sometimes it is credited to Donaldson, sometimes to The West Indians – such is the nature of the island’s musical mystery at times. No matter – a stunning piece of work. Murvin’s The Hustler has a gritty, steady stumble which fits perfectly with the testosterone lyric.

The familiar She’s Gone by Tinga and Ernie was issued on Explosion in ’69, backed with Old Old Song. Gorgeous vocals soulfully delivered over a sympathetic backing. Very rock steady. Tinga Stewart reappears later with the emotive Hear That Train.

There is much else to enjoy including a double from The Chuckles and cuts from Noel Brown, Glen Brown and Pat Satchmo.

Finally, The Crystalites have two more tracks. Isis Pt 2 is the sequel to ‘part one’ from the first disc, and features Skatalite Tommy McCook blowing to great effect. The band then close proceedings with the profound Message From A Blackman.

As time went on, Derrick remained at the cutting edge of dub, roots, and dance hall. Derrick Harriot is one of the most important figures in the evolution of Jamaican music, and The Crystalites, in their various guises, one of the finest house bands. The Undertaker is a class long-player. Being mostly instrumental, it has a different angle from many contemporary issues and this expanded collection has fifty-three tracks that maintain top quality throughout, testimony to the man’s talent as a producer and band leader.

❉ Derrick Harriott & The Crystalites: ‘The Undertaker’ will be released on March 12, 2021 by Doctor Bird Records/Cherry Red Records, RRP £11.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.

❉ Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

❉ 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.

Become a patron at Patreon!