Hello dear readers! Welcome to another post.
Today we’re going back to July 1974 with an article written by one of the most knowledgeable men Reggae music has ever seen, Carl Gayle, in the Black Music Magazine. This time he tells us about a young Ken Boothe, who back then was already one the most popular singers of the island but who also was playing a role in its politics.
Jamaica votes for Boothe
Ken Boothe is currently Jamaica’s most popular singer. He’s also played a role in the island’s politics, as Carl Gayle explains…
At twenty five, Ken Boothe is one of the elite in Jamaican music. Like Toots or Bob Marley, he is revered in every sector of the music community. And just like the champion athlete Don Quarrie or the master batsman Laurence Rowe, Ken Boothe’s is a household name in Jamaica. The music mad natives speak his praise with fervour and pride. Yet, Boothe is a religious man, in spite of his playboy looks.
“Yes, I’m a rastafarian. I believe that His Majesty Haile Selassie is Earth’s rightful ruler. I believe in him as my God and my King. But I’m not telling anyone to say the same thing. And I’m not the kind of rasta man that doesn’t believe in riding in a plane, or eating certain kinds of food, or saying that I’m not coming to England again because it’s Babylon, no man. And I don’t believe in racialism. Every man is equal and I’m just a rastafarian who believes that the King is my God. I know it!”
As a schoolboy, Ken Boothe used to finish runner up every year to Winston Stewart (who later sang with a great rocksteady group – The Gaylads) in school singing competitions.
On his way home from Denham Town School (West Kingston) one evening, he heard the voices of two singers who turned out to be Stranger Cole and Roy Panton. They were rehearsing in a local club. When he joined in with the duo the next evening, Cole thought Ken was pretty good, so the trio formed a group. That was in 1962 and Ken was only 13. After a while, Roy Panton quit singing with them and at age 15, a year earlier than normal, Ken quit school.
Stranger and Ken recorded a song for the renowned promoter/Sound System man Duke Reid which was never released. At that time Stranger wrote the songs and sang lead. Ken just sort of filled in with the harmonies. Their first record together, “World’s Fair”, was issued by Clement Dodd (better known as Sir Coxsone or Coxsone Dodd). After a little while with Coxsone, he suggested that Ken did some solo singing and he agreed.
Like many early Jamaican records, Ken’s first solo single, “Oo Wee Baby”, was sung in a slow, soulful, emotional vein – like the R&B original. The fact that it wasn’t a big seller didn’t discourage Ken or Sir Coxsone who both persisted until he recorded one of his own compositions entitled “Train”, his first big hit.
Among the other artists on Coxsone’s label were The Maytals, The Wailers, The Gaylads, Jackie Opel, Jackie Mittoo, Marcia Griffiths and Bob Andy. Other groups like The Heptones joined Coxsone a little later. One of Boothe’s best recordings is a song that Bob Andy wrote for him called “I don’t want to see you cry”. It was just one of Ken’s string of hits which also included “Home”, “Moving away” and, in 1967, his international hit “Puppet on a string” which brought him to England for short tour in the same year.
Boothe recorded many more hits with Coxsone, including “Feel Good” and the great “Tomorrow”, before leaving in 1968 to join Mrs. Sonia Pottinger’s High Note label. His records for her included “Live good”, “Somewhere”, “Lady with the starlight” and “Say you”, but except for the latter they weren’t usually up to his best.
Boothe’s most creative period was at Beverlys Studio with promoter/producer Leslie Kong for whom he recorded “Why Babe”, “Now I know”, “Your feeling and mine”, “Drums of freedom”, “Tell the children the truth” and the brilliant “Freedom street”.
Ken’s first record for Beverley’s, “Why Babe” in 1968 (TBB says: But didn’t Ken move to Beverley’s in 1970?! Bahhh), was written by B. B. Seaton, an ex-Gaylad who has figured as co-writer/producer on many of Ken’s best known songs.
“Ever sinve I started singing, myself and BB have been working together. When The Gaylads broke up he changed his name from Harry to just BB which was more catchy and he went solo. We prefer to write what I’d call freedom songs which tell people something, or make them more aware of themselves and what’s going on.”
“If the Government is not for the masses, I try to write songs that will get to the people and give them an idea of what they should do. Songs like “Freedom street” helped to get the previous Government (Labour) out of power. When Shearer (the then ruling Labour leader) was telling the police to knock down anybody they saw on the streets, we said well we need freedom, we need a free street to walk on.”
The song goes: “It must be a vision, ’cause there’s no change in sight / I see a big, big street, where all men meet / It must be freedom street…” And “Freedom street” spurred the opposition party (PNP – People’s National Party), the present Government, to form a “bandwagon” of musicians with a slogan of liberation. Inevitably, Michael Manley, the subsequent PM as leader of the PNP, was presented as Joshua, the man with the rod.
Clancy Eccles was the leader of this bandwagon and his song “Joshua” became their anthem and an enormous hit. Other artists that took part included The Maytals, The Chosen Few, B. B. Seaton, Ernie Smith – and Ken.
“They used almost every Jamaican artist but that was the main group. Then there would be a guest appearance in each parish we went to. It was Clancy Eccles’ idea and Manley organised it. We all wanted to get rid of the Labour Government. We didn’t get much money out of it but we didn’t want the country to go down. If Shearer had gotten back into power it would have been really bad. He didn’t do anything for music, he didn’t even enquire about music. So the people voted for PNP because we were supporting them. People don’t know much about politics or politicians but they know us, the musicians.”
My favourite tune on the same topic:
“The PNP said they would set up a committee to look into the music scene. That has happened but it hasn’t had much effect at the moment. So far they have only taken interest in a certain type of musician and these are the people who are making the money already. Things like the national dance theatre and the cultural folk singers and calypso are what they’re stressing now. But I like Manley’s government, the Labour Party’s not for the masses.”
Ken’s first LP for Trojan, produced by Lloyd Charmers, includes a few tracks like “Thinking”, “Suzie Q”, and “Hallelujah” which were on his only LP for Byron Lee’s Dynamic label. That album – “BB Seaton Meets The Great Ken Boothe”” – signified the teaming up of Ken with producer Lloyd Charmers (whose real name is Terrell), though not for the first time.
“I knew Lloyd before I started singing. He used to sing in a group called Charmers and the name stuck with him when the group broke up. But I’ve been working with him since 1971. We did “Ain’t no sunshine” and he brought me “Is it because I’m black” and told me that it was a “back street” song in the States. He knew I liked to do message songs. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a big hit in Jamaica either. Jamaican people just aren’t aware of what certain singers are trying to get through them”.
“I admire The Wailers for the messages they get across all the time and I’ve always liked John Holt, Delroy Wilson, Bob Andy and now Dennis Brown, he’s great. The singer that influenced me though was Otis Redding”.
In the last eight months, Boothe has been recording with Lloyd Charmers, B. B. Seaton and Busty Brown under the colective name of The Messengers. They have a company of their own which will release solo records as well as group efforts. Consequently, each man assists in the arrangement and production of the others’ records.
“Jamaican musicians are great but they’re not together. You haven’t got an arranger of real status in JA which is bad because we have so many good singers. The music world recognises good records and people want to hear good arrangements nowadays. I like what John Holt is doing at the moment but people in JA tend to go for too much rubbish and leave the songs with meaning on the shelf. A lot of people prefer to hear a guy talking, y’know!”
“And as regards promotion, only Federal Records give you any. And the radio stations want money to play your records, it’s a payola system. Most Jamaican producers can’t afford it. They just hope that when people hear their records in record shops and discos, they’ll buy them. But the discos are playing too much American music. I don’t blame them because the Stateside sounds are better on the whole. But they should try and stress the good Jamaican records”.
Ken’s very recent LP, “Let’s get it on” is an important step in the right direction. The album confirms Ken’s artistic ability and will no doubt ensure a greater degree of commercial success for Boothe than he’s previously had. One of the chief musical successes is the blending of the vocals with the imaginative and tasteful horn and string arrangements for which Lloyd Charmers deserves full praise.
“I think ‘African lady’ is the track that will sell the LP. It’s saying something and the whole thing about it, the mood, the rhythm, everything is just nice. It makes you want to dance as soon as you hear it.”
“I want to reach the top, I want the whole world to know about Ken Boothe so that people even sing my songs in their own languages. I want to reach the peak of the business so that I can sit down and relax one day y’know! It needs a lot of work but as long as I get the opportunity, I think I’ll make it”.
As always in parting, a nice little tune. A rare tune shared by my friends from ‘Rudie Sounds‘: