Pop: Busy doing nothing

In 1970s Jamaica, competition among young reggae performers was fierce. But Johnny Clarke made it to the top by... well, hanging around the studio.
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The Independent Culture
THE ATMOSPHERE of competition in the Kingston music industry was so fierce in the mid-Seventies that Jamaica's capital city was called the "Third World Nashville". Anxious musicians and singers, mostly teenagers, battled to impress the domineering producers who could, with luck, ease their prospects of poverty. Johnny Clarke was one such singer who was committed to winning the confidence of these producers. But this demanded tenacity, and the naive willingness of the youthful singers contrasted dramatically with the greedy worldliness of many producers.

Clarke recorded three tracks for the producer Rupie Edwards, but to his mortification he discovered that Edwards had surreptitiously re-recorded one of his songs. "The song `Wandering', that was my rhythm originally, my stuff." To aggravate his discontent, his "Irie Feeling" reached a high position in the British charts and his name was omitted from the credits. This was an age in Jamaica where written agreements did not exist and verbal ones were opportunely ignored.

By loitering in the recording studios that Bunny Lee frequented, Clarke hoped to grab the interest of this noted producer: and it was Clarke's ceaseless presence in these recording studios that led Lee to describe him as a "studio idler".

"Somebody try to find a name because I'm so insistent," Clarke recalls. "I was being regular really just so that I could find myself in the limelight." And besides, he stresses, Lee should take part of the blame for his title. "Sometimes he makes arrangements with you and say come to the studio at such-and-such a time." Bu when Clarke did arrive at the appointed hour, Lee would ignore him and devote himself to producing his roster of famous singers including John Holt, Slim Smith and Delroy Wilson.

Yet Lee was urgently searching for a singer to help him challenge the dominant alliance between the producer, Winston Holness, and his protege, Dennis Brown.

It was during the recording of Earl Zero's "None Shall Escape the Judgement" that Clarke finally experienced the serendipity that was to rapidly accelerate his career with Lee: he was allowed to perform as a backing vocalist on the song. Lee then asked his friend King Tubby, the grand master of dub, to "get a different type of mix" on the track, and a tape of the recording was sent to King Tubby's recording studio. In the process, Lee's engineer unintentionally excluded Earl Zero's lead vocals from the tape.

That very night, Johnny Clarke was wandering around King Tubby's studio when the error on the tape was revealed. He implored Lee to use him as the lead vocalist instead, pointing out that he was obviously accustomed to the song.

Lee conceded, and Clarke describes what followed: "When I did it that night I put in lots of different flavours - like cooking, when you need to add some spice. So they said, this one seems to be well done, this is a finished cook, so they go with the one that is finished."

The song was the first of a multitude of hit singles that resulted from Clarke's collaboration with Lee, an affiliation that was underpinned by the drummer Carlton "Santa" Davis, who created what was termed the "flying cymbal" sound. Between 1974 and 1980 Johnny Clarke recorded over 400 singles, many of which were re-mixed by King Tubby up to 50 times for individual sound systems.

It was his sweet, affecting voice, which so lucidly expressed the anguish of many poor, disinherited Jamaicans, that substantially damaged Brown's popularity. Clarke and Brown did record the song "So Much Pain" together - ostensibly to demonstrate that there was no animosity between them - yet, according to Clarke, Brown craved the triumphs Clarke was now enjoying.

Sadly, Clarke's musical prowess subsided at the end of the 1970s when Brown, along with Gregory Isaacs, was reasserting his.

Although Clarke is now, quite justifiably, experiencing a rejuvenation of his career, he remains convinced that his decline was brought about by individual singers, musicians and producers who suspected his immense popularity had deflated their own, and decided to thwart his career. He cites the conspicuous absence of any invitation to perform at Reggae Sunsplash until the early 1990s as authentic proof of this bitterness.

"As I say, the damage that I did, people carry feelings for you."

`Dreader Dread' by Johnny Clarke is available on Blood & Fire Records. A compilation of songs on Blood & Fire Records was released last week