Coxsone Dodd

Founder of 'Jamaica's Motown'

Sunday 07 July 2013 07:03

Clement Seymour Dodd, record producer and sound-system operator: born Kingston, Jamaica 26 January 1932, married; died Kingston 4 May 2004.

Coxsone Dodd played a crucial role in the evolution of Jamaican music to its worldwide influence. Starting out as a sound-system operator battling with Duke Reid in Kingston in the late Fifties, he went on to launch his own recording operation, Studio One, working with the Skatalites, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Toots and the Maytals, the Heptones, Dennis Brown, Lee "Scratch" Perry, Burning Spear and dozens of other artists.

Throughout a long career which took in the ska, rocksteady, reggae and dub eras and genres, Clement Dodd used a succession of nicknames from "Downbeat" to "Scorcher", but "Coxsone" - sometimes even "Sir Coxsone" - is the one that stuck. He acquired the "Coxsone" tag while at All Saints School in Kingston because of his prowess at cricket (Alec Coxon was a Yorkshire cricketer of the 1940s). A shrewd entrepreneur who paid his acts a flat session fee, Dodd moved his operation to New York in the 1980s and opened a studio and record shop, Coxsone's Music City, in Brooklyn.

Born Clement Seymour Dodd in 1932 in Kingston, he grew up with music around him. As well as working as a building contractor and on the docks, his father, Benjamin, ran Dodd's Liquor Store and would bring home jazz records he bought from the ships' crews. To attract and entertain customers, the young Dodd played Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie records on a primitive turntable-and-speakers set-up, inspired by Tom the Great Sebastian, with Count Machuki as MC and Duke Vin as selector.

In the early Fifties, Dodd travelled to the United States and worked as a cane cutter in the South before visiting New York and acquiring a selection of records to put his rivals to shame. "At that time, we were in search of boogie woogie, good jazz, merengue, stuff like that," said Dodd. "I was lucky enough to find a lot of music in Brooklyn and, from there on, I made regular visits to New York and Chicago."

From 1954, his "Sir Coxsone the Downbeat" sound system battled with Duke Reid's "Trojan" operation in downtown Kingston. Rivalry could be fierce and threats and violence were a regular occurrence for Dodd, who had Count Machuki, the first man to speak over records at dances, on his side. "When I started, Duke Reid had a batch of bad guys who come around and try to intimidate you," recalled Dodd:

I remember this instance, I'm there playing my sound. Count Machuki is operating and somebody call me because this guy was taking the player-head off the record. I came up and show him it was the wrong thing to do. He did this again and I knocked him out.

Not content with scratching out the labels on records to prevent competitors from copying their sets, the sound-system owners soon made their own recordings, first on acetates and then releasing them to fulfil public demand over the following weeks and months. Dodd again competed with Reid in this area, issuing seven-inch 45s on record labels such as All Stars, Worldisc, Supreme, Cariboo, Sensational and Muzik City before setting up Studio One in 1962. Dodd never put dates on his records but most historians agree that the post-mento standard "Shuffling Jug" by Clue J and his Blues Blasters is his first production.

From 1959 onwards, Dodd recorded the singer Alton Ellis, the trombonist Don Drummond and the saxophonist Roland Alphonso as well as their group the Skatalites. He hired as arrangers and producers Prince Buster and Lee "Scratch" Perry, who went on to become recording artists in their own right.

Dodd was a talent spotter extraordinaire and worked with the likes of Delroy Wilson, Ken Boothe, and the Wailers, whom he signed to an exclusive contract after an audition in 1963. Following word-of-mouth success on the pre-release copies of "It Hurts To Be Alone" and "I'm Still Waiting", the group - then comprising Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston as well as Junior Braithwaite, Beverley Kelso and Cherry Smith - recorded the Marley composition "Simmer Down" at Dodd's behest. The single topped the Jamaican charts for two months at the end of 1963, selling a thousand copies a week.

The Wailers stayed with Studio One for several singles until Bob Marley left to live in the US in 1966. Both Tosh and Livingston recorded solo sides ("I'm the Toughest" and "Let Him Go" respectively) with Dodd, as ska evolved into rocksteady and the organist Jackie Mittoo and the singer-turned-bassist Leroy Sibbles became the Soul Vendors. Coxsone Dodd also recorded Ken Boothe, the Gaylads, Marcia Griffiths and Bob Andy and Dawn Penn (of "No No No" fame).

From the late Sixties and into the Seventies, Dodd produced many instrumental reggae rhythms which formed the backbones for vocals hits by the Heptones, Alton Ellis and John Holt, and a succession of dub versions featured on dozens of albums still delighting collectors and influencing the likes of Primal Scream and the Orb today. Ever-versatile, Dodd even pioneered the new dancehall sound with Sugar Minott in 1978 on the Live Loving album and regenerated the careers of the reggae singers Johnny Osbourne and Freddie McGregor.

After moving to New York, Dodd delighted in updating his classic tracks for successive generations by adding syndrums and other modern effects. With archivists still poring over acetates and limited-edition 10-inch singles, his Studio One catalogue has been estimated to comprise around 6,000 titles. Paying tribute to Coxsone Dodd, the reggae singer Marcia Griffiths, said:

Studio One was like Jamaica's Motown, it's where all the stars grew. Bob Marley and the Wailers, Ken Boothe, just about every Jamaican singer you've heard of. We would just all go there and record.

Pierre Perrone

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