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He hasn't looked back

Interview by Peter I (courtesy of Reggae Vibes)

Keith Rowe is probably best known as one half of the rocksteady duo Keith & Tex, who scored big hits with "Stop That Train" and "Don't Look Back" in the late 60s. However, his career - and his life - has certainly gone far beyond those two hits.

Keith Rowe was born in Kingston, not too far away from where Lee Perry lived in Washington Gardens. Along with his neighborhood friend Texas Dixon, Keith developed a passion for singing when the two were still in their teens. Despite being turned down by Prince Buster, Coxsone and Duke Reid, Keith and Tex had faith in their singing abilities and eventually caught the ear of up-and-coming producer Derrick Harriott with their tune "Tonight". The song became a minor hit, and their careers soon took off.

In 1968 Keith & Tex decided to cover an old ska chestnut by the Spanishtonian Ska Beats, "Stop That Train". It quickly became their signature tune, and a rocksteady classic. They recorded an album's worth of material for Harriott, and enjoyed many live performances across Jamaica as part of an all-star revue of Harriott's artists, including Rudy Mills and Noel "Bunny" Brown.

By 1970, Keith and Tex went their separate ways. Besides becoming victim of the usual monetary machinations of the Jamaican music scene, Keith's parents had decided to emigrate to America, and since he was still a youth he felt obliged to follow. Settling in Brooklyn, Keith temporarily turned his back on music in favour of working "straight" jobs for awhile, but soon found himself back on stage in local reggae dances in Brooklyn. He recorded a few records in America, including some on his own label, Kebar.

In 1972, Keith made a rather unexpected move for a reggae singer: he joined the US Army.

In 1972, Keith made a rather unexpected move for a reggae singer: he joined the US Army. Feeling somewhat disillusioned with the prospect of making his living from music, he hoped that the Army would give him a new sense of purpose. Keith enjoyed his time in the Army so much that he stayed in the service for nearly 20 years. Despite the fact that he was in uniform, Keith didn't completely abandon music. His duties took him to Vietnam, Hawaii and Germany, where he performed at USO clubs. In 1975 he found himself in New York and cut "Out Of Many We Are One" for a New York festival song competition patterned after the Jamaican original. He won the competition, and his prize was a pair of tickets to Jamaica.

While in Jamaica visiting his old neighborhood, Keith decided to check in on Lee Perry at the newly opened Black Ark studio in Washington Gardens. He cut two terrific songs for Scratch, "Living My Life" and the famous "Groovy Situation". After that quick but fruitful session, Keith returned to America. For the rest of the 1970s and 80s, Keith continued to perform and record, eventually teaming up with Glen Adams and playing live dates in New York and across America. In 1997 he reunited with his old partner Tex Dixon and recorded an album called Together Again, performing in Jamaica to enthusiastic audiences. He currently runs his own studio, Mix Dat Recordings, and can be heard every Saturday afternoon on WBZC-FM in New Jersey with his radio show, "Sounds Of The Caribbean".

Although his output with Scratch was small, Keith loved the time he spent with Lee Perry. In an interview with Swedish journalist Peter I, Keith spoke about the Black Ark sessions and his fondness for Scratch. To read the complete text of Peter's excellent interview, go to the Reggae Vibes website.

So, what about this move to JA in the mid 70s, when you met up with Perry again?

"This was roots at its very best! I wanted to sing my ass off!"

Yeah, I was stationed in New Jersey and so I was frequently in New York. I mean, I was in New York like four days out of a week. And I was commuting. There was this Festival Song competition, the first one in New York, in '75, and I entered. I sang that song "Out of Many, We Are One"... I won the competition with that song. One of the prizes was I got some money plus I had a first class round-trip ticket from Air Jamaica to Jamaica. So, I went home! And so while I was down there, I seh "you know what? Scratch is only across the street, mek me go check him out! See if he has any session going on". So when I seh "Wha happen Scratch? Wha' gwaan?" and we start talking. And the music came up, and I say "yeah man, I have some original music". Him seh "well, yu waan do a ting"? I said "yes man"! I had some originals that I brought with me. So, I think he sent a little boy to find some people. Next thing you know, we had five guys, and we had a session going (laughs).

At the Ark... What was the scene like there for you?

Well, I tell you what! For the first time it was nothing close to what I had had with Derrick Harriott. You know what I'm saying? This was roots at its very best! I mean, I talked earlier about vibes. And some songs that you just can't mess with. Well, the vibes I got from that session, and I think you can hear it in the song — the way I was singin' it, the songs that I did, the vibes was just different, man. It was totally new to me. Refreshingly new and pleasant, and it was just so different from Derrick Harriott and that kinda session, y'know. A totally different level of artistic desire. I wanted to sing my ass off!

I can hear that!

Yeah! I really wanted to sing! And that's the kinda vibe I got, man! That man did so much with them four tracks. Bwoy, I tell you... Four tracks! Four damn tracks, and he mixed the hell out of them songs!

He didn't give your songs that wild, atmospheric mix he gave so many other songs during that time, more like a strict approach to the sound of them?

For him it was, I think he...

I think he gave it a more raw feel, more suitable to your R&B type of singing.

I think he didn't wanna mess with it too much, y'know? He did a couple of things in the mix but for the most part he left all of them alone. I think I did three or four songs on that session.

So who came up with the idea to do "That Girl", the Gene Chandler song?

Yeah, but it's not the same song! It's an original, my friend. My "Groovy Situation" is an original. "That Girl", that's a totally different song. His go: (sings) "oh, its a groovy situation na na na-na naa..." Only thing they have in common is those words: "groovy situation". Totally different.

And you did on that Black Ark session "Living My Life" as well. An original too?

Yes, also original. All the songs I did for Scratch was originals.

What about the release of that tune?

Yeah, this is what Scratch did... We had made a deal, right? This is one of the (laughs)... The business is so... Like, "this is the deal", and we both shook on it. Nothing in writing though. I got a copy of the master and my area of distribution, so "I'm gonna take care of distributing this music in the States, you got England and Jamaica". Right? The next thing I know...what's this guy's name? In the Bronx, having my song, distributing it. In other words, Scratch gave him a copy of the master for him to go ahead and do a press on it.

You mean the late Brad Osbourne, who did US distribution for Perry's product for a while?

Brad! Brad, yeah! Brad it is! Brad in the Bronx.

He was behind this Clocktower imprint if you recall that? Got shot some twenty years back.

Yep, yep, yep! Exactly, him! Yeah, he's dead now. You got it, man. You got it! So, he did that, and right away he took away the control I had in the States. By being greedy! Scratch didn't have to do that! I could've given it to Brad myself! The next thing I know, this is now 1976, I am in Germany and I occasionally know that my wife, she used to buy the music magazines released out of England.

Like Black Music, Black Echoes and so forth?

Yeah, but she used to bring those home 'cause she worked in Frankfurt. And so she brought one magazine home one week and then I opened inside, reading it. Guess what showed up - number one on the chart? "Groovy Situation" Oh, my God! So, this is Island now! (Laughs)

Yeah, that tune came upon their Black Swan imprint at the time.

Black Swan, yep! That caused me to take a trip to England (laughs). I had a band in Germany at the time, used to play the club circuit. So, we used the opportunity to take our music there to England too, y'know. But while we were there, I went over to Island and actually sat down with them and talked about it. Didn't get much accomplished - at that time. But in later years it turned out to be the right thing, y'know. So, yeah... "Groovy Situation".

But there was never any other tunes from that session Scratch released, with your knowledge at least?

No, they weren't. I think what happened Scratch gave them to Island, and they...

Shelved it?

They shelved it, because I got involved. But that's cool! Shelve it, because if you're not gonna do the right thing then don't even release it! Don't play it, don't do anything! Now, remember that I told you previously that I had some tapes stolen? Out of a car, my master got stolen.

With the Black Ark sessions?

Yep, yep! My master tape got stolen. So, that's a part of my recording stage that was really, really... I like that part of it, man. That session with Scratch was awesome.

Can you remember some of the session crew for those recordings at the Ark, rhythm section, keyboards, etc?

Mikey Boo was there. I played keyboards on it. You know, at the time, those guys weren't familiar to me. So rather than me trying to guess who they are, I'd say I'm not sure. They weren't familiar to me. 'Cause remember I was away now for like five years already. I lot of guys come after you and make a name for themselves and people automatically think you ought to know them (laughs)! It isn't so. Once you've departed and... When I came back to Jamaica, most of my friends gone.

What was your impressions of the scene at the Ark? That milieu compared to the military strictness and discipline of your new life and here's a totally loose attitude to things, heavy ganja smoke everywhere, and...

Yeah! (Laughs) It's different but it's not like I wasn't around ganja. I mean, there was a guy who...a rastaman who lived in front of me. Basically (he) had a little ganja farm. I mean, I tried it too! (laughs) But the studio itself and what Scratch gave me as an artist was this roots sound, man. The floor of the studio was dirt, y'know (laughs).

From most accounts it didn't exactly look like what you should expect a studio to look like?

It wasn't anything a studio would look like! It was the "anti-establishment studio"! Unusual, because I certainly wasn't accustomed to that kind of studio. I mean, coming from Federal - and the studios up in the States. I remember I recorded at a place called... Gosh! Been a long time... But anyway, a nice studio in Brooklyn. So, I went from Federal to the studio I recorded at...this other American studio...and then go back to Scratch, y'know what I mean? (Laughs) So, it's totally nothing like I've ever experienced. But, man! The vibe coming out of that place, it's just... You went in and if you the person were inhibited by crap, you would leave the crap at the door. It wouldn't matter any more, because nobody cared! It's just the vibe. It's that kinda attitude, y'know? And I really felt...probably one of my best sessions, ever!

Inspired, in other words?

Oh, yeah! Absolutely! Totally! I rate that as one of my best sessions ever, in terms of the finished product. I mean, I've done things that have sounded better, things that have been more technically correct, but it's the musicians, the music, the mixing, the vibe that I felt, the singin' - if you put them all together probably it's one of the best I've ever done.

So you said four tracks were recorded? "Groovy Situation", "Living My Life" and...?

No, three tracks were recorded, yeah. And it was another track...

That you've forgotten?

Yeah, because I wrote it there. Wrote it on the spot. In those days, you could do a lot of that. I stayed in Jamaica for two weeks, and then went back to work, 'cause I was still in the Army then. And then soon thereafter I went overseas to Germany. So I lost touch again with happenings locally. Especially lost touch with folks in Jamaica. You know, that's been my life in music. It's always been the underpinning of my life. But I've not really had, except for the early time in Jamaica when I first begun, as the only thing in my life. Except for that time in Jamaica when I started and for the brief interval in New York when I did music full-time. But I had to do it, I guess, to figure that maybe I should try something else, too, instead of relying on music.

"I didn't fulfill what I probably thought was my destiny in music."

Music is a foundation of my life but it can be very deadly. It can break your heart, y'know? And it's not the music that does it, but the people involved in it. They will break your heart, man. And so you gotta have a strong constitution and you gotta know what you want, and you gotta have some talent too. And the business savvy, to survive, y'know? It's not just reggae music, it's all kinds of music. If you don't know what you do and don't go with your head on your body you're gonna give away your music, you're gonna waste your time and you're gonna get heartbroken and for the most part it gonna leave a bad taste in your mouth, so...

I didn't fulfill what I probably thought was my destiny in music. But at the same time I have a family. I have a life going for me, you know what I mean? And those things are just as important. I'm always involved with music though. Now I have my own radio show. I've been doing it for eight years. I service South Jersey and Philadelphia. I play all kinds of music but my specialty is music from those days. And every show I do, I have to go back because that's where I began in music. I tell my audience "hey, I am a part of the rocksteady era, you will always hear rocksteady on my show", y'know (laughs). So, I´m still involved in the music, man. It's been my life, its been me — the underpinning of my life. But I just couldn't do it full-time. No regrets...

September 2004