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OPEN THE GATE: AN INTERVIEW WITH WATTY BURNETT

One of Scratch's brethren tells all

Interview by Peter I (courtesy of Reggae Vibes)

While singers like Junior Murvin or Max Romeo are well-known due to their work with Lee Perry, there are many others who remain rather marginalized, despite their important role in creating music with Scratch. One of these figures is Watty Burnett, who not only recorded many great songs with Perry, but was a member of the extended family at the Black Ark throughout its existence. In this excellent interview, the intrepid Peter I uncovers a lot of fascinating stories of Burnett's time working with Scratch. Thanks to Peter for letting me reproduce the interview at Upsetter Station. (Mick Sleeper)

Few places are surrounded by the same myths as Lee Perry's Black Ark studio in Jamaica. I'm pretty sure a lot of strange things took place at the Washington Gardens studio, but I am almost just as sure a lot has been exaggerated over the years. People just love to feed the myths because it creates a better story. However, myths aside, the music that came from the Black Ark clearly speaks for itself: the sound of the Ark was like nothing else before or since.

One of Perry's right-hand men at the Black Ark was Watty Burnett, who had been working alongside the Upsetter ever since the studio's inception. Watty became known for a few singles on Perry's Justice League and Upsetter labels in the early 1970s, such as "What A War" and "I Man Free", but he had recorded "Pound Get A Blow" with Jimmy Nelson (as the Soul Twins) for Scratch a few years earlier. While Watty is closely associated with Lee Perry, he also recorded for producers Phil Pratt, Harry J and Pete Weston as well. Many know Watty's name from a long stint as a member of the Congos, joining that duo in 1977. But he always maintained a solo career while singing behind the Congos' founding members Congo Ashanti Roy (Roydel Johnson) and Cedric Myton.

I spoke to Watty on the 2nd of January 2003 about his experiences at the Ark, the times with Cedric and Roy, plus his revitalised solo career. My thanks to Watty, Russ Bell-Brown, John Schultz, Bob, Greg, Joe Gelosi and Mike Turner (whose book Roots Knotty Roots is a must) for getting this article the assistance it needed.

Back to the beginning - describe the environment you grew up in. What was it like?

Yeah, I was born in Port Antonio, that's to the east of Montego Bay. And about 17 miles from Kingston. It's a seaport town. Everybody in the town is like a... it's a musical town. Cause one of my friends, you know him too, is Junior Murvin. Yeah, we all came from the same era. Mikey Dread, the "Dread At The Control", we all came from the same district. So, that was what it was. Everybody tried some form of music, either singing, playing or... something in music.

Were you ever part of a group in Port Antonio?

Yes, it was like a duo - with another guy name Jimmy Nelson. We started together. And we called ourselves the Soul Twins, or Jimmy & Derrick. The first song we recorded was "Pound Get A Blow".

For...?

For Lee Perry. And later on it was released by Trojan on a single. It came on a box set on Trojan too.

As the Soul Twins?

Yes. But it was mislabelled on the box set, as the Bleechers. Yeah, a mix-up there between those groups, mislabelled as Bleechers. But the track was "Pound Get A Blow" so it was supposed to be Jimmy & Derrick, or I think it might be the Soul Twins, at that time.

But the first, real step into the music business was when you entered the Song Festival, right?

Yes, that was with the track "Pound Get A Blow".

What year was this?

I think it was 1968. Or '70. Somewhere there. And it was around the same time Desmond Dekker entered with this song "Intensify Festival". So, that was the same year we entered. And I think he won that festival - Desmond Dekker and the Aces.

What was the sixties scene like, compared to now?

Well, I think I started from the rock steady era, right at the end of the rock steady, that's when I started to get my ideas, then it goes right into reggae. But I think I came right at the end of rock steady or probably in the middle of the rock steady era. We went around the studios like Gay Feet and Treasure Isle and Studio One, or West Indies or Federal - all those people. And we went back to Lee Perry now. That time it was the Upsetters. Hippy Boys was the band, but Hippy Boys became the Wailers afterwards. The same band became the Wailers. So that song we entered the competition with was the same song Perry produced.

"But what can one say about Perry? He's a genius."

How was that first encounter with Lee Perry, anything you can remember meeting up with him? What made him interested in your group and what happened to the song at the festival, by the way?

It goes well, but not as great as (the top entries)... It was my first effort, and I know it wind up on a Trojan box set. It didn't go that great but it was enough to kind of just open the door. But what one can say about Perry? He's a genius. No other producer or engineer or whatever could fathom his ability of music. He is one of a kind! I could say I'm very happy to be one of his students, that's what I would call myself here. And most of the records that Perry produced I can tell anybody about any track recorded because I was always there, always in the studio. And Perry, to me, he guides me along. And what can I say? It's too much - words can't say it! So, so far even when the Congos came along and we did that Heart Of The Congos album...

Okay, you're moving too fast now, slow down! I wanna touch some of the earliest days here still, with the Soul Twins. You met Perry backstage at that Song Festival, or...?

Okay... No, I went to his little shop on Charles Street and we went behind there, that's where we used to do all the rehearsals. That's where Bob and Peter and Bunny and everybody used to hang around there. So we went there and he said, "give me what you have, you know". So we started with our little box guitar and then he just "okay - studio!" So the same day he knew the song, the same day he recorded it!

Did it take long after this with the break up from Jimmy and all that to do those solo tracks like "Babylon A Fall", and "I Man Free"?

No, it take like some six or seven months after because what happened is... I started to write from that time now. I didn't want to jump and record anything more at the same time. So I know I was getting in the door with Lee Perry now. I was taking the time out with him still in the studio, and just start writin'. And start to learn more on my instruments. And then when I think I was ready now, then "Babylon A Fall" and those tracks came along.

What was the inspiration for "Babylon A Fall"?

Yes, it was politically affiliated. How I saw the people and when I reflect on the bible I just... Yeah, it just came.

It came out on Perry's Justice League label, when was it, '72?

I think so. It came out in Jamaica before. Yes, and it was released in England too on a single, by Trojan.

Other Perry artists at the time like Junior Byles had similar themes, such as "Beat Down Babylon". This was early for that sort of hard-hitting message. Did it do well for you? What kind of response came for a song like that?

"In Jamaica it tore the place down! It was a little scary for me."

In Jamaica it tore the place down! What happened was... I was a little scared because it was said that in certain parts of the country there was a certain political party, they started to use that as their theme song. And I didn't like the idea because I didn't want to get involved, politically. And I could say in Trelawny and certain places like Montego Bay there are certain parties like a PNP section use it as their theme. Because I think the Labour party was in power so they (PNP) just said "Babylon...", and I mean they use their thing to go right to the other party. But it was good, because it was a good seller but I didn't like the way they were portrayin' the track. It was a little scary for me.

Talking about "I Man Free"...what was the inspiration for that track?

Okay. The reason why - I was going home one night and the police pulled me over. One of the big police, the corporal, shine the light in me face and say "Wow, I'm sorry, man", and say to one of the others, "You know he's one of the Upsetter guys", and they let me go! You know, I said to them "Alright man, you're okay!" And I went home and start to write: "Walking at night with one bud a eye..." , you know? Because I was technically pulled over with guns - with guns in my face. And the song come from that, that's what happened. I wrote the song the same night, and record it the other morning. Cause I took it to Scratch and him say "okay, let's do it". Like, it happened to me one night, tomorrow it's on record! (Laughs) That's how fast it was in those days. Because when I told Scratch, he say "okay, good idea - let's do it!"

"I Man Free" and "Babylon A Fall" - those came out as "King" Burnett. Was that Perry's idea?

The idea for "King" Burnett is... Scratch say that, because I was so little, y'know - a small person with a big voice and he decide to give me that name, say "you sound like a king!" (Laughs) He did that, not me! It was his idea. But I didn't like the name still - it was too strong for me. I think I changed it after the track "Rise And Shine" came out.

This is around '72 or '73, and the Ark was ready in 1974. Where were those early songs recorded - Federal? Randys?

No, no - right at the Ark. And it was the first recordings before the studio was even finished! Right in the Ark. Because what happened was he didn't have everything together, but we could further things there and that was what it was - it was recorded there. The first several tracks that was recorded there. Same with "I Man Free", yep... And with Junior Byles and everything. Those were the earlier tracks.

What about this track "Rise And Shine" - you did that with Clinton Fearon (then in The Gladiators). What is it about?

Oh, it's like when I was getting into the rasta faith (sings): "don't you know you have a net to capture the baldhead men dem..." It's like, if you wanna go in a bad way and you're still a nice person, Jah holds us up and he love you and makes us okay. That's what it's about. It's about people turn bad, yunno? Because of the company. What I'm saying now, if you're a good guy, you need someone to lead the way and you need somebody to guide you.

Did you write that one with Clinton? What year did it come out by the way?

No, I wrote it but Clinton sing it with me. In '75, I think. No, '74. But all these tracks were before Congos. I was there long before Congos came, doing my singles.

Now, this tune "What A War" - was that a Perry production?

Perry recording, but my production. He give me a cut of the "Babylon A Fall" track and then I would do something on it and take it to Micron, independently. But Scratch recorded it also. That came from the political violence, too. I was living in Kingston as I told you, and those things what I see around me, then came lyrics like those... "What a war a yard, if its a tribal war I-man a go step for I & I nah fret, and when the fire come you know you gotta run..." I don't remember the lyrics much, but that's where it came from. What I'm saying is, if the war will be continuing I have to run away - I don't want to live inna it. I mean anywhere I can get away from it, I have to go. See, living in Kingston I happen to live in the rural part, like up in St. Andrew, up in Forrest Hills, out of the mainstream. 'Cause when I go to the studio, I know I go to the studio and when I'm going home, I'm going in the country.

Any memories in particular about those early sessions at the Ark, since the first experience usually get stuck in your mind when you're new to it?

"When you have people like that behind you, you can't go wrong!"

I forgot to tell you about Ernest Ranglin. He was one of the guys. For instance, all of the older musicians them like Jah Jerry and all those people I had the pleasure of hangin' around with them. Boris Gardiner - all those great guys. Hux Brown, Winston Wright, Wya Lindo, Geoffrey Chung, "Dougie" Douglas and all those I had the pleasure of playing with, either in recording sessions or on stage. Cause even now when we're touring or whatever I still use Dougie (Val Douglas) on my bass. I still use him because him is still another daddy for me. I'm a little older than him but when you have people like that behind you, you can't go wrong!

As you said in the liner notes for the new album you supplied backing for Junior Byles, the Wailers...?

Okay. With Junior Byles I did a lot of vocal harmony with him, but a lot of my credit didn't show up. And with Bob now, Bob used to come into the studio at night and work on our thing and we sat around with him. And we exchange ideas, that's why I respect him. You can say anything to him like say, "Bob, you know, I think if you go this way it might be a little better", and he responded. That's the earlier days, y'know? And "Natural Mystic", all those tracks. I was there when Bob look at the idea and come into the studio and put down the track, the ideas he would be getting. Sometimes two o'clock at night he would come, wake us up. Work. Three o'clock at night, Junior Byles, I and probably Junior Murvin would be there and he woke us up and we do our stuff.

I guess the Ark tracks were done at night?

Yeah, middle of the night...and you know something? Most of them is at night - then inspiration comes. Because when everybody start sleeping the ear get a lot cleaner and that's when your mind works better. Everybody is just sleeping and all a the noise and distortion or whatever it is, are sleeping. So you have a better mind, clearer mind to use for what you're doing. Even for vocals, I prefer to do at night when everybody is sleeping.

Continue to part two »

August 2006