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One of Scratch's brethren tells all

Interview by Peter I (courtesy of Reggae Vibes)

What was Junior Byles like? There's so many stories you wonder how he really was, as a person?

He was a genius. He was somebody...all he needed was some guidance. But something went down and I don't know what it is. He was a great guy. I mean, we hung out every day, for years. Never was a problem. We just laugh and...but sometimes he would just stop, and be very quiet.

Sort of withdrawn?

Yeah, me and him would be talking and he just...stop. Just stops! And he space out. But I didn't see anything wrong with it because I think I was the same thing too. In my own way, yeah. I mean, I am the same way now too. When I say "space out" I mean I'm in my own little world. Outside of my circles. Some might call me selfish, but I'm my own type who want to be alone, even at this age. I do my thing.

Back to the Black Ark days - I suppose a recording session there was like nothing else?

There's nothing like it. Never been the same thing. There is sometimes when we're in the middle of the rhythm and Scratch will just stop and cut everything off and just laugh and go outside and come back "gentlemen, let's take a break!" In the middle of the track! Right? We think we're going down on one cut now and think we're gonna get it and Scratch will just settle, cut off and just laugh and say "take a break". And we just take a break and do what we wanna do, whatever. And we will come back probably tonight, and just finish it off. But sometime when the track gets so good, Scratch will stop and say "gentlemen — come, let's go!" (Laughs). We just stop recording! And you feel like your head is gonna blow up! But everything is fun. There's never a dull day there. And I wish I had everything on video from those days, then I would be happy! But we never know that we would come this great. There's nothing like this, my brother. Nothing! I tell you I'm glad to be a part of it.

Were you close to any other acts who were regulars at the Ark apart from Junior Murvin at this time?

"And you feel like your head is gonna blow up!"

Yeah, I was close to everybody. I mean, you name it: Ken Boothe, the Heptones, Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs - anyone you can think of. Everybody in music - I Roy, Uniques, Techniques. It was like everybody was my friend. And I used to leave from one house to the other house, that was like how everybody grow up. Everybody was friends. There was no animosity with the artists them. Everybody's a time of love. And all we wanted to do in the morning when we wake up is: rehearse, go to the studio, play music and play soccer and eat fish an' ting like dat - we all grow like that. There was no pressure and I could say every artist that you can think of when you call my name to them they'd say "oh yeah" — I'm one of them, y'know. And I'm really proud of that. I go uptown, downtown, anywhere you can think of. I were around there.

While doing your songs at the Ark, were you still based in Port Antonio at the time, or had you settled in Kingston by then?

Ah no, I was living up a Half Way Tree in Kingston, at Morlands Road area and Red Hills Road, that's where I used to stay. Because it was closer to the studio so I could find myself there at any given time. Because the studio was more like my house. That's where I lived.

You almost slept there?

No, not almost - I slept there (laughs)! When I feel like go home, I go home but... I get a shower there, I eat there and I could go in the fridge and do anything I want in the kitchen. I mean, in Lee Perry's house, I could do anything I want there. I was part of the family. So, I didn't have to go home. I didn't have to.

What kind of potential did he see in you, Watty? I guess that's not something you say to an individual directly, but you must have heard something he felt about your abilities?

Lately after I realise what happened... When he used to mix all these tracks and everything he always want me in the studio early in the morning. And I didn't know what it was for until late after. He said I have a "ear of a dove", something like that. I pick up sound very quickly, very natural. He couldn't see how this little body have such a heavy voice. Yeah, he always say that. Because he say we gonna call you that then since he couldn't see how this little person have such a big voice. And I didn't even realise that I had a big voice until, y'know, in my older days. It was just normal for me. So I guess that's what he saw.

How old were you when those early songs were cut there at the Ark?

I was in my twenties, early twenties.

But you sound like a 35 year old, or something? A very mature voice.

I know (laughs)! But I were in my early twenties too. It's luck, it's just me. I don't need anything on stage to boost the voice or... If I crack on stage that's what you gonna hear. I'm just being me! And I'm really happy for that, y'know? No real changes.

The Ark must have been very small in comparison to other Kingston studios at the time? How did it look like if you could describe the scene there?

"I remember Clancy Eccles came there and said 'What is this, man? We cyaan record in something like this!'"

It was very high! It's like a box! (Laughs). It's like someone make up a box, there was no plan to the building. I mean, anyone could do that building! It's like a guy just put up some tinder-box and make something straight up in the air. Like a box, no windows, man. One door and that's it! When you came in there then you had the mixing board - a little Teac, on four tracks. And the keyboards was like a little toy, like a baby-play thing. Nothing looked real there, except the drum set. I remember one time Clancy Eccles came there and he said "What is this, man? We cyaan record in something like this!". He just laugh and say he don't know what's going down, man! And when Heptones and everybody just start to crowd the studio... You know, there was a time when Max Romeo and all about was there and the sound is coming from the studio. Everybody — all of the artists in Jamaica want to record there. There was a time when Scratch wouldn't rent it. There was no renting business. Only his artists would work there. Like, close friends might be okay, and around there sometimes. No thing like renting. He didn't have to do that. Even Coxsone sometime come there to do some stuff, to overdub some stuff and mix. I probably could name tracks which was overdubbed there. Mrs. Pottinger - that was Gay Feet - did a lot of work there. Man like Brent Dowe, all those came there. A lot of mostly Europeans wanted to come there to work. And sometimes when Scratch get mad he say "no, no! Nobody workin' inside here but me artists". But it's a can't really explain it. If you're not there you can't really explain it. That was history.

I assume you participated in many of his mixing sessions, how did that go?

What Scratch did, most time when we're recording the track, it was mixing at the same time. Most of the tracks them recorded, it's mixed right then and there at that time. Because he's pushing up all the EQs and reverb and... That was his trick, to do a direct mix for the tracks. He didn't have to mix it again because when recorded, y'know, it was mixed. Sometimes he's mixin' the guitar with EQ or some delay or something. Sometime the drums even EQ'd, like "Babylon A Fall" and those tracks? But the reason he could do that was a small board, a four-track, and everything was right in front of him. Everything was four little thing, and he say "do that, do that"! And sometime a guy is over here doing something like dat, and another guy there doing something, and that's what it is! And if we're playing a little tape, sometime looping a little two-track tape, and might be playing with some percussion on it looping right through the track on very low volume - thing like dat. But hear me now talking, man - I'm not really giving it justice! It sounded like 34-track sometimes! All I can say is that I'm so happy to be a part of it, that's what I say all the time.

Did the Ark change much during those few years in existence, between '73 up to '80, or thereabouts?

No, it didn't change that much, y'know. It was basically the same instrument and same equipment, same 4-track thing. Same Teac, didn't change too much. Only thing I think change was a bigger drum set he got from London. And probably another keyboard, like a 3-4 active keyboard. And a couple of different an' thing - we use a lot of that, fe that big room sound. But nothing changes too much.

The more regular guys that Perry employed, like drums and bass, was musicians like...?

It was Boris Gardiner on bass, sometimes Sly Dunbar on drums, and Mikey Boo. You have Benbow (Creary), and even Clinton Fearon use to be a bassie there, too. I would say everybody... Hux Brown, Geoffrey Chung, Val "Dougie" Douglas, everybody! Any name you can call on the records, now, was like a regular. There's Ernest Ranglin, Winston Wright on keyboards, Keith Sterling too and sometimes Wya Lindo, when not touring with the Wailers. And sometime Zap Pow guys them being regular, too. He use great musicians — Vin Gordon on trombone, Herman Marquis, Bobby Ellis was a regular there too. Tommy McCook was there probably every day. Technically if we need some flute or whatever, we use Tommy or Marquis or Bobby Ellis — the regular guys.

"When Scratch call a session, nobody talk about pay. You get paid, but that was the last thing. Because the fun is more than the pay!"

Compared to many other studios it seems like Black Ark was more of a (musical) commune or "family" than anything else?

Yes, it was a know why? When Scratch call a session, nobody talk about pay. You know, because them know them gonna get "pay" more than what it is. We didn't talk 'bout money in those times. When Scratch call musicians, there was no pay-thing involved. You get paid, but that was the last thing. Because the fun is more than the pay! Creativity — number one. The reason why Scratch was like that, he have some way that he will say OK, certain ting he will restrict, certain ting he won't do. And I think like his bass and drum most time, he got a restriction on that, most time. I mean, we can go around it but whatever he comes up with, he restrict it. Sometime there's percussion he had idea with, right? So that he will restrict it. But he give the musician the free way to go around and do what they want to do. So that musicians feel better of creating more stuff, different stuff. Because even Ernest Ranglin, if you listen to his guitar very well, he's got a thing when he is playing the rhythm and the lead at the same time! Nobody has ever done that - that kind of style. Like two or three guys playing at one time — the same guy! Is only Scratch. On the early Studio One you hear that sound — I'm talking Ranglin now, is the early kind of work at Studio One you will hear that sound. Because...the freedom was there to create a lot of good music. I think the freedom there over all made the music sound that good. And again, you might be singing something and you hear it sound like it crack, and you say "let me do it over". He'd say "no!" (Laughs). That's what he want! Sometimes you think that you're not finished, and say "okay Scratch - give me another cut". He say "Waaatty — I say that finished!" You want to hear it and when you hear it, you cyaan believe it's you! But he's a guy...whenever he say its done, it done. So I think I learn the same thing from him because when I'm overdubbing now on the tracks on the new album here, when the musician want to do another cut, and I say "no man, it's the cut I want". And Scratch say as long as you go on the note, and the timing, there's nothing wrong.

The Black Ark was like a magnet for the musicians. They were drawn to that sound, regardless of payment or whatever. I think it's pretty fair to say that Black Ark was to the 70s what Studio One were to the 60s. Would you agree with this?

It was the centre of the world musically, man! The centre of the world, that studio. But what you get from Black Ark...nowhere else! But guess what happen? I have that sound. I have it in me. It stays with me, it stays right in my head here. And it's the sound I still want. I capture it. Technically if I'm gonna introduce something it's gonna come out almost like that, if I want to.

Now, about Lee Perry's eccentric behaviours, he blew ganja smoke on the tapes - what else?

Yeah, we had our rituals when we just take a pipe and a good blow on the tape. He would do anything - crazy! But good. In those days the closest guy to you — you can't see him because he's just smoke! Just smoke. In the studio there were no windows — no escape. One door you have to come out. Thats why you call it the Ark: no windows. There was no windows to look through or come out through. One way out, my brother.

What was the scene around Washington Gardens like - an uptown area, or what was the surroundings there?

It was middle, but in that area now where Cardiff Crescent is like a landmark. Because those times all the police respect us, also the bad guys. We don't have no problem with nobody. We make sure that we, musicians, are safe. The police is there to make sure everything is OK. Even the bad guy who doing all bad things make sure everything is OK, too. I mean, we were guarded by both. Everybody - the good, the police and the thief.

Another aspect of the music business is all the dirt that comes with it. Earl Sixteen told us about the Spanglers (then a notorious gang from the ghetto) showing up at the end of the Black Ark days wanting protection money and all that. What happened, what was your impressions about this?

Yep, yep. Well, what happened now is - I know all those guys, too. If they know you're an artist, if they respect your music, they don't bug you. But, if they don't like what you're doing, then you have a problem with them, they need a little pay-off, like. You know, you find those things anywhere too. In this country (America) they'd call it mafia, or whatever they want to call it. Everywhere you find people like those, what you gotta pay-off. But fortunately I didn't have to.

Continue to part three »

August 2006