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One of Scratch's brethren tells all

Interview by Peter I (courtesy of Reggae Vibes)

Maybe it is pretty obvious, but speaking about survival and financial rewards and all that, how come you stuck with Scratch during these times since - after all - he wasn't the most popular producer in JA at that time? Compared to other people with higher sales figures, like Bunny Lee, the Hookims at Channel One, or Joe Gibbs? All this popularity surrounding Scratch now has been built up over the years since the end of the Black Ark. It wasn't so while he was still operating out of that studio back in the days...

Yeah, I could go with a lot more. 'Cause one time I went to Channel One, taking up audition. Even when the Meditations came to do this track "Woman Is Like A Shadow" - I'm the person who took that track. I'm the person who took that audition. Because they were paying me good money at Channel One, okay? And, I did the (Mighty) Diamonds album too, which I didn't get any credit for. But I was part of the audition. Because I was with Scratch and I say, "Scratch, you know what, man? I have to leave for a couple months and see what happens". So it actually took me away from paying me good money to take up audition. It wasn't the same vibe. The money was better, but it wasn't the same vibe. Then I went to a lot of different studios doing work playing bass - even so at Randys, in North Parade. Playing bass for little producers and ting. But then I had to come back to Scratch the same year, and I say no, the money was good but the vibe wasn't what I were looking for. So, I end up getting stuck in again with Scratch. I wouldn't leave! It was my home. That's it. When he, for instance, would be mixing a track, he would make sure I'm there early in the morning, and he say, "what's the other sound?" I always have my way to say it, say "I think the bass is too hot" or "I think the drum need a little more" and Scratch always look at me and always listen. Him tell me, "what is it that makes you right?" But he always try it, always try what I said. And I didn't know what it was until probably some ten years after. He tell someone I have a perfect ear. Him didn't tell me personally, but that is the reason why he want me there while mixing, most time. I don't wanna toot my own horn, but that's what he said.

Concerning the reception locally in Jamaica for Perry's productions, how did you experience in general how people responded to the Ark - among the press, local airplay, in the charts, sound systems, etc?

"Until the Europeans start to take notice of Scratch, that's when Jamaicans start to say 'oh, wait - this guy is great!'"

What happened was they started to respond when it bounced back from Europe. They know the guy was great, but it wasn't absorbed there so much until the Europeans and Chris Blackwell started to come back to Jamaica. And then "Police And Thieves" and them tracks start to get them like "oh wait, we have somebody here"! Them know he was good, but they couldn't accept him 'cause he was like a joke! You know, like he wasn't serious. Until the Europeans start to take notice of [Scratch], that's when Jamaicans start to say "oh wait - this guy is great". But they didn't know how great the guy was until other people had to tell them. That's the problem with us. We don't know what we have until other people tell us or when we've lost it. That's why I said if Scratch is crazy, I know I am too! Because I feel it in him from day one, you know? That's what I'm saying. He get my blood pumping, man! Musically, if I go to any other studio to work, there's no vibe like that there! There's vibes there, but nothing like that! But Jamaicans didn't know what they had... But now I know that he's a God there now, really. Any musician, any producer, any singer - them have to refer to him. It's a must, you cyaan get away from it!

What happened to some of the other artists around Scratch, like Carlton Jackson, Devon Irons, George Faith, Leo Graham, etc?

Alright... George Faith he is still in Jamaica (and sadly passed away some time after this interview - Peter). Leo Graham - still in Jamaica. Earl Sixteen, I think he's in England. A lot of these guys, they get a bad energy state, because an artist like George Faith is a great artist but he just couldn't reach it, he just couldn't make it. Did a great vocal, but...something was wrong. And I don't know whose fault it is, but something was wrong, I don't know. And Devon Irons, a lot of the time he was in London too, you know? Then he went back to Negril. But he's still around, but not musically. But I think Leo, he's still singing. That's what I heard.

I suppose that's life, some people maintain the work, and some get lost along the way, but there's also a lot of disillusion with the music business - too much pressure and so on?

It's pressure... Because to pay the bills and everything in those times - it just couldn't work. You have to find a way to make it work. I'm not doing anything more than this, but it got to work! At an early age I find a way to stick with the music, without doing anything else to make it work. Mind you, I'm in a trade as electrician also, but I still didn't have to go back to it. Sometimes when I do certain things, like get a nice electrical work at a house, on my own - I would take it. But I never leave the music at all to do something else because I just didn't want to. Because that's what happened - some guys that leave, they're mechanic or whatever they do - and they never come back to music because the money was so sure in their work, you know what I'm saying? Because they were a mechanic and every weekend they have their paycheck. But I find a way to get the music to give me a paycheck every weekend. I would play percussion in certain studios, I play bass for somebody. So I have something coming in, at an early age. So I think I was lucky to be able to do that. But a lot of my friends, them just fade away.

What do you think is the reason why Perry burnt down the Ark?

Well, that was a power which that even he couldn't comprehend. Something overcame, whatever it is, he wasn't in that mind, it was in a different frame of mind. It was a different vibration. Which I don't think nobody could comprehend, couldn't absorb it. It was too much energy. It was too much going on in his head. Which I'm not gonna say if it's bad or if it's good. And if I did comprehend it, probably I wouldn't say it. I would keep it. But guess what? I have my own way, but I'll wait a couple more years before I say it - musically. I'm not ready to say it, yet. I think I know what went down, because I felt it, too. I felt it.

How did you link up with Congos, that must have been around '76?

In '77. What happened now, they were in the studio doing some tracks for Heart Of The Congos. When they are doing the vocals, Scratch say they need a bottom, that they need a baritone. Scratch say: "Okay Watty, go on put on vocals on these tracks". And I do "Fisherman" first. They said "go ahead", and Cedric and Roy start laughing, and Scratch say Cedric have the final vocal, and I have the deepest one. Scratch say "I want you to do all". Everything was one cut. And when the project was finished, Cedric and Roy said "we want you", and I said to myself that I didn't wanna go - I just wanted to be a solo. Scratch said "you know something? You can be solo, but I want you to stick with this group here. Nothing can fathom this group, the sound that you guys have, I want that". Right? So it was Scratch really that said that you won't find the sound nowhere, again. And he want me to be a part of the group, as Cedric and Roy was excited and then I get accepted, and that's where we started. If you see on the album, I wasn't on the first album - I mean on the photograph, you know? Because I wasn't sure what I was doing. I went to Grand Cayman that weekend when them do it. So I didn't commit myself a hundred per cent 'cause I still know I had my solo career. You know, it's like a new thing, so I just stick around and be a part of it and then I became an official member also.

How long did you stay with Congos then?

Okay, from around '76 -77 up to about two years ago. Because we had our little differences and we did some tours around Puerto Rico and Reggae On The River, the festival in California. And something wasn't too right and everybody... Roy decided to go on his own, but I jump out first to go on my own, Cedric went back to solo. Roy's name is "Congo Ashanti Roy", but I didn't want to use the name "Congos" because when (my name) is coming up, people know I'm from the group already. To take names, everybody say "they own the name, own the name, own the name" - I didn't want to get into that problem. So I just use my name, Watty Burnett. We have our differences, but I don't hate anybody. I know we won't work together anymore, or if we work together it's on a free show, a benefit show. I will do it. But if it's money involved, I won't.

Some twenty years back, most of us learned about the differences between Cedric and Roy; attacking each other publicly through media. There was some "voodoo" or obeah dealings involved in the conflict, or whatever it was? Why are Cedric and Roy such enemies?

"Because life is worth more than gold, much more than gold. And I want to live."

Well, what happened... I'm from a different generation, a different angle of it. And when things start to come around, I just take it as a joke or take it for stupidity or whatever it is, but I have been a part of it. But Roy and Cedric share the same kinda belief, and I don't believe in those kind of things. I just know that your own problem is - you cause your own problem sometimes. I don't think that somebody can hurt me too easily. That is my feeling. I don't think a guy can do anything and hurt me that easy, that's how I still feel. But they feel that way. And them had a little problem with who writes the songs, and who wanna take the name, who it belongs to. And when I came in - we were friends before, you know? So I didn't want to go in that way with them. I mean, they argue it out. When Roy left, Roy and I were still good friends. Up to this day! We don't have any problem, but the problem came in with Cedric and his wife and ting - they have different views. I just couldn't work along with it. And I didn't want to be a warrior or trying to be tough. I just wanted to live. Take the money and go, give me a break. I mean, if money was to be a problem with my brethren - take it and go, bro! I don't want to run with that train - no, no, no! If that's what they wanna do, them can go ahead! I'm not gonna run along! (Laughs) Because life is worth more than gold, much more than gold. And I want to live. When I go on the street, I don't have to look at nobody and say "who is looking for me?" If something happen, it is an accident, there's no one looking for me. I make sure that! I make sure I can look in anybody's face - that's the first thing that I want to do. I shouldn't be the one who's puttin' my face to the dirt or hidin' from a brethren when I see he's coming. I'm the one who is supposed to look them straight in the eye and say: "what's up, man?" As long as I can do that, I'm the winner.

How do you remember the Heart of the Congos sessions - did you participate in most of the sessions?

I did nine tracks. What happened to me - everybody just think "baritone"! I don't sing baritone alone. I can sing up there, like mid-range, so sometimes when me up in the mid-range I make it a lot lighter. So I did like two or three tracks on each riddim - I mean vocal tracks. Sometimes two, sometimes three, sometimes one - depends on what the track needed. But, my strongest point is the baritone.

It must have been an enormous disappointment with that album (Heart Of The Congos), that it didn't reach a major label deal and took off the way it should?

Yeah. You know why? The vibes wasn't right. If Lee Perry produced things like that (the following Congos albums), it would be just as good as Heart Of The Congos! I think they jumped the ship too quick. And that was my problem. I knew it, you know? I wanted to stay with Perry and they didn't want to because they had a little difference and I was torn between two acts.

Can you say what the difference was about, between Perry and the other Congos?

With money, I would say...the first thing. They didn't think they was getting the right amount of money. Which I know nobody in Jamaica was getting the right amount of money. Not even the producer. So nobody got the right amount of money in Jamaica at that time. Because when the songs reach Europe it's a different thing. It's like everybody just do what they wanna do, and tell you anything. That it sell five hundred, five thousand, or five million, whatever - I could take that. I could bear with that a little bit. I know that it is not right, but I could hold on and achieve more. If we didn't jump the ship. Because, some guys' head swell too easily. Okay, we're a big group now, one of the biggest vocal groups, I know that. But it get to some of our heads, you know? And that's what blew it!

What do you think of Blood & Fire's reissue of the Heart Of The Congos album?

I could say they did one of the best work, great work. I could tell they did a great, great job by reissuing the album - the "rebirth". And the artwork and everything is incredible. A great job. I have nothing else to say. I think they did a great, great masterpiece. I think it's one of the best revival or reissue of an album I've seen.

While being new in the Congos, you still recorded solo songs with Scratch such as "Open The Gate" and "Rainy Night In Portland", both done at the time of Heart of the Congos.

Yes, I continued and Cedric and Roy were the one who did harmony on that track "Rainy Night In Portland". The reason why I continue as Watty Burnett is because I believe in myself that I don't need another "boost" to let me feel who I am. No matter what comes along, I can be part of a group but I'm still Watty Burnett! I still have my own thing which I believe in and my own style, which I do. So I didn't have to run from my name or take a name from... No, I just stick to Watty Burnett because I feel strong enough.

Was there ever talk about doing an album based around these tracks, "Open The Gate", and so forth?

"I'm certain a time is gonna come when I tell the world what happened, but at this point I won't."

Yes. Because I was ready to do an album. Because what happened now, I decide not to push ahead. So far, I did seven tracks there and they all release on single. But it was an album I was going for. Then the turmoil start and I decide let me just deal with the group, put my solo career on hold, that's what I did. If I'm doing something, then I believe in it a hundred per cent. I'm not doing half. I put all my energy into the group and that's what make me so mad sometime to see what went down. I'm certain a time is gonna come when I tell the world what happened, but at this point I won't.

For the full-length version of this interview, check out the Reggae Vibes website. For the latest on all of Watty Burnett's runnings, check out

August 2006