Johnny Clarke – Reggae Vocalist
The article below is a copy and paste job of something I wrote many years ago for a website I developed. – http://raresounds.co.uk/
During the golden years of Roots Reggae in the mid 1970s one man ruled the Reggae roost in Jamaica, Johnny Clarke. Yet now, nearly 30 years since the height of his many successes, he is largely remembered for representing a brief stylistic change to the rhythmic structure of Reggae – the sub genre ‘Flyers’.
The Jamaican music scene will always be one of ever shifting fashions, tastes, re-cycling and reinvention; this is what keeps it a wonderfully energised and kinetic musical force. This impetus for change gave birth to Johnny Clarke’s career. Conversely as the sands of fashion shifted and Jamaicans looked elsewhere for their musical fix, Johnny Clarke’s career was left in the doldrums, perversely a victim of his own success, resultant over-exposure and eventual public apathy. It is a defining feature of Jamaican music that many producers strive to drain every last available cent from an artist’s popularity, most often leading to public disinterest and the end of that artist’s livelihood. Clarke is not a spent musical force, he never was. It is of note that Reggae artists known for their longevity within the business are often the same artists that control their own careers, produce their own music and run their own record labels.
If you ever doubted that Johnny’s contribution to Reggae was anything less than massive, remember… While Chris Blackwell was busy adjusting the Wailers’ sound to appeal to a white western audience on Lps like ‘Catch a Fire’, Johnny Clarke was King in the Jamaican arena, selling thousands of Roots and Lovers classics on 7 inch single, to an all critical, hard to please home audience, outselling everyone, including Bob Marley.
Born in 1955 Johnny grew up in Whitfield Town, a district of Kingston. He received an education locally while his brother, the drummer and singer Eric ‘Fish’ Clarke was resident at the Alpha Boys School. Known for it’s excellent musical education ‘Alpha’ was the starting point for many a career in Jamaican music. On leaving ‘Alpha’ Fish Clarke moved home for a time and Johnny cites his brother’s involvement in the music business of Kingston as his first real contact with this exciting world. He wanted to become involved. However, his parents’ insistence that he complete his education meant that he would have to put any dreams of stardom on hold for a while longer. In the meantime he continued to exercise his vocal chords, as he had done for some time, at Sunday school and Church meetings. According to an interview related in David Katz’s book ‘Solid Foundation’ he also sang in a school band with Roger and Ian Lewis, later of the band Inner Circle and foundation players of the ‘Fatman riddim section’.
When he failed to obtain the grades required to continue education he left school at the age of 17 and began to hang around Kingston recording studios and ‘Idler’s Rest’, the meeting place for the city’s wannabee stars and session musicians alike. His persistence paid off and Clancy Eccles agreed to cut Johnny’s first tune ‘God Made The Sea And Sun’. Released in 1972 as a blank label it failed to take off and Eccles decided to take his involvement with Johnny no further. In 1973 while singing at a talent show, (one of many Johnny appeared at during this time), he was heard by Rupie Edwards, another producer, who was impressed enough to offer Johnny further work. Others remember that Johnny went to one of Rupie’s regular Sunday auditions and it was here that he impressed the producer. He voiced a number of tunes for Rupie Edwards, including the now well-known ‘Everyday Wondering’. Rupie utilised the backing rhythm of this for his hit ‘Irie Feelings (Skanga)’. Following the tune’s success he left to live in the UK. Disappointed that Rupie had never credited him on the singles he had voiced, Johnny went to work for Bunny Lee. It is interesting to note that the b-side dub version of Clarke’s 1974 recording of ‘If You Should Lose Me’ is entitled ‘Straight To Edwards Head’. I think we can have no doubt, as to which Edwards he was referring.
Johnny recorded one or two tunes in between leaving Rupie Edwards and moving to Bunny Lee, including ‘Jump Back Baby’ released in 1974 on the UK label ‘Cactus’ e.p. (ctep32a) and produced by Glen Brown.
It’s unclear as to exactly how Clarke met up with ‘Striker’ Lee. A story persists that Lee heard some of Johnny’s work for Rupie Edwards while on a trip to London and sought Clarke out when he returned to Jamaica. Another account has Lee seeking out Clarke after hearing a song that had been voiced for ‘Stamma’ Hobson – ‘Golden Snake’ a sought after cut on top of a Rocksteady rhythm. This second account seems unlikely however, as it is said that ‘Golden Snake’ was laid down in 1975, a year after Clarke began recording for Lee. Again, as expected, there are as many accounts of the ‘truth’ as there are people involved in the stories related.
The story of Johnny Clarke’s first big hit is the stuff of Reggae legend. The ‘Studio Idler’ as Johnny was nicknamed by Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee was engaged to provide backing vocals for the recording by Earl Zero of ‘ None Shall Escape The Judgement’. This song was written by Earl Zero and yet it would be forever associated with Johnny Clarke. The story related by producer Bunny Lee, is that for some unexplained reason, when it came to mastering the tune at King Tubbys, it was discovered that Earl Zero’s lead vocal was missing from the 4 track mix. Lee needed someone who could complete the song and when Johnny told him that he knew it he was engaged to sing the lead vocal. Earl Zero disputes this, denying that this was ever the ‘true’ state of events. It is no wonder that Zero remains upset, as the tune went on to become a massive hit, the song that to a large degree launched Johnny Clarke’s career. Another version of this story states that the entire rhythm was rebuilt with Johnny and the ‘Flyers’ style in mind. As is so often the case Reggae history is found half shrouded in mist and the other half, encased in concrete! It was during the session for this recording at Treasure Isle studio that drummer Carlton ‘Santa’ Davis and guitarist ‘Chinna’ Smith invented the Reggae sub-genre ‘Flying Cymbals’. A sound closely related to the ‘Philly Bump’ style Disco beats of North America, it was to drive the pace of mid 70s Reggae for a short while and remains particularly associated with Clarke. This all happened in 1974 and when the song was released it hit and hit big.
Ruling the Dancehalls and record stores alike at this time were artists like Gregory Isaacs and Dennis Brown. Bunny Lee had been looking for an artist and a sound that could compete on an equal footing with this quality of opposition. He found the combination of Johnny and the ‘Flyers’ style did just that and he milked both for all they were worth, releasing a non-stop barrage of hits, tunes like: ‘None Shall Escape’, ‘Move Out Of Babylon Rastaman’, ‘Enter Into his Gates With Praise’, ‘Rebel Soldering’ and ‘Put It On’. It’s also obvious from the selection of Lovers material he chose to cover at this time that Johnny was highly influenced by Rocksteady era vocal groups and the Paragons in particular, recording songs like ‘On The Beach’.
On each one of these tunes and on many of his early recordings Johnny is backed by The Agrovators a spin off of The Soul Syndicate, Bunny Lee’s studio band, quite literally the best band playing Reggae in Jamaica at that time. With a line up that included ‘Chinna’ Smith, ‘Santa’ Davis, Tony Chin, Robbie Shakespeare, Bernard ‘Touter’ Harvey and occasional session guests like Augustus Pablo, you just couldn’t go wrong!
Virtually every tune that Clarke and the Agrovators recorded was versioned as a dub on the b-side of the single release by Dub master King Tubby, then reigning supreme as the ‘remixer’ of choice. A Tubbys dub on the b-side of an already hot Johnny Clarke release was merely the icing on the cake, or maybe even the cherry on top of it. It is said that during this era Bunny Lee could be seen turning up at Tubby’s Dromilly Avenue address carrying suitcases brimming with master tapes. Reggae really doesn’t get any better than recordings that define the singer, producer, band and dub engineer of the day at the absolute height of their respective powers.
From this moment on and for the next few years Johnny Clarke would rule the Dance, his popularity spreading to the U.S.A. and the UK. There is a tale that he was the first Jamaican Reggae artist to appear on American network television. It seems pretty certain that he travelled to the U.S.A. before coming to the UK in 1977. When he did visit the UK he was backed by the band Matumbi. He has continued to tour the UK and Europe at regular intervals ever since.
Towards the end of the 70s Johnny’s popularity decreased, a victim of Lee’s saturation of the market with Clarke’s music. Dancehall Reggae was on the way and Johnny, who had paved the way for this change with his dancehall style of singing, took a partial back seat. A recognition of Clarke as the first true dancehall artist pervades accounts of Reggae history and yet this assumption never seems to be fully explained. Perhaps it was his relaxed, inventive and playful approach on the microphone when recording and when singing live, that gained this accolade. It is certain that he influenced artists who did sing in the Dancehall style. Linval Thompson is perhaps the most well known of these.
Johnny moved on to work with a myriad of new producers, Brad Osbourne, Robbie Shakespeare, Jammy, Tubby, Vivian Jackson, Stafford Douglas and Jah Shaka. He also recorded with backing bands like the classic Roots Radics and to have his tunes versioned by many of the top Deejays of the time, from Dillinger, U-Brown and I-Roy, to Tappa Zukie and U-Roy. In this last year (2003) an Lp of material he recorded with Jah Shaka has been released and Johnny has appeared at the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival in the U.S.A. and toured Europe. Unfortunately, the UK hasn’t seen him perform in 2003.
Original pressings of his music have become highly sought after, as lovers of Reggae music have come to fully recognise Johnny’s contribution to the genre. The UK version of the ‘Rare Record Collector’ guide shows two singles and two Lps that are considered to be collectable UK releases. If only this were true. Anyone engaged in sourcing originals of Clarke’s singles or Lps will soon find that the process requires deep pockets indeed to afford even mildly ‘rare’ material. Collectors dream of finding labels like Jackpot, Weed Beat, Explosion, Attack, Hulk, Horse, Jaguar, Justice or Bar-Bell in a dusty cardboard box at the back of a friend’s attic or a junk shop. But, this just doesn’t happen. Instead, enthusiasts find that paying through the nose to an all too well informed vendor of Reggae music, or a seller on eBay is the only way to get their greasy little mitts on these holy relics.
I once told the owner of a well known Mail Order business selling Reggae records that I was thinking about making particular effort at collecting Johnny Clarke’s music. I can still recall the length of the ensuing pause and the reply back down the phone line in Brian’s wonderful ‘brummy’ accent – ‘Well you’ll have enough to choose from’. How right he was. Johnny Clarke’s considerable output makes collecting his releases a potentially lifelong task, considering that he started recording in 1973 and continues to this day.
In general, vintage Reggae recordings in their original seven and twelve inch states are increasingly hard to source for sellers and buyers alike. Vendors of vintage material therefore, price their stock accordingly. Though it seems ludicrous to many of the enthusiasts who were present during the mid 1970s and buying Roots music then, prices continue to rise and today even a reasonably common record can go for ‘silly’ money. Online auction houses like eBay for example are great if you want to find rare material, but expect to compete with others and probably pay over the odds for the item you so desperately desire.
Collecting Reggae on Vinyl is to many as much about the ‘object’ as it is the music, however an original release can tell the amateur musicologist a great deal and for this, sometimes the cost is worth it. So with the added satisfaction of dropping a scarce and original tune at a dance you will now have all the justification you’ll ever require for living in an unheated attic, eating nothing but cold baked beans and pinching as many pennies as possible, all of course in order that you may free up adequate funding for the purchase of the next rarity on your ever lengthening list. You may laugh, but a good friend once told me that he had starved himself for two weeks in order that he might glean the extra funds necessary to own an undisclosed Jamaican obscurity. Perhaps some will feel this state of affairs is more than a little nauseating. When you consider the pathetic payment some Jamaican singers and musicians received at the time of recording, the prices paid for some of these ‘holy’ relics of a bygone musical age seem highly out of step with the ethics of Roots music and the financial poverty, endured to this day by many in Jamaica.
Early Clarke releases produced by Bunny Lee that hit big, such as ‘None Shall Escape The Judgement’, ‘Move Out Of Babylon Rastaman’, ‘Dread A Dread’ etc., should be obtainable for a reasonable price as singles. As they were relatively big hits at the time of release, there should be a fair few knocking around today. You may be lucky and find one in Mint, (Jamaican Mint that is), condition for as little as £5, but expect a tune like this to appear on eBay or in a catalogue for upwards of £15! This is of course crazy money to spend on an original single release when you can get these tunes and many more like them on a cd album, such as Trojan’s ‘A Ruffer Version’ for example. Prices are always shifting, with the adage – ‘If you’re prepared to buy it for that price, then that’s what it must be worth’ applying all too frequently to over eager (or downright greedy) record sellers’ pricing policies. It’s always worth cultivating your ability to be patient and having the confidence that one day a yearned for item will drop like Manna from the heavens in to your expectant, yet tremulous hands.
There are other pre Bunny Lee produced singles that are of course rarer to find, such as the few sides he cut for Glen Brown and those for Clancy Eccles. Even these though can be found for reasonable amounts. For example a UK Cactus label ep. features ‘Jump Back Baby’ a tune Clarke recorded for Glen Brown, this cost me £10. Considering that the Ep. had three other tunes on, all enjoyable Glen Brown productions from 1974, I felt that I had spent my money wisely. As well as recording for Bunny Lee in the Mid 1970s Clarke also cut tunes for Robbie Shakespeare, then also bass guitarist with Lee’s ‘house’ band the Agrovators. These were released on Shakespeare’s Bar-Bell label and sell for similar prices when compared to Bunny Lee produced singles of similar vintage. You will soon get a feel for the rarer sides, as they appear less often for purchase. For example, to this date, I have not yet seen a copy of ‘Don’t Go’ by Clarke on the UK label Pep for sale and I’ve collected Clarke solidly for 3 years.
Of note is that original Jamaican pressings of his early material appear on good quality, deeply grooved/stamped vinyl and even when appearing visually scratched, can produce a pleasure to the ear. I purchased a Jamaican blank labelled ‘Pre’ pressing of ‘Rebel Soldering’ and though it looked like it had been cleaned with sand paper, it played amazingly well. It’s always worth having a listen if you’re in doubt. Much has been repressed throughout the last 30 years and it is essential for your wallet’s health that you are knowledgeable enough about Clarke’s music to spot an original release as opposed to an ageing repressing. It’s a minefield. Many online vendors endeavour to pass off later re-pressings as originals.
You will also be able to source much of Johnny’s work (largely released in Jamaica on labels like Jackpot, Explosion, Justice etc.) on overseas labels, such as ‘Attack (UK)’, ‘Horse’, ‘G-Clef’, ‘Clocktower’, ‘Monica’s’, ‘Caribbean’ and so on. Often the collector will find a proliferation of UK and Canadian equivalent releases, as these were countries where there was a large Jamaican population resident and buying records by artists from back home in ‘Jamdown’. Normally you will pay less for a UK or a USA release than for the original Jamaican pressing, but there are of course exceptions. Often the quality of an overseas release as compared with a Jamaican one is preferable when purchasing, having something to do perhaps with storage and the hot and humid climate of Jamaica. Occasionally you will find that the equivalent overseas release has a slightly different mix than the ‘original’, and this can prove interesting to the trainspotter. An example of this is the UK ‘Harry J’ label release of ‘Move Out Of Babylon’, which has some studio muttering and a piano ‘dit’ before the tune begins; the Jamaican release does not.
In some cases songs appear on certain Lps that do not appear to have been released as singles and you may wish to spend time finding source Lps which offer further material unavailable elsewhere. In this instance look to his second and third Lps – ‘Moving Out’ and ‘No Woman No Cry’. It is worth noting that the first two ‘Total Sounds’ label Lps often appear for sale in the USA, whereas the third Lp, ‘No Woman No Cry’, was only ‘officially’ released in Jamaica and therefore appears for purchase less often. This may have perhaps have had something to do with the legality of selling an album featuring Marley’s songs outside of a Jamaica at that time. Jamaica was notorious for the lack of copyright protection it’s legal system then offered both artists and producers. Anyone could copy and release another artist’s song with little hindrance. The Marley family who are still upset at Clarke and Lee’s use of Bob Marley’s songs are known to have used their collective influence to prevent Johnny from participating at Jamaica’s World famous ‘Reggae Sun Splash’ event. You can still pick up the Grounation release of the song ‘No Woman No Cry’ on single in the UK for just one pound and copies litter lists of originals to buy. My guess is that the single was ‘pulled’ at the original time of issue over legal ‘issues’.
Other highlight Clarke Lps In my opinion are: ‘Put It On’ released in 1975 on the UK based Vulcan label, ‘Super Star Roots Disco Dub’ a Weed Beat label issue originally from 1977 but available as a repressing, ‘Originally Mr. Clarke’ produced by Brad Osbourne and ‘Wondering’ an obscure but enjoyable later Canadian issue on a label called ‘Imperial’.
If you like your ‘sounds’ on the heavier side ‘Give Thanks’ and ‘Yard Style’ both on Ariwa and from 1983 might suffice. And as recently as 2003, Jah Shaka has released ‘Rasta International’ , and Jack Scorpio ‘Come With Me’, both on Lp.
(Designed to feature as few repeat recordings as possible)
CD / DOUBLE LP – DREADER DREAD / BLOOD AND FIRE
CD – A RUFFER VERSION
CD – GOLDEN HITS / SONIC SOUNDS
CD – AUTHORISED ROCKERS / VIRGIN
NONE SHALL ESCAPE (TOTAL SOUNDS LP)
MOVING OUT (TOTAL SOUNDS LP)
NO WOMAN NO CRY (TOTAL SOUNDS LP)
‘Reggae – The Rough Guide’ Authors, Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton
‘Solid Foundation – an oral history of Reggae’ Author, David Katz
‘Bass Culture – When Reggae was king’, Author, Lloyd Bradley
‘A Ruffer Version’ Trojan Cd sleeve notes, Author, Dave Hendley
‘Dreader Dread 1976 – 1978’ Blood and Fire Cd sleeve notes, Author, Steve Barrow
‘Johnny in the echo chamber’ Johnny Clarke In His Own Words, Author, Steve Milne (Full Watts magazine vol. 2, no. 3)
Mike Murphy January 2003.