There have been many groups of musicians who have appeared on records as "All Stars" throughout the history of Jamaican music. The great Prince Buster may have been the first to use the term to describe the musicians he employed to back himself, his singers and make instrumentals under that name in the mid-60s. Others followed suit and by the late 60s it frequently seemed like every other record had somebody or other's "All Stars" providing the musical back-up.

Some producers had their own individual names for the musicians they employed. Bunny Lee and his Agrovators, Lee Perry the Upsetters, Duke Reid worked with Tommy McCook and the Supersonics, Federal and other studios used Lyn Taitt and the Jets, Coxsone Dodd employed an evolving house band that started out as the Skatalites and morphed into the Soul Brothers, Soul Vendors, Sound Dimension, Underground vegetables, Brentford Disco Set and many more besides. But if you didn't have your own named band as a producer, 'The All Stars' was seen as a suitable and apt 'cover all' for the guys who made your rhythms, and made them great.

In the early reggae era, up and coming producer Harry Johnson's All Stars were originally drawn from the pool of Jamaican A-list musicians that played sessions for most other major producers and that also frequently went by names like the Dynamites, the Crystalites and GG's and Beverley's All Stars, to name but a few. These magnificent musical guns for hire - many of whose names you will find listed further down in these notes - played on an incalculable number of sessions between approximately 1967 and 1974, and beyond. While it's hard to know for sure who did play on what, educated guesses make it relatively easy to pick out the distinctive styles of many of these masters of their craft on a track-by-track basis...

'Harry J' also aspired to make it as a musician. As a teenager he played bass guitar in a band that recorded a few unreleased tracks, but that suffered from internal friction and broke up before it could amount to anything. When it did, Johnson stored his band's musical equipment at Studio 1 and took a day job as an insurance salesman for a Canadian company called Confederation Life. However, he never totally gave up on the idea of making it in the music business, if not as a musician then maybe as a record producer. He was just 22 years old, full of ambition and ready to channel it productively.

According to the man himself, his window of opportunity opened when he was watching Byron Lee and the Dragonaires at an 'uptown' dance in one of Kingston's hotels one night in 1968. some of the crowd were mildly berating the legendary bandleader for playing rock steady when there was a new kind of beat coming through. Johnson told noted reggae journalist Beth Lesser in 1985 that "people (were saying to Lee) that in the ghetto they are doing a new dance called the reggae... I saw my big opportunity there..." Johnson hit pay dirt at his first ever session as a producer. "I cut about three tunes, including one by Bob Andy that I didn't release." It was instead a catchy number by a Kingston trio called the Beltones, who had formerly recorded for Studio 1, that sealed Johnson's future destiny...

Although cited by many as the first ever reggae record, 'No More Heartaches' was essentially a rock steady tune at heart. However the lightly pumping organ riff that drove it gave the flavour of this new strand of Jamaican music. Johnson believed he had a hit. He got in his car to make the rounds of Kingston's record shops on a lunch break from selling insurance with box loads of what he thought would be an easy sell. Initially, however, it was anything but.

According to Johnson "When I put that record out I took it first to (major retailer) KG's (who) said they didn't want any. So I said OK, just hold 25 of it and I will come back. Then I went to another shop and I asked them to take six of it. They didn't want it (either) so I asked the lady there to play it. I was dancing to it; they think I'm a madman dancing there in my (work) jacket and tie (while it's so hot). A lady saw me... and said 'let me buy one of those records'. I said 'I can't... i'm trying to give this store six on consignment."

The unnamed and still sceptical shop worker took the six, but Johnson had better luck with a few other record outlets. "Then one day somebody said that they were going to play the record at the radio station... I was passing Half Way Tree so I stopped like the car was broken down and there was the record playing..."

It was also being played increasingly at dances, as the new style that would soon become better known as reggae was catching on fast and there were not yet that many records with the new beat. Shops soon could not get enough of 'No More Heartaches'. Before long it was the biggest indigenous 45 on the Jamaican charts, and by far the biggest hit that Trevor Shields, Hal Lewinson and Leon Brown would ever enjoy.

Flushed with his first time success, and with a bit of money in his pocket, Johnson decided to expand his burgeoning mini-empire. He booked a few weekend hours at Studio One and engaged that studio's crack rhythm section the Sound Dimension to back singers Herbie Carter and Lloyd Robinson. Carter's 'Happy time' was a modest hit, but Robinson's 'Cuss Cuss' was a real biggie that gave the newish kid on the block further credibility and clout when it came to expanding his remit further.

Johnson caught two breaks in 1969 that most producers would have given anything for. Firstly he persuaded Bob Andy and Marcia Griffiths to throw in their lot with Harry J Records, after both had decided that their future success lay away from Studio One. As is well known, their duet on Nina Simone's 'Young, Gifted And Black' became a global hit after someone (and Johnson was never slow to claim it was him) decided to sweeten the original master with a UK recorded string section.

Barely a few weeks earlier, he acquired a run of the rhythm track to 'What Am I To Do Now', a vocal by Tony Scott that was doing decent business around town on the Estick label. Johnson called in reggae's foremost organist Winston Wright to improvise an overdub on the track, which featured the musicians most regularly known as the Hippy Boys. 'Brubeck', which Johnson issued as by the 'Harry J All Stars'.

'What Am I To Do Now' had been reasonably successful and was also popular in the UK with the new reggae-loving skinhead movement. 'Liquidator' moved that popularity to a whole new level, bursting out of clubs to become one of the key records of reggae's initial wave of mass popularity. You heard it everywehere, particularly at football grounds where it was adopted as a terrace anthem that frequently signified the onset of what quickly came to be known as 'aggro' or 'bovver'. To this day you still hear it played at some grounds - notably that of Chelsea FC - although the violence it frequently inspired has thankfully abated inside those grounds these days.

'Liquidator' received a whole new lease of life in 1971 when Stax Records' vice president Al Bell took a copy of the record that he's acquired on a Jamaican holiday down to Muscle Shoals in Alabama. "I dug the groove" Bell told me some years ago "and thought the (Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section) might be able to work it up for the staple Singers, who I was producing at the time." MSRS bass player David Hood remembered Bell turning up with his copy of the 45 and having to send out for a little record player to audition it. "Al brought it down to the studio and virtually challenged us to play it. (Drummer Roger Hawkins and I) must have listened to that thing a dozen times or more, one play after another while we worked out the parts. In the end Rog' and I locked into a groove that wasn't quite the same, but that Al thought was close enough. The other guys (pianist Barry Becket and guitarists Jimmy Johnson and Eddie Hinton - co-writer of a later Harry J smash, Lorna Bennett's 'Breakfast In Bed') quickly fell in with us and that's how 'I'll Take You There' came together."

Johnson was not entirely happy that his big hit had been 'borrowed' for an even bigger one - but the same had gone for Winston Wright, who only received a session fee for 'Liquidator' and who was no more pleased that H. Johnson had become its registered writer. That however was the way of the Jamaican music business, which back then was not comprehensively schooled in the art of copyright.

'Liquidator' gave Johnson the impetus to produce more instrumentals, and for the next couple of years there was a steady stream of records bearing credit to the Harry J All Stars. Trojan gathered a dozen together in 1969 for a 'liquidator' album, not long after awarding Johnson's label its own permanent logo and singles numbering series as a reward for the success of 'Liquidator' and 'Young, gifted And Black'. As was always the case back then, the musicians who played on its original 12 tracks were not individually credited - but their playing can be recognised on any number of records that were coming out at the time, not just those produced by Harry J. Thus the regularly featured personnel here is likely to include Gladdy Anderson on piano, the aforementioned Winston Wright (organ, Keyboards) either Boris Gardiner or Jackie Johnson (bass), Hux Brown or Rad Bryan (guitar), Paul Douglas (drums) and, when necessary, renowned horn players like Val Bennett and Karl 'Cannonball' Bryan (saxophone) to name but a few. The Hippy Boys who had played on 'Liquidator' lined up as Aston 'Family Man' Barrett (bass), his brother Carlton Barrett (drums), Alva 'Reggie' Lewis (guitar) and Glen Adams (keyboards). they were not a regular feature of Harry J sessions, although they most certainly did not lack for work elsewhere.

Many of the album's tracks were versions of other Harry J 45s. The rhythms for 'The Big Three' and 'operamatic' had previously seen service behind Marcia Griffiths' versions of Jackie DeShannon's 'Put A Little Love In Your Heart' and the Beatles' 'Don't Let Me Down' respectively. 'Reach for The Sky' and 'El Cong' had started life as the rhythms for Bob Andy's 'Peace Of Mind' and 'Weep'. there were also do-overs of recent pop hits such as Stevie Wonder's 'My Cherie Amour' - the only track on the LP not to be issued at some time on 45 - and Birkin and Gainsbourg's notorious 'Je T'aime... Moi Non Plus', the original version of which had somehow become a Jamaican Top 10 hit. Besides these, good selling singles like 'Interrogator' and 'Jack The Ripper' ensured that nobody who hadn't bought the 45s would feel short changed - especially at the 99 pence that Trojan's TBL series retailed at during its lifetime.

'Liquidator' never spawned a follow-up Pop hit, thus those who remain ignorant of the many other sides that Johnson put out under that name would regard the Harry J All Stars as a one hit wonder. But as you will see from the catalogue numbers appended to the individual tracks here, there were in excess of two dozen releases credited to the All Stars in 1969 and 1970 alone. the 12 bonus tracks here that compliment the original 'Liquidator' album tread a similar path to those it features, being largely a mixture of original numbers that were probably mostly worked up in the studio on the day of the session by whoever was present, or, like 'Liquidator' itself, cuts to rhythms that had already seen service behind vocal hits from Johnson's stable such as 'All Day' (alternatively known as 'Tilly'), on which Gladdy Anderson tinkled the ivories prettily over the rhythm of Bob Andy's all time classic 'You Don't Know', 'Brubeck' Wright's 'Musical Weather' (a belated organ 'next cut' to 'No More Heartaches') and 'King Cannon' Bryan's horns pieces to Vincent Foster's 'Shine Eye Gal' (also featuring foundation DJ Sir Lord Comic) and Kid Gungo's 'Hold The Pussy' retitled 'Shining' and 'Wha' Pen Man' respectively.

Johnson also pulled that robust of tenor players Val Bennett into a studio to blow over the 'Liquidator' rhythm on 'Tons Of Gold' or, as it is sometimes known 'Return Of The Liquidator'. Like all producers, he was eager to get the best possible value from his rhythms, even though he was better off than most of his peers due to the enormous success of 'Liquidator' and 'Young, Gifted And Black'. Already the owner of his own record shop close to Orange Street when the global royalties started rolling in from sales of those two 45s, in 1972 Johnson opened his own highly regarded recording studio where he tended to encourage the instrumental talents of self-contained bands such as the Now Generation, Fabulous Five Inc and Zap Pow, rather than relying on the freelance musicians who had formerly made up his All Stars. Gradually that name faded from the labels of his records. By the mid 1970s - with only a few exceptions -  it had gone entirely, usually only to be seen on innumerable reissues of 'Liquidator' on 45, or vinyl and CD anthologies of late 60s/early 70s reggae.

Johnson further thrived as a producer by having his own studio where he could cut his productions and also embrace outside work. When Chris Blackwell was preparing the Wailers and specifically Bob Marley for global superstardom, he took them to Harry J's on Roosevelt Avenue where they cut their albums until Tuff Gong studios opened in the mid 70s. Among others, the Heptones also recorded some of their best mid 70s work there - just two of the many great Jamaican artists to benefit from the superior facilities on offer at 74 Roosevelt Avenue.

Johnson essentially retired as a producer towards the end of the 1980s. the studio gradually wound down its activity during the following decade before coming back strong in the early 2000s under the management  of Johnson's former assistant engineer, Stephen Stanley. Harry Johnson himself passed away in April 2013 at the age of 67, after diabetes got the better of him. His enormous contribution to the growth of the Jamaican recording industry can never be underestimated, and would still be pretty formidable if only the rhythms he had ever produced were the one that can be heard in this expanded version of the album whose title track established Harry J - and the Harry J All Stars - as a force to be reckoned with, almost 50 years ago.

Tony Rounce - 2018



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