Phil Pratt Thing
Ken Boothe - I'm Not For Sale
Big Youth - Keep Your Dread
Bobby Kalphat - Raw Roots
The Sunshot Band - Roots Raw
Al Campbell - Going The Wrong Way
Al Campbell - Going The Wrong Way Version
Big Youth - Love Jah Jah Children
The Heptones - Party Time
Bobby Kalphat - Sounds Of Now Dub
Bobby Kalphat - Counter Punch
Big Youth - Phill Pratt Thing
Al Campbell - Take These Shackles
The Sunshot Band - Shackless Dis Yah Dub
Pat Kelly & Dillinger - Talk About Love
Al Campbell - Every Man Say
Ken Boothe - Who Gets Your Love
Dennis Brown - Let Love In
Dillinger - Big Score
|The nineties have been a
hectic time of evaluation and re-assessment of the history of reggae
music and due to the very nature of the business many lesser names have
been elevated to near iconic status as compilers and historians forward
their own agenda while more important and influential figures in the
development of the music have been ignored. The reasons for this are
complex and far from straightforward yet in the case of Phil Pratt,
whose exemplary work we are showcasing here, the blame can actually be
laid at the feet of Phil himself! Self-effacing, diffident and shy of
publicity are not the usual epithets to describe any one involved in an
activity where the egos are usually as inflated as they are fragile.
Incredibly the following is Phil Pratt's first ever interview over a
quarter of a century in the reggae business - and he only reluctantly
agreed to talk to his long time friend Adrian Sherwood. Interestingly
enough this was the first time Adrian had found himself on the other
side of the interviewer's notepad.
Born Phillip Choukoe and brought up in Kingston 14 Phil had little to do with his parents and was raised by his much loved aunt. There was no musical history in his family but Phil's brother, Winston Harris, was a multi-instrumentalist who became a teacher of music at Kingston's famous Alpha Catholic Boys School - the home to much of Jamaica's musical talent. Winston taught Phil to play the guitar and was a great influence on the young man. Phil attended St Anni's School on North Street and when he left he began work as an upholsterer, French polisher and cabinet maker. Already a keen student of music he began to follow Kingston's sound systems and he lists Count C and Sir Coxsone The Downbeat as his favourites on the circuit and it wasn't long before he became a box carrier for Downbeat's sound. His first recording was 'Sweet Songs' which he produced himself and on hearing it the great Roy Shirley took him along to meet Bunny Lee who was not at this time a full time record producer but was working for KIG Car Parts Centre. Even at this early stage Striker Lee had an eye (and an ear) for talent and Bunny took Phil to meet the man who would become his mentor - Ken Lack of Caltone Records fame who renamed him Phil Pratt simply because he couldn't remember his surname! Ken released four more tracks that Phil had produced and sung: the achingly beautiful rocksteady 'Reach Out', 'Little Things Mean A Lot', 'My Love Is An Open Book' and 'My Heart Is Overflowing With Love' and his trust and faith in the young man's talent and promise led him to make the unprecedented move of giving him his own label 'John Tom'. Phil eventually set up the 'Sunshot' label operating out of offices at 118 Orange Street in 1968 where he quickly established his distinct and unique sound. His musical partner from the very beginning was the criminally under rated guitarist Lynn Taitt, a man whose delicate approach defined the cool rocksteady sound, and Phil has nothing but admiration for Lyn's contribution to his productions. He cites as his other 'right hand man' and great friend another musical legend Bobby Kalphat who Phil (along with many others!) feels deserves some long overdue recognition for his vast contribution to Jamaican music. Very much a 'hands on' producer the works were as much his creation as the artists he worked with. His understanding of and empathy with them from his experience as both a singer and a musician meant that his label was able to attract brand name vocalists of the calibre of Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, Horace Andy, Pat Kelly, John Holt, Ken Boothe, Al Campbell and the Heptones. He then let loose deejays such as I-Roy and Big Youth (with whom he shared a particularly close working relationship) on his peerless rhythms.
Phil regards Ken Boothe as "the greatest singer in the world... I love him to bits" but regrets that the paranoia implicit in the best of his emotive recordings was at times a bit too real for comfort.. "having said the he's a genius" and Dennis Brown describes him as "a great youth". Pat Kelly was "a great guy. I regard him as my brother. Pat is a unique talent". His 'Talk About Love' was a big hot in its original seven inch incarnation but the twelve inch version featured here was one of the first 'disco-mix' records to be released and it proved incredibly popular. The excitement was palpable as the vocal finished but the rhythm track didn't let up as young Dillinger stormed in without a pause for breath with his interpretation. Really dramatic! Pat recorded a number of beautiful records with Phil but 'Talk About Love' stands out as one of the most thoughtful and insightful of their partnership.
The Heptones first toured the UK in 1971 playing at venues such as Phoebes in East London through the auspices of Phil Pratt: the arrangement was that in return for recording some songs for Phil he would "bring them up". One of the tunes they gave him was a next version of their classic 'Party Time' and many long time fans of the group feel that this is the definitive piece of the oft recorded classic. The tour unfortunately was not such an unqualified success: "Leroy (Sibbles) was cool... the rest were pure problem". When Phil first took Al Campbell to the recording studio many observers apparently laughed at him saying that Al "couldn't sing". Phil felt differently. He had a faith in and a vision for Al and consciously created a mood to suit his voice. Their 'Going The Wrong Way' remains one of the key works of the seventies and Big Youth's agitated, disturbing cut has to be one of his best. It came fairly late in his illustrious career although the two men had always worked closely together - their 'Phil Pratt Thing' was one of the Youth's first hits. Some of the best of Big Youth's self productions utilised Phil's rhythms and these exchanges were always done on a friendly basis. "He's a truly good youth... a giant youth!" Many other artists and producers also benefitted from the use of Phil's rhythms.
Runnings on an international level never went quite so smoothly however and Phil's productions were initially released in the UK by both Pama and Trojan where they proved very popular indeed but a familiar story began to unfold. To this day Phil feels nothing but anger and frustration at his treatment at the hands of Trojan Records... "Pama weren't such bad boys - at least you could always see them" but the lack of satisfactory accounting and payment by Trojan "was a total rip off".
He is still contemptuous of the way that they treated him and "countless others". Phil had by now moved to the UK and his disillusionment with the way things were run in London would eventually lead to an almost complete withdrawal from the recording business in the late eighties and he confesses that he no longer feels a real part of the music industry at the close of the twentieth century - which is a great tragedy. Reggae needs men of his innate musical understanding if it's ever to fulfil its potential worldwide. He still loves music and is always working on new songs - both reggae and gospel. Phil's own oldies compilations 'Hits Of The Past Volumes One and Two' and a selection of essential seven inch re-issues on the Sunshot label along with some other recent collections of his work have at last begun to redress the balance and Phil Pratt's work is gradually assuming its rightful place in the history of reggae music.
Harry Hawke, London 1999
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