Studio One Story (SJRCD 068 - 2002)
Theo Beckford - Easy
This is the
story of Studio One Records, the most important record label in the
history of Reggae. Synonymous with Studio One is Clement 'Sir Coxsone'
Dodd, the founder of the label. The story is as much that of Clement
Dodd as it is the story of Studio One.
On a wider scale it is also the story of Reggae itself, as Studio One was the pioneer of many the developments of Reggae music, from Ska to Roots, from Dub to DJ.
With nearly every major Jamaican artist starting their career at Studio One, Coxsone was, from the very start, at the top of the league. Bob Marley and the Wailers, Toots and The Maytals, Ken Boothe, Delroy Wilson, Dennis Brown, Alton Ellis, Burning Spear, The Heptones, Horace Andy - the list of people who have recorded at Studio One is literally a who's who of Jamaican music.
As the leading Soundsystem of the day Sir Coxsone's Downbeat laid down the foundations for the future of all Dancehall culture. Even as Studio One slowed down its productions at the end of the seventies, Dancehall music exploded, with many new producers developing music based around the classic Studio One rhythms of the sixties.
Studio One is often described as the Motown of Jamaican Reggae. Both these historic labels built up careers and made stars of their artists. Both labels ran along work production lines - the labels' in-house bands were paid weekly wages to perform and write music (The Funk Brothers for Motown and The Skatalites and then later The Soul Bros, Sound Dimension, Soul Defenders and Brentford Road All Stars for Studio One).
As Studio One started to produce major international artists on a regular basis it was not long before it was referred to as the university of Reggae and, indeed, the foundation label of all Reggae music.
Clement Dodd started his involvement in music early. He began playing records in his mother's grocery store in kingston in the early 1950s. Soon after he went to Florida to work as a crop-picker. It was here that he became exposed to Black American culture. Already a fan of US Rhythm & Blues from going to the first Jamaican Soundsystems such as Tom the Great Sebastian and Count Nick, he experienced Blues bars, American jukeboxes and live bands firsthand. He also hear the first Black American radio DJs whose scat-style introductions to records would have a profound influence on Coxsone and later Jamaican music itself. On returning to Jamaica, Coxsone started the Downbeat Sound System with the original DJ Count Machuki playing records and toasting in-between the discs. This was a new development in the Soundsystem parties of Kingston, and Sir Coxsone's Downbeat quickly became the number one. At the height of the soundsystems, Coxsone Dodd would be running five soundsystems at once, each with a different DJ. The number two DJ for Sir Coxsone after Machuki was King Stitt.
Sir Coxsone's main competitor was Duke Reid, The Trojan. Duke Reid, ex-policeman, was a friend of Coxsone's parents and the two's friendly rivalry would continue up until the 1970s with both men running their own labels (Studio One and Treasure Isle respectively) as well as the soundsystems on which they both first made their names.
By the late 1950s, Coxsone was making regular trips to the United States where he would stock up with the Rhythm & Blues records such as Wynonie Harris, Roscoe Gordon, Gene Ammons and many others. These he woukld then play on his soundsystem in Jamaica. In order to keep the songs that his soundsystem was playing exclusive, Coxsone would scratch out the title and artist name from the record label. This became commonplace amongst soundsystem operators and is still a popular past-time today.
As Rock 'n' Roll started to take over from Rhythm & Blues as the dominant musical force in the USA, Jamaicans became less interested in American music.
Clement Dodd decided to record some Jamaican musicians in a local studio. He chose the cream of the local musicians some of which he hand-picked from players in the Jamaican orchestras of the day, such as Eric Dean's , Baba Mato and Sonny Bradshaw. He then went into RJR studios in Kingston to make his first recordings. These he made into Dub plates (or reference discs), that is to say one-off pressings, which he made solely to play on his soundsystem.
These new recordings added to the exclusivity of the music played on the Downbeat Soundsystem. After a period, Coxsone decided to take this process one step further by releasing 'Easy Snapping' by Theophilus Beckford as a commercial release - instead of making a one-off pressing, or Dub plate, he pressed enough to sell to his local dance fans. This would be the start of the recording business for Clement Dodd.
Shortly afterwards Coxsone started releasing records on a number of different labels, all owned by himself, such as Coxsone, Port O Jam and Rolando and Powie. The Studio One label itself would not start until Sir Coxsone had his own studio...
Independence came to Jamaica in 1962. The following year Studio One recording and publishing studio opened at 13 Brentford Road, Kingston, Jamaica. Coxsone had realised that the next step from recording artists was to purchase his own studio where he could then spend more time on the music he released. This was also the start of Coxsone's Jamrec publlishing.
The musicians at Brentford Road were employed on a weekly arrangement and worked from Monday to Friday, from ten till four in the afternoon.
In the evenings, the Downbeat Soundsystem continued to play around Kingston most evenings. It would be here that many of the tracks recorded at the studio would be played on Dub plate, testing the crowd reaction before deciding whether to release it commercially. Many musicians and singers would turn up at a dance just to hear their new song being played on Dub plate by Count Machuki or King Stitt.
Whilst there was there was always a house band at Studio One, it was the Skatalites at Studio One that signalled a new phase in the history of Jamaican music. With the arrival of Ska, Jamaican music came into the musical spotlight throughout the world. After initially copying the style of the American R&B records, Coxsone and the musicians at Studio One new that they wanted to develop their own musical style unique to Jamaica. They came up with Ska, a style which emphasised the off-beat.
Ska would become the first truly Jamaican music to develop after independence. As Ska started to get noticed throughout the world, many Jamaican bands jumped on this new musical bandwagon, eager for success. It was partly this that led to the Studio one house band members re-labelling themselves The Skatalites, to draw attention to the true pioneers of the music.
Many of the Skatalites had come from the Alpha School for Boys. Run by nuns, the school became the training ground for many of Jamaica's finest musicians - Johnny Moore, Don Drummond, Rico Rodriguez, Tommy McCook, Wilton Gaynair, Harold McNair, Joe Harriott, Leroy 'Horsemouth' Wallace and many more. The bandleader was Lennie Hibbert. The Alpha Boys School is still run today, headed by Sister Ignatius who has been there since 1939.
The 1960s would prove to be the most prolific point of Studio Ones musical history. As well as running Brentford Road studios and Studio One Records, Coxsone continued to dominate Kingston's dancehall scene with the Downbeat Soundsystem and also ran a number of record shops, all called Muzik City. where he continued to import American records as well as selling Jamaican releases.
The structure of studio, record company, soundsystem and shop would largely become the template for many of the Jamaican record producers that followed: Duke Reid, Prince Buster, Joe Gibbs, Sonia Pottinger, Randy's etc.
Coxsone's Jamrec Publishing became one of the first music publishing companies in Jamaica, which showed a level of organisation ahead of even the Jamaican government. Jamaica's copyright laws were woefully inadequate (indeed non-existent) from the start of the Jamaican music industry until the 1990s when the prime minister, PJ Patterson (who had been a semi-manager with The Skatalites in the 1960s), passed new laws protecting song and sound recordings for the first time.
It was during the 1960s that Studio One became the epi-centre of Jamaican music. As Ken Boothe states in the film "If you couldn't break the Downbeat barrier, you weren't anywhere." With up to 200 artists and musicians hanging out in the yard of the Studio One complex on a daily basis, this is where the creative side of Jamaican music was taking place. And if you weren't in the yard, eating from Coxsone's mother's food stall, then you might be in the studio laying music tracks or voicing, and then in the evening going to Downbeat's dance to hear a Dub of your song (sometimes recorded the same day) and seeing how the people might accept it.
It was at this point that Coxsone really began what he calls "artist development campaigns", that is to say the building up of new singers into successful career artists.
Many of Jamaica's most famous singers came to Studio One at an early age on account of Coxsone seeing their potential early. Delroy Wilson, Freddie McGregor (who first came aged 7!) and The Wailers are some of the most successful artists who started young. Bob Marley was the first child artist to actually live at Studio One when Coxsone also boarded him in the flat at the back of the studio, on account of Marley's guardian not being happy about where he was staying at the time. Shortly afterwards, Marley's friends in the group Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh also came to live in the flat. This was not an unusual occurrence for Coxsone who would often also arrange schooling for some of the young artists at Studio One.
It was this building up of artists that set him apart from from nearly all other producers in Jamaica and continued to do so throughout Coxsone's career. Most other producers found it easier and quicker to release music by already established artists than to build them up. To an extent this clarity of vision had meant that he has sometimes lost out as some artists would be lured away from Studio One after their name has been established. Bob Marley (and The Wailers), The Heptones and Burning Spear are three of the main artists who left Coxsone after success at Studio One (all three of these groups went on and recorded for Chris Blackwell's Island Records).
The most famous in-house band, The Skatalites, only lasted for about a year and a half. However because they had been working in the studio everyday, they had recorded a wealth of material. "Man In The Street", "Guns Of Navarone", "El Pussy Cat" and "Phoenix City" are just some of their many classic songs recorded for Studio One in this period. As the in-house band, The Skatalites also played on every song played by every artist at Studio One at that time. Many of the musicians in the group also found time to record with a few other producers, most notably Duke Reid and Justin Yap. Although these outside sessions included many Skatalites' players, it was never actually the whole group and it is only after time that these other recordings have become known as The Skatalites (as the name had always been exclusive to Studio One). When The Skatalites split-up, some of the group stayed on at Studio One to form the Soul Bros and some decamped to form the in-house band at Duke Reid's Treasure Isle studio as Tommy McCook as The Supersonics.
The Soul Bros became the second in a long-line of Studio One house-bands. The house-bands usually reflected a change in musical style. So for The Skatalites there was Ska, The Soul Bros and Soul Vendors played predominantly Rocksteady, later The Sound Dimension brought in the arrival of Reggae and then in the 1970s came The Soul Defenders and their multiple-pseudonyms as The Brentford Road All stars, Brentford Road Disco Set or even Underground Vegetables!
By the mid-sixties Studio One was made up of a studio, five soundsystems, a publishing company, a pressing plant, a printery, numerous sub-record labels (Coxsone, Port O Jam, Studio One, Iron Side, Money Disc) and a number of Muzik City record shops. Norma Dodd recalls that at the height of the sixties maybe fifty people were employed at Studio One (plus all the artists and musicians).
The Sound Dimension was the third in-house band at Studio One. Originally led by Jackie Mittoo (who would shortly emigrate to Canada), The Sound Dimension was the group that brought in the style of Reggae (Reggae is both the generic name for all Jamaican music as well as describing the musical development that followed on from Ska and Rocksteady).
Reggae developed out of the creativity of the musicians alongside advances in technology. Specifically, the Echoplex Sound Dimension was a tape machine that produced an echo-delay on any sound that went through it. Whilst touring the UK with The Soul Vendors, Coxsone had brought this new piece of equipment and with the aid of studio engineer Sylvan Morris put the rhythm guitar (played by Eric Frater) into this machine. This delay affected the music played by the rest of the group producing a new sound.
The first record to be recorded in this new style was the classic "Nanny Goat" by Larry Marshall (accompanied by the Sound Dimension).As many new producers were starting up at this time in Jamaica (known as Small Axes), groups started to copy this sound (some without the aid of an echo machine!) and the sound that we all know today as Reggae was born.
Jackie Mittoo at this point emigrated to Canada. Far from weakening Studio One, it meant that new musicians came in and continued to move the music forward. Jackie Mittoo would still regularly return to Jamaica throughout the remainder of the 1960s and 70s. In the mid-sixties, however, Mittoo had been the main arranger at Studio One, playing keyboards, writing bass lines, cueing in singers. After emigrating he continued to record for Coxsone whenever he returned to Jamaica playing over rhythms that had already been recorded whilst he was away. This idea of re-versioning songs would become a staple of the 1970s recordings for Studio One and indeed all Jamaican music.
The birth of Reggae in the second half of the 1960s was shortly followed by the arrival of Roots music - music inspired by the Rastafari religion, which took Haile Selassie as its God. With it's birthplace in Kingston, many musicians had naturally become involved in this religion. Earlier in the 1960s, musicians such as Don Drummond, Johnny Moore and Roland Alphonso went into the hills in the countryside, where the Rastafarian communities lived, to play with Count Ossie's drummers.
An important event that inspired many Rastafarians was the visit by Haile Selassie to Jamaica in 1966. Count Ossie is seen in the film playing at Kingston airport for the arrival of his majesty.
By the end of the sixties a new set of Rastafarian inspired groups had arrived. Sylvan Morris, the Studio One engineer during the sixties, remembers Burning Spear coming to Coxsone because he had had a vision. Artists like Burning Spear and The Abyssinians (backed by The Sound Dimension) developed this new Roots sound which by the mid-seventies became almost synonymous with the word Reggae, as artists like Bob Marley and The wailers, Culture and The Congoes took it to new heights.
The Downbeat Soundsystem stopped in the seventies on account of the violence that was starting to enter the dancehall. In order to keep track of the music styles that his fans were into, Coxsone was able to rely on the many soundsystem operators and DJs that would come to Studio One on a regular basis to buy Dub plates. Studio One was always producing one-off Dub plates that it would sell to these visiting soundmen (at a higher price than a normal record). These would usually consist of just the rhythm track to a popular song. This Dub plate would then be played at a dance where the MC would toast over the top. As time went on, Sylvan Morris (the engineer) would vary the music by varying the bass and drum, and bringing the other instruments in and out of the mix. This process became known as Dub and the Version became the standard B-side to any 45 single.
This was just one of many innovations that were taking place within Reggae music at this time. DJ music became a style in itself. U-Roy became the first DJ to make a record (at Treasure Isle) singing over an old rhythm track. Although this was a new style, it of course related back to the first ever DJ in the dancehall - Count Machuki.
At this point many new producers had started in the business of making records. These new producers such as Lee Perry, Joe Gibbs, the Hookim Brothers, Bunny Lee and Winston Riley all began to increase musical pressure on Studio One and its other main competitors, duke Reid and Prince Buster. Far from being a problem for Studio One, this led to a constant need for innovation in Studio One's development.
At the start of the 1970s Studio One entered a new phase. auditions would be held on Sundays in the yard outside the studio (also on Sundays, the studio would be used for Gospel recordings for Coxsone's Tabernacle label). Up to a hundred artists would turn up of a day to try out for Studio One. Coxsone would often be joined by some of the current artists to help speed up the audition process.
The in-house band during the 1970s was The Soul Defenders. Originally from Linstead, they came to Studio One around 1970. The first sessions The Soul Defenders plated on were Freddie McKay's "Picture On The Wall" and Horace Andy's "Skylarking". Led by Vin Morgan they continued to work regularly at Studio One throughout the seventies recording new material as well as sometimes playing over old rhythms in order to enhance them. Their various pseudonyms meant that they were never as well known as the other in-house bands, but their importance is at least the equal of the Sound Dimension or Soul Vendors.
Most artists came through the Sunday audition process. One artist, Sugar Minott, remembers his audition as different from everyone else. Instead of writing new songs that required new musical accompaniment, he suggested to Coxsone that he sing his new songs over old Studio One rhythms. Although DJ music was based on the same premise, Minott was the first singer at Studio One to suggest this re-using of old rhythms with new vocal melodies.
At that time many new producers were starting a similar process with a slight difference - instead of using Studio One original tapes to get rhythms (which was obviously impossible) they were getting their own musicians to replay them! With no copyright laws in Jamaica at this point, Studio One rhythms became the currency for a new generation of music makers leading to the beginnings of a new style and era in Jamaican music - Dancehall. As labels such as Channel One, Joe Gibbs and many more paved the way with this style, Studio One soon fought back.
Coxsone used this development (yet again) to show that Studio One was still in front of everyone else. After Sugar Minott began to record new songs over old rhythm tracks from some of Studio One's classic 1960s recordings, new artists at Studio One all started a similar thing. Original songs such as "Full Up", "Real Rock", "Rougher Yet" and "The Answer" were given a whole new lease of life.
Sugar Minott, Freddie McGregor, Lone Ranger, Johnny Osbourne, Michigan & Smiley - Singers, DJs, Sing-DJs - these new artists brought about the new revolution at Studio One, versioning and re-versioning classic rhythms to make their own classic new recordings.
At the end of the 1970s, as Dancehall was flourishing, Coxsone Dodd decided to make his base in New York. Jamaica at that time had become a difficult place to continue business being at the height of its political violence. It was also proving hard to import the material that was needed to manufacture records. So Coxsone moved to America and chose to focus on marketing the enormous Studio One back catalogue. But in his own words, he came and went back to Jamaica all the time.The original Jamaican studio closed and he set up a small studio in New York. His mother stayed on at 13 Brentford Road and continued to take care of business in Jamaica.
In regard to Dancehall, it is ironic that even though Coxsone left for New York at the end of the 1970s (and pretty much stopped recording new Jamaican music at this point) it is maybe this genre to which Studio One has been the most pervasive - with literally thousands of records being made each year based around the classic Studio One rhythms of the 1960s. Not a day goes by in Kingston where a new song isn't being made using "Full Up", "Rougher Yet", "The Answer", "Death In The Arena" or a thousand other Studio One songs.
The starting of this film coincided with Coxsone Dodd returning to live and work in Jamaica. The studio at Brentford Road has re-opened and Coxsone has begun to record new Jamaican music once more.
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