HARD TIME

VOLUME I: LONELY DAYS AND LONELY NIGHTS

DELROY WILSON — “ONCE UPON A TIME” (from Good All Over, innumerable comps and best-ofs, Sings 26 Hits from Studio One. )

I have a terrible memory, so I can’t recall exactly how I got into Delroy Wilson, my personal gateway drug into full-blown rocksteady addiction. As far as I know, I woke up one morning with 26 Hits on my hard drive and “Dancing Mood” in my head. Not that it matters. Good things deliver themselves. Delroy Wilson is the ideal ambassador of Jamaican soul–a committed crowd-pleaser with two dozen classic tunes, at times a gritty Stax-worthy groaner, other times a debonair feelgood funkster. His classic 60’s Studio One sides are a parade of perfection, employing sharp horns, unshakeable keyboard hooks, and above all, his singular voice. Wilson’s consistency probably has something to do with the limits of that voice, which he never stretches or strains the way comparable superstar Alton Ellis would. Wilson keeps things cool and collected, using his unflappable confidence to sneak some real expressive moments without making a show of himself.

“Once Upon A Time” is one of his biggest hits, and one of Rocksteady’s signature tunes. The original album, 1969’s Good All Over, has one of the most accurate titles ever bestowed upon a record.

VOLUME II: HERE COMES THAT FEELING

CARL DAWKINS — “HARD TIME” (from 12″)

The Suburbs are Killing Us featured an extremely informative post about Mr. Dawkins about a year ago, so I’ll defer to them and direct you to a far more exhaustive portrait than I could provide of this lesser-known giant. To clue you in, “hard time” has meaning on several levels.

WANT EVERYTHING

VOLUME I – “LONELY DAYS AND LONELY NIGHTS”

ALTON ELLIS with PHYLLIS DILLON – “WHY DID YOU LEAVE ME TO CRY”(from Cry Tough)

Continuing on with the big names, we finally get around to Alton Ellis, Jamaica’s king of soul. Probably the most important name in Reggae after Marley, Alton Ellis is one of the architects of the Rocksteady style, delivering its first major hit with his immortal “Girl, I’ve Got A Date”. Allmusic has this tidbit describing the birth of Rocksteady, further complicating the murky genesis of this style:

[Ellis] released what was arguably the first rocksteady single, “Get Ready – Rock Steady.” Its innovative beat grew out of a session where the scheduled bassist didn’t show up, forcing keyboardist Jackie Mittoo to play the bass part himself; Mittoo’s left hand couldn’t keep up with the frantic ska beat, so he elected to slow down the tempo. The result was a choppier rhythm that wound up allowing the vocalist to stretch out more, and soon the rocksteady sound had taken over Jamaican music, with Ellis leading the charge. He had several other major successes in 1966, including “Cry Tough” and the smash “Girl I’ve Got a Date,” the latter of which became his biggest hit and signature song. (I, for one, prefer the Soul version).

I can’t say he’s my favorite of the bunch, but I’ll admit that has more to do with the daunting scope of his discography: Ellis cut hundreds of fantastic sides in the 60’s, and stayed soulful and relevant into the 70’s, cutting the memorable Sunday Coming for Studio One in 1970 and God knows how many other treasures before moving to the U.K. in the eighties. This is one of his duets with Phyllis Dillon–of “Don’t Touch Me Tomato” fame–which earned the pair the distinction of being the “Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell of Jamaica”. His romantic duets with sister Hortense, however, failed to earn those two the “Rufus and Carla Thomas of Jamaica” tag.

ERROL DUNKLEY — “SIT DOWN AND CRY OVER YOU” (from Sit Down And Cry)

This one dates from the mid 70’s, well past the Rocksteady prime, but the only giveaway would be the awesome keyboard orchestra overdub that gives everything a weird Roy Orbison/Ben E. King vibe. Dunkley came of age in the Rocksteady era, literally: he was only 11 when he started recording in 1964. While from the get-go he was capable of arresting vocal performances, he never touched this level of emotional acuity in the rocksteady era. Early cuts like “You’re Gonna Need Me” and “Please Stop Your Lying” make for classic bubblegum rocksteady, but it’s hard to take Dunkley seriously when he cautions, “I’m not the man for you” in an adorably feminine pre-pubescent chirp. Thankfully, Dunkley’s talent matured–after moving to London in 1973, he recorded this landmark album, which helped to set the stage for the massive crossover success of reggae later in the decade.

VOLUME II — “HERE COMES THAT FEELING”

THE CLARENDONIANS — “THIS IS MY STORY” (from The Early Years)

Don’t know too much about the relatively low-profile Clarendonians, who didn’t seem to survive the transition to Roots in the 70’s. They’re mostly known for the presence of Freddie McGregor on a handful of their recordings. That’s a shame, because they’re a seriously high-quality act otherwise, rougher-hewn than most Rocksteady acts, due mostly to the unique vocal duo configuration on a large number of their cuts. Call them “The Jamaican Sam and Dave” if you really care. Here’s a marvelous example of their vocal syncronicity, which proves that two dudes moaning in unison is twice as heartbreaking as one dude.

 

THE TENNORS — “Weather Report” (from Moods)

Damn it! I promised myself I wasn’t going to post this one. It’s too emo, which should be impermissable. So rather than go on about what you’ll be hearing, I’ll let you judge for yourself. Yes, it’s a Simon and Garfunkel song. Yes, it’s a cheesesteak sized slab o’ heartfelt. To be fair, I can’t think of another cover song that’s such an improvement on the original…but the spectre of the original, and the shamelessly treacly movie that employs it, still haunt me, as they will until I leave this earthly vessel. I worked at a movie theater in Providence that operated on projectors even more antiquated than our generally geriatric clientele. On Sundays, my job entailed watching the same movie two or three times to make sure there weren’t any projection flameouts. Unfortunately, Garden State stayed for over a month. I had to watch it somewhere between ten and fifteen times, and every time “The Only Living Boy in New York” kicked in, I had to brace myself for two or three of the most agonizingly facile combinations of sound and vision I’ve ever experienced this side of Fox News. I blame the experience in part for my bleak outlook on life and art. But I still subject myself to this Tennors version–it may reopen the wound, but it also soothes it with deluxe harmonies and a gentleness more authentic than any Jersey homunculous, then or now, could ever muster. Thankfully, this one won’t change your life–just sweeten it.

NEVER GIVE YOUR HEART AWAY

Whew! This month’s mix is really a backbreaker! I’m really excited about how it’s turning out, though. I’ve spent the last few days shaping the selections and I have to say this is my favorite so far. So now more delays–it’s time to deliver the heartbreak with punishing regularity.

VOLUME I: LONELY DAYS AND LONELY NIGHTS

JUSTIN HINDS AND THE DOMINOES — “ONCE A MAN” (from Ska Uprising)

I’ve had some trouble with records like this one, but it’s the good kind of trouble. I like ska alright, but I’m no connoisseur. It’s extremely fun, but exhaustingly upbeat. Rocksteady jams can be laid-back, sultry, frenetic, searing, strutting and potent; Ska doesn’t fuss as much with innovation or variety, it just pumps strident, in-the-red soul demonstrations into your ear with as much force and conviction as possible. So even with incredible artists like Justin Hinds and the Dominoes, I’ll tend to avoid what I think are entire compilations devoted to Ska recordings. This one covers their Rocksteady years as well, but I guess Ska has more appeal to prospective buyers these days — that, or the word “ska” is more fun to say. For their part, Hinds and company deliver miraculous performances in any configuration, and produced stellar work in the ska, rocksteady, and roots styles. Speaking as someone who doesn’t take to roots and dub too well, but knows a good thing when he hears it, I can say that The Dominoes’ “Jezebel” is one of the finest reggae albums of the 70’s–but it doesn’t sound too far removed from this gem. Justin Hinds has one of those immediately identifiable voices — unlike his peers, his style didn’t seem drawn from American R&B and soul — that seems to challenge a whole generation of singers to approximate it. The influence of the Dominos on the later Reggae styles is probably immeasurable, so I should’t attempt to measure it here. Especially when the original is so fulfilling.

CARLTON AND THE SHOES — “NEVER GIVE YOUR HEART AWAY” (fromLove Me Forever)

I don’t think I have the writing talent to express the splendor of Love Me Forever. I’ve never tried to write about a perfect thing, so I don’t have the practice. There aren’t very many such objects, and even fewer so tender and delicate as well. The harmonies between lead singer Carlton Manning and his unassuming Shoes are such singular manifestations of beauty that any attempt at comparison would be foolish. Still, I’ll take a bow and give the floor to the Other Music update that clued me in to Carlton, and offered me a window onto unfettered gorgeousness. And they couldn’t put it into words either:

Carlton Manning, and his group Carlton and the Shoes, stuck with Coxsone Dodd for much of his early career and issued his most beloved sides on the Studio One and Coxsone labels; the highlight being the Love Me Forever LP. And let me tell you, few records upon first listen have had as profound an impact upon me as this one. By the time I stumbled upon this date, I was already more than sold on Jamaican rocksteady; having been something of a scavenger of this hybrid of down-tempo ska and American soul for many years. Still, something made this record special in a way that I couldn’t quite verbalize, and still might not be able to do today, frankly. All I can tell you is that, not unlike the Impressions, these guys made some of the most earnest and warm soul music ever recorded. It just so happens that Carlton and the Shoes were from Jamaica and not the States.

THE GAYLADS — “HARD TO CONFESS” (from After Studio One)

Like the album title says, the Gaylads — the aforementioned Delano Stewart, the multifaceted B.B. Seaton and the long-suffering (?) Maurice Roberts — parted ways with Coxsone Dodd and Studio One in the late 60’s to work with Sonia Pottinger, one of rocksteady’s steadiest hands. Soon after, Stewart departed to record a handful of marvelous singles before moving to the U.S. and getting out of the biz. Then they left to work with Leslie Kong until he died. Then they recorded for even more folks before splitting into other endeavors. So obviously, when groups this unstable sing, “It’s hard to confess to a love that’s wrong”, they mean it.

PRINCE BUSTER — “DARK END OF THE STREET” (from Bluebeat)

So apparently this Prince Buster was a big deal. I haven’t really bothered to find out what the deal was with him is. (Five minutes later). Now I’m reading about Prince Buster. Maybe his story is interesting after all. Perhaps I’ll offer a condensed version here. (Twenty minutes later). Here you go–condensed version: Elder statesman of Jamaican Ska, influential businessman and Pan-African thinker, Prince Buster was a big deal.

More interesting to me– the song. What is it about “The Dark End of the Street” that turns to gold no matter whose hands run roughshod over it? I’ve yet to hear a bum version of this classic, which has been recorded to excellent effect by The Flying Burrito Brothers, James Carr, Percy Sledge and — what’s this? — Frank Black?

(five minutes later)

Ok, I take it back. Frank Black’s version sucks. I’m going to have to this one twice to make up for it.

Actually, I like to think this could double for a Caetano Veloso version. Prince Buster, in the laid-back mode, sounds uncannily similar to the English-language Caetano Veloso numbers I’ve heard. Strange.

 

THE HEPTONES — “NINE POUND”

One Word — Sibbles. It’s fun to say.

Couldn’t gather up too many prison songs for this mix — I’m focusing on heartbreak, which is, truth be told, much less depressing than going to prison, from what I hear. This one would get the “most depressing” award for disc 1, but for the hope it bears witness to. Singer and bassist Leroy Sibbles’ wistful vocals ponder several heart-shattering facets of imprisonment, atonement, exhaustion, rebelliousness and longing, while managing to avoid lurid drama or hopeless confusion. It’s altogether a more melancholy picture than another “I lost my baby” tale. But the Heptones, for almost 15 years the performing vehicle for Sibbles, who, in addition to singing, writing and playing bass for the Heptones, also was a session musician at Studio One and contributed to their greatest recordings of the 60’s and 70’s. It’s the group dynamic that’s the star of the show here, though. The Heptones definitely knew their way around a harmony, but they never let the stellar vocal interplay detract from a song’s lyrics, or from the singularity of expression that soung deserved.

BOB ANDY — “WEEP”

I’m not 100% on board with Bob Andy, who cut some decent, but not stellar, 70’s hits in the roots and lovers’ styles, especially in tandem with superstar Martha Griffiths, but had less of a overground presence in the rocksteady era. He’s mostly famous for his songwriting over his vocal performances, but he’s not bad. The best thing I’ve heard having anything to do with Andy is a record by Delroy Wilson that seems to be all Andy covers — if not just Andy originals like “Open the Door” and “Honey Child” with Wilson’s voice in the mix. I did want to post that, but my friend Adam, of Eureka Gold, hasn’t ripped it to .mp3 yet. And no one else seems to know it exists. Anyway, not much to say about this one. Here are what I remember of the lyrics from the 30 or so times I’ve heard this song:

WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP.

How Long Will This Hunger Last?

Quite a songwriter, that one.

Six more hits from the lesser-knowns and such tomorrow. I pledge it!