“If I Follow My Heart” by Dennis Brown. From the album “Foul Play” on A&M Records, 1981
My playing on this song was actually my audition for Errol Thompson at Joe Gibbs, in the fall of 1980! I was a huge Joe Gibbs fan, so when I found out where his studio was, I spent as much time as possible hanging out there while trying not to get in the way. I quickly discovered that although Joe Gibbs had his name on the label and ran the business, the person who was responsible for the music Joe released was the legendary engineer and producer Errol Thompson.
Errol was a great, imaginative engineer who had learned his craft at Randy’s Studio 17, cutting hundreds of classic reggae tracks before teaming up with Joe. He was superb at handling people too. The Joe Gibbs studio was not far from Trenchtown and there were always anywhere from four or five to dozens of people hanging out inside and outside of the studio. Some of these people had legitimate reasons for being there. They were recording artists or musicians. Others, like me, were outside looking in, trying to become a recording artist or a studio musician. Still others were just people from the area with nothing more pressing to do who liked to hang out where the music was. Some of these people (including some of the artists and musicians) were also quite dangerous. It took great diplomacy and concentration for Errol to actually get the studio’s work done while simultaneously managing this ever-changing and often unruly cast of characters.
At this time, Joe Gibbs Studio was located on Retirement Crescent, a short walk from Half Way Tree Road, one of the main arteries of Kingston. The area was a mixture of concrete factory buildings interspersed with small concrete houses on miniscule lots, mostly in need of paint, repair, or both. Though busy during the work day, Retirement Crescent was extremely desolate at night. I never stayed there past six unless I absolutely had to because it took forever to get a cab and no vans ran there.
The studio and pressing plant were situated at the back of a lot perhaps an acre in size. A concrete wall about ten feet high marked the left side of the property, and the buildings that contained the studio, pressing plant, and other mysterious operations took up the rear of the property. A tall metal wall topped with barbed wire butted up against this concrete wall and one of the buildings. There was a door to this fence which was unlocked during the day and lead to a small courtyard. There was an inner metal wall and door as well. This also was usually unlocked but if things got too out of control, Errol would kick everybody out of the studio and lock the door until the session was finished.
There was something resembling a dirt driveway to the studio, but the rest of the lot was bumpy, dry earth. It was covered with winding weeds, branches, rocks, rotting paper album and 45 sleeves, and vinyl refuse from the pressing plant. The neighborhood children often took the vinyl circles punched out of the centers of 45s and made toy cars out of paper juice boxes, using the straws as axles and pulling them with twine. It often seemed like nothing went to waste in Kingston.
The large lot meant that there was a lot of parking space, more than for any other studio in Kingston. This feature, plus the fact that the company was cranking out lots of hits, running lots of sessions, and was easy to get to even if you didn’t have a car, made Joe Gibbs Studio a popular hangout spot.
The studio itself was well equipped for the time and place. The small control room held sixteen, eight, four, and two track tape recorders as well as a good-sounding console and some high quality equalizers and other outboard gear. The studio itself had a good piano, drum set, and, most important from my point of view, two good silver face Fender Twin Reverbs for guitar amps. This room was large, fairly clean, and well lighted, as was the control room.
The antechamber, the small room you had to pass through to get from the control room to the studio or to the outside, was another story all together. This was small, cramped, and had one tiny bare bulb for illumination. Since this was the most important hangout room next to the control room, there was usually somebody standing in front of the light bulb, making things even darker. I have no idea what color the room actually was (it might have been white), but everything looked brown and underexposed to light, like a photo from the days of box cameras. This room had a very low ceiling and everyone and everything in it looked cramped and brown.
The smallest possible bathroom was located near the control room, on the right hand side of the antechamber. It did have a light fixture, but more often than not the bulb was dead or stolen and you had to prop the door open slightly to see where you were aiming. As you might expect, the room smelled as though a lot of people had missed.
There was also a big vacant room behind the studio in the same building. The roof was damaged enough to let light in, but I don’t remember them ever turning the lights on there. This room played host to incredibly dishonest games of pit-a-pat and coon can. The cheating was so bad I could see it and I had no idea how to play either game. Given the amount of money that sometimes was on the table, I didn’t think it was a good idea for me to learn. I also heard that sometimes Errol showed porn movies there but I never witnessed this myself.
My new friend Bo-Pee, guitarist with Lloyd Parks and We The People, regularly passed through the studio, as did many other musicians, to see if they were needed for a session. I used this knowledge to my advantage. I would go there early, shortly after they opened around ten in the morning. If I was lucky, I could usually slip into the control room until more important people showed up. Then we would be shooed into the antechamber to make room for them.
I always carried my guitar (in its heavy black case) when i went round to the Kingston studios. I wanted to be ready in case someone didn’t show up for a session. But carrying the guitar also was a visible signal that I was not a tourist, a businessman, or a Peace Corps worker, the three types of white people one was most likely to see in Kingston. On rare occasions I could sneak into the studio and plug it in to the amp for a few minutes to get in some practice time.
My introduction to the studio was through Ijahman. Though most of the work at Joe Gibbs was their own recording sessions, they did rent the studio to outside clients if time permitted. Ijahman was one of these. Joe Higgs and Ruddy Thomas, the engineer, were the only other people at the session, on which I played well. Joe very kindly walked me to the bus stop, as it was very late at night. Once I had learned where it was, I came by the studio regularly. I was looking for work, but I was also trying to learn everything I could about how things worked.
I quickly realized that Errol was the man, and that everybody always wanted to talk to him about something: auditioning for him, recording, scheduling sessions, getting paid, and so on. Though I really wanted to talk to him also, I held back and never told him what I was doing there. I just showed up, every day if possible. I said to myself, “I’m going to show him that I’m different from everybody else that comes here. They all want something from him. I’m going to be the one person here that never bothers him or asks for something from him. Eventually, he’ll notice and be curious about it. Then he’ll ask me what I’m doing here, and I can tell him about myself.”
It seemed to take forever. But after several weeks, Errol got curious, as I thought he would. Near the end of the day, when most of the people had cleared out, he came up to me and said, “Me see you here in mi studio all de while. You just sit dere quiet and naah trouble nobody. You always ave an instrument case wid you when you come. So you must be some form of musician. Yu talk like a Yankee and yu look like a rock musician but me no sure wha fe think. Musicians come here all de time fe check me fe work and you never ask me for no work. You never ask me fe nuthin. Everybody who comes in here wan me fe do someting fe dem. Is only you never ask me fe nuttin. So what yu really a deal wid? A wha yu come ya for?” His tone was direct, but not hostile. He obviously expected straight answers.
I told him I played guitar and that I had recorded with Horace Andy. I had come to Jamaica with Horace to do another record and to learn more about the music. But Horace had gone back to America after three weeks because he couldn’t get the money he was counting on to finance the recording. I had gotten a session with Junjo the day he left, and decided to stay to see if I could find more work. I had a lot of Joe Gibbs records in my collection and was a big fan of the music on the label.
Errol looked at me shrewdly. He said, “We do a lot of work here. I control de runnings. Play a tune fe me fe free. If me like how yu, me give you nuff work.” I didn’t like the idea of playing for free and told him so. But I was broke and desperate, so I agreed. It seemed like a gamble worth taking. At least somebody would hear me play.
Errol said to come by the next morning when the studio opened, around 10 a.m. before all the idlers showed up. I was there at 9:30. He turned up by himself and unlocked the gate. Then he turned on the lights and powered up the studio. He set up a long cable so I could record in the control room, then put the song on for me to listen to while he miked the amp.
I had never heard the original version of “If I Follow My Heart,” but I recognized Dennis Brown’s voice immediately. I was astonished. I couldn’t believe Errol was trying me out on his biggest artist. This was serious! I asked him what he wanted me to do on it and he said, “It needs an intro, then give me some fills.” I’d figured out the key while Errol was getting the mic set up. But he was up and running so fast that I didn’t get to hear the song all the way through.
I was too scared to ask him to play it again, so when he said “Are you ready?” I just said, “Yes.” Errol hit “record” and what you hear on the record is my very first run through the song. I played the first lick and he said, “Yeah, mon, a de intro dat.” So I repeated it. Every phrase just came, in the proper order, and in the right time, like somebody was dictating it through me. There is one punch-in before the solo, only because I didn’t know Errol wanted me to play one. He told me to play something like what I played on the intro; I did and continued down all the way to the end of the tune. The whole recording process took less than five minutes.
When I finished the take, Errol rewound the tape and started playing it back. He didn’t say anything; he just nodded his head while listening. Then he ran the tape back all the way, took it off the machine, and put it back in the box. I said, “Is that it? Are we finished?” I was really disappointed. I had been hoping that he would ask me to do at least one more song so I could make some money for the day.
“Yeah, mon. We dun fe now. Oonu sound good.”Then he sat down, pulled a small pad from his pocket and said, “Me know seh dem call yu Andy. What is your real name so I can put it pon de check?”
Now I was completely baffled. He was going to pay me? After getting me to agree to do it for free? I said, “I agreed to play one tune for you for free. That was the arrangement.” He laughed and said, “That all right, mon. I just wanted to be sure you could play. Me have nuff work for you. Everybody come check me all the time so it get busy here. But pass through regular.”
Then he explained that Joe Gibbs didn’t pay musicians in cash directly. He would make out checks for the amount due. I then had to bring the check to Joe Gibbs Record World on North Parade and ask for Miss Yu. When she appeared, I would endorse the check (which was really more like a voucher; it wasn’t a bank check and didn’t have an account number)and give it to Miss Yu. She would then give me cash in return. Joe Gibbs paid the top local rate, fifty dollars per song. (This was roughly $25 in US dollars.) Did I know where the shop was? I did. It was right next to Idler’s Rest, across the lane from Randy’s (now the famous VP Records). I hung out on Idler’s Rest all the time, so I knew exactly where Joe’s shop was. I had even been in it a couple of times to look around.
Miss Yu was legendary among musicians for her unerring accuracy with money. It’s difficult in Jamaica to be completely sure of anyone’s ethnic background, but despite her last name, she looked much more African than Chinese. Miss Yu was impeccably and conservatively dressed at all times, no matter how hot it got in the shop. She looked like a banker, not a person working for one of the most important labels in reggae history. In fact, she seemed to have absolutely no feeling for or interest in music, though she was surrounded by it all day. She might as well have been managing a shoe store.
Miss Yu (I don’t know if anyone but her mother ever knew her first name) was bright and very efficient, and would have been attractive had it not been for her demeanor. She was one of the most dour and outwardly joyless people I have ever met. Nobody liked Miss Yu very much, but she always gave you exactly the amount of money you were supposed to get and got the amount right first time, every time. Even some of the most bitter and suspicious musicians didn’t bother to check her arithmetic. If Miss Yu counted your money, it was right.
Unlike a lot of reggae producers, there was never a problem getting your money from Joe Gibbs, at least if you were a musician. (I heard plenty of horror stories about artists.) But there was a whole ritual that Miss Yu put you through. She would make you endorse the check in front of her, even if she knew who you were and you’d already cashed three other checks that week. Then she would slowly and carefully count the money three times before handing it over. The whole act of paying people seemed to give her great pain, even though it wasn’t her money. I could never figure out what bothered her about it.
Miss Yu was also a bear about giving you copies of records you’d played on. With people like Derrick Harriot or Harry J this was never a problem. It was a courtesy. But Miss Yu didn’t believe in it. You could never get a free copy, even if the tune had been number one for weeks. She would always say, “I can’t give you a copy for free. We don’t do that. But I will sell you one at cost if you like.” I don’t remember how much of a discount that was, but it was fairly substantial. Miss Yu was visibly more cheerful (or at least less grumpy) selling you a record at cost than she was about paying you for having played on it. I suppose she figured that positive cash flow was much better than negative, no matter what the circumstances.
I went right down to the shop as soon as I could catch a bus and met Miss Yu for what would be the first of many such grudging transactions. Errol was true to his word; he did have more work for me. My audition song, “If I Follow My Heart,” became not just my first recording with Dennis Brown but my first recording to appear on a major label when A&M signed him shortly thereafter and included it on the “Foul Play” album. I played on one more track, “The Cheater,” which appeared on the same album. Sadly, though my playing made the record, my name didn’t, and Willie Lindo, who played lead on the rest of the album, got credit for it.
In short order I played on “Boxing” for Cornell Campbell (which stayed on the charts for almost two years) and “More Than Words Can Say” for J.C. Lodge, along with many other sessions for Errol. Because everything about recording was so new to me, I was happy to play things over and over until I got them right. Errol quickly realized I wasn’t in a hurry to get done and get paid. So he and I started experimenting with various effects on the guitar, searching for new sounds. Errol had great ears and was a tremendous help to me when I was learning. I came to realize that he would never allow me to sound bad; if he said a take was good enough, it was. Errol and Sylvan Morris at Harry J taught me much of what I know about studio playing. I loved working with both of them, always.
The party came to an end a couple of years later when Charlie Pride sued Joe for leaving Charlie’s name off of J.C.’s big hit “Someone Loves You Honey” (which Charlie wrote) and replacing it with his own name. Joe got clobbered in court. Then the musicians blacklisted Joe for general disrespect and a number of other grievances. Nobody would play sessions for him any more and the hits stopped coming. Then the new wave of dance hall came in and that was the end.
Joe turned the record shop into a supermarket, which I heard Errol ended up managing. Both of them have passed now, and Joe’s son Rocky, I believe, manages the catalog. I never found out what became of Miss Yu. Perhaps she is still working in a shop somewhere, counting your change three times before handing it to you. I have to admit that it’s a great practice. I do it myself whenever I’m responsible for a lot of cash. It always brings to mind the vision of Miss Yu, standing behind the plexiglass shield at Joe Gibbs Record World, sweating in her orange business suit and nylon stockings in the Kingston heat as she counts my money, slowly and deliberately, three times before handing it to me through the small hole over the counter.