Q: Was guitar your first instrument?
A: No, it was violin. I loved Dixieland jazz and wanted to play trombone. But my mother thought the violin would be better for me, as my large motor skills were poor. (They still are.) So violin it was. I had classical training and was good enough to be All-State in high school on both violin and viola. I wish I could read music now like I could then! Interestingly, in rural Connecticut back then, we had to learn to read music in third grade. It was part of the curriculum.
Q: Where did you learn to play reggae?
A: I was an avid listener first, doing most of it in Dwight Barrett’s Bel-Tone Record Shop on Albany Avenue in Hartford, CT. Dwight put up with me hanging out in his shop for hours on end, playing records and introducing me to the history of the music. He recommended that I audition for a local band, the Mighty Venturians. I joined them in 1976. The Venturians were the best possible guides I could have had at the start of my journey: warm, enthusiastic, and totally supportive. We played the West Indian Social Club as well as other venues in the community. I had a quicker ear than some of the guys and after a while I began helping them learn their parts. This helped me to understand how the music was put together.
Q: What was the first record you played on?
A: Horace Andy’s “In The Light,” produced by Everton DaSilva on Hungry Town Records in 1977. Horace was living in Hartford at the time and was looking for a band. He came to a Venturians rehearsal, heard me play, and asked me to join the sessions. I had never been in a professional studio and what you hear is what I played live, pretty much. I’m on all the songs where you hear lead guitar. Seven tracks were recorded at A&R Studios in NYC; the title track, “Problems,” and “If I” were recorded in Jamaica, where the horns and most of the vocals were also done. My participation was, shall we say, controversial for some. But Horace, a truly righteous human being as well as a great singer, stood up for me at every turn.
Q: When and why did you move to Jamaica?
A: After “In The Light” came out, Horace and I tried a number of avenues to get further, with not much success. Then he had a hit in England with a song he had previously done for Tappa Zukie, (Don’t remember which one.) Tappa was in Jamaica at the time and Horace intended to collect his royalties to record a follow-up album. He asked me to come with him. This sounded like a good idea to me; I was ready to leave Hartford anyway. At the very least I thought that I’d get to meet some of the people whose names I’d seen on the backs of album covers. Horace and I arrived in July of 1980, in the middle of the most violent and frightening election in Jamaican history. Freddie McKay (of “Picture On The Wall” fame) let us stay in his spare bedroom. Horace went back after three weeks. I had a chance to go to the studio with Freddie and did that instead. I never played on the next Horace Andy album. But I did play on a bunch of other ones.
Q: Who did you record with first in Jamaica?
A: My first session was at Channel One with Roots Radics for Junjo Lawes. I played on a song for Barrington Levy and one for Michael Prophet. I can’t remember what the songs were though. This was in August of 1980. Junjo had met me backstage at the Carib Theater and asked Freddie to bring me to the studio the next day.
Q: How were you treated initially?
A: Among the musicians, the reactions ranged from blank stares to quiet curiosity. Whatever their private thoughts, nobody was openly hostile or rude. Interestingly, the most friendly and helpful people were the other guitarists! Bo Pee, Sowell Radics, Dougie Bryan, Dwight Pinkney, and Bingy Bunny were just as interested in my playing as I was in theirs, and we got on well right away. Sky Juice, Winston Wright, Ranchie McLean, and Santa Davis also were very positive. Winston in particular taught me a great deal about how to play sessions and served as a mentor. I had a lot more trouble with the people on the periphery of the scene, or people on the street, than I ever had with the musicians.
Q: If you’re so into reggae, why don’t you wear dreadlocks?
A: Although today dreadlocks are just one of many hairstyles, when I got involved in reggae the only people wearing them were Rastafarians, or at least people strongly thinking about becoming Rastafarians. Rastafarianism has a particular worldview and set of clearly defined practices and beliefs. I have a great deal of sympathy for the worldview but have trouble with many of the specific beliefs and practices. (I feel similarly about Judaism.) To me, wearing dreadlocks because I love reggae would be like wearing a yarmulke because I love klezmer. Or, pretending that I was a devout Christian to win election to public office.
Q: Why aren’t you a Rastafarian?
A: See above, plus the fact that I am extremely susceptible to sunburn. If I were to repatriate to Africa, I would burn to a crisp in six months. By the way, a large number of Jamaican musicians, including some of the most influential and famous, are emphatically not Rastafarians
Q: You’re so into reggae. Why don’t you smoke ganja?
A: I dislike smoke! Plus ganja is illegal, and illegal habits make you much more vulnerable on the road. I’d rather breathe ganja smoke than tobacco though. By the way, I firmly believe that ganja should be legal. It is not legal due to race and class prejudice. There is also a substantial bureaucracy that would lose much of its reason to exist if ganja were legalized.
Apart from the issue of the right to personal choices, ganja could be a source of tax revenue, and it has a variety of medical uses. It is much less toxic than alcohol: you can’t die from smoking too much ganja, you’ll fall asleep first, unless you have some pre-existing condition that smoking it aggravates. On the other hand, college kids die every week from drinking too much alcohol, even kids who’ve never drunk before.
However, I firmly believe that adolescents should never use ganja. Ganja use affects testosterone production. During adolescence, your hormones are highly unstable, as are your emotions. So the last thing anyone suffering from emotional or hormonal instability should do is introduce another variable into the equation. Ganja use represses your anger. You can’t process what you repress. So this is a bad idea for adolescents because one of the major components of maturity is the ability to process anger in socially acceptable ways. No matter what your age, if you haven’t learned how to do this, you shouldn’t be smoking weed, or using any other substance, including alcohol.
By the way, the number of Jamaican musicians who do not use ganja is considerable, probably a majority.
Q: How did you join Toots and the Maytals?
A: I knew Toots from Jamaica; he did a couple of shows with LP and WTP as his backing band and we even recorded an Afrobeat-like remake of “Funky Kingston” at Dynamic Studios that I heard on the radio a couple of times. I’d love to hear it now! I also did a session with his daughters for their vocal group, 54-46, right before I left JA. A few years later I was working a dismal temp job when Mikey Chung called me to ask if I could do a quick tour with Toots that he had agreed to but suddenly had to bail on. I replied, “Who do I have to kill? And where do you want the bodies?”
The first gig was at Kilimanjaro in DC, one of the best clubs ever, and sorely missed. Toots had a little keyboard with him and taught us the songs in the van on the way down. The gig was pretty hairy; Toots hardly ever repeats himself and is hard to follow even for people who’ve worked with him for years. But I caught on as soon as I realized that it was just like following a conductor, but with a different set of hand gestures and a microphone instead of a baton. The tour went well and I went back to temping, thinking that it would never happen again. I was still working with Dennis Brown and thought of that as my main gig.
Toots’ manager called a month later and asked if I could do the 1988 Reggae Sunsplash tour. I hadn’t heard from the DEB organization for a while, so I kept calling to see if we had any shows. No answer. So I took the tour; we were broke, broke, broke. Finally when I was at the airport I got Maya, the manager, on the phone. “I’m going off with Toots for six weeks, but then I’ll be back.”
“Oh, you’re leaving to go with Toots?”
“No, I’m just doing a tour because Dennis isn’t working.”
“Oh, you’re leaving then. Seen.” Maya had never been a fan of mine and he heard what he wanted to hear. He hung up the phone and that was it. I never worked with Dennis again until just before he passed. The Toots tour led to another, and then another, and then another. Toots likes to work, and I needed to work, and loved the music. Almost before I knew it, I’d spent a third of my life as a Maytal.
Years later I ran into Dennis on Broadway and we went back to his hotel room to talk. The first question he asked after inquiring about my family was, “Why did you leave?” I told him that I had never meant to leave but that Maya had interpreted it that way and had never called me again. He shook his head sorrowfully.
Q: Why did you leave Toots and the Maytals?
A: I didn’t! After quite a while, the original Maytals musicians became available again, and he started asking them to go on the road. Toots feels very strong ties to them and they were a big part of his original sound. Since I’m a huge fan of the original sound, what could I say? Hux Brown doesn’t tour any more, so for a while, the guitar chair rotated between Carl Harvey, Dougie Bryan, and me depending on who was available and the sound Toots wanted to hear at the time. Then it became Carl and Dougie full time, with me as the first call sub. I play rhythm or lead depending on which one of them I’m replacing. That’s where it stands at the moment. The last gig I did with Toots was in October of 2009, but I did sit in with them in Brooklyn a few weeks ago. It was just as much fun as I remembered it being.
At first, not doing the gig any more was a blow. Not only was I no longer playing with my heroes, who I also really love and respect as human beings, I had to replace a substantial chunk of my annual income. But Carl and Dougie are good friends and great players, and they were in the band before I was. What can I say?
I’ve learned many things from Toots in my time with him. But one of the most important things I’ve come to understand is this: If it’s your show, you have the right to run it as you see fit, and your decisions don’t have to please anybody else. Nor do you have to explain yourself to anybody if you don’t want to. From my point of view, if he calls and wants me to play, I’ll go if at all possible.
Q: What’s it like playing with Toots?
A: That’s at least a five beer story. The short answer is that in my opinion it is the hardest gig in reggae, and I’ve done most of them. The songs aren’t difficult, but he improvises within them on the level of a master jazz man. With most road gigs, once you learn the show you can do it on autopilot. Not with Toots! You have to have at least a corner of an eye on him at all times. I think I was in the band eight years before I felt like I could watch the audience during a song and not have him catch me off guard.
When he’s not working, Toots is one of the warmest and most charming people you are likely to meet. On tour, it’s a different story. Music is life and death to him and he cares passionately about giving his audience the best show possible. But when things go wrong (which they do on the road), all that positive energy and passion can become negative very quickly, like flicking a switch. When that happens, getting him back on track can be difficult. Just think about how he sings, and then imagine him angry. You’ll get the idea.
Q: What are the other people in the Maytals like?
A: Musicians compare notes all the time about working situations; it’s an important part of survival. Some of my friends have done huge road gigs with household names, acts much bigger than Toots, or any other reggae artist, commercially. I was talking with someone, I’ll call him CT, who had done a particular gig I’ve idly coveted for a long time about what it was like. CT said that the tours were really difficult because, although everyone who came through the band was a musician and a professional on the level one would expect, he felt really isolated personally. He got along with everybody but CT follows a very strict diet and health regimen and doesn’t drink or do drugs. The other band members would be in the bar every night; he felt as though he didn’t have much in common with them.
The Maytals band is nothing like that, and I’ve come to realize that it’s a very special situation. Toots, Paul, Jackie, and Dougie have been playing music together since the mid-Sixties, on stage and in the studio. Most of the rest of us have known each other for at least twenty years. Gwen, the new kid on the block, has been there for at least five, and she’s great; she fits right in. So it’s more like a family reunion than a gig when we go on the road. And we’re all grownups who respect and care about each other. There isn’t much inter-band drama. We have Toots for that! Nor is there much partying in the classic sense.
One musician who filled in for a tour commented in amazement after about a week, “I’ve never been on a bus like this in my life. Nobody curses, nobody swears, nobody argues. Everyone is a gentleman. I can’t believe this is a bus full of musicians!” A classic Maytals throwdown consists of Jackie and Leba going to a truck stop to buy as many grade Z horror flicks (AKA “duppy shows”) as possible in the time allowed, along with hot chocolate and muffins. Then they load them into the DVD player and settle in for a bus ride’s worth of cheap thrills, clotted gore, and commentary.
Tours definitely have themes. The end of the first season of “American Idol” coincided with a Maytals tour. Jamaicans love contests and pageants, and the band was already following the show closely before the tour started. In the clubs, showtime for us is usually 11:00 or 11:30; AI ended at 11. So the bus ride from the hotel to the gig, normally pretty quiet, became a seething hotbed of contention. Who sang that song better, Justin or Kelly? Who’s the better singer overall? Who’s most likely to sell more records? and so on. The show was so addictive that it proved impossible for the road manager to get us off the bus before it ended, and after a week he stopped trying. We’d shorten our prep time in the dressing room accordingly and hit roughly when we were supposed to.
On another tour it was all Tyler Perry movies, with which I was previously unfamiliar. During the Olympics, it’s all sports, especially events where Jamaica has a fighting chance, and so on. Pretty G-rated stuff.
Toots is very family-oriented and really enjoys children. It’s one of his most endearing qualities. He is always open to having them on the bus, even for extended periods. After all, his children are there too! His son Hopeton sometimes plays bass, and his daughter Leba is almost always there on background vocals. Paul’s son Stevie was a fixture on tour from a very young age, often sitting in on drums during the encores. On one tour Stevie and his daughter Ashley were both on board. Both my sons have ridden the bus too at various times. No one has to modify their behavior much when it happens.
There are a lot of touring organizations that ban women and children, believe it or not.