I first met Michael “Ibo” Cooper in 1970 when he was the band leader and keyboard player for the Inner Circle band. At the time the band always practiced at the home of the Lewis brothers, Roger and Ian, near the campus of the University of the West Indies at Mona in Kingston. At that time, Inner Circle had two lead vocalists in the form of William “Bunny” Fielding-Clarke and Bruce Ruffin. Three years later, in 1973 Cooper, Coore, and Richard Daley formed the band Third World. Around 1976 Bunny joined the band replacing Milton “Prilly” Hamilton at which time his nickname transitioned into “Bunny Rugs”. Bunny – as I always called him – died two days before his birthday on February 2, 2014, and would later be posthumously awarded the Order of Distinction (Officer Class) by the Jamaican government for his contribution to the country’s music.
In 2005, Michael “Ibo” Cooper, alongside his former bandmate guitarist/cellist/vocalist Stephen “Cat” Coore, founders of the internationally famous Third World band, received the Order of Distinction from the Government of Jamaica, in the rank of Officer (OD), for their contribution to the development of Jamaican music. Cooper who left the band in 1997, would later serve as head of the Caribbean, Latin American, and jazz department, now called Popular Music Studies, at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in Kingston. He was also chairman of the Jamaica Reggae Industry Association (JARIA).
Michael died on Thursday, October 12 after a long battle with cancer, at the age of 71. Two other sad losses took place in Cooper’s family this year with his wife Joy in September and his son Arif in March.
That year while I wrote and edited an online news magazine called JamaicansRUS.com, I interviewed both Ibo and Cat – separately by telephone – upon their receiving the prestigious award.
Michael “Ibo” Cooper, OD, how does that feel?
Well, I must say that I feel … glad … a young boy from Spalding in Clarendon to be awarded one of the Orders of Distinction of Jamaica, in its independence, means that other young boys all across the country should hold hope that they can be recognized if they are disciplined, and dedicated to the skills that we have been blessed with and develop it towards nation building. So, basically, yeah, it is good that whichever party is in power is irrelevant, the government at the moment, feels it fit to say some people along the way have made contributions – and I am glad they are recognizing contributions in an area of innovation in Jamaica, which is the music.
Because, successive generations of us have helped to build an identity through the music, because of a unique style which became known as reggae, in its broader, but we know that reggae was only a part of the whole thing if you look at it in the local context. More so than just reggae, the culture that surrounds the music has brought its true identity to the nation.
So, I am glad I have been considered a part of that and, however, we have been working for the cause and not for the honor as much as I respect the honor – had it not happened it wouldn’t have stopped me from doing, and I will keep on doing.
And your brethren, “Cat,” who also received it with you…?
Yeah, man, deservingly so. Because, together, we created and maintained for a long time a group that has been recognized for its togetherness and its impact on the international music scene. One of the greatest moments for us as a band was in 1986, when we played at Giants Stadium at this international concert with an eclectic mix of musicians, at that time: Miles Davis, Fela, Ruben Blades, U2, Sting, Carlos Santana, to name only a few. There were 100,000 people in Giants Stadium – it was 1986 – and there were an estimated 26 million people watching on TV, [actor] Elliot Gould was the MC on MTV, at the end of the day when he was asked what he found most impressive. He said, “To be honest, the reggae group with the cello”. He didn’t remember the name of the band; we had played, like, second in the whole show. Which is really making a statement of Jamaica’s mix because we have ghetto man, sound man, classical music, reggae music – the whole mix is in there, those were some of the highlights. We kept that together for a long time.
Now, I’ve been called to do some teaching at the Edna Manley College of Visual and Performing Arts, a school where I run the popular music program. In that regard, I make that contribution, but, nonetheless, ‘Cat’ makes his contribution by keeping the band going. And, you know, musicians need people to look up to, so, his excellence as a guitarist, singer, cello player, and harmonica, to be there for youths to aspire to be like, you know what I mean? So, it’s definitely a contribution involved there. So, you see, you have different levels, you know what I mean?
Yeah. How has the teaching experience been for you?
Fantastic. Because, I think I have been able to influence the future of Jamaican music, positively. I have a set of youths, now, who have come through my program who have had my influence, seen what I have done with them, and what I have done before them, in the band, and so on. One of the groups that came out of the program is a young upcoming band called, C-Sharp, who have already been on tour with Tony Rebel as his backup band, right out of school – as a matter of fact, they were still in school when they did that. They have already been to Africa and Europe as Rita Marley’s backup band. They have just finished their album and trying to make a name for themselves now.
What are some of the other things you have been involved in since leaving Third World?
Well, I have been in Africa, observing what is going on there, and managing a radio station in Malawi, which is owned by a Jamaican.
Managing a radio station?
Yes, and running a talk show and being a daytime DJ. Basically, influencing the African scene with positive reggae music. We used to run Morgan Heritage, Beres [Hammond], Luciano, Bob Marley – all the Marley’s – Third World, Buju [Banton], Culture.
When was that that, when you did that?
This was at the turn of the century, around 1999-2000 [period]. Willie [Stewart] and myself went into the studio after, and with some other musicians, we laid down some tracks – still haven’t released them yet – with some reggae-Jazz-flavored tracks. We were jamming with various people, helping with the product – we conducted the mass band for the Alpha 125th anniversary because you know Alpha Boys’ School [has] produced some of the greatest [musicians], especially horn men of that era [of the 1960s], the birth of the ska, and all of that. So, what they did was put together a band of Alpha boys past and present and played all the much, as much as we could find that was composed by these Alpha boys. So, we had Don Drummond’s music, we had Skatalites’ music, we had David Madden’s music, Hector Sterling’s music, and son. It was all Alpha boys, present and past. It was like a sixty-piece band.
How big was this band, did you say?
That’s an [symphony] orchestra.
That’s what I’m saying, there were, like, ten trumpets, four trombones, a massive sax section – a big band – percussionist, drummer, acoustic bass, and electric bass. We had one woman in the mix, because, Pam Hall, is an Alpha Old Girl, so she came along and did a song backed up by the band.
Was anything recorded from that?
Yes, man, TVJ shows it all the time. They recorded the whole show. Right now, I am working on a project called Healthy Lifestyle which is part of a healthy lifestyle project, [which] we are aiming at children ages 7-to-12. A healthy lifestyle is more than exercising and food, but is peace, non-violence, conflict resolution, and sexual responsibility. So, those types of things keep me busy.
Do you miss Third World?
Yeah, without apology. Being out here now with other musicians, you realize what you have with these guys. Third World is a great bunch of musicians – irrespective of other things – and one thing that I really respect is, that, if after 24 years, people still care about their craft enough, that, I mean, if a man sings a bad note onstage, is going to cause an argument, and man will rehearse before he goes on a tour and you’re going to play the songs, that I miss, because when we used to step forward to the mic you could expect what I call ‘the wall of sound’. because it was reliable that everybody was going to kick in, you know what I mean? I have seen other musicians out here that don’t really have that cut, that precision work. However, I have also played with a bunch of great young guys who I have been, I’d say, I haven’t influenced them into that precision stuff. I also miss touring – suitcases and hotel rooms, I guess, are a part of your daily habit, after a while [chuckles].
What caused the break with you, Willie, and the band, I heard Cat’s version, what’s your version?
I don’t want to discuss it.
You don’t want to discuss it.
I also heard Cat’s version of how you guys met, what’s your version?
Let me hear Cat’s version of the split-up.
Well, he said, essentially, it was amicable, so …
Well, I wouldn’t refute that. And it’s not irreconcilable, either. But, I think you know the root of it.
Yes. So, how did you guys meet, to begin with? How did it all start?
Well, in various ways. I met [him] through Inner Circle. Let me take it in chronological order. I had a band at school when we were around our O Levels time, or A Levels. It [the band] was called Rhythms. At that time the Lewis brothers [Roger and Ian] had a steel band on campus. I remember when Roger got his first guitar and I showed him a few things and I used to write out things for the steel band, and so on. There was another keyboardist from Trinidad named, Peter Gray. He was not as accomplished as I was, but he could play reasonably well. Then they got some equipment, their father bought them some equipment for the band and Peter Gray was their keyboardist.
There was another guy named Gray from Wolmer’s [Boys’ High School] who was their lead guitarist who sort of knew more of the music thing than the rest of them, so, he kind of helped them out and became like the bandleader. My band broke up after A Levels because everyone was going off to university, I was going to UWI [the University of the West Indies, at Mona, Kingston] and my friends were going overseas so we so, the school thing, that’s it. I was, like, had my head focused, I was all about university, I even stopped doing classical training, I said, well, it’s all about university, I even stopped doing classical training, I said, well, “It’s all about university and a degree, math and physics thing, you know.
I was well focused on UWI and even stopped my classical training and was all about university and degree. One evening, I saw in the newspaper where there was a band called Memphis Underground playing at a place called The Circus, in Crossroads. So, I got ready to go watch this group … I had no idea who they were. While I was going out to the gate, Roger Lewis drove up to the gate and said to me, ‘Hey, what’re you doing these days?’
I said, ‘Boy, jus’ campus, you don’t have any kind of band thing going on?’
He said, ‘Well, Peter Gray is going back to Trinidad and I don’t have a keyboardist’, and he asked if I could fill in until they found somebody.
I said, ‘Well, boy, I’m focusing on [school] but, if it’s for a week or two, I guess it won’t kill me. Sure, yeah, I’ll do it.’
And he asked me where I was going that evening and I told him I was going down to the Circus to see some band called Memphis Underground, I don’t know who they are.
And, Roger said, ‘Well, that is us.’
So, I got into the car and he said, ‘Well, the gig is canceled this evening because the keyboardist is gone but, let’s talk about what’s going to happen.’
In any case, the next week I was in the band and they decided that the name – they never liked the name – so, they changed the name. A group had come to Jamaica called ‘Outer Limits.’ Someone joked and said, ‘If a group can be called Outer Limits then we can call our band Inner Circle.’ So, the name stuck.
So, in this band called Inner Circle, filling in for Peter Gray was Richie Gray as the bandleader and lead guitarist.
So, that’s how that came together.
Now, in the band already, was Willie Stewart, the drummer. I knew Willie long ago, from Wolmer’s in another band called Vision, but that had come apart, also. So, Willie was playing with them, so, Willie and I were in that band with Roger – the first draft of Inner Circle.
One night, we were in a place called The Tunnel, playing, and a guy comes up to me and says, ‘You know Fall In Love [“I’ll Never Fall In Love Again”] in D?’
I said, ‘Okay, but I can’t allow you to sing, you’ll have to talk to Richie, the bandleader.’ But Richie knew him before so he gave me a shout and said, ‘Yeah, man, he can sing, give him a try.’
So, we kicked Fall In Love in D and the man tear down the place, and, we said, ‘Well, boy, this brother has to be our big singer.’ Because, Tomorrow’s Children had a big singer in John Jones, you know, the [singer] who could sing the big voice tunes. We never had anybody like that. And so we had found our answer to John Jones, so to speak. Well, Bunny Rugs. That’s how I met Rugs. So, he joined the band.
Alright, Richard Gray left the band. During all of that time, Cat [Coore] used to come up down and sit down beside the bandstand every night and take us in. So, when Richie left the band – we used to call him ‘the youth’ – we said, ‘Boy, give the youth a chance.’ So, the youth took the guitar and filled the spot quite adequately, so that’s how Cat got into the band.
By this time, now, Inner Circle was me, Cat, Bunny Rugs, the two Lewis brothers, and Willie. So, that’s how we came together. And, when Richie left, of course, I was the man who knew all the music, so they said, ‘Alright, you take over as the bandleader.’
An Italian company called Farfisa started making portable organs. Now, if you remember, back in those days, the organ was a [wooden] thing where you need about two men to lift it up. So, here comes this portable organ from Italy, so the Lewis brothers went and bought one and carried it into Jamaica, the first one in the country. And guess what? It could tilt. The stand was built so the organ could be tilted. So rather than sit down at the side, I then put the organ in the middle of the band, tilted it, and started to stand up and play.
So, you changed that configuration?
No one else in Jamaica, I am the first person to ever do that. Neville Hinds from Byron Lee followed suit a few weeks later, but I am the first person to do it. The man who used to disco in the club came up to me and said, ‘Why are you doing that? It don’t look good.’ Because he wasn’t used to it.
But the worst question he asked me, was, ‘Who did you ever see do that, did you ever see Byron Lee do that?’ And that was it because we didn’t have to see anybody do anything. We were innovators. So, that was one of the things.
So, that was one of the things that was attractive about Inner Circle. We had an image, we had Bunny Rugs as a big vocalist, we had [Douglas] Guthrie as an alto sax player, and Cat was a wicked lead guitarist, and me as a crazy organist with a tilted organ, you know what I mean? So, that was that.
Well, Rugs left and went to New York, after a while – I think his family was going or something like that. Willie left and went off, too. So, we were there for a while, Cat and me, and Prilly replaced Bunny. We were kind of dissatisfied with the Top 40 format, you know, we wanted to do something more innovative, we wanted to write some songs and try a thing, you know what I mean? So, we left.
Actually, we were all leaving independently and, Cat mentioned to me that he wanted to start a band and he was thinking of Colin Leslie on bass and Willie on drums. So, I said, ‘Well, boy, you can’t leave me out of that.’ So, me and him and Prilly got together and we came up with Darren Green, who became the first manager. We got some equipment out of a store in Washington, DC, from a store called Chuck Levin’s Music, with a loan that we had gotten from the Workers Bank. That was the beginning of Third World.
The name Third World came up at a meeting we had at Clancy Eccles’ house. Clancy was one of the first people to put us on anywhere. We were put on at the Independence morning stage show at the Carib [Theatre], so you know the anniversary of the band because August 6th would be our first gig.
When was that, when you did that?
Nineteen-seventy-three – August 6th, Carib Theatre. Carl Barovier on drums, me on keyboard, Cat on guitar, Colin Leslie never did make it to the stage, he rehearsed a few weeks and then dropped out and we got Richard Daley on bass, Prilly on vocals. That was the first draft of the band. So, we met at Clancy’s house, trying to decide a name for the band. Clancy said, ‘Hold on there, Third World – Michael Manley and David Coore and those guys are always talking about the third world we have to call [the band] the ‘Sons of the Third World,’ man. So, the original name of the band was ‘Sons of the Third World,’ but in the first week we lost the Sons of and it just became Third World [Laughs]. Basically, that’s how it evolved, and that was how the band started.
We went on with Prilly as the lead vocalist, we went to England in ‘75 where we met Chris Blackwell and got signed by Island Records. We did our first album, simply called Third World. By that time Cornell Marshal was on drums. And then we came back to Jamaica and did the Dream Concert with Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder. We accompanied Rita Marley, Bongo Herman, and Judy Mowatt.
Actually, we accompanied Rita [and Judy] some years before with the Michael Jackson [and the Jackson Five concert], but at the [Dream Concert] we played as our own act. Then in ‘76, we went to San Francisco, [on] our first American tour where we opened for Santana at the Orpheum Theatre. We got chased down the road in Boston because we got caught in the middle of the busing riots. Saw Marti Gras in New Orleans for the first time, and was on the David Susskind talk show. It was that time when we met up with Rugs again in New York – he met us on the road in New York. We were having some dissatisfaction with Prilly, so, by the summer of that year we changed him for Bunny.
When Rugs came to Jamaica that summer, he had it in his mind to be in the band, the man almost lived at my yard – I saw him every day. So, he came in. We came back from England and did the Dream Concert, with Cornell on drums, and then Cornell left that Christmas, and Willie joined us. So, Willie’s first gig was New Year’s Eve ‘76 going into ’77, at a place called Chela Bay, where the Playboy Club used to be, just before it closed down. So, Willie came with us as a drummer to San Francisco, that was his first tour with us. So, he did the American tour. During that summer, now, Rugs was the last man to join the band, because [percussionist] Carrot [Jarrett] was already in and Rugs came that summer. Rugs’ first gig was when we had Carifesta in Jamaica, in 1976, and we performed at the Carib for the Carifesta show. That was the first gig, Carifesta at Carib. So, that was basically how we got together, that draft of the band, the Carifesta draft [which] continued until Carrot left in ‘84.
What was the reason for his departure?
In his case, just like with Marshie, they felt that they could do better for themselves. So, here we come to ’84, now, he’s out and the five of us continued for the rest of the time until ‘97.
When you and Willie left?
Why do you think that Third World has never won a Grammy after some nine nominations?
Third World is an interesting phenomenon, and the people who choose the Grammy would not give it to Third World.
Why do you think so?
The people who chose the Grammy are caught up in the rags-to-riches story. You see, they romanticize the poor Black people from the ghetto who are making it through the music. What Third World represents is a consciousness. Not that we were not poor, but, you see, people did not think of us as poor youth because of Cat, when he was the only one who came from a relatively wealthy background. Education is something that some of us have, like myself, and so on, musically and otherwise. Willie went to Wolmer’s, I went to Jamaica College, and Cat went to Priory. However, here we have Jamaica going to rot, now, because things like education have been looked down upon as a societal phenomenon for too long. So, what Third World is supposed to represent is a different drama. Whereas you have a rags-to-riches story where a man was a broke man and he gets some money and he gets rich.
People in this country are getting rich – sorry to philosophies a bit – in many instances, illegally. When they get there their having a problem. I have to quote Wayne Marshall in a recent song: ‘Hard to obtain, hard to maintain.’ People do not understand what it takes to maintain the dream that they think they need to have. So, they get the big house and the Pajero and realize that’s running up the cost of living and if you flop, you are going to look shameful, there are a whole set of things that comes with it. So, we romanticize the rags-to-riches story, but we don’t understand, as Bob Marley said, ‘Think you’re in heaven but you’re living in hell.’
So, what Third World is supposed to represent is, what do you do with education, what do you do with wealth? It’s the other side of the story that I don’t think we’ve grasped yet, [which] is why the whole nation is coming to rot. In other words, do you lay back in luxury and just rot? Then what was the point? Do you see what I’m saying? That is what Third World is supposed to represent: ‘Them man have education, they’ve made it, let’s see what they’re going to do with it.’
One of the things that is happening to third-world countries, like Africa, and so on, as you can see, is that they haven’t figured it out yet. Because they run off into drugs and loose behavior. There is no moderation or sense of responsibility and the thing is not spent doing the right thing, see what I’m saying?
You know, Singapore got independence the same year as Jamaica, ’62, and now Singapore is considered a First World country. The leader of Singapore once said, and many Caribbean leaders were pissed at him for saying so, and took him to task, he said, he thinks we play soca and reggae a little too much.
Yet, at the same time, Singapore also used Jamaica as a model …
Back in the day, but they passed us out. Look at my present situation, I am the only popular musician who has a set of youth who is trying to forge a future. And you wonder why the thing is rotten? And I can’t get Beanie Man or Elephant Man to come around the school and say “hello” to the youth them.
They won’t come. Do you see what I am saying? Everything is about promotion and popularity. Fame and riches are the end. You know when you’re going to get a scramble? You’re going to get a scramble and panic when they get older and the next generation comes and they are fading and then all of a sudden you see them appear, you see what I’m saying? Many of them have not honed their skills to a level where they could do what I am doing – in other words, they couldn’t become a teacher. Teaching is looked down on as a low profession, it’s looked down on as where the people who cannot do anything else go. I am one of the few people who are in it because it’s not that I flopped why I have to go there.
I am not bragging or boasting, but there are [quite a few] innovations I’ve pulled up … this is another level of innovation that I’ve gone to right now because I’m thinking ahead. “Cannonball” Bryan taught Dean Fraser, Mrs. Lois taught me – and you have no idea who she is. They never achieved what we achieved, but they gave unselfishly and caused us to be who we are, and many of us are not sitting down and saying, “Okay, so what happen?” So, the nation’s stuck! We blame the youths and say, “Why are the youth going on like that?” Nobody’s helping them to go anywhere, so they take a gunshot for it. Third World is supposed to represent that consciousness.
What do you think of the band’s [Third World] current output and sound?
[Laughs] Everybody reaches where they want to reach, so their sound has reached where it has reached. It’s achieving its purpose.
Are any of your children musically inclined?
Yes. Arif is producing, he’s also a very popular radio DJ, now, at Fame-FM.
Arif, as in Arif Mardin, the [Atlantic Records producer-engineer]?
As a matter of fact, that’s why I gave him the name.
Okay. That’s a great honor. What is your take on the Jamaican situation today, culturally, politically, and socially?
Well, I think Damian Marley’s album saved the day. Welcome to Jamrock is the kind of work I’m looking for in my youth, right now. It’s well thought out, excellent work, musically, poetically, everything. The only problem is that I don’t see anyone offering solutions; people make criticisms of the situation. If it’s artistically done, I appreciate that, but the youth still don’t know where to go. But, it’s an excellent piece of work and I think it saved the day because a lot of bullshit was going on. Dancehall is a party, but you can’t leave the one-drop. You see, every time people get into a tribulation the one-drop comes back. So, we have the one-drop and the Binghi Box to kind of clean up the mess. But dancehall is a party, you know how it goes, people talking about sex and slackness. A Saturday night and you have a Smirnoff Ice in your hand, you don’t want nothing heavy for the head, you’re in a club you wanna be gettin’ crazy.
This is the machine age, computer steady off the rhythm, but they’re going back into the studio and they are starting to play live. I must say, Willie had predicted this years ago, that they were going to go back to playing live again. Because there are certain nuances and acoustics of the live instrument that you’re not going to get from the machine. So, now we have the mixing of the machine and the live, which is cool.
I still predict great things for the country [Jamaica], and the music might still lead the way. Young Mr. Marley’s music really has us fired up.
What inspires you musically?
Well, as you’ve probably picked up, a Pan-African placard. We’re not going to let that go. We stand up for our people. It must be clear that this does not mean we’re against anyone, but the mess that black people are in universally, is close to my heart, and I think it’s our mess to clean up, and, so, the music can help in that regard. I’m talking about fixing my house and I have a divine right to fix my house. And it was a very, very important part of Third World’s inspiration, and it still inspires me.
Where and when do you like to work creatively?
All the time. I still don’t like to sit down and talk to lawyers and accountants – I would live in the studio.
What’s your favorite Third World song?
If I really had to choose, I think I would go for “Melt With Everyone.” It’s a song that Rugs wrote some years ago.
What is your favorite reggae song, if there is one? I know that’s a big question.
Oooh! It would be quite possibly the Abyssinians’ “Declaration of Rights.”
And, your favorite [Bob] Marley song?
And your favorite Third World Album?
I think we hit the peak with the Journey to Addis album, the one that has ‘Now That We Found Love.’
For myself, I would say that album and 96 Degrees in the Shade.
A lot of people like 96 Degrees in the Shade. I won’t tell you why it is I give 96 Degrees second place, because it’s a self-criticism that would be very revealing. For something that you think is wrong, sometimes the public doesn’t hear it that way. But, with Journey, now, we were really, really flying. A whole lot of mystique went into that. [While] Melt With Everyone is my favorite Third World song, but when you talk about the Third World album, now, I am looking at Journey To Addis, the title track itself – not necessarily as a favorite song, in that regard, but I got total artistic satisfaction from it. You know when an artist stands back and looks at a masterpiece and he doesn’t care what anybody says, he feels good about that one.
Where would you like to see Jamaica in the not-too-distant-future?
I walk around to the schools and tell the youth anything that’s in a foreign [land] can be here. We have a challenge to build a peaceful society where lovers can hold hands and walk in the moonlight, and old people can retire after years of service and not have to worry that they’re going to suffer. [A] sense of humor is on people’s faces again, abundance of locally-grown food and appreciation for the beauty of our environment. So, the people who live outside want to come and visit every year, and when they do visit, they don’t want to leave. It’s a mix between our roots and the modern world, with modern conveniences like good roads, night hospitals, and good schools.
How do you feel about where the Rasta movement is today?
Beautiful, because the youths now are thinking. Just the other day a youth [who] made a song – last week I heard it on Irie-FM – that we need a more serious look at Rasta. And that means that I’m encouraged. Because that means the youths realize that it must evolve to another level. The whole Rasta movement is not religion, religion is static, and sometimes tradition is static. But being a movement, you can mold and change it, and yet it still has its foundation.
What is your take on the evolution of dreadlocks?
Well, I never did love the word “dread” because I don’t want anyone to dread I, you know. But remember that it’s a cultural statement. From what I see going now, it’s beautiful, because once upon a time people used to see it as ugly.
Do you have any plans for a book or biography?
I should do that, right? [Laughs]. I can’t be a vintage artist yet (ones that are already dead). I still feel fresh. I don’t mean that the book would stop me…
What are some of the ideas or things that you would like to be doing musically?
That’s wide, a lot of things. That is a whole new conversation. Definitely, an album is in the making. I would [like to] try a movie score.
Who are some of the influences in your music?
Definitely Mr. Marley – I don’t mean from when he broke internationally] but from early on, I liked what he was doing. In terms of vocalists, locally, Alton Ellis, Ken Booth, Leroy Sibbles, [The] Skatalites, the whole of that early era; jazz-wise: Miles, Herbie [Hancock], Dizzy [Gillespie]. Popwise: Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind, and Fire – definitely Ray Charles. Jazz Crusaders, Weather Report. It’s wide, you know because I also like some of the early rock stuff like what Pink Floyd and them were doing.
When did you train at the London School of Music?
No. I have Royal School certificates and some interviewers misunderstood what I had said, that I went to the Royal School of Music.
There was a time when you never sang. When and how did you start?
Backing up Rugs, actually. [Laughs] Backing up Bunny. The song was Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time. He brought it on and there was a part where one of the guys sang the falsetto and Rugs could reach it, because it was in his range, but it didn’t have the same effect because we thought the voice was too heavy for the part, it lost sensitivity. So, they had Cat do that part, which is where he started singing in the band. Then we got to the harmony part [Sings.] “Didn’t I blow your mind this time …” Me and Cat used to chip in a do a three-part with Bunny, and that’s where it actually started.
That really defined the Third World sound, harmonically.
It was coming before Third World. It started in Inner Circle – the three of us – and after that, now, me and Cat, and started singing harmony with whichever vocalist there was. And there were other group tunes, the Temptations’ Papa Was A Rolling Stone. Where I did the bass part, Cat did the tenor, and so that became a distinct vibe. And then we moved that on to Third World where we started singing and playing, and that became again a distinct part of the image and sound.
How would you compare your earlier life to now in the popular music culture?
Earlier life in terms of which part?
How you were 30 years ago to now.
Oh, much improved. As a matter of fact, just tonight I was playing something when I remembered a certain musician carried it to me and asked me to accompany him and I was finding it very difficult because I was also very nervous because he was a big man in [music]. I look at it now and say, ‘Wait, was it this that I was … ?’ Nothing like maturity and time, you know? Exposure and experience. I remember one time when I went to audition to be the Pantomime pianist and Sonny Bradshaw was running the band at the time – and I mean, this was Mr. Bradshaw and we were going to be on TV, and he was the big man – I mean, the [palms of my hand] became a river.
What would you say would be the highlight of your musical experience, to date?
So many of them. Giants Stadium is one, Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles, just because I used to sit in the audience and think, ‘One day I want to be up there.’ But, I’m trying to think of a musical event where the music just soared to a height. An early experience, opening for Bob Marley at the Lyceum Theatre in London.
Cat said that, too.
Because nobody knew us yet, we didn’t have a record over there yet. We stepped on the stage and done the place, as a new band. Because, again, we were doing some things that were not expected. [Cat] was playing cello – they found the mix unusual, because we were doing Stevie Wonder songs and reggae songs, and so on. In England you were either a soul band or a reggae band, for us, because we were into the versatility thing, you see. But we mashed up the place, still.
Another awesome moment was a thing called July Fest, in Richmond, Virginia. The American government used to have these summer festivals where they would subsidize it so they could carry the price down for the everyday guy and they blocked off the street. Because Richmond is a place where the promoters would tell you that we can’t get more than 400 people. And, yet, that July Fest there was Third World and Wailers – Bob had passed already – so it was the Wailers Band. They opened and the people, and, of course, out there were about 15,000 people and, the people sang along when they heard the Bob Marley tunes, [because] they knew those tunes.
The promoters always told us that we were not that [well-known] in the region, especially among the black people, But when we hit the stage, we didn’t have to sing anything. The 15,000 people knew every Third World tune word for word, you hear me? Blew me away, because I could not believe it. And it just goes to show how the whole thing was promoted because we were typically promoted that reggae was mainly known to white people and that blacks didn’t know it. But what’s been happening is that they were making the prices too high because the white promoters didn’t want to go into the black areas.
A similar situation happened at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre, in Washington, DC, again subsidized for the summer and it was us headlining with a little-known opening act. When the sound check was done and we were leaving the parking lot – not even a bicycle out there – and the Budweiser festival was down the street with Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind and Fire, the Jamaica Independence [show] was up the road with Freddie McGregor, so, believe you me, we went [back] to the hotel to change and said, ‘We’re going to flop tonight.’ When we went back [to do the show], I nearly wet [myself], the place was sold out! When we took the stage – the same thing again – similar thing again, majority Black audience and every word of the tunes.
So, one of the things that was obvious to me was that we had a very strong black following in the United States which we probably didn’t get close to because of how the concert promotions were going. [Also,] I hear we have a big following in South Africa, too – we’ve never played there.
How would you like to be remembered?
Boy, that sounds too final, man.
I know. Whenever I ask people that, they tend to get nervous.
I guess, just being remembered is enough. But, given a choice, I would like to be positively remembered.
What is your take on where you think reggae is today?
Reggae came back and did not move Dancehall to come back.
What is your view on the current trends in the music industry, as a whole?
Download on the economics – don’t know how that one is going to go. The good thing is that e-commerce has made the whole world our marketplace, so the numbers you can reach directly without even accompanying the middle are greater, potentially. If there’s even a little piracy, you’re supposed to be able to make more.
The video world has changed music completely. I think I prefer the days when we were just aural. Seeing something with music in the background can distract from the musicality. So, now, we get what we call “the basic beat generation.” I shudder to say these things because it might sound like the whole generational thing, a youth might say, ‘Boy, just get with what’s going on.’ Yeah, but, you see, there are some absolutes. Things like pitch recognition is a skill that will die if they just put a beat in the background and watch some girl wind.
This is one craft where black people have an advantage, you know, believe it or not, because it is totally ear-generated. The skill that is done, the craft, that is music. Too much visual can push it into the background. It can be used provisionally against the person while keeping the person still at a low intellectual level.
The music business can defeat music, but I have always trained my students that music is a craft and the music business can be craftiness. So, I’m still trying to train people to do craft.
Well, you can’t get away from craft.
Right. The good thing that happens today is that don’t care what the business does, the craft still seems to come through. Again, I go back to Jr. Gong, with all that’s going on, a good piece of work tends to flourish, no matter what.
And it stands the test of time.
Ah, you see it. Like his father’s work, or like Third World’s work, or like Jimmy Cliff’s work, you get me? The thing is, you’re also looking at the world as it changes, and when the world is in need of certain things, people reach out. We’re in the 21st Century … With what’s going on, the world needs meaning, now, people are looking for something deeper.
Olivier Stephenson is a journalist, playwright, screenwriter, poet, and author of “Visions and Voices: Conversations with Fourteen Caribbean Playwrights (Peepal Tree Press, 2013).
A co-founding member and former executive director of the Caribbean American Repertory Theatre (CART) in New York City; he has worked as a freelance writer in New York City where he was formerly a freelance writer at the New York Amsterdam News – a weekly Black-owned newspaper serving New York City and one of the oldest newspapers geared toward African Americans in the United States; KLAS-FM Radio in Jamaica, The Jamaica Observer, The Gleaner – a morning daily newspaper and the oldest continuously published newspaper in the Western Hemisphere – and as a columnist for that newspaper’s afternoon edition, The Star. He currently resides in the State of Florida, in the United States.
Photo – Geoffrey Philp on Facebook