Rub A Dub Style – Chapter 6

Jah Life comes to Jamaica

In 1979, Jamaican-born but American-based sound owner and producer Jah Life left his home in Brooklyn, New York, and headed for Kingston, Jamaica. He was looking for popular singer Linval Thompson to voice over some rhythm tracks he had created. Once in Jamaica, Jah Life didn’t really know where to begin his search. As a youth, he had left Jamaica and moved to New York with his family, which left him without the contacts he would need in Jamaica to launch himself in the music producing business. But he was determined to make them.

“A friend of mine named Banny Dread live around the area. I tell him I’m looking for Linval, and he say, alright he’s going to take me on the corner. So, he take me around by Oakland [Avenue]. Linval wasn’t there. But Junjo was. So Banny say [to me], ‘See this man here, this is Linval sparring partner. You can deal with him.’” It was there, on what would later become known as ‘Volcano Corner’, that Jah Life first met future sound system owner and mega hit producer Henry ‘Junjo’ Lawes.

At the time, Junjo was still just another youth who hung around popular artists, trying to find a way into the music business. Linval Thompson was one of the biggest singers in Jamaica and Junjo used to follow him to the studio, carrying his boxes of recording tapes.

Barrington Levy – Looking My Love

Jah Life introduced himself to Junjo. “Junjo say to me, ‘Whe’ the I want? The I want voice some rhythms and things?’ I say, ‘Not really rhythm. Is just Linval me want fe voice a track weh me bring down and thing.’” Instead of offering to find Linval, Junjo offered to sell Jah Life ten rhythm tracks, six of which he had acquired from producer Leon Symoie, of the Thrill Seekers label. Junjo even had vocal artists lined up – deejay Jah Thomas, and singer Barrington Levy. Jah Life agreed, so that same day, they all drove up to King Tubby’s studio in Waterhouse and started work, first with young hopeful, Barrington.

Just as soon as the first batch of rhythms had been voiced by Barrington and mixed by a studio apprentice named Scientist, Junjo took pre-release “dubplates” around to the various sounds to get the songs some promotion. Selector Jah Screw remembers when Junjo approached him, “He come to me one night when I was playing [King Stur-Gav] sound, and he says to me, ‘Jah Screw, a bad tune here, yu know!’” Screw reminded Junjo of protocol. “I said to him, ‘You know, Junjo, you should have come earlier on, make me hear the singer.’ But I hear him [Junjo] say, ‘Jah Screw! Jah Screw! You got to believe me on this one! I know the policy. I should have check you earlier on. But there was no time. We just mix the record off’.” Screw relented and put the dubplate on the turntable. “And I tell you something, that singer mash up the night! I said to myself, all of my people who
coming to hear the sound must hear this singer! By midnight, one o’clock, the dance was in full swing. I fling him back in there and it mash up the dance! Again!”

The rhythms were crisp and Barrington’s performance was magical. There was something engaging about Barrington’s plaintive but full bodied vocals. Jah Life later would refer to this as Barrington’s “canary style” voice, his vocals were so sweet and melodic. Barrington’s ethereal voice floated over the heavy dancehall rhythms. It was a perfect match.

When Junjo and Jah Life ran out of rhythms, they went to the Channel One studio and built more using pick up musicians who were referred to on LP credits as the Channel One All Stars. This group of musicians was soon to become much better known as the Roots Radics.

Barrington Levy – Mary Long Tongue

After enough rhythm tracks had been built, and voiced by Barrington and Jah Thomas, Junjo and Jah Life went their separate ways to do business. They divided the territory – Jah life was to handle the U.S. and Junjo could deal with Jamaica and the UK. Each man had his own set of tapes and Jah Life headed for his home in New York and Junjo flew over to England.

But, over the next several months, Jah Life was surprised to see releases from those early sessions turn up in New York shops. ‘Looking My Love’ appeared in Keith’s Record Shop along with ‘Sweet Reggae Music’ (Junjo’s name for the song ‘Natty Dread You No Fe Fuss Nah Fight’), both as 7 inch 45s. VP was selling ‘Hunting Man’ (Junjo’s name for ‘Bounty Hunter’) and ‘It’s Not Easy’ (Juno’s name for ‘Looking My Love’). An irate and confused Jah Life tried to stop production on the records which bore only Junjo’s name on the production credits.

So, when Jah Life went ahead and released the Bounty Hunter LP, to even things out, he put only his own name on the sleeve as producer. But Jah Life and his partner Percy forgot that reggae distributors in New York would export it. Percy recalls, “People was buying 500, 1000 and they send it to England. It broke in England and then Junjo was like, ‘What happen man? How come you all put out the album?’”

Unfortunately, this created problems when Junjo took the album to England and offered it to up-and-coming UK reggae record company, Greensleeves. Jah Life explains, “They wanted the LP, but Junjo’s name wasn’t on it.” With the ownership of the tracks in question, Greensleeves sent Junjo back to the studio to record tracks that he could put his name to. Luckily he had Barrington and Jah Thomas with him in the UK, and they went to a studio in Tottenham and voiced what became the Englishman LP.

Barrington Levy – English Man

In 1979 alone, four separate albums appeared with overlapping tracks, often with different titles, and inconsistent production credits – Shaolin Temple, Bounty Hunter, Shine Eye Gal and Englishman*, followed, in 1980, by Robin Hood and the self produced Do Ray Me.

* Bounty Hunter, on Live and Learn, credited Jah Life as producer, whereas Englishman, on Jah Life records, lists both. Shaolin Temple, on Jah Guidance, and Shine Eye Gal, Burning Sounds, credit Junjo. Robin Hood appeared on Greensleeves and Volcano, crediting Junjo.

From the start, Junjo and Jah Life had very different visions of the future. After dealing with the sales in England, Junjo would fly back to Jamaica via New York, and Life would drive out to the airport to meet him and tally up the totals. The first time they met to work out the finances, Junjo arrived with his windfall from Greensleeves and asked Jah Life how he wanted to split the cash. Jah Life was taken aback. He intended to plow all the profits back into production. “‘I say, ‘Split? We not doing any split thing. We are building a catalogue!’ And Junjo say, well, he’s going to buy a car. And me say, ‘Car? Wha’ you need car for? You need money fe go make tune!’ And him say, ‘Alright, when you come a Jamaica you can walk’”.*

Barrington Levy – Shaolin Temple

* Jah Life adds, “So what happen is, [female deejay] Shelly Thunder have a jeep so I ask her to take us to Manhattan to buy a BMW and that’s how the BMW come about.” That was the famous BMW that Junjo later gave Yellowman after he recorded five top selling LPs for him.

“At the time, people was kinda thirsty. Music wasn’t selling,” Jah Life recalls. “[The Barrington releases] was a different style of music. It changed the trend.” The songs were easy to listen to, very musical and very compelling. Barrington had a raw talent that was mesmerizing. Drummer Santa Davis, who worked with Barrington, recalls, “The first time I see that bredren, he was a little youth come in the studio. I couldn’t believe that a little kid like that could – I mean this guy could sing, man! He just had this natural thing about him. Very young and vibrant and energetic. When you see somebody like that come to the studio, it’s like you turn on a bright spotlight. That was what it was. He come in and immediately you have to adapt to that energy. He had the energy.”

Greensleeves’ Chris Sedgwick was equally captivated by the youth. “The music was very exciting. In fact, it was fabulous. He’s got this astonishing voice. He was young. I think he was 14, 15, or 16. He didn’t say very much until he got up on stage when he took fire completely, took control. He was astonishing on stage.”

Barrington Levy – Robin Hood

Like a changing of the guards, new players were starting to emerge on the reggae scene, bringing a new sound and a new sensibility to the new decade. The changes were being carried along atop wave the cresting waves of Barrington’s soaring voice. “That’s what made all of us”, Jah Life reflected years later. “Tubby’s studio burst out, Channel One, Roots Radics, Scientist, Me, Barrington Levy, Jah Thomas.” And Junjo, of course, and even the UK label, Greensleeves. The principal actors were newcomers.* Even the atmosphere in Jamaica was new. And, there was a generation of young people who wanted their own music. The early Barrington releases spoke to them. The music was roots, but without the militancy, lovers-rock without the usual sentimentality. And powerful enough to rock any dancehall session. The Junjo – Jah Life releases provided a clear musical statement that a new era was dawning.

* The exceptions being the well known King Tubby’s and Channel One, a studio which had been making hits during the ‘70s

Chapter 7 – Barrington Levy And Jah Thomas

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